Actions

Work Header

To Find a Long Forgotten World

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Thorin had never once doubted that Erebor was the greatest kingdom the world had ever known. That the world seemed generally short on other great kingdoms was either incidental or proof of just that, he could never decide which. Yet his mother had always been full of tales of other worlds, and it made his world seem so large, because clearly there was more out there than anyone could ever see. Age made him realize that his mother had just been spinning tales, and suddenly the world shrunk into tight, well-defined borders. So of course Erebor was the greatest kingdom in the world. The world was small, and there was no competition. The other kingdoms were crumbling ruins, held together by increasingly bitter dwarves.

Then the air had grown cold, and suddenly a group of dwarves making routine journeys to the other dwarf kingdoms had not returned. This had never happened before. The roads were safe, guarded from brigands and wild animals. Accusations had been bandied about, and for a time it looked like war was imminent. Obviously one of the other kingdoms was picking them off, it had been said. No one doubted it. What else could be going on? Jealous of the wealth and strength of Erebor, they took petty, impotent revenge, and the line of Durin would teach them what real revenge looked like.

Except a survivor appeared, cutting through the growing tension like a knife. Their story made little sense, claiming that their party was surrounded by shadows that their weapons couldn’t hurt, and that the shadows stole the life of the others. He claimed that his weapon was steel, while the others carried iron, and that for some reason, his steel had stopped the shadows where the iron did not, but few believed him. It was a ridiculous story, like something out of one of his mother’s tales. It was enough to dispel the threat of war, anyway. Most likely a drunken brawl on the road, gone too far. That was what his grandfather said publicly, but Thorin saw the doubt in his eyes. Something was happening. Something no one could explain.

Another band of travelers disappeared without a trace, and people began to whisper. No survivors appeared this time, filling the hearts of the dwarves with cold dread. Another group, this time with children, vanished on the safest possible road, and whispers turned to shouts. What was going on? Why were the roads not guarded? They were guarded of course, but the guard was doubled and tripled. More people vanished, the guards having little effect, but one good thing came of it. Multiple guards saw the shadows draining the life out of travelers, and suddenly it could not be dismissed as the words of disoriented drunks. These people had been attacked by something otherworldly.

They began to call the shadows “wraiths,” and the watchful nights began. They were not nearly watchful enough.

King Thror was quite old, but he insisted on getting some air one day. It was not a usual request for him, but his guards humored him. Thror’s mind had been going for some time, and no one really liked arguing with him when he got in one of his moods. When Thorin learned of it, dread coiled in his belly, and he had run out of the mountain in search of his grandfather. He had found Thror on the ground, his guards run off or killed, a wraith taking what was left of his lifeforce. That was how Thorin learned that steel did indeed ward them off: he drew his blade and slashed at the wraith, and rather than just going through it, it felt as though he struck something, and he heard an unearthly cry. The creature had fled, but it was too late for Thror.

Years would pass, the walls coming up, and the dwarves hiding from their wraiths in their mountains, but it would be too late for Thrain and Frerin not long after. Thorin, king suddenly of a kingdom surrounded by strange beings that they could not kill, did the last thing anyone wanted: he left on a journey. It didn’t matter how many people shouted “You’re needed here!” There wasn’t anything he could do in Erebor, so he set out to find the source of the wraiths. Maybe their steel could not kill them, but if they could destroy wherever the wraiths were coming from, the problem would be nominally solved.

Thorin didn’t really believe that, of course, but he was a king now, and he was utterly out of options. He had to stop the wraiths somehow, and he could not do that locked inside Erebor. When Gandalf appeared, claiming swords forged in Gondolin were the key to their salvation, he was past the point of questioning anything Gandalf said. If Gandalf said there were other worlds, and he needed to find them, he would do it. He could accept the existence of other worlds, because it was necessary to protect his people. Nothing else mattered.

Including what they would do after finding Gondolin, because Gandalf hadn't mentioned that detail.

As he related the entire tale to Bilbo, Gandalf’s apparent world-connection finder, he began to have doubts. Not about Bilbo necessarily, though the strange creature with his bare, hairy feet did seem rather helpless. He wasn’t even armed! But the idea that the Elves of Gondolin had forged more powerful blades did not sit right with him. His mother had always told him that dwarves were the best forgers of iron and steel in all the worlds, and he now had proof that she had not lied about there being other worlds. Why would she lie about this? Oddly, it was Bilbo who first voiced the question.

“Why do you need swords from Gondolin? Even in the Shire, our tales say that the Dwarves made the best weapons, though I do not know how we could have known,” he added bashfully. Thorin felt himself warming to the Hobbit, and realized that Mingalaz was seated at Bilbo’s feet. That was probably why. Proximity to his dæmon. That was it.

“It is true, the steel of the Dwarves is unmatched,” Gandalf agreed. “The Elves of Gondolin learned their craft from the Dwarves, and while they were never able to perfect it, they added something of their own: the magic of the high Elves. The steel may be a little poorer quality, but the magic more than makes up for it, creating a weapon that can kill wraiths.”

This explanation was more than satisfactory on one point, though it raised more questions on another. How had his people taught the inhabitants of another world how to forge steel? Until a few days ago, he had not even known for certain that other worlds existed, how could regular contact between two worlds have been possible? And furthermore, had there been wraiths in that time, or had the effect been unintentional? Gandalf was clearly not telling them everything. Not even close.

But Bilbo was speaking again, and Thorin had to put his questions to the side. “That’s all well and good, but what does all this have to do with me?”

Thorin bit down on his irritation, though Mingalaz was less willing to do so. She stretched, watching Gandalf’s moth dæmon with a predatory gaze. She would undoubtedly be pleased to swat the creature out of the air for the insult of bringing them an unwilling helper. Thorin nudged her with his foot, and she settled down a little, giving him a wounded look. Of course the hobbit would not be immediately willing to help them. His world was still untouched.

“Thorin and his company must find the Lost Kingdom of Gondolin, and for that, they need someone who can see the connections between worlds,” Gandalf said matter-of-factly, though Bilbo still looked mystified.

“Gandalf told me that he would find such a person, and he brings me you,” Thorin observed, bitterness creeping into his tone. “Apparently that was a mistake.”

“Apparently!” Bilbo agreed, his voice a little shrill. “I know nothing about the connections between worlds. Until this morning, I did not even know there were other worlds!”

The other dwarves and their dæmons groaned, and it was hard not to join in. “Confounded wizards,” Mingalaz murmured, and Thorin distinctly shared the sentiment.

“Now wait just a moment,” Gandalf insisted. “If I say Bilbo Baggins can find the connections between worlds, then he can. I have not sent him here on a whim. This world is no place for a Hobbit, or for any living creature, so long as the wraiths hold sway. When Bilbo agreed to come, I gave him a test. There is a river in his world that contains a passageway to this world, but it is easy to avoid, and because it is underwater, it cannot be seen. Myrtle swam right to it, and Bilbo followed.”

Thorin relaxed fractionally. “That portal was already open,” he argued, though his heart was less in it than before. “You said we needed someone who could find the portals that are not yet open.” Though Gandalf hadn’t mentioned how they were supposed to open those portals in the first place.

“And I believe, based on my test, that Myrtle can sniff them out,” Gandalf continued, undeterred. “You must trust me on this.”

Mingalaz hissed, but Thorin nodded.

“Just give me a bit to think,” Bilbo said faintly. Thorin turned away to do just that, letting Bilbo get swarmed by his companions.

“What do you think?” he asked Mingalaz as she followed him to the other side of the room, seating herself gracefully beside him.

“He is no warrior,” Mingalaz observed, licking one of her paws in apparent disinterest. “He won’t be much use.”

“Fighting is not the only skill worth having,” Thorin replied, but the words sounded hollow in his own ears. Like he was trying to convince himself. He supposed, technically, he was.

“He doesn’t know a portal from a hole in the ground,” his dæmon replied contemptuously.

“Neither do we,” Thorin reminded her. “That is why we need him.”

Mingalaz halted mid-lick, and looked up at him, her feline eyes glittering with amusement. “You like him.”

“I don’t know him,” Thorin replied irritably. He realized as he said it that it wasn’t exactly a denial.

“Oh that is certainly true,” she agreed easily. “But your heart leapt when he came to the defense of the skill of the dwarves. ‘He has never even seen a dwarf before, and he is defending our honor,’” she said mockingly, pitching her voice lower. “Just admit it.”

“I will admit to nothing,” Thorin said stubbornly.

“Oh come now, there’s no shame in liking your prey soft,” she said with a feline laugh, baring her teeth. “You could certainly use the occasional ‘hunt’ now and again…”

Thorin buried his face in his hands, relieved that his company was making too much noise to notice the state he was in, or hear what his dæmon was saying. “We are not having this conversation.”

“Self-denial is so boring,” Mingalaz whined, examining a claw. “You’re a king, on a quest to save your world. Live a little.”

“When I asked what you thought, this is not what I meant,” Thorin scolded. “This is the exact opposite of helpful.”

“What I think,” Mingalaz began calmly, “is that you like him, and whether he ends up being useful or not, you want him around. It’s a miracle I ever settled on a form, as clueless and indecisive as you are about these things.”

“It’s a miracle I made it this far without throttling you, killing myself in the process,” Thorin muttered sourly. Mingalaz simply chortled, but it really didn’t feel like he had the last word. It never did.

He wondered what it said, that his dæmon reminded him of his sister.

 


 

Rather than think, Bilbo suddenly found the himself being introduced to the other dwarves. They had been quiet and distant for the most part while he hashed things out with Thorin and Gandalf, the lone exception being Dwalin, whose comment about Minty had earned him the earlier introduction, but now they were all clamoring for his attention. The most eager, he soon learned, were Fíli and Kíli, the princes and Thorin’s nephews, and the first thing he noticed was that both of their dæmons were some kind of wild dog. They were different species by the look of it, but that was all he could tell. He would have expected them to match their uncle more, but as they barely matched each other, the one with fair coloring and the other dark, they couldn’t be expected to match Thorin.

Then there was Balin, Dwalin’s more sedate older brother, with his raven dæmon perched on his arm. It watched Myrtle with a beady eye, but made no reply to her polite greeting. Like all the dæmons that followed, Balin’s raven did not introduce herself, even after Myrtle had given her name. Bilbo supposed they would have to get used to that. At least Balin seemed nice enough.

Then there were Óin and Glóin, both a little on the loud side. It made sense though: Óin was rather advanced in years, and his dæmon was a barn owl (which evidently did not much care for speaking, but rather enjoyed shrieking), so he was quite deaf. Glóin, with his very large and fluffy ram dæmon, probably always had to shout if he wanted to be heard and understood.

Next he met Dori, Nori and Ori, a family of three very different brothers. Dori fussed about him almost immediately, and his dæmon, a huge, very fluffy cat, started grooming Myrtle without an invitation. In Nori’s case, Bilbo was glad he had been tossed into the river without any valuables, because he got the impression that the dwarf and his raccoon dæmon were sizing him up to see if he had anything good. As for Ori, Bilbo thought the lad might have fit in in the Shire, between his tiny owl dæmon sleeping in his knitted scarf, and his shy demeanor. Myrtle could have swatted the poor dear out of the sky and had her for dinner.

Last of their party were Bifur, Bofur and Bombur, and a more eclectic family could not be found if he was looking, Bilbo suspected. Bifur had an axe embedded in his forehead, which as his cousins explained, was why he could only speak the language of the Dwarves, and his boar dæmon could not speak at all. Bofur, friendly and at ease, explained how his canary dæmon was useful as a miner, thoroughly unsettling Bilbo’s stomach. He was entirely too cheerful about the matter, considering that it was the death of a canary that told miners not to dig any deeper. Lastly, Bombur’s dæmon was easy to miss, the little bat hanging off the bottom of his circular beard. It didn’t seem to match the cheery, rotund dwarf, but Bilbo left it alone.

Dwarves were strange folk, judging by the veritable menagerie of their dæmons. He had never seen such variety before. Myrtle seemed rather dull by comparison, though at least she wasn’t a rabbit, but the dwarves actually seemed to like Bilbo better because of his dæmon. Badgers were adept tunnelers, and they had evidently decided that Myrtle was made to tunnel between worlds. Myrtle endured their scrutiny patiently enough, but when one cheeky raccoon got too close and the claws came out, Bilbo decided that was enough of that.

If he went with the dwarves, he could see if his mother’s stories had been true. He could see worlds that he had long since assumed were just fairy tales. And since they would be leaving this world behind, it would probably be safe. Gandalf hadn’t mentioned the wraiths being in other worlds, after all. There was nothing wrong with a relatively safe adventure.

Probably.

“Gandalf,” Bilbo said, pulling away from the cluster of excited dwarves. “Are you sure I can do this?”

“I would not ask it of you if I wasn’t,” Gandalf replied seriously. “Your mother’s dæmon was adept at finding portals, and clearly Myrtle is the same. I have every confidence in you.”

The comment about his mother’s dæmon meant more to Bilbo than anything else he could have said. His mother had been able to find portals! He took after his mother! He had always known that in some ways, but here was a useful way. Here was a way that he could actually make a difference, instead of moping around the Shire for the rest of his life. His heart hammering in his chest, Bilbo knew his decision was made. Gandalf had found his weakness. But there was one more thing he needed to know.

“Why me, Gandalf?” he asked. “Is it just because I can find portals?” Not that that was a bad reason, but surely there were others who could do the same. More adventurous folk.

Gandalf considered him thoughtfully for a moment. “No,” he finally said. “There is a saying about dæmons in another world. ‘Your dæmon will show you the way home.’ Have you ever really felt at home in the Shire?” Bilbo shook his head. “I made your mother a promise, to do what I could for you once she was gone, and I believe this is that. I believe you and Myrtle will find your real home, if you go on this quest.”

There was nothing for it then, but to tell Thorin, and sign the contract. The dwarves cheered a little, though Thorin and his inscrutable dæmon just watched him silently. Their portal-finder found, there were new questions to be raised.

“How are we to find Gondolin?” Balin asked, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “If, as you say, there are an untold number of worlds out there, how are we to know which is the right one? It is called “the Lost Kingdom” for a reason, no doubt. Myrtle won’t simply be able to sniff out the right portal, and it’s possible that our world isn’t even directly connected to that one.”

Gandalf pulled something from and inner pocket, and handed it to Thorin. It was cylindrical, and looked like it was made of gold. Bilbo leaned close as Thorin popped open the lid, revealing a dial with strange pictures around the edge, three hands that could be moved with little wheels on the back, and a long needle that moved when Thorin adjusted the hands . He could tell by the looks on the faces of the dwarves that like him, they had never seen anything like it before.

“What is it?” Thorin asked, gingerly showing the object to Minty, who sniffed it curiously. He tried to hand it back to Gandalf, but the wizard raised his hands, suggesting that Thorin should keep it. “This was not made by dwarven hands.”

“Call it a compass of sorts,” Gandalf said good-humoredly. “You ask it questions, and it answers. It will take some time to learn to read it, if you have the knack for it, but by then Bilbo and Myrtle will have found a few portals, and you will have seen a few worlds, and be more prepared for what you must do. Once you have learned to read it, you can ask it for directions, to give Myrtle some guidance.”

If that thoroughly cryptic remark bothered any of the dwarves, they didn’t show it. He also totally ignored Thorin’s comment about who made it.

“What have we gotten ourselves into?” Bilbo whispered.

“Trouble,” Myrtle answered decisively.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure this is the right direction?” Bilbo hissed with a worried glance back in the direction of the dwarves, who were growing restless.

“Gandalf said I should follow my nose, and that is exactly what I am doing,” Myrtle replied stubbornly, waddling along at her usual, utterly unhurried pace.

It was true, Gandalf had said that Myrtle could sniff out the connections between worlds, but they had been walking for hours. The dwarves were starting to doubt the wizard’s words (and as the wizard had claimed he would rejoin them later, there was no wizard present to renew those words), and frankly Bilbo wanted out of this dismal world as soon as possible. No offense to the dwarves of course, it had probably been much nicer before the wraiths came.

Speaking of which, Bilbo expected to encounter one around every corner, and the tense posture of the dwarves suggested they shared that fear. Their dæmons were spread out, alert and watchful for any sign of trouble. Thorin’s dæmon, who Bilbo still insisted on calling Minty, stuck close to Bilbo and Myrtle. Their bodyguard, Bilbo supposed, though Thorin kept as much distance as he safely could.

It was a little lonely, walking at the front of the pack, with only his dæmon and Thorin’s scornfully silent Minty for company. The others were too focused on the possibility of wraith attacks to be as jovial and friendly as they had been.

Myrtle stopped, and Bilbo nearly smacked himself in the forehead when he saw why. He must have been blind, not to see the gaping hole in the air until Myrtle stopped in front of it. It was obviously an open portal, which Gandalf had said was the first thing they should try looking for (“you do not have the right tools to open closed portals yet, after all”). On the other side, he saw tall trees with twisted, gnarled limbs, hung with terrifyingly large spiderwebs. He gulped.

“Perhaps another world is not such a good idea after all,” he muttered, gathering up Myrtle. This new world looked hardly better than their current one. They might have to run, which was not a strong area for Myrtle, considering that she was a badger.

“Where is my thank you, or perhaps a congratulations for finding this portal?” Myrtle griped. “You see, Gandalf was right.”

“So the rat is useful for something,” Minty purred.

“‘Rat?’” Myrtle practically shrieked. “I am a proud Shire Badger, and I will have you know-” Bilbo cut off his dæmon’s tirade with a hand over her mouth, though Myrtle did not go quietly until she had nipped him a few times.

Thorin watched the exchange silently, finally saying, “Well done,” but making no move to enter the portal, instead eyeing it uncertainly. He had never left his own world, Bilbo realized.

“Maybe you should try asking the compass if we should go in,” Bilbo suggested, quailing when Thorin looked at him sharply. “To get practice.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Balin agreed. “Ori, lad, record what markings it lands on.”

With clear reluctance, Thorin took out the strange golden device and opened the lid. Guessing at the meanings of the symbols, he set the three movable arms on the globe, the man, and the hourglass, focusing his thoughts on the question, “Is this world safe?” The needle started moving immediately, too quickly for Bilbo to follow. It seemed to be no problem for Ori though, who had neatly sketched the symbols in the correct order, with notes about how many times a given symbol had been touched (Gandalf had implied this hinted at a different meaning), and held out his sketchbook for the group to inspect. Of the cluster of symbols, the only ones that made much sense to Bilbo were a cloud and a tree, because they were very clearly looking at a dark forest. No leaps of logic involved.

“Do you understand any of it?” Dwalin asked, scratching his head in confusion.

“Aside from the obvious, no,” Thorin replied, clearly frustrated. “This one though…” He pointed at one of the middle symbols. It looked kind of like an arrow to Bilbo’s eyes, though it was so tiny, it could have just been a twig.

“Wood Elves,” Bilbo murmured, barely aware he had spoken.

26 pairs of eyes turned to look at him.

“In such a dark place?” Ori asked, his dæmon burrowing deeper into his sweater.

“Perhaps ours is not the only world affected by the wraiths,” Balin observed sagely. “So, what are we going to do? Look for another portal?”

“I don’t smell another one anywhere near here,” Myrtle observed, a little testily. “We risk getting caught by wraiths if we wander around aimlessly, hoping for a nicer world.”

Thorin didn’t hesitate. “We go,” he said simply, and walked through the portal, Minty padding after him silently. Bilbo and Myrtle followed, and the rest of the company came after. None of them spoke as they entered the woods, the oppressive darkness lending the place a threatening air. Bilbo was already hoping their next world would be a nicer one. He’d never get to know his companions if they were always gloomy and quiet, and it would be a very lonesome journey that way. The dwarves all knew each other, but he only had Myrtle.

Myrtle, who was clearly scared out of her wits based on the way she was mercilessly clawing his arms. Bilbo was nervous, but he wasn’t frightened. That was unusual. “What is it?” he asked her, stroking her fur in a calming way.

“I-I don’t know,” she admitted breathlessly. Bilbo noticed the dwarves were all having similar conversations with their own dæmons. Even Minty, who had thus far been proud and aloof, looked thoroughly unsettled, her eyes darting in every direction. Not wraiths then, Bilbo decided. The dwarves seemed mystified by how their dæmons were reacting, and their world was allegedly crawling with wraiths.

Speaking of crawling… Bilbo glanced around. He saw no signs of any animals, other than the spider webs. He heard no signs either: the woods were utterly silent aside from the crunching of the dwarves boots over the dead leaves. There should have been animals. Birds, insects even. But there was nothing. Just a heavy silence.

At some point, the dwarves had clustered closer together, their weapons drawn, and Bilbo was pushed into the center of their formation. He certainly shared their apprehension. There were a few forests in the Shire, but not even the Old Forest was like this.

A twig cracked, startling the company. Someone had probably just stepped on it, but their nerves were already frayed. Someone started shouting, and before long, he was trapped in the middle of a band of bickering dwarves, their dæmons snarling and snapping.

Bilbo glanced back, but the portal they had entered through was already out of sight, and with all the dæmons riled, they had little chance of finding it again. Unpleasant as it was, they were stuck in this world, so they needed to make the best of it. That was when he noticed some of the branches moving, and realized that the shouting had drawn some kind of attention.

“Enough!” Bilbo tried to shout, but his voice couldn’t carry over the dwarves’. Thorin seemed to regain his senses though, and when he repeated Bilbo’s shout, it did carry.

“There’s something out there,” Minty growled, and that was when the giant spiders burst from the trees and Bilbo realized he was completely unarmed.

The safest course of action seemed to be hiding, so Bilbo and Myrtle found some sturdy tree roots to duck under. From there, he could watch the dwarves in action, and he soon realized that his mouth was hanging open. He had never seen anything like it before. Of course he hadn’t. There was no fighting in the Shire, except for the occasional drunken brawl, but that couldn’t be compared to this. The dwarves moved with ruthless efficiency, working in concert with each other and their dæmons to take out the spider’s limbs, before stabbing the heads.

“How frustrating it must have been, not being able to harm the wraiths,” Bilbo realized then. “They’re such skilled fighters.”

“Maybe they aren’t,” Myrtle replied with a shiver. “You’ve never seen real fighting before. Maybe this isn’t so impressive.”

“Myrtle, really,” Bilbo scolded. “They’re fighting creatures multiple times their size and winning.”

They were outnumbered though, and Bilbo knew it. They had been pairing up to fight the spiders, preferring not to take one on alone, but then another spider dropped between Thorin and Minty, and Dwalin and Daisy, isolating the king and his dæmon. Thorin was tiring, that much was clear from his heavy panting. But without a weapon, there was nothing Bilbo could do. Nothing he could do even if he had a weapon, for that matter.

The spider knocked Thorin to his knees, pinning Minty with a leg, and then suddenly, it shuddered to a stop, and fell. There was an arrow protruding from its head.

“Wood elves,” Bilbo barely had time to murmur, before the clearing was full of them, slaying the spiders with lethal grace. They moved too quickly for Bilbo to follow, but at least the spiders were dead, and they were safe.

Except that the elves were pointing their arrows at the dwarves now, and a hand was grabbing the back of his jacket, dragging him out from under the roots.

“What manner of creature are you?” the elf asked. She was tall, with vibrant red hair, and sharply pointed ears. Definitely an elf, Bilbo thought with some excitement. Her dæmon was some kind of hawk, though it had a rather pretty face.

Bilbo spared a look for the dwarves, who were trapped but hadn’t been shot yet before answering. Thorin seemed to be talking to one of the elves, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. So at least no one was shouting yet. “I’m a hobbit,” he answered simply. “They’re dwarves.”

“How did you get here, hobbit?” Her tone was insistent, but not threatening.

“I walked,” Bilbo replied obtusely. ‘Don’t talk too much about other worlds,’ Gandalf had warned. Judging by the frustrated looks on the faces of the other Elves, the dwarves were being equally unhelpful.

The elf sighed. “I see. You will have to see our King,” she said, a little apologetically. “These are dark times, and visitors in our lands are rare.”

“Apparently these are dark times everywhere,” Myrtle muttered, and Bilbo clapped a hand over her mouth. The elf clearly heard it, judging by how her eyebrows went up, but she said nothing. She set Bilbo back on his feet, and he was herded back over to the dwarves.

The elves marched them through the woods, and while the dwarves were tense, Bilbo felt strangely relaxed. True, they were prisoners at the moment, but the elves had dispatched the spiders easily. They were safe with them, at least from the dangers of the wood. That was something.

Right?

 


 

They marched for another hour before reaching the palace of the King. They passed clusters of huts along the way, and the occasional elf peeked out, staring unblinkingly down at them. In all his life, Thorin had never felt small, but these elves were adept at inspiring that feeling.

Besides being freakishly tall, there was another strange thing about the elves. Their dæmons seemed to be able to travel farther away. Many of them were birds (the elf Thorin had spoken to had a squirrel), and at times their dæmons weren’t even in sight. It felt unnatural, and he strained to remember some of the tales his mother had told him. She had never mentioned this, though she had said that Elves were immortal. Possibly the two were connected.

Not that it mattered. Still, maybe wandering into this world was a good thing. They were looking for a lost Elven kingdom, and maybe Elves were the best ones to ask. He couldn’t say how he knew they weren’t in Gondolin already. It had always sounded like a place of magic and beauty, and while this wood might be magical, it was not beautiful.

“Stop musing,” Mingalaz muttered. “We’re almost there.”

And so they were. The Elvenking’s palace rose above the trees, hewn from the rock. It wasn’t exactly what Thorin had expected when Bilbo said, “Wood elves,” but far be it for him to denigrate building out of stone. Massive tree roots wound through the place, and that was a little bit more of the expected. But then the guards separated him from the others, the elf he had spoken to taking him to one side.

“Captain, take the others to the receiving room. I will take him to my father,” the apparent prince said, his squirrel dæmon perched lightly on his shoulder. “Captain” evidently referred to the red-haired she-elf who had found Bilbo, who saluted and ushered his company away. “This way,” the prince said to Thorin, who was suddenly completely unguarded.

“I guess we’re not really prisoners,” he murmured.

“For now,” Mingalaz replied cynically.

They followed the elf prince across a series of thin, winding paths, stopping finally in front of a rather impressive throne. It was positively encrusted with antlers, Thorin thought, wrinkling his nose. But then the King appeared, and his decorating sense was made clear: his dæmon was a truly massive elk. Very unlike the rest of his people, Thorin couldn’t help but observe, his hand straying to Mingalaz’s head. Not that she was a normal dæmon for a dwarf of the Line of Durin.

“A dwarf,” the King observed, his eyes widening a little in what passed for astonishment.

“You have seen one of his kind before, Ada?” the prince asked curiously, and the king shook his head.

“No, but my father did, before the Sundering,” the king observed thoughtfully. “You have come from another world.”

Thorin nudged Mingalaz to silence her cry of “the sundering?”

“There is no point in denying it,” Thorin admitted. “I am Thorin, son of Thrain. King Under the Mountain of Erebor. I do not know what our world is called, but the realm of the dwarves might be appropriate.”

The King gave him an appraising look before replying. “I am Thranduil, King of the Woodland Realm, and this is my son, Legolas. Some call our forest Mirkwood, but it was once called Greenwood the Great.”

The name was familiar somehow, but Thorin couldn’t place it. It matched what little they had gotten from the compass, anyway. “‘Some?’” Thorin asked. “Are there others aside from your people here?”

“There are Men, elusive and secretive, who live in the wood as well,” Thranduil confirmed. Not that Thorin knew what ‘Men’ were. “They are not my concern, so long as they do not harm my people, or the wood.” Thranduil gave him a long look. “Tell me, Thorin, son of Thrain, how and why have you come here? Your timing is rather ill-judged.”

Thorin shared a look with Mingalaz. There was clearly no point in lying, and refusing to talk would not get them out any faster, but how much to tell? “We found a portal in our world,” he said eventually, leaving out that they had been deliberately looking for it. “Strange beings have appeared in our world of late, and we were seeking the source.”

It was the elk that spoke next. “What sort of strange beings?”

“Shadows,” Mingalaz replied. It was only courteous for dæmons to address dæmons. “Dark creatures that drain your life.”

There was a flash of something, recognition maybe, in Thranduil’s eyes, but it was gone as quickly as it came. “Different from our pest problem, then,” he simply said. “Their source is not here, I’m afraid. We cannot help you.”

“As long as you don’t hinder us, we have no quarrel,” Thorin replied. “We will look for another portal and continue on.”

“Rest here for the night,” Thranduil said. “Many of my people are too young to remember dwarves, and I am sure you know little enough of Elves. Only, do not mention that you came from another world.”

“We will do that,” Thorin decided, shelving his suspicions about Thranduil’s stranger comments. The Elvenking was old. He probably could help them if he chose, but he wouldn’t. Something about his expression when the wraiths were mentioned told him that. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

Thranduil inclined his head graciously, and then Legolas was leading him back to the company. The younger elf waited until they were well out of earshot of the throne before speaking. “You really came from another world?”

“We believe so,” Thorin confirmed. “There was a shimmering hole in the air, and when we stepped through it, we were here.”

“Another world,” Legolas believed. “And the way there was so close all along.”

“Your own borders seem like a more pressing concern,” Thorin observed, thinking of the way the spiders had overwhelmed them. It had once been called Greenwood the Great, Thranduil had said. Mirkwood certainly did seem more fitting at the moment.

The prince’s mouth twisted in distaste. “That is certainly true.”

The receiving room the company had been brought to certainly wasn’t a prison cell. It was spacious and airy, various fruits placed in bowls all over the room. Kili he noted was chatted animatedly with the Elven captain, while other members of the company were scattered across the room, chatting with other guards, or with each other. Bilbo was with Kili and the captain, and everyone turned when Thorin entered the room.

“Oh, Uncle!” Kili exclaimed. “Captain Tauriel was just telling us about their spider problem.”

“You look a little too excited to be discussing such a serious issue,” Thorin observed with a raised eyebrow.

“The lad’s just excited to meet a woman who can beat him in a fight who’s not his mother,” Bofur chortled. There was a raucous round of laughter at Kili’s expense, except for the elves and Bilbo, who did not get the joke. Bilbo actually looked alarmed, so Thorin decided he might as well explain.

“Do you know what a hyena is, Master Baggins?” he asked, and the hobbit shook his head. “It’s a type of wild dog. The packs are controlled by the females, who exert dominance in all the ways normally given to males in the animal kingdom. My sister’s dæmon is a female hyena.”

Bilbo nodded, understanding dawning in his eyes. “Among hobbits, it’s rare for a dæmon to be the same gender as their person,” he observed.

“It’s the same with dwarves,” Balin confirmed.

“And for Elves,” Tauriel agreed. “Your mother must be remarkable,” she said to Kili, who simply blushed and said nothing.

“What do you think?” Thorin asked Mingalaz once the groups went back to socializing.

The mountain lion sighed. “I think you were right not to tell him everything. He clearly knows more than his people, but he also wasn’t about to share.” Mingalaz shook her head. “Though I don’t understand why he told us to keep our origins secret. Where else could we have come from?”

“By the way he said that the Men were not his concern, we could have come from beyond their borders,” Thorin murmured. “Which technically, we did. Master Baggins!” He called the hobbit over, and Bilbo came, tripping over himself in his haste. “Did you tell them anything?”

Bilbo shook his head. “No. Should I have?”

“No, you did well.”

“Let us hope the others did equally well,” Mingalaz muttered.

Chapter Text

The Elves were impressive drinkers. On that point, Thorin had to concede defeat.

It had been a long time since he faked his way through a drinking contest, but waking up without a headache, with all the elves still snoring, made him feel that as cowardly as it was, it had been the right choice. His fellow dwarves were also stirring, and a quick glance at their portal-finder revealed that he was already awake. Bilbo, as far as he was aware, had not faked his way through the drinking contests. That merited just a little bit of grudging respect.

“Which way?” Thorin hissed, and Bilbo pointed. The dwarves trooped out of the room as quietly as they could. The evening before, when the party had not yet been in full swing, Bilbo had mentioned quietly that Myrtle smelled another portal, somewhere within the Palace. Kíli had taken that moment to ask Captain Tauriel if there was any way they could get a tour, but she refused. Moreover, Thorin had mentioned some of Thranduil’s strangeness during the audience, though he had not mentioned “the sundering,” deciding to wait until Gandalf rejoined them to open that can of worms. So they had taken it upon themselves to “help” the Elves get to sleep, while they explored.

Myrtle led, waddling doggedly forward, no doubt or hesitation in her gait. They had not gone far before it was very clear that without Myrtle, they would have gotten hopelessly lost down here. Something was addling his stone sense, and Mingalaz looked a little unsteady on her feet. He glanced back at the company. All of the flying dæmons were being carried, and none of them looked particularly well.

“The sooner we get out of this place, the better,” Mingalaz muttered, and Thorin scratched behind her ears.

“Something is definitely not right in this world,” he agreed quietly. “As friendly as our hosts were.”

“Was it the spiders or the fact that all of our dæmons were terrified from the moment we entered?” Glóin grumbled, and they all fell silent again.

The descended deep underground, stopping finally in a wine cellar. There was no sign of a portal, Thorin observed ruefully. Maybe Myrtle had been thrown off as well. But the badger sniffed and scratched along the wooden floor, stopping finally on a trapdoor, her snout pointed straight down.

“It’s right underneath this,” Myrtle declared confidently.

“Can you tell how far?” Bilbo asked nervously.

The badger scratched her chin with her claws in an oddly human gesture. “It’s a bit of a fall,” she admitted finally, waddling off the trapdoor as she noticed Bofur moving to the release lever. Bofur tugged it, and the floor tilted down, revealing a fast flowing river beneath. The morning light was decent, but there was no sign of a portal.

“It’s underwater again,” Bilbo muttered, rubbing his temples. “Because hobbits are known for being strong swimmers.”

“We’re not much better,” Bofur pointed out, entirely too cheerful.

“Uncle, why don’t you ask that compass again?” Fíli suggested. “Where the portal is exactly, or if it’s safe to jump down…” His dæmon was scurrying around the room excitedly, sniffing everything she came across and occasionally just jumping in place.

“No sense of danger, that one,” Mingalaz muttered, but Thorin took out the compass anyway. Ori was instantly at his side, quill at the ready, but Thorin struggled to think of a question. He might not be able to understand any of the answer if he asked the wrong question, and then what would the point have been?

Thorin shook his head. He could ask as many questions as it took. “Where is the nearest portal?” he asked, frowning when the needle only moved once, onto a symbol that looked like waves. Underwater then. Unambiguous enough. “Should we enter that portal?” The needle moved much more this time, and even with the symbols assembled in front of him thanks to Ori, he had no frame of reference.

Bilbo was peering around him to look at the book, and he stepped aside to give the Hobbit room. Bilbo’s brow was furrowed in deep concentration, and it was almost cute- Thorin banished the thought. He remembered the way Bilbo had hidden himself under tree roots instead.

“Maybe the arrow here means continue?” Bilbo suggested suddenly, breaking Thorin’s train of thought. He was tapping the line of symbols thoughtfully. “Maybe it’s saying, if you don’t want the elves to catch you, or, if you want to continue. Those both sounds like yesses.”

“If your interpretation is correct,” Thorin observed. “It could mean that if we drop down there, we will be shot full of arrows.”

Bilbo’s face fell. “Oh, I guess you’re right,” he admitted.

“I think we’ve found the solution to that!” Kíli announced. It was with dread that Thorin looked over at his nephews, finding them standing in front of empty wine barrels.

“With these, we can control our descent some, and if they start shooting, the wood feels sturdy enough to repel an arrow or two,” his dæmon explained, bouncing around excitedly.

Thorin gritted his teeth. It wasn’t a bad idea, not by Kíli’s usual standards, but his nephew was too casual. His dæmon addressing the company when there was an outsider among them was not the least bit proper. Myrtle could speak freely because clearly hobbits did things differently and saw no harm in the physical manifestation of their souls speaking to strangers, but Kurdaz needed to keep his tongue reined in. They would need to have a word or two about it, but later.

For now, he simply said, “Move the barrels into position,” raising his voice as the company protested. “Any who wish to simply jump down there are welcome to.”

It was a tight fit in the barrels for some of them, their dæmons large enough to merit a barrel of their own, but the risk of being separated and dying from the bond snapping was too great. Thorin was snug with Mingalaz, but at least she didn’t have horns. Glóin was less fortunate, but his dæmons’ large horns did solve the problem of how to pull the switch to open the trapdoor: by putting them in the last barrel, his dæmon could simply turn her head and hook the handle with her horns.

Then they were plunging down, into frigid depths. There was no rain of arrows, so grudgingly, Thorin privately admitted that maybe Bilbo had been right: when they surfaced, they were clearly in another world. They were still on a river, but there were no trees anywhere. The barrels sat in a calm spot on the river, bobbing up and down gently, but not floating off in any particular direction. To their left, beyond the beach lay mountains, and to the right, flat scrubland as far as the eye could see.

“Which way?” Mingalaz coughed, spitting out water and shivering against him. Thorin repeated the question to Bilbo, who shrugged.

“Myrtle’s too close to the portal we came through to sense anything else,” Bilbo said apologetically.

“The mountains seem more promising,” Balin suggested. “Do you see anything in the other direction?” he asked his dæmon, who was flying above the company in an attempt to scout. She just shook her head and flew back down.

“No towns,” she croaked. “No woods. Just grass.”

Well that settled it. “Make for the mountains,” Thorin ordered, and the company began the slow process of paddling their barrels toward the shore.

 


 

Bilbo Baggins was soaked. Straight to the bone, if he felt like exaggerating, and frankly he did. It was starting to become a theme with him, and wasn’t that an unpleasant thought. At least this time the dwarves were all in the same state, but it wasn’t enough to keep the doubts at bay. Maybe they shouldn’t have left Mirkwood so hastily. The Elves had been thoughtful hosts, and they’d had a very enjoyable evening. But even without Thorin’s tenuous doubts about the Elvenking, the way their dæmons reacted to the place was reason enough to move on. Bilbo knew that. But it was hard not to feel any resentment. Thorin’s nephews, and Bofur and Bombur, had been friendly and welcoming the night before, and beating them all in the drinking contest had been enough to earn their camaraderie in the morning, but still Thorin watched him with an unfriendly eye.

“It’s nothing personal lad,” Balin said, surprising Bilbo out of his reverie. “Thorin appreciates that you’ve more skill and sense than he initially thought, but he’s slow to trust. A king must be, you understand.”

“I don’t really,” Bilbo admitted. “We don’t have kings in the Shire, so it is hard not to take it personally, but if you say it isn’t, I suppose you know best.”

“If you manage to find Gondolin, Thorin will be so overjoyed, he might ask you to marry him,” Balin’s dæmon croaked, with what sounded like a hoarse laugh.

“Don’t say that where he can hear you,” Balin cautioned with a chuckle of his own. “But our Thorin never does anything by halves. So when he decides you can be trusted, you may wonder what you have to do to get rid of him.”

Bilbo accepted this information with a nod and a blush, saying nothing. It was heartening to know that Balin was so certain that Thorin would eventually thaw towards him, though he hoped Balin’s dæmon was joking. What a change that would be! It was hard to imagine.

It was especially hard to imagine at the moment, in the company of 13 very soggy dwarves, not a one of them with dry clothing. Their dæmons were not much better off, particularly Dori’s. Thorin had ordered them to make for the mountains, but it was clear very quickly that this did not mean they were up for exploring the mountains at the moment. What they needed was a sheltered cave and a warm fire, and blessedly Daisy found a cave fairly quickly. Glóin and Óin soon found sufficient firewood, and before long good cheer was restored by having a warm fire and somewhere to hang their wet clothes.

The day was still very young, the sun not yet near its peak, and the weather was fine, so it didn’t take long before the younger dwarves grew tired of the cave, and took to roughhousing on the beach. Even their dæmons got in on the action, their playful nipping looking much more dangerous to Bilbo. Initially it was just Fíli and Kíli, with Ori off to one side practicing with his slingshot, but before long the cave was mostly empty, the other dwarves joining in for some sparring. In the end, it was just Bilbo and Thorin left in the cave, Bilbo jumping every time Balin’s dæmon snapped at Óin’s, or when Glóin’s dæmon caught Dwalin in the chest.

They were all clearly having fun, if the cheeky grins and wide smiles all around were any indication, and that was what calmed Bilbo down. Moreover, their dæmons seemed to have recovered from whatever it was that had troubled them in Mirkwood, every bit of sluggishness gone. “I don’t understand why they seem to enjoy pain so much,” Bilbo observed to Myrtle, forgetting Thorin was still there. “But I suppose cheerful, half-naked dwarves are nicer to deal with than soggy, irritable ones.”

“It is not the pain they enjoy,” Thorin replied, startling Bilbo, who very luckily did not jump up or shout. “It’s the exercise, the feeling of testing your strength against a worthy opponent…” Thorin trailed off, and Bilbo looked over at him. Thorin was gesturing with one hand, as if he were grasping for the words.

“You are weak, and would not understand,” Minty muttered, her voice a low growl. The words felt like a slap, but Bilbo couldn’t deny their truth. He looked back at Thorin, and noticed that the dwarf’s mouth was pressed into a thin line, as if he agreed with the sentiment, but wanted to chastise his dæmon for her lack of diplomacy.

“You’re probably right,” Bilbo agreed with a hand over Myrtle’s mouth so that she couldn’t interject. Thorin and Minty both looked a little taken aback by his frankness. “What? Is it so strange to be aware of my own deficiencies?”

Thorin shook his head. “No, but it is strange to admit to them easily. We are a proud race. Some might think such an admission makes them lose face.” There was something in Thorin’s eyes as he said this that Bilbo couldn’t place. It wasn’t strong enough for admiration, but maybe just a little bit of respect?

“Well, we have a saying in the Shire,” Myrtle said, freeing her snout from Bilbo’s grasp. “The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have it in the first place. If there are weeds choking your tomatoes, it’s hard to keep your tomatoes alive if you refuse to admit that those weeds aren’t part of the tomato plant.”

Thorin was watching them both intently now, and it was a point of pride for Bilbo that he didn’t look away first. “You wish to learn to fight?” Thorin seemed surprised that he was even asking this question, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“It probably wouldn’t be the worst idea,” Bilbo admitted. “There’s no need to learn in the Shire, but I was helpless against the spiders. That didn’t feel good. Not that I have a weapon anyway.”

Thorin considered him silently for a moment, though Minty groomed herself disinterestedly. Bilbo wondered which of them was being sincere. Maybe both? Dwarves were different, after all.

“If you truly wish to learn, we have weapons enough,” Thorin said finally, rising. Minty stretched languidly, following suit. “I will speak to Balin about it.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo said, and Thorin gave only a little nod of acknowledgement. Still, it was something.

Their clothes and supplies were still damp after their lunch of fish, fresh caught from the river, so Bilbo’s lessons were to begin immediately. He was given one of Fíli’s apparently copious knives, with an assurance that the dwarf prince was stuffed full of them, so he didn’t need that one back. Bilbo wasn’t sure he could do much damage with something that small, but he also doubted he could lift anything bigger, so it would have to do.

His lessons were an object of interest for the rest of the company, who watched Bilbo ineptly try to match the positions Balin taught him, and shouted words of encouragement. It was distracting, which was not helpful, and Myrtle kept up a near constant stream of muttering about the uselessness of dwarves, but Bilbo didn’t mind. They actually cared about the outcome of his training, which meant they hadn’t written him off yet. It didn’t occur to him at the time that maybe all the shouting would draw attention. After all, the elves had been friendly enough.

The residents of the one other world they had visited being friendly was not enough of a sample to be basing their behavior on, as they would all soon learn.

Eventually, as dwarves started checking their clothes and finding them dry enough to be putting back on, Balin finally called a halt to the day’s lesson. Bilbo was sore in places he’d never been sore in before, sweat-soaked, and exhausted, but at least he knew how to hold the knife correctly, and maybe even a few of the positions. He wondered, as he pulled his jacket back on, what his relatives would say about all this. Or what they were even saying right now. He had vanished from Bag End without a word to anyone. Someone probably saw him get thrown into the river... but he hadn’t come up again. Oh.

“Myrtle, we can’t go home, can we?” he asked her quietly as they broke camp.

“They might think you’re some kind of shade, or a wight,” she agreed unhelpfully. “Though I suppose shades don’t usually have dæmons. But Gandalf said he thought we’d find our home out here somewhere, so there’s no time for regrets of that kind.”

“We can’t get back even if we try,” Bilbo realized, squeezing Myrtle a little tighter than was comfortable for either of them. “The portal back to Mirkwood leads to the forest river, and who knows where it leads. I guess there’s no choice now.”

“That’s the spirit,” he heard Bofur say somewhere behind him, but he didn’t turn or acknowledge the comment. It was a little exhausting, realizing that there was really no going back.

For once, Bilbo wasn’t leading, the dwarves depositing him safely in the center of the pack with Ori. Dwalin and Daisy led, the wolf dæmon keeping a sharp nose out for any sign of trouble as they looked for some kind of mountain pass, or a cave that led deeper. Bilbo would have expected Thorin to lead, being in charge of this quest, but Nori informed him discreetly that their leader had a rather poor sense of direction. The bird dæmons scouted ahead as far as they could without straining their bonds, but the owls could see little in daylight, and the other birds confirmed there wasn’t much to see. The mountains were tall and stretched for hundreds of miles to the north and south, and that was about all they could report.

Still, eventually Daisy found a path, which led to a pass through the mountains, or at least they hoped it did. Bilbo heard at least one dwarf grumble about the prospect of walking back down if this pass didn’t pan out, but finally, as night was falling, Ori’s dæmon found another cave for them to shelter in. Just in time too, as Bilbo’s legs were just about done. He’d always been a good walker, but he didn’t usually climb mountains after being taught to fight.

“Are you okay there, Bilbo?” Most of the dwarves were helping with the fire or gathering the materials for dinner, but Dori had apparently noticed the panting, slumped hobbit despite all that. His cat dæmon was already sauntering over to check on Myrtle.

“Just a little winded,” Bilbo replied, waving his hand dismissively. “It’s not every day hobbits climb mountains, you know.”

Dori nodded. “Don’t stay up too late after dinner,” he advised Bilbo. “Until Myrtle picks up a scent, we don’t know how much more mountain there is to go, so you’ll need your strength.”

This was agreed to easily enough, along with the generous portion of dinner. Bilbo did miss the usual hobbit meals, but it was hardly practical to stop every hour for food, especially when they didn’t know whether anything in the next world would even be edible. It was an adventure, and some sacrifices were going to be necessary.

“Do you smell anything yet?” he whispered to Myrtle as they settled in for the night.

“I might,” she admitted. “It’s faint, and I think it’s inside the mountains somewhere.”

“I’ll mention it to Thorin in the morning,” Bilbo decided, and that was when the ground dropped out from under them.

Chapter Text

They were falling, hipbones slamming against awkwardly hewn stone tunnels, weapons smacking against heads and arms, boots kicking others in the stomach. At the very least, Bilbo felt a boot collide with his stomach, and was grateful that he couldn’t do the same with his bare feet. It was a blessing that the fire had been put out right before the floor collapsed, though the wood and ashes traveled with them, adding another layer of stuff that smacked against them. Eventually, dozens of bruises later, the twisting tunnel spat them out in a heap on a crude wooden platform.

There were limbs and weapons and thick strands of hair everywhere, but the sudden appearance of hunched over, sharp-toothed creatures made it remarkably easy to find their feet. Whatever these creatures were, they didn’t have dæmons. At least, none that Bilbo could see. That was automatically worrisome. And then the creatures lurched forward, herding them with sharp blows and sheer overwhelming numbers. Some of the dwarves tried to fight, but even Bilbo could see that there wasn’t enough room to maneuver. The creatures clearly had no fear of falling off, but the dwarves preferred their necks unbroken, so they eventually allowed themselves to get jostled along.

The creatures led them along a series of twisting, shoddily constructed wooden platforms, past a number of contraptions that looked to be made of the wrong things entirely. Whatever these creatures were, they were clearly foragers, making do with what they could find. Not completely unintelligent then. Maybe they could be reasoned with.

“H-hello there,” Bilbo said, trying to address them, but his words were buried under inhuman shrieks and snarls. Still, he wasn’t entirely discouraged, and opened his mouth to try again when Minty stepped on his foot. The dæmon clearly had forgotten that Bilbo went barefoot, because touching someone elses dæmon with bare skin broke a taboo that went deeper than law, even in Hobbit society. It had little effect on him, but he saw the way Thorin shuddered, seemingly without cause.

“No trying anything stupid,” Minty hissed, recovering quickly from her brief moment of shock. “And you might consider wearing shoes.”

“You stepped on my foot as I recall,” Bilbo replied tartly, not bothering to keep his voice down. “And I hardly see how this situation could get any worse.”

Because despite the vastness of the universe, the Valar enjoyed picking on Bilbo Baggins in particular, as that was the moment that their captors stopped them, using particularly harsh blows to force them to their knees. One particularly cheeky creature tried to grab Myrtle and was rewarded with a slash across the face. The others kept their hands off the dæmons after that, and they turned their attention to the monstrous blob of flesh before them. It had a crown of sorts on its head, and some manner of sceptre, so Bilbo supposed this must be their king. This was probably a promising development. Maybe.

“Well, well, well,” the king crowed, looking them over with a greedy eye. “Who dares come armed into my kingdom? And with wild animals no less?”

Bilbo saw Balin and Thorin exchange a look, and ultimately it was Balin who stepped forward to answer. “We are travelers from another world,” Balin said. If he was surprised that these creatures spoke the same language as them, he gave no sign. “We are simply passing through, and mean no harm to you and yours. In our world, this,” he gestured to their dæmons, “is completely normal.”

The king considered these words with a contemptuous look. “I am still young, but I wasn’t born yesterday,” he spat. “Travelers from another world? Traveling with wild animals is completely normal? Nonsense and lies. Take their weapons and kill them,” he ordered with a wave of his sceptre.

“That went well,” Myrtle muttered. The goblins were tugging at them now, and Bilbo made an attempt to struggle, reaching for his borrowed knife, but it turned out to be unnecessary. A blinding flash of light tore through the air, knocking everyone flat on the ground. When Bilbo recovered, there was Gandalf, his smile a little pinched, but present nonetheless.

“Run!” Gandalf cried, and they obeyed. No one asked if Gandalf knew where he was going, they simply followed, the strange creatures pouring out of holes in the rock like ants.

“What are they?” Bilbo asked between pants.

“Goblins,” Gandalf replied grimly. “By some misfortune, you stumbled into a world whose only intelligent inhabitants would harm you on sight without question. Well,” he hesitated, realizing that his words were not entirely true. “With very few questions then.”

Bilbo was struck by the similarities and differences between this and the last world. In both, they had been quickly captured by the residents of that world, and taken to their king. In one, they were feasted, in the other, they were probably going to be the feast. But from both they needed to escape, and quickly.

It didn’t work out exactly as planned, but when the goblins finally cornered them, and Thorin and Dwalin cut the support ropes to send them all sliding into the abyss, it certainly felt like a successful escape. And if they didn’t survive the fall, well… that still counted as escaping from the goblins, Bilbo supposed.

They landed in another tangle of limbs, but there was no time for licking wounds and lying about: the goblins were still chasing them. So they ran, this time along echoing stone passages, until Bilbo tripped and fell, sending Myrtle rolling across the stone floor. The badger opened her mouth like she meant to scold him, but a look of dawning realization passed over her face instead.

“I smell a portal!” she announced, and their flight became less desperately urgent and more excited to leave this wretched world behind. The dwarves were so loud in their excitement, Bilbo almost missed the first sign that they were not alone.

“Quiet!” he hissed, and oddly enough, the dwarves obeyed. There was another voice, that hadn’t heeded his command. A strange, weak-sounding voice, that didn’t sound like a dwarf or a goblin, but certainly like nothing Bilbo had ever heard before. Out of necessity, the running stopped, replaced by trying very hard to be quiet and avoid the notice of whatever this thing was.

When they turned the corner, stepping into a wide open cave, it soon became clear that they could do nothing to attract its notice. The thin, stretched, hunched over creature didn’t even look up at their approach. It spoke ceaselessly, addressing something it was holding, though Bilbo couldn’t tell what.

“What is that, Gandalf?” he asked softly, terrified of raising his voice above a whisper. The creature looked frail, but those long, flat fingers were probably excellent for strangling. Bilbo wanted to ask Myrtle when he had gotten so morbid, but it really didn’t feel like the time.

“I cannot say for sure,” Gandalf hedged. “But I do not think it came from this world originally.”

Bilbo caught a snatch of “goblinses taste awful, precious” from the creature and shuddered. It sounded awful enough to belong to this world.

“Shouldn’t it have a dæmon then?” Ori practically squeaked from directly behind Bilbo. “Or are there more worlds without dæmons?”

Gandalf’s brow furrowed. “No, that’s not it, although I have seen this before, I think, but this is not the place to discuss it. Which way to the portal, Myrtle?”

Reluctantly, Myrtle waddled forward and the company followed her as quietly as they could. The creature did not look up, and they passed it without incident. There were no sounds of pursuit by the goblins, and while that definitely seemed strange, this was no time to question it.

Their path led through increasingly narrow passages, some of the dwarves having to turn sideways to pass through them, but eventually, Bilbo saw it: a shimmering portal lying flat against the stone, showing white sand as far as the eye could see. Having come this far, there was no choice, so one by one, they walked through the portal, and emerged into a blast of hot air.

“Not much point in askin’ the compass where we are,” Dwalin noted, shielding his eyes against the glare. They must have been running the whole night, Bilbo thought in despair. Not that he’d be able to sleep with this much light.

“We are near water, which is all we need to know,” Dori observed primly, causing the entire company to turn in surprise. There was a pool of water behind them, shaded by strange trees, the likes of which Bilbo was certain would not grow in Mirkwood or the Shire. But the dwarves cared little for the strange trees, focused entirely on getting rid of the grime of the goblin tunnels, and for a moment, Bilbo forgot his troubles to join them, setting Myrtle down gently so that she could dip her toes in the water.

 


 

“So Gandalf, what was wrong with that creature in the tunnels? And why didn’t those goblins have dæmons? Are they like orcs?” Thorin didn’t wait long to begin grilling the wizard now that he had returned, and they appeared to be safe for the moment. The company had cleansed themselves, and pitched tents to try and get some rest, and then Thorin launched right into it. Mingalaz watched the wizard intently, as if he might bolt at any second.

“I do not personally know the history of the goblins, but they are related to orcs,” Gandalf replied heavily. “There are orcs in the realm of the dwarves, are there not?”

“They attack from time to time, but they have never appeared in great numbers and can be killed, so we did not worry about them,” Thorin admitted. The orcs appeared often enough to remind them to be vigilant, and train the young to be strong. “But we have wondered for some time why they don’t have dæmons.”

Gandalf nodded. “The orcs were the result of elves being tortured and mutilated, and then bred until the children were born without dæmons,” he explained. “Goblins are likely the same, though there are some who could say better than I.”

“‘Some?’” Mingalaz repeated incredulously. “How many people know that there are other worlds?”

“Few,” Gandalf admitted. “Once, more did, but now, the knowledge has largely been lost, as your people can attest.” Like his mother, Thorin thought but did not say. He wondered why something so important would be put aside and forgotten. “As for the creature in the tunnels,” Gandalf continued. “I only have suspicions, but I believe he was holding an artificial dæmon.”

“An artificial dæmon?” All of the dæmons said it at roughly the same time, their tones ranging from curiosity to deep-seated fear. Thorin reached for Mingalaz instinctively.

“How is that even possible?” Balin demanded, and unhelpfully, Gandalf shrugged.

“I don’t know. But generally, the subject becomes obsessed with the artificial dæmon, ignoring their real dæmon. Eventually, they forget their dæmon entirely, sometimes lashing out violently at it,” the wizard explained grimly.

Thorin wondered what had become of the creature’s dæmon, as there had been no sign of it. There was a deeply morbid part of him that wondered if the creature had eaten its own dæmon, but how could it survive such a thing? A killing blow to a dæmon killed their person instantly.

Evidently Bilbo’s thoughts tended in the same direction. “We didn’t see its dæmon. Does that mean it died? But…” he trailed off.

“From what I have learned, the artificial dæmons are made to keep those with dæmons alive, even if their dæmon has been killed,” Gandalf replied heavily. “But as you see, they are not truly alive.”

Even under the burning sun, Thorin shivered at these words. “Who…. why…” He couldn’t even formulate the question. What inspired someone to perform those kinds of experiments? And what kind of experiment was it really?

“An attempt at eternal life?” Mingalaz mused softly, finishing Thorin’s thought.

“Nothing so palatable,” Gandalf answered bitterly. “In some worlds, there are those who believe that dæmons are the source of all evil, and they seek to become separated from them. This is not true of course, but you see the consequences.”

The company found it impossible to try and sleep after a conversation like that, but no one felt particularly companionable either. They scattered across the oasis, speaking to their dæmons in soft voices.

“There is more than just the evil of the wraiths in the worlds,” Thorin murmured, stroking Mingalaz’s fur absently.

“The evil of the wraiths is all that we need to solve,” Mingalaz replied firmly, though she was shivering.

“Gandalf said this matter concerns all worlds, ” Thorin reminded her. “Yet we have seen no wraiths yet. Spiders, and goblins, and fake dæmons, but no wraiths.”

“We just haven’t been to the right worlds yet,” she argued doggedly. “Gandalf came to us for a reason, and it was probably because our world was the first to be affected. Maybe he just suspected they would spread to other worlds.” There was so much desperation in her eyes, and rationally, Thorin knew it was just his own unwillingness to accept that Gandalf had drawn them into a larger problem than he had initially suspected. He knew that.

But he so sincerely longed to believe otherwise. That Mingalaz’s arguments were rational, and sound, and likely. Because he could not save every world from the evil that was oh so clearly closing in. It was not his task. All he wanted was the strength to protect his people. Those who had chosen to follow him were the same, simply looking to protect their homeland and loved ones.

What about Bilbo?

“Bilbo joined this quest on a whim,” Thorin murmured. “If this problem is bigger than Gandalf led us to believe, Bilbo should not stay with us.”

Mingalaz lifted her nonexistent brows in surprise. “You don’t know it was a whim,” she pointed out. “He could have other reasons. Reasons which you might be trivializing because… why? Do you want to protect him from harm?” Mingalaz deadpanned. “How noble. What would we do without him?”

“The wizard dragged him into this,” Thorin pointed out roughly. “We may need him, but his world is the only one we’ve heard of so far that is at peace. He has no stake in this.”

Mingalaz sighed. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if as Gandalf said, every world is in danger, he has as much of a stake as we do.”

They stared at each other for a moment, before the tension left their shoulders, and they both chuckled.

“It would seem we have convinced each other,” Thorin observed wryly.

“Perhaps.” It was about as much ground as the mountain lion ever gave. “I want nothing to do with dæmon killers, but I suppose if we encounter some, I have no objection to tearing out their throats.” She bared her fangs with a low growl, startling ‘Daisy’ as Thorin now felt obliged to call Dwalin’s dæmon.

“What’re you on about,” the wolf grumbled irritably. She was almost always irritable.

“Practicing for the dæmon killers,” Mingalaz growled, and in a flash she and Daisy were wrestling. It was only play, and they had been doing this since before their forms settled, but it always irritated Thorin how quickly they got into these ‘matches.’ It said something about him that he didn’t really want on display.

Looking away from the unseemly mess of fur and snarling, Thorin noticed their portal-finder watching the spat apprehensively, Myrtle held close in his arms.

“Those two are always like that,” Thorin offered, a little more gruffly than he had intended, and Bilbo’s gaze snapped over to him abruptly. It looked the hobbit was swallowing some kind of comment, and didn’t help his mounting irritation one bit.

“I wanted to ask Mr. Balin for another lesson, since I can’t sleep in all this sun, but apparently he can,” Bilbo said instead wistfully, and Thorin was taken aback.

“I would have thought, given what we’ve just learned, that you might be more inclined to contemplate returning home than learning more of fighting,” Thorin replied in a more measured tone, voicing his earlier concern.

Bilbo’s eyes widened a little. “How could I even think about going back to my safe, warm home after hearing something like that?” He sounded deeply offended at the very notion. “If things like that are happening, and there’s something I can do to help, of course I’m going to do it!”

“Without my nose, you lot would still be in those wretched tunnels,” Myrtle sniffed, examining a claw in disdain.

“I did not mean to imply-” Thorin began, and then stopped and tried again. Okay, he had meant to imply something, so he might as well say it. “You had no reason for joining us other than a whim, and no matter how pure your intentions may be, this is no walking holiday. Such shallow feelings will get you killed.”

Bilbo froze stock still, his eyes wide and his lips pressed together tightly. “Excuse me, Your Highness,” he said at last, giving an exaggerated bow, and retreating into one of the tents. Thorin caught several members of the company staring, though they all looked away when they realized he had noticed. It took him a bit longer to realize that Mingalaz and Daisy were no longer rolling around in the dirt.

“That went well,” Mingalaz observed cheekily. “I did say you might be trivializing-”

“Enough,” Thorin muttered. “Dwalin, up for a match?”

It was not the wisest idea, wrestling in all that heat, having gotten no sleep the night before, but Thorin was not feeling particularly wise at the moment. He needed to sweat, and work off his shame, and if anyone saw him and Dwalin and thought of their dæmons not ten minutes earlier, well. There was a reason for that.

Thorin took several hits that he normally could have avoided, and Dwalin actually had the cheek to look concerned, but it had the desired effect. He was calmer. So calm in fact that after sitting in the oasis to clean off the sweat and sand, Thorin fell asleep, his head leaning back against the sand. An embarrassing way for a King and his dæmon to be found, but most of the company had sought the comfort of the tents by then, looking to get out of the blistering sun.

Certainly Bilbo was the last person he expected to shake him awake. “You’re going to fry, sleeping out here,” Bilbo scolded, his cheeks oddly flushed. Sun sickness, Thorin thought immediately, through the haze of drowsiness. How dare the hobbit scold him, when he was showing the first symptoms already?

“Says the one who has a sunburn already,” Thorin replied blearily, hauling himself out of the water nonetheless. He had the good sense to wonder if bathing in his tunic and trousers had been such a good idea when he stumbled, and realized that maybe it was not just drowsiness addling his head. Bilbo had his arm around him immediately, supporting him, even though he must be soaking the poor hobbit.

“I’m fine,” Bilbo insisted. “You are clearly not.”

There was no point protesting when Bilbo was clearly right. He allowed Bilbo to lead him into the nearest tent, which was thankfully unoccupied. Thorin collapsed onto the ground almost immediately, sleep coming over him like a wave. He felt Mingalaz stumble into him. He must really be unwell, he thought before falling back into unconsciousness.

Thorin didn’t see how Bilbo’s blush deepened when he said, “Ridiculous dwarves.”

Chapter Text

“I have been to this world before,” Gandalf admitted, scanning the landscape. “There should be at least a town nearby, and while they will undoubtedly find you all strange, this entire world is covered in desert. It will not seem inconceivable that you came from some distant corner of it.”

“Thorin’s too sick to be moved,” Óin countered gravely, adjusting his ear trumpet. They had spent the night in the desert and a new day had dawned, but Thorin’s condition had only worsened. “So I know I didn’t just hear you suggest it.”

“And he won’t get better if he stays out here,” Gandalf replied sharply. “Worse, more of the party may sicken. None of you have any experience in this kind of climate.”

Bilbo suspected Dwalin would be next, after his roughhousing with Thorin. And not a one of them had been drinking enough water. Not that Bilbo had experience with deserts, but some Shire summers got extremely hot, and more than one fauntling found themself bedridden after playing too much in that heat. Living inside mountains probably meant that the dwarves knew little of any kind of weather, which was an odd thought. They had been isolated in more ways than one.

“Can we even move him?” Dori wondered. “We can carry him certainly, but slung over someone’s back, or carried between two dwarves will not keep him out of the sun, and we don’t have the materials to make a stable litter.”

Gandalf apparently had no answer to this question, and the party stood stumped for a moment, when there was a great trumpeting sound in the distance that drew their attention. The source was still far off, but Bilbo could see the outline of a great beast, realizing that at their present distance from it, it must be truly massive to even be visible. A memory stirred in the back of his mind.

“An oliphaunt,” Myrtle breathed, giving voice to one of his mother’s tales. It had been one of the stories that even as a child he hadn’t fully believed, but evidently she had not been lying.

The dwarves looked at them strangely, but they too repeated a strange word of their own language, too quietly for Bilbo to catch. As the oliphaunt drew nearer, Bilbo noticed with some excitement that the beast had some kind of platform on its back, and some of it was even shaded. If they could convince the owner to give Thorin at least a ride to the nearest town, that would solve their little problem rather nicely.

“Gandalf, what manner of people live in this world?” Bilbo asked, realizing that so far, they had not encountered the same kinds of people twice. Yet everyone spoke the same language. That seemed curious.

“Men,” was Gandalf’s utterly unhelpful answer.

“What, they have no women?” Glóin squawked in surprise, his ram rearing a little.

Gandalf shook his head, and amused look on his face. “No, no, they have women, I should have said, the Race of Men. Does that make things clearer?” The blank looks on every face of the company told him that it did not. “They belong to the tall folk as you might call them,” he said, addressing Bilbo. “They look like me, and live shorter lives than either of your races, on average. Nothing too strange.”

His mother’s stories had never mentioned the race of Men. Maybe they weren’t exotic enough for her, Bilbo thought with a fond grin. At least not compared to their oliphaunts.

As luck would have it, the Oliphaunt driver noticed their party, and pulled up near them. He hailed them in a foreign tongue that Bilbo had never heard before, but upon seeing their mystified faces, switched haltingly to something more familiar.

“Lost? Needs help?” the man asked. Bilbo noted that his dæmon was some kind of desert bird.

“Our friend has sun-sickness,” Bilbo related anxiously. He missed the way the dwarves exchanged looks behind him, not even realizing the strangeness of being their spokesperson. It felt natural, considering that he probably looked the least threatening of all of them, Gandalf included. “Rather stupid of him really. We need to move him, but can’t do it without making him worse.”

“Sun-sickness, ah,” the man replied with a knowing nod. “Can take to town. And one other.”

Bilbo expected there to be some kind of argument over who would accompany Thorin. His nephews certainly had a claim, but then so did Dwalin, and frankly Óin might be the best company for the sick dwarf. Instead, the dwarves hefted Thorin and Minty onto a platform that was lowered from the Oliphaunt with rope, and then shoved Bilbo onto the platform with him. He didn’t even have time to lodge a proper objection before they were too high in the air for him to look down, let alone shout at the dwarves below. He made a valiant effort to scold them, but they simply waved.

“We’ll meet you in town!” Kili called out, and then the Oliphaunt was moving, leaving the other dwarves behind.

At least Thorin was too ill to notice any of these goings on. He had groaned a little when they were hoisting him onto the oliphaunt’s back, into the shade, but once he was settled, the dwarf king had lain silent. Minty was curled up at his side, just as dead to the world. Satisfied that Thorin wasn’t about to drop dead, Bilbo took the opportunity to look about him. Their hosts were a group of four men, every one of them taller than Thorin. Their attire was not exactly Shire-approved: three of the four men wore no shirt and very little on bottom, their skin heavily tattooed. They seemed to enjoy body modification, Bilbo noted, observing the piercings in their ears and noses, but he reminded himself that they had so easily offered aid to strangers in the desert. They might look fierce, but appearances were not everything. Strange as the situation might be, he wasn’t going to ask questions.

“For once,” he heard Myrtle mutter. He ignored her.

“Where from?” their savior asked conversationally, letting one of his fellows steer the oliphaunt.

The worst possible question to ask, Bilbo reflected bitterly. He would have to lie from the very beginning. “North a ways,” he decided on. “It’s not so hot up there.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Never been north,” he admitted, then looked sharply at Thorin and Minty. “Said friend?”

It took Bilbo a moment to decipher the question. “Yes,” Bilbo answered easily enough. “Though we only met a few days ago.”

Another nod, and he pointed at Thorin. “Trusts,” he said, which was a bit of a head scratcher without any other words in the sentence.

“He trusts you,” Myrtle translated quietly, and the man looked at her and nodded.

“What makes you say that?” Bilbo asked curiously, feeling his cheeks grow warm. That simply couldn’t be after what Thorin had said the day before.

“Not know word,” the man admitted, pointing at Minty.

“Dæmon,” Bilbo supplied, and the man nodded again.

“Dæmon sleep, not watch. Trusts.”

Bilbo wasn’t sure he believed that, since generally if you were asleep so was your dæmon, but it didn’t do to disagree with people helping you out of the goodness of their hearts. So instead, like a proper Baggins, he changed the subject, though he doubted his dearly departed father would approve of the subject he chose.

“I was told that some Men believe that dæmons are evil, and try to separate man from dæmon,” Bilbo began, watching his savior closely to see if he was exhausting the man’s vocabulary, but he seemed to be following well enough. “Are there such Men in this town?”

The man considered this, swaying slightly with the motion of the oliphaunt. “Might be,” he admitted. “Not many. Those old lies, long ago. Few still believe. Hide belief, not harm dæmon.”

So Gandalf had been right. Bilbo pursed his lips and exchanged a look with Minty. What an unsettling thought. Though he wondered what the man meant, when he said they were old lies. Gandalf had a way of underselling problems, and if this was in any way connected to the wraiths, it had clearly been going on for much longer than the wizard had implied. How like Gandalf. Bilbo wondered anew why Gandalf had dragged him into this. Not that he had any intention of quitting, but when one had big problems that needed solving, one usually did not call upon the little folk of the Shire.

His head was spinning, though that could have been from the heat, and he leaned back against the wall of the giant saddle. As he clutched Myrtle to him faintly, Bilbo realized he had quite neglected his manners.

“Oh! I’m Bilbo, and this is Myrtle,” he exclaimed, extending his hand. The man eyed it strangely, and when he took Bilbo’s hand, it was more a clapping of hands than shaking, but things were clearly different here.

“Abdel,” the man replied with a small smile. “And Leila.” His dæmon squawked a greeting. So Men were more like Hobbits that way. Interesting. Had the Elves introduced their dæmons? Bilbo couldn’t remember. There had been an awful lot of drinking that night. “Your friend?” Abdel asked, and Bilbo realized that Thorin could not very well introduce himself in such a state.

“Thorin and Minty,” he related quickly. “Dwarves don’t like to share the names of their dæmons, so Minty isn’t her real name, just what I call her.”

Abdel looked down at Thorin thoughtfully. “Thorin dwarf? No dwarves here, long time.” Then he gave Bilbo a searching look. “Bilbo not dwarf?”

Bilbo shook his head. “No, I’m a hobbit. I don’t expect you’ll have heard of those.” And Abdel hadn’t apparently, as he simply shook his head, and they lapsed into silence.

In the distance, beyond the Oliphaunt’s head, Bilbo thought he saw the faint outline of a town, though it might have just been the heat haze. He glanced back, to try and catch a glimpse of the dwarves, but there was no sign of them. They had proven to be more than capable joggers back in the goblin tunnels, but there was something to be said for the long legs of an oliphaunt. At least Thorin would soon be safe, and able to recover in peace.

 


 

Thorin’s consciousness returned by degrees. He heard soft voices, the whispers of caretakers who were trying not to wake him. He felt Mingalaz’s fur beneath his fingers, and her warm bulk curled up against his side. His eyes felt like they were weighed down by lead, so he left off trying to open them for now. His skin felt like it was burning, which realistically, it probably had done at some point.

But his head, his head felt clear. The pain was nothing compared to the fogginess of the past… few hours? Few days? He didn’t know, and when he tried to open his mouth to ask, he felt cool glass against his lips, and then water dripping into his mouth. It wasn’t enough, but his caretakers probably didn’t know he was awake, and thus were trying not to choke him. That was easy enough to fix.

“More,” he croaked, his voice rough from disuse, and then strong hands were lifting him into a sitting position, the cup tilting back to give him more, and he drank greedily.

“Careful laddie,” a familiar voice warned, but it came too late: he was already coughing.

It was probably time to attempt opening his eyes. They were practically sealed shut by mucus, but they did eventually open, the world slowly swimming back into focus. The light in the room was dim, which was a blessing. Óin was to one side, stirring up some foul-smelling concoction. He saw Daisy lying on the ground, and so assumed that Dwalin was the one behind him who had lifted him. And last but not least, Bilbo was leaning in with the cup, looking at him apprehensively. Mingalaz seemed to have Myrtle in a death grip, though Bilbo did not appear to be in any pain. Well that was embarrassing.

It was not one of their tents, he realized suddenly, taking in the clay walls and the fact that his caretakers weren’t stumbling over each other. He had fallen asleep in the tent, and woken up… where?

“Where are we?” Thorin rasped, taking the cup from Bilbo and draining it. Mingalaz stirred, though she held fast to Myrtle. Thorin scratched her head, and some of the tension eased out of her muscles. Myrtle wriggled free and crawled into Bilbo’s arms with a grateful look.

“Some nameless desert town,” Dwalin grunted.

“It’s not nameless,” Bilbo corrected him. “You just can’t pronounce the name. But this world is apparently called Harad.”

Thorin noted with some amusement that Daisy bristled at the comment, but didn’t lift herself off the floor or growl. Bilbo was growing on Dwalin.

“How did we get here?” Thorin asked. His voice was getting a little stronger, and petting Mingalaz seemed to lessen the burning. “I trust you didn’t just pick a direction and wander in the desert until you found something.”

“No, that’s what you would’ve done,” Dwalin replied cheekily. Thorin wished he felt well enough to smack him, but the quelling look Bilbo gave him was enough.

“Luckily, some traders came across us just as we were debating what to do,” Bilbo explained, playing with Myrtle’s claws absently. “They agreed to carry you, and the rest of the company followed on foot. We’re in an inn, and they’re all floating around somewhere.”

“Is there a portal nearby?” Thorin demanded doggedly, earning some tutting from Óin.

“Sun sickness is a bad business Thorin. We’ll be here a few more days at least, so don’t worry yourself about such things,” the healer scolded, his dæmon adding her agreement with a screech.

“I was asking Master Baggins,” Thorin continued stubbornly, and Óin threw up his hands, giving Bilbo permission to answer.

“Outside of town, Myrtle thinks,” he admitted. “Not too far. “You might try asking the compass where it leads, none of us have gone to look at it yet.”

Thorin, aware that no one had yet mentioned exactly how long he had been out, snatched the opportunity to feel useful. Or at least like less of a burden. The compass was produced, Ori appeared faithfully to jot the symbols down, and the dials were duly turned to ask the question. He had asked this particular question enough to be certain now that he was using the right symbols to ask it, though he wasn’t sure how he could be so certain. When the needle moved, he saw a person, and water, but the others seemed unrelated, or at least he couldn’t understand how it related. He couldn’t say how he knew that the person and the water were the significant, more literal symbols. In the end, he decided they would have to run them by Gandalf. Maybe the wizard would have an easier time, or they would become clear when they entered the portal. He grimaced. That did always seem to be the case. Would he ever learn to read it properly?

His caretakers stepped out at some point, leaving Thorin to his private musings. Mingalaz had also roused herself, which was a relief. It was unusual for her to be so drowsy.

“Were you awake much while I was out?” Thorin asked her, rubbing her ears absently.

“Wasn’t much point,” she muttered, shifting so that she was lying on his lap. A mountain lion was not exactly the right size to be a lap cat, but Mingalaz had never learned that lesson. “We were safe, and I felt terrible.”

Thorin’s eyebrows shot up. “We were safe? It sounded like they handed us over to strangers and hoped we would be okay when they caught up.” Not that he was too upset about it. They had been right.

“It wasn’t exactly like that,” Mingalaz admitted, studiously looking in another direction. “Bilbo was a little disingenuous.”

“How so?”

Mingalaz shifted uncomfortably. “Bilbo and Myrtle were with us the whole time,” she said as quickly as possible.

It was so very rare for Thorin to have the upper hand dealing with Mingalaz, and here was a prime opportunity. He tried not to let the sense of triumph show on his face, but wasn’t sure he completely succeeded. “Bilbo and Myrtle? Why would the company put us in their care, when most of them are blood? And why would you fall asleep with us in their care? They can find portals well enough, but Master Baggins has only just begun learning to fight. He could not protect us.”

“I knew we would be fine,” Mingalaz replied, not looking away from the spot on the wall that she was practically boring a hole into with her gaze.

“So you trust them,” Thorin observed, tweaking her ear lightly, and Mingalaz snapped up.

“Yes, fine, okay, I trust them,” she grumbled. “As I recall, it was you who wanted to send them home, not me.”

“And it was you who thought they would be no use at all,” he reminded her. “And now you’re falling asleep in front of them? You’re losing your edge, Minty.”

“Don’t you dare call me that,” Mingalaz growled, though without any real bite. “In all seriousness Thorin, I think they’re trying to matchmake you.”

“Like you weren’t on the very first day,” Thorin pointed out with a raised eyebrow.

“I was making a suggestion, which I have not repeated, out of respect for our centuries together,” Mingalaz replied, matching his tone. “But I think our companions are getting ideas. Ideas which I cannot claim responsibility for.”

“Then where are they coming from? I have not been… very generous with him,” Thorin admitted with a grimace.

“Let’s stop beating around the bush. Frerin would have been all over him, and most of them know that.” Mingalaz said flatly. “He would have seen that his dæmon suggested a grumpy demeanor, and teased him relentlessly, delighting in the spots of pink that would appear on his cheeks when he finally got angry and scolded him on tiptoes.”

She painted such a clear picture. It was impossible not to see it. “And Frerin is gone,” he murmured.

“Exactly. It’s normal to mourn Frerin and Shathinh, and perhaps given how recently they died you should take a little more time to go it, but you don’t have to distance yourself from Bilbo just because they would have liked him. You’re not exactly succeeding anyway, just making yourself look bad,” Mingalaz assured him. “They see that, and they assume.”

“They assume because I am making a fool of myself that my feelings are more than they are,” Thorin realized, his mouth a thin line. That was all he could allow himself to believe right now. “Frerin and Shathinh would be laughing at me if they were here right now.”

“‘Is this how the future king conducts himself with strangers?’” Mingalaz asked, dropping her voice in a poor imitation of Frerin. “‘I shudder to see how you will handle trade discussions with our allies.’”

They both laughed at the memory. At a ball with one of the neighboring kingdoms, Thorin had not only snubbed the daughter of the lord, but he had done so completely unintentionally. And then Mingalaz had stepped on her dæmon, and the poor girl had fled in tears. Dís and Abkund had laughed hysterically, but Frerin had actually been disappointed. Serious moments had been rare with his younger brother.

“So, be less of a fool with Master Baggins?” Thorin surmised wryly.

“You’re sick, so I’m sure he’s in a forgiving mood. Make the most of it,” Mingalaz suggested languidly.

“It almost sounds like you’re matchmaking again,” he observed.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Chapter Text

Thorin hadn’t really expected Óin to enforce the order that he stay bedridden for several more days. It was certainly true that he still felt unwell, but Erebor wasn’t going to save itself. They needed to get on the road again, even if Gandalf had taken one look at the cluster of runes and furrowed his brow. Wasn’t that all the more reason to move on and investigate?

“Sitting and doing nothing does not suit me,” Thorin complained, his lips pressing together in a tight line when he saw Balin roll his eyes.

“I know it doesn’t,” he replied placatingly. “But it’s not like we’re sitting around. Everyone’s gone out to collect information, to see whether wraiths trouble this world, or something else.”

Thorin was a little pacified by the explanation. Bilbo had related what little he had learned from the traders, and knowing that it had inspired action was comforting. But he wasn’t allowed to join in on any of it.

Ranakâl squawked impatiently. “He’s going to try sneaking out of bed,” she rasped, flapping her jet-black wings in Thorin’s face. “As if he were a mere dwarfling, not King Under the Mountain!”

Mingalaz watched Ranakâl , her gaze distinctly predatory. “I could grab you out of the air right now and have you for breakfast,” she advised the raven conversationally. “Wouldn’t be much of a breakfast, considering how you would just vanish, but I could do it.”

The raven suddenly found it much more agreeable to sit on Balin’s head. Thorin suppressed a chuckle at the sight of Balin’s face, all frowns and crossed arms. As if he were a naughty child.

“I mean it Thorin, stay in this bed and recover,” Balin scolded. “The door and the windows are all watched, and your privacy is merely a courtesy. If you try to escape, there will be a guard in the room.”

“This is all highly unnecessary,” Thorin assured him, sounding a little offended. “I do not like being trapped here, but escape is pointless.”

This answer satisfied Balin, who promptly left the room. Thorin waited for his footsteps to fade before throwing off the covers and heading to the window.

“I believe you said, ‘escape is pointless,’ did you not?” Mingalaz asked him, an amused gleam in her eyes.

“I will be caught eventually,” Thorin agreed. “And it won’t speed up our departure. But I would like at least to see some of this world before we leave it.”

“Why?” Mingalaz padded over to the window, peering outside disinterestedly.

“Because as far as I know, this world is like the Shire. There are hints of darkness, but the world is still healthy,” Thorin explained, scratching her ears affectionately. “As I have not been to the Shire, I would like to experience a healthy world for myself.”

“Oh, well if that’s all.”

Thorin and Mingalaz turned sharply around at the voice. Bilbo and Myrtle were standing in the doorway, wearing matching sardonic expressions. Technically Bilbo was standing and Myrtle was being carried, but then Myrtle rarely stood. Thorin briefly entertained the idea of Myrtle riding Mingalaz when looking for portals to speed up the process but dismissed it. He was trying to make up for distancing himself, not imply more than that.

“Come here,” Bilbo ordered, and Thorin was surprised to find himself obeying. The hobbit could be surprisingly commanding when he wanted to be. Thorin hadn’t gone far before he felt himself stumbling, and Bilbo shoved him roughly back into bed.

“You can do all the exploring you want when you can walk properly,” he scolded. “No one except you said we had to leave this world immediately.”

Thorin let Bilbo fuss and tuck him back into the bed, recognizing at last the futility of his struggle. He felt well enough in bed, but if he couldn’t even walk to the door without stumbling, he wouldn’t have been able to escape, even for a little bit. But then Bilbo didn’t leave, settling into the chair by the bed, and setting Myrtle on top of the covers.

“Balin’s orders,” Bilbo reported with a shrug when Thorin turned an accusing look on him. “If you try to escape, whoever catches you is to stay in the room with you, and prevent a second attempt.”

“Unless your sword training has gone very while during my illness, I doubt you could stop me,” Thorin replied petulantly, not meeting Bilbo’s eyes. To his surprise, Bilbo laughed.

“You look like Kíli when you do that,” he said, still laughing.

“I hope that was not meant to be flattering, comparing me to a beardless stripling,” Thorin groused good-naturedly. Bilbo chose not to respond, simply raising his eyebrows. How strange. If the hobbit was teasing him, was he forgiven?

“So, would you like to hear about what we’ve been doing while you’ve been sick?” Bilbo asked casually. “Or would you rather fume and pout?”

“I am doing neither,” Thorin protested, noting that Bilbo’s expression hadn’t changed from one of disbelief. “But I would like to hear your report.”

“Very well. The traders who helped us knew what I was talking about when I mentioned that thing Gandalf told us about, Men who believed dæmons were evil,” Bilbo related. “The one I spoke to specifically said they were “old lies” and that there aren’t many such believers these days.”

“But whatever happened to that creature in the cave was relatively recent,” Thorin mused, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “I can’t imagine anyone surviving for too long without their dæmon.”

“Well that much at least is just speculation, but it sounds at least like those kinds of experiments aren’t active in this world any longer,” Bilbo said with a shrug. “No one we’ve spoken to has ever heard of wraiths, and there are no strange tales of people vanishing in the desert, or at least no more than would attract suspicion. There are no goblins, or spiders, or any other strange things really.”

“Except ‘old lies’ about dæmons that no one really believes anymore,” Thorin summarized. “Has anyone learned anything useful in town? Like whether anyone is aware of the existence of other worlds?”

“They’re fairly clueless, I’m afraid,” Bilbo admitted with a shake of his head. “Those who could speak our language, that is. I wonder where people speak it natively in this world. Actually, I wondered that when I came to yours.”

“Our language is used mostly for ceremonies and conversations with close friends and family members,” Thorin explained. “We needed another language for day-wear.”

Bilbo pursed his lips, but didn’t say anything more on the subject. “Anyway, it’s possible that everyone is lying to us, though I don’t know why they would. This world has the feeling of a crossroads of sorts. Maybe they’re used to strange folk here, and that’s all there is to it.”

“Has anyone asked whether the world has always been a desert?” Mingalaz asked suddenly.

“There’s no safe way to ask that, really,” Bilbo admitted with a regretful sigh. “Pretending we’re from up north gives us some excuse for ignorance, but that’s probably a question too far.”

So that was the end of their information. It wasn’t much, but at least they hadn’t been just drinking and whoring while he was laid up. Actually…

“How many tavern-keeper’s daughters have my nephews attempted to impregnate?” he asked, rubbing his temples. “I trust no one has given us cause to pay damages.”

Myrtle chortled, but left answering to Bilbo. “The rest of the company has kept them in line,” Bilbo assured him quickly. “Though we are out a bit for a few chairs that Glóin’s dæmon accidentally destroyed in the tavern, but someone tried to touch her. No one blames them for reacting poorly.”

“Was the person who tried to touch her drunk? I’ve never been drunk enough to try and break the taboo,” Thorin observed, suddenly grim. Touching someone else’s dæmon was a grave invasion. That was something that clearly crossed the borders between worlds, based on how the other Men had reacted. So why would someone try?

Bilbo’s face fell, as if he hadn’t considered that. “You’re right actually, I don’t think that’s enough of an excuse. Maybe we should consider er, moseying out of this world a little faster,” he suggested. “Turns out something’s not right here after all.”

Thorin chose not to comment on Bilbo’s word choice. “Agreed.”

 


 

In the end, Thorin could only stand being confined to his bed for three days, technically their fourth day in the world, so on the fifth, Óin gave in and they made preparations to leave. Bilbo doubted the dwarf king was fully recovered, but he could walk on his own, as he’d proven the night before when Dwalin had taken him around to see the town, and that had to be enough.

As they approached the edge of town, Bilbo found himself walking with Bofur. He’d spent some time with the miner during Thorin’s illness: enough to know that while Bofur’s sense of humor tender to the morbid side, he was one of the more genuinely nice people Bilbo had ever met. He was teaching Bilbo some dwarf pub songs, because “you never know when we’ll encounter a pub that could use some singing, and you shouldn’t be left out of the fun!”

As Myrtle had predicted, the portal was not far out of town, hidden between a cluster of rocks. On the other side, Bilbo saw green grass and almost heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, a healthy world. Bilbo stepped through quickly, just barely missing the stampede of dwarves all trying to enter the portal at once. In their struggle to untangle themselves and their dæmons, Bilbo almost missed Gandalf closing the portal behind them with a careful pinch of his fingers. Almost. So, there was no way back then.

“Has he been doing that the whole time, do you suppose?” Bilbo whispered to Myrtle.

“Seems that way,” she agreed, narrowing her eyes. “I wonder why.”

No one else seemed to notice.

Shaking his head at the ungainly pile of dwarves, Bilbo turned his attention to the landscape. There was very tall green grass everywhere, and he curled his toes in it gleefully. The second thing that struck him was the strange rushing sound. They were near the sea! He spun in a quick circle, and sure enough, there was a beach nearby. Farther inland, he thought he saw stone buildings, though they were too far away for him to discern much. It was all rather picturesque, and he almost dreaded finding out what was wrong with this world.

“Maybe it’s like the Shire?” he suggested to Myrtle. “Maybe nothing is wrong here.”

“I doubt it,” she replied cynically, sniffing the ground as if she would find the wrongness that way. Bilbo glanced back over at the dwarves, who were somehow still disentangling, when he heard Myrtle squeak, and looked back over quickly. Minty had Myrtle by the scruff of her neck.

“Minty, put Myrtle down this instant!” Bilbo demanded angrily. If it wasn’t one thing with Thorin it was another, though when he looked over at him, Thorin looked oddly apologetic.

“She thinks Myrtle walks too slow,” Thorin explained with a sharp look at his dæmon.

“Well we weren’t exactly going anywhere fast with a pile of dwarves on the ground,” Bilbo observed, crossing his arms over his chest. “If we’re in such a hurry, perhaps someone shouldn’t have slept outside in the middle of a desert.”

Minty ignored this and started pushing her way through the tall grass, still carrying Myrtle between her teeth. Bilbo and Thorin were both forced to follow, and eventually the rest of the company pulled itself together to follow as well.

“Why is Minty carrying Myrtle?” Kíli asked in a completely audible attempt at a whisper. Not good at quiet, that one.

“Maybe she’s decided it’s time to have badger for dinner,” Bofur suggested casually, and his canary dæmon chirped uproariously, like she was trying to laugh.

“I heard that,” Bilbo said, a little snappish, but this only made Bofur laugh and pat him lightly on the back.

“I don’t think that’s it,” Fíli observed thoughtfully. His dæmon had run ahead to try talking to Minty, but with her mouth full, all she could manage was a growl, and a swat with one of her large paws.

“She doesn’t want any of us touching Myrtle,” Nori’s dæmon suggested with a sly look at Thorin.

“Now really,” Dori scolded half-heartedly. “What Minty does with Myrtle is between Thorin and Bilbo.”

Bifur said something in Khuzdul, and hearing Bofur say, “I’m not translating that,” Bilbo looked back to see Ori blushing, and the rest of the dwarves laughing behind their hands. He sighed, and wondered what Bifur had said. A quick glance at Thorin revealed that his face was red too, though that could have been from the sun sickness.

Gandalf was oddly quiet, staring off into the distance with a grim expression, even though they’d encountered no trouble so far. That was worrying.

“Have you been to this world before Gandalf?” Bilbo asked curiously, trying to draw the wizard into conversation.

“I have,” Gandalf confirmed, his expression no less grim. “We will probably be safe here, but that is only because the danger passed a long time ago.”

Noticing that all the eyes of the company were now on their conversation, Bilbo continued with some trepidation. “This isn’t Gondolin, is it?”

Gandalf’s grimness suddenly faded away. “Oh no, you should be so lucky, Bilbo Baggins!” he said with a laugh. “No, this is the kingdom of Numenor, destroyed a few thousand years ago because its inhabitants were lured by the same lies that the Men of Harad spoke of.”

“Several… thousand years ago?” Bilbo choked. What was he talking about?

“There was a time when many knew of the existence of other worlds,” Gandalf reminded him. “And of those who knew, there have always been those who sought to upset the balance between them. In Numenor they wormed their way in, and feeling that they had no choice to protect the worlds, the Valar sent a great wave, and purged the island.”

Bilbo shivered. “Surely not everyone in Numenor was bad.”

Gandalf looked at him sadly. “I have no doubt that you’re right. Which is why whatever problem threatens the worlds now, the Valar will not interfere: to avoid such wanton death of innocents.”

Bilbo couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a little more to the story, but they were close enough to the ruined city for him to make out some details, and the sight made him swallow any words he might have spoken. The city was made of white stone, and it glittered in the early morning sun. Except, it really wasn’t a city anymore. Just a husk, a relic of a people dead for thousands of years.

He swallowed.

So why did he find it so beautiful?

The dwarves were similarly awestruck, Bilbo noted when he glanced back at them, their expressions ranging from grim (though Dwalin almost always looked grim) to divinely inspired, as Ori was trying to sketch and walk at the same time, his little dæmon fluttering around him excitedly. The other dæmons didn’t seem terribly unsettled, which comforted Bilbo a little. If there was some lingering evil in this world, one of them probably would have sensed it, like in Mirkwood. He wondered if Gondolin would be like this, or if evil still clung to that place. It had fallen even longer ago, and evil couldn’t linger forever, could it?

When they reached the city, Bilbo couldn’t help himself. He ran his hands along the nearest wall, marveling at the feeling of the stone. The parts of the buildings that had survived the wave still felt very sturdy, and no moss grew upon them. The street was a different story, the stones of the road having long since been pushed aside by ambitious weeds and other plants, but the buildings endured, despite having outlived their usefulness. A thought came to Bilbo then, and such thoughts, once kindled, are not easily extinguished.

“Did this place have a library?” he asked Gandalf. “It must have, if it was any kind of great kingdom worth talking about.”

“It did,” Gandalf confirmed. “The wave and the passage of time ought to have destroyed much, but the Numenorians were clever. They wrote their records on all manner of substances, not merely parchment or paper, so some of it may have survived. Very good thinking, Bilbo.”

“What does it matter?” Dwalin grumbled. “The musings of people who died thousands of years ago of their own wickedness can hardly help us now.”

“That’s not true!” Ori argued, raising his voice much louder than Bilbo had ever heard it. “You never know what they might have known that could help us. Maybe they knew where to find a portal to Gondolin! Or what the wraiths are!”

“There’s no indication that the wraiths have been around that long,” Balin pointed out. “But I agree with Bilbo and Ori. We should at least give it a try. Thorin?”

Thorin’s mouth twitched in what might have been a smile. “We don’t even know if we can read anything they wrote, but there is nothing like looking. We will find something, even if it’s not what we came for.”

“But Mr. Gandalf, where even is the library?” Dori asked, his dæmon taking advantage of the stop to assiduously groom herself. Not that Bilbo had ever seen a hair out of place on the cat.

“I don’t know,” Gandalf admitted. “Perhaps Thorin can tell us.”

Thorin took out the compass, and Bilbo found himself drawing close to watch. Thorin adjusted the knobs until the hands were on the crucible, the anvil, and the globe, and then the needle started moving. When it stopped, Thorin didn’t look quite as confused as usual.

“Why did you pick those symbols?” he asked curiously.

“It’s hard to explain,” Thorin admitted. “But the crucible felt like knowledge, the anvil is used to make things, and buildings are manmade, and the globe felt like ‘where.’”

“Did you understand the answer?” Kíli asked eagerly, and for once, Thorin didn’t shake his head in frustration.

“I think… it’s over there,” he answered, pointing at the crumbling edifice of a large, rectangular building. There had been columns at the entrance once, but time or the wave, or both, had demolished every one of them. It wasn’t a very inviting prospect, but it wasn’t like the surrounding buildings were any better off.

Bilbo probably should have expected the skeletons that greeted them at the entrance, their bones very nearly turned to dust. Probably, but he was glad to have skipped breakfast that day. Dry heaving was a little less embarrassing, all things considered.

Chapter Text

The company was spread out across the sprawling library, looking for any tomes or tablets that still had readable words on them. Mingalaz had finally been forced to relinquish her hold over Myrtle, much to Thorin’s relief. It wasn’t like her to behave that way. She talked back to him all the time, but refusing to drop Myrtle went deeper than that. He really didn’t want to consider what it could mean.

He sincerely hoped Bilbo wasn’t considering what it meant.

A crunch underfoot alerted him to a wayward stone tablet, which he rescued more gently. The runes were still sharp, but they were unfamiliar. Maybe Gandalf could read them, he decided, and held onto it. He came across several books with papyrus pages that were damaged but readable, and some of them were even written in runes he could read! His arms full, he stumped off to find a table to set them on, Mingalaz sniffing around disinterestedly.

“Please behave around Myrtle,” he begged her quietly. “I thought you wanted me to stop distancing them, but they’re going to start distancing us if you keep it up.”

Mingalaz sniffed as if this did not concern her in the least, and did not respond. Wasn’t an unresponsive dæmon generally a sign of madness? But Mingalaz wasn’t silent, she was just pouting. Or waiting for him to ask the right question.

Thorin sighed, setting the tomes and tablets on a table. “Why are you doing this?”

“Balin shouldn’t be teaching Bilbo how to fight,” Mingalaz replied immediately. Why did she have to be so difficult?

“You want him to be helpless, then? Myrtle was certainly helpless while you were carrying her,” Thorin pointed out.

“I didn’t say that,” Mingalaz continued doggedly. “You should be teaching him.”

Thorin was temporarily dumbfounded. She was throwing a temper tantrum because he wasn’t teaching their portal finder how to fight? Mingalaz really did resemble his sister. “And why have you decided this?”

“Because Ranakâl can fly,” Mingalaz argued. “She can stay out of his way easily, but Myrtle is earth-bound. Bilbo’s fast, but she’s slow. She could get in the way of his footwork, or get kicked by an opponent. They need to learn from someone with that kind of experience.”

“Those are fair points,” Thorin agreed as they returned to the search. “But Dwalin, Dori, Nori, Glóin, and Bifur, not to mention Fíli and Kíli, all have earth-bound dæmons.”

“Yes, for argument’s sake, lets exclude the excitable dog duo,” Mingalaz muttered. “Dingoes and coyotes are too fast. Rams and boars are too slow, even if Bifur could communicate with him. Raccoons are too mobile all around, that cat is stronger than Daisy, and of course Daisy is far too aggressive.”

“You seem to have forgotten your own size and strength,” Thorin observed mildly, wresting another promising tome from a long dead scholar with a silent apology. Whether he agreed with Mingalaz or not, it was better to just let her talk.

“I was not always this way,” she said sternly, picking her way through the rubble with a lithe, feline grace. A strange dæmon for a dwarf, some used to say behind their hands when they thought no one important could hear. “When we were young and for some reason I could not get very big, Shathinh and Abkund liked to pick fights with me. Your brother and sister could never beat you in a fight, but I was different. I was small, and often I was also slow. Even now, I’m smaller than Daruthâ, but I’ve never let her beat me.”

Thorin dug out another tablet before answering, considering the truth of Mingalaz’s words. He had always wondered about his dæmon, being the only feline in a family of canines, and what it said about him. But she was right. There probably was some logic in their being the most qualified to train Bilbo and Myrtle. The question was, if they would accept the attention, after Mingalaz’s earlier behavior.

He didn’t get a chance to respond, because they had made it back to the table, and found the rest of the company gathered around it, poring over tomes and scratching their heads.

“Ah, Thorin!” Gandalf hailed him, his little moth dæmon fluttering over a clay tablet. “As it turns out, I can read most of the scripts here, and there are a good number of pieces written in the common tongue.”

Several of those pieces turned out to be ancient farmers almanacs, if what Dwalin read back before tossing them unceremoniously aside was any indication. Ori found a series of tablets carved with ancient myths, which he put in his writing satchel gently, to examine more later. Gandalf found some old trade documents, which were only interesting because of what they implied: trade between worlds.

It was an interesting, if not terribly productive few hours. If nothing else, it was good practice for Gondolin, Thorin reasoned. There too, they would have to dig through the relics of a long dead culture. Even longer dead than Numenor, if the snippet Bilbo unearthed was any indication. Gandalf had translated it, revealing that Bilbo had found a record of a failed expedition to find the lost kingdom of Gondolin.

“They didn’t know where it was either,” Fíli observed, leaning over to look at the tablet.

“Then what chance’ve we got?” Nori wondered, his fingers twitching. Thorin wondered how many relics were hidden in the thief’s clothes somewhere. Not that they would be missed by anyone.

“Chance doesn’t come into it,” Dwalin replied coldly. “We do it or we don’t.”

“I doubt they had that compass,” Bilbo pointed out, tracing the lines of a rune thoughtfully. “Thorin’s starting to figure it out.”

“Do you really think it can give anything as complicated as directions to another world?” Balin asked, his eyebrows raised.

“It told Thorin where the library was,” Bilbo pointed out, pursing his lips.

“Right you are, laddie,” Balin agreed, raising his hands in surrender.

Mingalaz looked up at Thorin, her eyes glittering with mirth, and he kicked her lightly under the table. “We should move on,” Thorin suggested heavily. “Does Myrtle have the scent of another portal?”

Bilbo nodded. “It’s still a way off. I don’t think we can make it before nightfall.” There was a faint note of something- fear maybe?

“Wraiths don’t just come out at night,” Bofur assured Bilbo, sensing the source of his discomfort. “If they were here, we’d’ve seen ‘em by now.”

“Probably,” Bombur agreed.

Thorin noted that Bilbo didn’t look the least bit comforted.

In the end, the question of whether they could make it by nightfall or not was settled by the weather. As they were approaching the edge of the city, the sky had opened up, and unceremoniously started pouring. Several members of the company were weighed down by very old books, so they were forced to take shelter in the nearest mostly intact building they could find. There was no question of starting a fire; with the streets as choked with plant life as they were, trying to find dry wood would be a quest of its own.

This being their camp for the night, most of the company settled into their familiar groups. Thorin had expected Bilbo to sit a little apart, like in the Goblin Tunnels, but maybe something had changed while he had been recovering. Bilbo and Myrtle walked right over to Ori, to join him in looking over the ancient myths, while Dori made sure they had dry clothes, and Nori looked over his newest acquisitions.

“They look cozy,” Mingalaz observed casually.

Thorin ignored her, and went to talk to Balin. “What do you think?” he asked without clarification or preamble.

Balin sighed. “I think Gandalf is holding back,” he admitted tiredly. “A wizard has a right to his secrets, but I’m beginning to suspect that we’ve been given a greater task than we thought.”

Thorin nodded slowly. Trust his oldest advisor to share that feeling. “Should we continue?”

Balin looked at Thorin appraisingly, and Ranakâl matched it with her beady eyes. “I don’t think we have much choice in the matter,” he said with an air of resignation. “Once, I might have urged you to turn back. We could move our people to another world, and hope that the evil didn’t spread. But the darkness is everywhere.”

Unconsciously, Thorin reached for the compass, drawing Balin’s gaze. “Are you really starting to understand it, or were you just guessing?” he asked, his eyebrows raised.

In answer, Thorin adjusted the knobs until the hands were framing the question, “will we succeed?” He watched the needle move, feeling almost a trance-like state come upon him, and the answer soon became clear: “If you keep to your purpose.”

“It’s been getting clearer since the sun sickness,” Thorin admitted, putting the compass away. “Simple answers at least.”

Balin gave a small exhale of laughter. “Well then, the wizard may keep his secrets, but apparently he was right about one thing.” Ranakâl hopped around on his shoulder, and whispered something in Balin’s ear, which made his mouth twist to the side a little. “So, there’s something else you wanted to discuss?”

It was with a sharp look at Mingalaz that Thorin said, “About Bilbo’s training…”

 


 

“This word appears a lot. I think it must be an archaic form, because I’ve never seen it before,” Ori admitted, scratching his head. Bilbo traced the lines of the rune, as if that would illuminate their meaning, though of course it wouldn’t. This wasn’t a pictographic writing system.

“‘The Valar feared the spread of evil, so, hoping that this was the lesser evil, they-’” Bilbo recited, shaking his head when he came to that troublesome rune. It was the last rune they had to work with. Everything after it was too worn to read on this particular tablet. It sounded rather like what Gandalf had said about the fall of Numenor, but why would there be records in Numenor’s library about that?

“One word ain’t gonna tell ya much,” Nori argued. “Probably a waste of time.”

“You don’t know that,” Ori shot back, as if he’d had a similar conversation with Nori dozens of times.

“It says ‘sundered,’” Dori offered casually, only glancing briefly at the rune before returning to grooming his dæmon.

Ori’s dæmon hooted agitatedly. “How did you know that?” Ori demanded, nevertheless writing the word into their translation.

“Saw it in an old book once,” Dori said with a shrug, wrestling a particularly difficult knot out of his dæmon’s fur.

“So the Valar sundered something,” Bilbo murmured thoughtfully.

“Doesn’t sound like what happened here,” Myrtle observed.

“It’s not a lot to go on,” Ori noted with a sharp look at Nori, “but it’s more than we had before.”

Ori jotted down a few more notes, and when he looked up from his journal, he jumped in surprise. Bilbo glanced over and saw that Thorin had joined them, accounting for Ori’s discomfort. Not that Thorin looked any more comfortable, shifting back and forth on his feet.

“A word, Master Baggins?” he said, jerking his head away from the rest of the company.

Bilbo wondered briefly if refusal was even an option. Thorin had gone from distant, to a little patronizing, to maybe a little friendly when he’d been bedridden? And then Minty had picked up Myrtle and refused to drop her, whatever that meant. It was exhausting, trying to keep up with the dwarf king’s moods, though he had liked the more friendly Thorin. Was it worth it?

Thorin was waiting, but he didn’t look angry that he was being kept waiting, so Bilbo rose and followed him. He picked up Myrtle just in case, not missing the predatory gleam in Minty’s eyes. Thorin led him to a distant corner of the building, up to an edge where part of the ceiling was missing. They could watch the rain there and stay dry, Bilbo realized, the corners of his mouth twitching into a smile. Numenor was still rather picturesque in the rain.

“Call me Bilbo,” he burst out when Thorin turned to stare out at the city, surprising him into turning around. Thorin’s mouth was slightly open, and a thought crossed Bilbo’s mind that he stomped down on quickly. “Call me Bilbo,” he repeated. “Everyone else does.”

“Even after what M- she did?” Thorin asked, with an amused look at his dæmon.

“Well, some kind of explanation for that might be nice,” Bilbo replied, matching Thorin’s tone and lifting Myrtle up a bit higher. She put her short arms around his neck, burying her snout in Bilbo’s neck.

“That was actually why I wanted to speak to you, Bilbo,” Thorin admitted, and Bilbo tried to ignore the little flutter in his stomach. It didn’t mean anything, really. “My dæmon believes that we should be teaching you and Myrtle how to fight.”

Whatever Bilbo had been expecting, it wasn’t that. “And that’s why she, er, kidnapped Myrtle?”

“She’s never been very good at using her words,” Thorin explained apologetically.

“Not unlike a certain someone,” Minty muttered, earning a light kick from Thorin.

Unaware of Thorin’s inner turmoil, Bilbo saw no reason to refuse. It seemed like Thorin was finally starting to trust him, and while he couldn’t say why that idea made him so cheerful, he wasn’t going to risk it by refusing Thorin’s generosity. Personal lessons from the dwarf king were probably considered a rare honor back in Erebor.

“I’ll take any help I can get,” Bilbo admitted. “No one says so, but I think they’re convinced I’m hopeless.”

“Fíli would not have lent you a knife if he thought it would be wasted in your hands,” Thorin assured him, some of the tension leaving his shoulders. “I would have him teach you next, if my dæmon did not think that his dæmon is too light on her feet to properly instruct Myrtle.”

“And Minty isn’t?” Bilbo asked, digging the knife out of his pack. It was as good a time as any to have a lesson, and Minty’s attentive posture suggested that she at least had exactly that in mind.

“She was small and slow when we were young, and our dæmons fight often at that age. She thinks it gave her some perspective,” Thorin explained. “She won’t actually hurt Myrtle, I swear it.”

“If she does, I won’t be around to complain,” Bilbo observed, assuming the first stance Balin had taught him while Minty walked a short distance away with Myrtle. Thorin was immediately shaking his head.

“That’s for a sword,” he corrected, adjusting Bilbo’s limb positions without even a by-your-leave. “Even if we gave you a sword and you could lift it effectively, your arm is too short for you to fight as if you were using one. I know that’s what Balin taught you,” Thorin assured him when he saw Bilbo opening his mouth. “I am not criticizing you.”

Once he got used to Thorin’s teaching style (Balin had preferred to demonstrate, rather than adjust Bilbo’s stance himself), Bilbo found himself enjoying the lesson. He had liked Balin’s lessons, the kindly dwarf being a patient, understanding teacher, but Thorin wasn’t as harsh an instructor as he would have thought. He was quick to point out problems, and direct praise was rare, but it meant more because it was so infrequent. If Bilbo’s earlier lessons with Balin had left him feeling tired but proud, Thorin’s lessons multiplied both feelings. He was sore and sweaty, and about ready to try stabbing Thorin, but he also thought there was a chance that if he tried, the blow could land. Myrtle was also strangely quiet afterward, and he could tell his dæmon was mulling over what Minty had taught her. He’d been too focused on his own lesson to listen in to theirs, but her thoughtful air suggested that tonight was not the time for those questions.

When Bilbo returned to his bedroll, ready to crawl in and call it a night, the royal siblings intercepted him, both of them slinging an arm around his shoulders.

“So, Bilbo,” Fíli began casually.

“We understand Uncle’s giving you sword lessons now,” Kíli observed. Not that it required much observation, Bilbo thought grumpily. It wasn’t exactly a secret.

“Knife lessons technically,” Bilbo corrected them, frowning as Myrtle burrowed into the bedroll. No help from that quarter, apparently.

“He tell you why?” Fíli asked, fixing Bilbo with a stare that seemed more fitting for his uncle.

“He thought it would help me get better, obviously,” Bilbo replied tartly. “Why else would he do it?” He thought Thorin’s explanation about Minty was a bit too private to be shared, even with his nephews. They hadn’t been around in those days. Probably they wouldn’t know, and he wasn’t going to betray what little trust he had earned.

“He tell you why Minty grabbed Myrtle?” Kíli pressed, his dæmon sniffing around in Bilbo’s bedroll for Myrtle. She was going to get scratched that way, but Bilbo suspected that she wouldn’t learn without experiencing it first. Like Kíli, who was going to get in trouble someday soon.

“I think that’s between Minty and Myrtle, thank you,” he said stiffly. “Now really, can’t anyone get a little privacy? If your uncle didn’t want to tell you, what makes you think that I feel differently?”

They at least had the decency to look a little abashed at that, both of their dæmons’ tails going between their legs. It made Bilbo regret being quite so harsh. They probably got a lot of scolding from Thorin, and it couldn’t be entirely good for them.

“Now I’m sorry for being blunt, but I had to speak my mind,” Bilbo said, and instantly they perked back up, as if he hadn’t scolded them in the first place. He was made to regret his easy forgiveness, as the pair of them pestered him with questions well past the time that Bilbo would have preferred to fall asleep, until Thorin gave them a quelling look and they retreated.

Chapter Text

It was almost midday when Bilbo awoke, and his first reaction was to scramble out of his bedroll, fearing that he’d been left behind. But then he heard the sounds of stirring near him, and realized that his bleary franticness was a bit precipitate: he was the first to wake up. Thorin was usually in a hurry to be off, so the late sleeping was a little surprising, but then he glanced through the hole in the wall and realized that it was still raining.

Bilbo suppressed a chuckle. So the rain made dwarves drowsy too. It was a nice change from Harad, with the burning sun and sand creeping into every crevice, that was for sure. Just sitting in his bedroll, listening to the rain. It was almost like being back in Bag End. Not that Bag End had ever been as full as this broken shell of a building, even when his parents had been alive to fill it. He had never really thought of himself as being lonely, but maybe he had been, if he was having such thoughts now.

He surveyed the room, smiling at little at the sleepy dwarves, and realizing when he met Gandalf’s eyes that maybe he actually hadn’t been the first one to wake up. The wizard put a finger to his lips. Bilbo thought it was a little odd to let them sleep, given how much rest they had all gotten in Harad, but Thorin wasn’t fully recovered yet. He at least needed it, and shouldn’t be pushing himself.

Bilbo felt a pang of guilt. As much as he’d felt he couldn’t refuse Thorin’s offer of fighting lessons, maybe it shouldn’t have been that night. Thorin had seemed a little flushed and glassy-eyed by the end of it, he reflected bitterly. If Thorin got worse, it would be his fault, no way around it.

Without much thought, Bilbo found himself sneaking across the camp to Thorin’s prone form. Minty opened one of her eyes when she heard him approach, but closed it again, evidently unconcerned. Hesitantly, Bilbo reached out a hand and pressed it to Thorin’s forehead. Thorin didn’t immediately wake up, which was promising, but he felt very warm, which was not. Then again, maybe that was normal for dwarves. Bilbo realized he had no way of knowing, and though he wasn’t exactly eager to try another dwarf for comparison, Glóin was fairly close by, and his snoring suggested that he was a deep sleeper.

He had to bite back a sigh of relief when Glóin’s forehead revealed that by dwarf standards, Thorin wasn’t running a fever. And then a groan of embarrassment, when he returned to his bedroll and realized that Gandalf had witnessed the whole thing. The wizard just put another finger to his lips, hopefully this time in a promise to keep quiet. Minty probably wouldn’t be so generous, but at least she would understand. Probably.

Try as he might, Bilbo couldn’t get back to sleep, and he found himself drawn to the sparring spot from the day before. Myrtle was a little grumpy about being roused when everyone else was still asleep, but he silenced her complaints by carrying her. So, for a time they just watched the rain, Bilbo cupping his hands to gather enough water to wash his face at least. It already felt like so long since he’d had a proper bath, even though he’d had several in Harad.

“What time is it?” Ori asked, suddenly beside him rubbing his eyes, and Bilbo jumped. He must have been deep in bath thoughts to have missed his approach, even if Ori was quieter than most of the others.

“Nearly midday,” Bilbo told him softly.

Ori’s eyes widened in shock. “That late? Even when Thorin was stuck in bed, no one ever woke up that late,” he recalled, stroking his dæmons feathers nervously.

“It happens sometimes when it rains,” Bilbo explained, realizing that deep in their mountain, maybe that was something else the dwarves didn’t know about. “It makes people want to sleep in.”

Ori nodded and made a quick note in his journal, though Bilbo wasn’t sure that was worth recording. The chronicler knew best, he supposed.

“Do you think we should wake them?” Ori asked, and Bilbo knew his brief peaceful time was over.

“We probably should,” he agreed. “Even if it means we’ll have to find the portal in all that rain.” The way Ori’s face fell suggested that he hadn’t thought of that, but there was nothing for it now. The two of them traveled through the ranks of sleeping dwarves, cautiously talking to them or shaking them awake if that didn’t work, aware that a careless move could earn them a fist to the face.

Bilbo was grateful to be saved the trouble of waking Dwalin and Thorin by their dæmons, who heard the stirrings of the other dwarves and nudged their dwarves awake. Neither of them looked particularly pleased, and even less so when they saw how much of the day was gone already.

“The rain won’t be pleasant, but we can’t waste any more time today,” Thorin declared, and that was it. The company packed up, and set off into the tall, wet grass. It didn’t get any easier when they were free of the city, except that there was no shelter at all, so they had to find the portal.

They were all thoroughly bedraggled, soaked to the bone, and the fur on the dwarves’ outfits was starting to stink, when Myrtle finally led them to the portal. There was a circle of stones around it that had a purposeful look to them, suggesting that the Numenorians were not only aware of this portal, but frequent users of it. Hoping that this didn’t mean there was darkness on the other side, Bilbo plunged through without a second thought, and the dwarves and Gandalf followed with equal vigor.

There was no rain on the other side. They emerged in the mountains, and the chill air soon had them all shivering. At least Numenor had been warm, Bilbo reflected bitterly.

“Ask the compass if there’s a city nearby,” Dwalin suggested, his teeth chattering, and no one felt like pointing out that he’d practically given his king an order. Thorin simply took it out, turned the wheels, and concentrated.

“No more than two miles down this path,” Thorin confirmed, and they marched forward eagerly, clutching their dæmons for warmth. Not that their dæmons were drier.

Before long, the mountains blocking their way gave way to a magnificent sight that made Bilbo wonder if maybe they hadn’t come to a new world after all. Their destination was clear: a tall city of pure white stone, set into seven rings that towered into the sky. If the ring of stones around the portal hadn’t been suggestive enough, the fact that this city was made of the same kind of stone as Numenor was a pretty strong indication of a connection.

“This city was founded by those who managed to escape Numenor before it fell,” Gandalf explained, sensing the turn of Bilbo’s thoughts. “It is the city of Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun. To the east, you will find Osgiliath, another city in this kingdom, the kingdom of Gondor. To the west lies the kingdom of Rohan, the realm of the horse lords.”

“You’re very familiar with this world,” Balin noted. “Is it a safe one?”

“As safe as any in these times,” Gandalf replied unhelpfully. “I have not visited in some time, and things may have changed.”

Gandalf’s prediction turned out to be correct. When the company reached the city, eager to find an inn with warm fires to dry off by, they found the city gates barred. At night this might have been understandable, but it was still broad daylight, and even Bilbo had half a mind to give someone a good tongue-lashing. The guards were probably shirking their duties. Negligence of the first degree.

Guards did eventually appear, but they made no move to open the gate. “Haven’t you heard?” one of them called down, in evident bewilderment. “The city’s under quarantine. There’s a plague.”

“Osgiliath’s fine though,” the other guard shouted, taking pity on them. “It’s a bit of a hike, but better than camping out here.”

Bilbo thanked him on behalf of the company, as the dwarves were already walking away, and then scurried after them. He wondered about the easy manner of the guards. Had they not been able to tell from that distance that they were dealing with dwarves? Had they assumed they were bumpkins from Rohan or something, to not know the geography of the kingdom? Or, was it possible that they knew they were from another world, and thought nothing of it? Bilbo dismissed this last idea. That couldn’t be. No one except Thranduil so far had known that other worlds existed.

“Smell anything?” he asked Myrtle, ready to be out of this world, even though they’d only just arrived. A plague could be related to the wraiths, spiders, goblins, fake dæmons and the rest, or it could be completely natural. Bilbo wasn’t terribly interested in acquiring this plague just to find out.

“There wasn’t one in Minas Anor,” Myrtle replied, burying her snout in Bilbo’s neck. “Maybe in Osgiliath, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” This was the first time she’d expressed any kind of uncertainty about the portals.

“Something’s blocking my nose,” she said helplessly. Not a natural plague then, Bilbo decided, but kept it to himself. Who was capable of causing a plague? That seemed like a ridiculous thing to even consider. Was the Shire really the only world that was completely healthy?

Or maybe it wasn’t actually as healthy as it had seemed.

Cold fear settled in Bilbo’s belly, and the walk to Osgiliath was made even worse by it.

 


 

It was dark when they reached Osgiliath and the entire company was footsore and shivering, but they found an inn. The innkeeper took their money readily enough, so at least the trip hadn’t been for nothing. The company split again into family groups, and Dori had almost gotten Bilbo away before Fíli and Kíli pounced, insisting that the hobbit stay with them. Bilbo hadn’t looked terribly pleased, but when they pointed out that all of the rooms were the same size (except Gandalf's, which was smaller), and that there were only two of them in their room, versus the three in Dori’s, Bilbo gave in and let them steer him away.

It was a lie, of course, since they were sharing with Thorin, who said nothing and saved his snort of laughter until he was alone. It didn’t take long for Bilbo to find out how he’d been deceived, as his first stop in their room had been to the bathroom, and finding Thorin stripped to the waist as he prepared to take a bath had taught Bilbo the error of his ways. Thorin thought Bilbo’s reaction was a little exaggerated, with all his spluttering and apologizing, but it was endearing in a way.

As he settled into a warm bath, Thorin thought it would be just his luck if after escaping sun sickness, one of the company were to come down with hypothermia. Still weakened by the sun sickness, he was the most likely victim, and then probably Bilbo. Walking around barefoot in the rain!

“Why are we doing all this again?” Mingalaz grumbled, shaking out her fur in an unflatteringly dog-like manner.

“To save Erebor. I thought that was clear from the beginning,” Thorin said, sliding deeper into the tub.

“We’ve just been wandering from world to world, without knowing if we’re going in the right direction,” she pointed out, padding over to the tub and resting her chin on the rim. “At this rate, we’ll only find Gondolin if we trip over it. And then what were we going to do after we find it?”

“Gandalf said we would need the compass to find Gondolin, and the wandering has been to get practice. And to prepare Bilbo for combat, I suppose,” he explained drowsily. It was probably time to get out of the bath, if he didn’t want to fall asleep and wake up in cold water. “As for the after, as long as we can kill the wraiths, I’m not too concerned.”

“There’s more to it than that and you know it,” she replied stubbornly. “There’s something bigger going on here. You are worried about it, and you refuse to admit it.”

There was never much point in arguing with Mingalaz, but whether he intended to or not, he didn’t get the chance. It was Bilbo’s turn for a bath next, with his nephews after the hobbit, and as they were both still cold and miserable, they weren’t about to let their uncle take his time. He suspected their cries of “Bilbo’s getting shivery,” and “oh, this looks very bad,” were exaggerated for his benefit, but when he finally emerged in his tunic and trousers, Bilbo’s lips did look a little blue, and he was a little glad they’d rushed him.

“Take all the time you need,” Thorin told him, with what he hoped was a comforting hand on the shoulder. The way Bilbo jumped at the touch made him wonder if despite their overly familiar way with each other’s dæmons, physical contact was over the line. He had been like that during the lesson, too, but Thorin assumed if it were a problem, Bilbo would have said something. “You shouldn’t follow my example and get sick.”

“What about Fíli and Kíli?” Bilbo asked, and Myrtle sneezed. It might be too late.

“They’re young.”

Young and troublesome, if the racket their dæmons were making in the bedroom was any indication. Bilbo trooped off into the bathroom with Myrtle, and Thorin padded over to the bedroom, a grumpy Mingalaz in tow. It was as good a time as any to suggest that their dæmons not pick up any bad habits from Myrtle.

Fíli and Kíli were already stripped down to their smallclothes, cooking sausages in the fireplace while their dæmons wrestled and snapped at each other playfully. It only took a growl from Mingalaz to stop the play-fighting, and he instantly had his nephews’ attention. But before he had a chance to say anything, they were off again, with cries of, “we were only thinking of you,” and “we’re not planning anything, honest,” and all Thorin could do was rub his temples and wait for them to stop.

“What in Mahal’s name are you talking about?” he demanded when they finally settled down. They both gulped and exchanged a look.

“Nothing,” Kíli said quickly.

“Nothing at all,” Fíli agreed.

Thorin was faced with a choice: press them for answers, or take advantage of their gratitude at getting off easily and pursue the original topic that he’d approached them over. He’d certainly made harder choices.

“The two of you seem to have forgotten that Bilbo is an outsider,” Thorin observed, arms crossed over his chest. He could tell by the way they reacted that whatever they’d been in a hurry to deny was related. “Kurdaz spoke in front of him.”

Kíli bit his lip and looked down. “That was ages ago! Mingalaz does that all the time now. And Bilbo doesn’t think it’s weird, Myrtle will talk to anyone as long as she’s in a good mood!”

“I saw Ranakâl talking to Bilbo earlier,” Fíli said, trying to draw some of the attention off his brother.

“Others are free to do as they will, because they only need answer to themselves,” Thorin countered easily. “What do you suppose your mother would say?”

“She would say that we weren’t acting with proper princely decorum, and also that you have no room to talk because you almost told Bilbo Mingalaz’s name the first time you met,” Kíli guessed cheekily.

“And it was only yesterday that Mingalaz walked off with Myrtle,” Fíli pointed out.

“That’s not how a king’s dæmon should behave,” Kíli agreed.

He should have tried to pry the truth out of them after all.

“Be more careful next time,” Thorin scolded, and made a strategic retreat out of the room. Brats.

Thorin walked to the end of the hallway, seating himself in the chair at the end, under the window. Mingalaz sat down at his feet, grooming herself absently, but with a watchful eye on the hallway. Thorin took out the compass, tying his hair back with a leather thong when he realized he was dripping water onto it. Something told him he already knew how to frame the question of “How do we find Gondolin?” Maybe he couldn’t understand the answer yet, but there was no harm in asking, was there?

But that wasn’t what he asked, as he turned the wheels, adjusting the hands to point stiffly at their three symbols.

“Who made you?”

The answer was unmistakable. “The first dwarf.”

Durin. His ancestor. So he had been wrong after all: it had been made by the hands of a dwarf.

Was that why he could read it? And how did it work? Who, or what, answered the questions, and how did they know?

He framed another question, “When were you made?”

It was a longer answer, and anyone watching Thorin would have struggled to follow his eyes as the needle danced back and forth. But still, he understood it. “Durin made me first, inspired by Mahal.”

Thorin lowered the compass, running his hands reverently around the rim. Durin had held this once, and made it under Mahal’s guidance. Now it had come to him. Was he worthy of such an object?

“You’re thinking about Frerin again,” Mingalaz grumbled. “Just ask it how to find Gondolin already.”

Thorin let out a quiet huff of laughter, and turned the wheels, expecting a long sequence of symbols, but the answer was surprisingly brief. “Find the golden wood.” Not exactly detailed directions, and clearly the golden wood didn’t refer to Gondolin itself. Well, what had expected, a map?

“You can’t even manage maps,” Mingalaz yawned. He kicked her lightly.

“You could at least do me the courtesy of only responding to thoughts that I actually voice,” Thorin complained, putting the compass away at last. “Let’s go to bed.”

“What did you ask it?” Bilbo’s voice came from the doorway to their room. He flushed a little when Thorin looked at him, but didn’t retreat. Thorin noted with some satisfaction that Bilbo’s lips were no longer blue, though his wet curls clung to his head just the same as they had in the rain. He should do something about that if he didn’t want to get sick, but it wasn’t Thorin’s place to say.

“Enough to know we will wander a while longer,” Thorin admitted, running a hand through his still-wet hair with a grimace. It especially wasn’t his place to comment on the state of Bilbo’s hair. “Unless Myrtle can smell somewhere called ‘the golden wood?’”

“Myrtle can’t smell much of anything at the moment,” Bilbo replied apologetically. “Something’s blocking her nose.”

“As I said, more wandering.”

Chapter Text

“The golden wood,” Gandalf murmured thoughtfully. “There are two possibilities, and one is much more likely: the woods of Lothlorien. There resides the Lady Galadriel, one of the oldest and wisest elves to dwell on this side of the veil.”

“You knew of her, and did not think that she might be able to help us?” Thorin bit back his irritation. Mentioning the golden wood to Gandalf had been a good idea, but it was also more proof that Gandalf was holding out on them. Surely one of the oldest elves in all the worlds would know how to find Gondolin. Gandalf might have saved them the trouble of wandering.

And then there was the matter of what he meant by “the veil.”

“The Lady Galadriel keeps her world concealed from darker powers with her own power, which is not inconsiderable,” Gandalf told him, his bushy eyebrows raised in reproof. “It is true, she might be able to help us if she so chooses, but we might not be able to find her, if she doesn’t want to be found.”

“But as we’re not a darker power, shouldn’t we be able to find her?” Dori wondered, petting his dæmon’s fur absently while she bathed herself.

“If we leave Nori behind,” Dwalin grumped.

“I don’t think I deserved that,” Nori exclaimed, clutching his chest as if Dwalin’s comments had wounded him deeply. Thorin thought he heard something in him crack at the effort it took not to roll his eyes. Mingalaz was less reserved, smacking Nori’s dæmon lightly with one of her large paws.

“In any case,” Gandalf continued, raising his voice slightly over the grumbling dwarves, “there is a way to find out if the Lady Galadriel is open to speaking to us. In this very world, there is sometimes a portal that appears to the north of here. If it is there, she is open to company. If it is not, which I think likely given the plague in Minas Anor, we must find another way to get the information we need.”

“You know where this portal is then?” Thorin pressed, but Gandalf shook his head.

“It was a long time ago that I last passed through it,” the wizard admitted. It seemed like it had been a long time since he last did anything. “Bilbo and Myrtle have a better chance of finding it than I.”

“Something is stuffing up Myrtle’s nose,” Bilbo said gloomily, but Gandalf didn’t seem the least bit concerned.

“Myrtle’s ability to find portals is just an extension of your own latent abilities,” Gandalf told him gently, his ever-silent moth dæmon fluttering out to sit on one of his fingers. “You can do it as well, and I imagine with a different sense than she does, as your nose is not as sensitive. But what might be more sensitive?”

Thorin found his eyes drawn to Bilbo’s delicately pointed ears. The Elves had similar ears, and their hearing had been superior. Not to mention the handful of occasions he’d seen Bilbo’s ears twitch in response to something he couldn’t hear.

Bilbo seemed to realize the answer, one of his hands coming up to cup his ear. “What would a portal sound like?” he wondered, brushing a cluster of curls behind his ear. Thorin realized that he was probably staring, and looked away.

“You know the answer, you just haven’t been paying attention,” Gandalf assured him. “I can point us in the right direction, and if there is a portal to find, I have no doubt you will be able to find it.”

Bilbo’s pursed lips suggested that he wasn’t nearly as confident, but then Ori told him, “I know you can do it!” Bilbo’s expression lightened a little.

Thorin had one more question. “If the way is shut, where else can we find the information we need?”

“I am afraid I do not have all the answers,” Gandalf replied, though Thorin privately disagreed, and Mingalaz growled. “If the way is shut, your compass might be better able to answer that question.”

It wasn’t a satisfactory answer, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it was an answer, and there wasn’t much point in trying to press. He tried asking the compass what they would do if this failed, but it didn’t answer, the needle staying stubbornly still. It was apparently confident that they would succeed, if an inanimate object could be confident. So they set out from Osgiliath, the whole party in much higher spirits than when they had arrived. They had some direction now, and they had dry socks. The two most important components of a happy journey.

“Thorin, be honest,” Dwalin said as they walked near the back of the company. “Do you think the hobbit can find the portal?”

“If there is a portal, Bilbo will find it,” Thorin answered firmly, ignoring the assault on his honesty. “Gandalf is right. If Myrtle can find portals, Bilbo should be able to do the same.”

Dwalin raised an eyebrow. “Oh it’s ‘Bilbo’ now, is it? What happened to ‘Master Baggins?’”

“He asked me to use his given name,” Thorin replied, meeting Dwalin’s gaze flatly.

Dwalin just shook his head, his mouth twisted wryly. “You might have done it from the start.”

It was true. There was no real significance to being asked to call someone by their given name, because dwarves did not have surnames in the same way. But giving out Myrtle’s name, and the fact the she spoke freely in front of the company would have been very strange back in Erebor. It made Thorin feel guilty about concealing Mingalaz’s name, and he had little doubt much of the company felt the same. He had avoided using Bilbo’s given name as a result, to pretend that he did not know the hobbit’s secret name and stave off the guilt. Being told a dæmon’s name was a mark of great trust, and it was an insult not to reciprocate. Even though Bilbo had no idea what it meant to them to be told his dæmon’s name, and thus for him the act implied nothing, Thorin still felt like he was holding out on him. That was why he had almost spilled the beans at their first meeting: returning that trust was almost automatic, even for a King. Someone looking to usurp you wouldn’t give out their dæmon’s name, because it would give you power over them as well, so there was nothing to fear from that.

As they traveled north, the land changed from open plains to more forested, and Thorin began to have doubts. The trees were not thick, but forests had plenty of their own sounds, especially so close to a large river. Gandalf no longer knew where they were going, and Bilbo probably couldn’t hear anything. They might wander for days without knowing if the portal even existed or not.

“Relax,” Mingalaz muttered, rubbing up against him. Her size always meant that it was a struggle to stay on his feet when this happened. “I think he’s onto something.”

Thorin looked over at their portal-finder, and noted with some relief that he did seem to be onto something. As he was walking, everything about his posture was strained and tight, as if he were trying with all of his being to listen to something. Thorin desperately wanted to ask if Mingalaz was right, but he feared disrupting Bilbo’s concentration. If he’d found anything, Bilbo would say so soon enough.

“Gandalf was wrong,” Thorin said quietly. “The portal is open.”

“Or there is another one close by,” Mingalaz pointed out. “Hush, stop jumping to conclusions and let him work.”

Before long Bilbo requested they halt, and Thorin was certain now that he’d found the portal, but Bilbo walked here and there, opening his mouth as if he meant to speak and then closing it again. He pressed his fingers against his lips absently, muttered to himself, and tapped his large feet as if he thought the portal was beneath them, but he appeared no closer to finding the portal. The strangest thing he did was ask Óin if he could borrow his ear trumpet, a request that had to be repeated several times but was granted as soon as it was understood. Bilbo immediately covered one ear and put the trumpet in the other, listening with such an intense look of concentration that Thorin almost laughed. He rather liked the way Bilbo scrunched his face up when he was focusing.

Mingalaz snorted, and Thorin instead focused on the memory of Mingalaz carrying Myrtle in her mouth. This earned him a nip on the leg, but it was worth it.

Suddenly, Bilbo snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it!” he declared, and headed for the nearest tree. “Be right back.” He started climbing, Myrtle clinging to his back for dear life.

Still on the ground, the dwarves shifted uncomfortably. “What if he falls?” Ori wondered, twisting his scarf in his hands. His dæmon hooted piteously, which seemed rather ridiculous considering she could fly. She could just check on him.

“One of us just has to catch him,” Kíli said easily.

“What about Myrtle?” Bofur asked. “Can’t touch ‘er, can we?”

That put an end to that, and the dwarves were left hoping that Bilbo was very good at climbing trees.

 


 

“I don’t think they’re going to like this,” Bilbo admitted, setting Myrtle on a sturdy branch. “Dwarves don’t look like natural tree climbers.”

“Too dense,” Myrtle agreed. “But there’s no other way.” And Myrtle was right, there really was no other way, because the portal was up in a tree.

When they had entered the woods, Bilbo had heard a strange rushing sound that didn’t feel like the wind or the sounds of the river. As it had gotten stronger, he recognized it as the sound of an open portal. Bilbo had heard it before with the other portals, and dismissed it as unimportant, or just the wind. With his ears now the only thing he could rely on, the meaning of the sound had quickly clicked into place.

It had been frustrating then to find no portal anywhere on the ground. After a thorough search, he had wondered if maybe the he was hearing where the portal should be, and it really had been closed to them. The idea to use Óin’s ear trumpet was really an act of desperation, but it had turned out to be a stroke of genius. When he pointed the trumpet up, the sound got stronger, and it got weaker in every other direction. And so Bilbo had climbed a tree, and found the portal. How Gandalf had forgotten its’ location in such a place was a mystery.

“You’re going to have to climb up,” Bilbo called down. “The portal is up here!” He heard a chorus of groans in response, but it wasn’t long before Kíli had joined him in the upper branches.

He shrugged off Bilbo’s stare. “Kurdaz is a good climber, and some of the bigger dæmons are going to need to be hoisted with ropes. Might as well set it up.”

Bilbo was taken aback. “Is Kurdaz your dæmons’ name?”

Kíli realized his mistake immediately. “I shouldn’t have said that,” he exclaimed quickly, clapping a hand over his mouth.

“I won’t tell anyone,” Bilbo assured him, and Kíli relaxed fractionally.

“It means ‘of the heart,’” Kurdaz offered cheerfully, as if secrecy meant nothing to her. At least her name was explanation enough for why Kíli did most of his thinking after the fact.

“You’re not supposed to tell him that,” Kíli moaned, but Kurdaz swished her tail in unconcern.

“A dwarf would have known, but Bilbo is not a dwarf, so he must be told,” she replied obstinately, and the arrival of their older brother and sister ended that conversation. Between the three of them and some rope, they were able to pull the larger dæmons up the tree, though they had to go straight through the portal with their dwarf to avoid breaking the branches. Thorin ascended second to last with Gandalf following, waving away the rope and climbing with surprising agility, and Mingalaz practically hopped up to the top branch. Having never seen a mountain lion climb before, Bilbo found the sight a little unnerving.

With everyone accounted for, Bilbo stepped through the portal and instantly understood why it was called ‘the Golden Wood.’ They were surrounded by huge trees with brilliant golden leaves, with delicately curving stairs and platforms built around them. Bilbo barely had the chance to catch his breath at the sight before he realized an arrow was being pointed at his face, and the dwarves who had come through earlier were surrounded. It was only the Elves that reacted to them this way, he realized. The Men had been largely unfazed, and of course the goblins and orcs tried to kill them on sight. But they had Gandalf this time, and when he emerged at last, he saw a flicker of hesitation go through the Elves.

“Mithrandir,” one of them greeted him. “Are these dwarves your companions?”

And a hobbit, Bilbo wanted to correct him, but there were still weapons being pointed at him. And at Myrtle more specifically.

“Indeed,” Gandalf answers easily. “I had thought that the portal being open meant the Lady Galadriel was open to receiving visitors. Is that no longer true?”

The elves didn’t put their weapons away, but they at least lowered them, and soon the company was moving again. Bilbo tried to look everywhere at once. Everything felt healthy, and a little magical. It was completely unlike Mirkwood really, with its’ spiders and decay. Though Thorin had said Harad was a healthy world, there had been darkness shifting underneath, behind the scenes. Here, there was no darkness at all, and Bilbo was struck by how powerful the Lady Galadriel must be, to keep it at bay when every world they had visited so far had some trace of it.

There might be darkness hidden somewhere, he reminded himself, but it didn’t feel like there was. He couldn’t have explained it if asked, he just knew. For the moment, they were safe here. It made him slow his steps, and their escort exchanged looks of amusement over the enchanted hobbit. Some of the dwarves shared his awe, but some of them were a little preoccupied being high off the ground, Bilbo noted as they were led up one of the spiral staircases. Glóin in particular looked ready to wait at the bottom for them to return, but Óin continuing on, his deafness rendering him oblivious to his brother’s protests, convinced Glóin to swallow his pride and keep walking up the tree. Bilbo watched the scene with some interest. He’d never had siblings, while every dwarf there did. Just Myrtle.

While Bilbo was staring and wondering at the odd sibling dynamics that made Glóin overcome his fear of heights to stay with his brother, Bombur handed him a sausage.

“You looked a little lonely,” Bombur said with a shrug. “Never met a problem a sausage won’t fix. Unless it’s a pie problem.”

Bilbo was touched by the gesture, rather hobbity as it felt. He thanked Bombur gratefully and wolfed the sausage down. Something told him it wouldn’t do to be snacking when they reached the Lady Galadriel.

The knowing look in her eyes when she floated into the room suggested that the gesture was pointless. The Lady Galadriel knew all of their thoughts, all of their innermost secrets, and the names of all their dæmons. Bilbo couldn’t say why he was so sure of that, but he was. Just like he was sure that Lothlorien was not yet affected by evil.

The Lady of Lorien was tall, taller than anyone Bilbo had ever seen. He hadn’t met the Elvenking of Mirkwood, but he doubted he could match her. She carried herself with grace, like all the elves they had met so far, but it was different from the lethal grace of the Mirkwood elves. The difference was in their dæmons, he supposed. Captain Tauriel’s dæmon was some kind of raptor, but Galadriel’s was a swan, pure white, matching the pristine white of her raiment.

Bilbo did not know what to make of Lord Celeborn, the Lady’s husband. As he exchanged greetings with Gandalf, Bilbo thought that where the Lady was mysterious and aloof, though if her gentle smile was any indication, she was also kind, the Lord was closer to earth, and more accessible. His dæmon was an albatross, and Bilbo wondered at it, but said nothing under the Lady’s piercing eyes.

“I do not know where Gondolin lies,” the Lady was saying, drawing Bilbo from his silent reflections. “But I do know where you may find one who does know.” Galadriel did not make any signal that Bilbo could see, but a young elf-maid appeared then, her dark hair a sharp contrast to the almost glowing locks of the Lady. A nightingale perched on the elf-maid’s shoulder, and a memory stirred in Bilbo’s mind.

Luthien Tinuviel.

He shook his head. No, no, that was silly. She died a long time ago, according to his mother’s tale. And yet... she’d had descendants, hadn’t she?

“My granddaughter Arwen can guide you to Imladris, the hidden valley,” Galadriel was saying, and Bilbo felt a little guilty for losing focus again. “There, you should find someone who can help you.”

“We are grateful,” Thorin replied. “But, why…”

Galadriel laughed, and it was almost musical. “Why do I offer my help so freely? There are things in motion now that affect all worlds, Thorin Oakenshield. You know this.” She said no more, but Thorin’s eyes were fixed on her as if he couldn’t look away.

“She’s talking inside his head,” Myrtle whispered into Bilbo’s ear. “She did that to you before, about Luthien, but it was so quick you didn’t notice.”

“Has she been doing that to everyone?” he hissed, startled. Even if he had been paying attention, he was missing half of the conversation anyway. Only the Lady was hearing the the whole story.

“Looks that way,” Myrtle replied. “You can tell when she does it. They get dreamy-eyed and can’t look away, and then when she finishes they look kind of startled.”

Your dæmon is very perceptive.

Bilbo met the Lady’s eyes, startled. She simply smiled. She was still speaking aloud, but Bilbo couldn’t follow what she was saying over her voice in his head. How many thousands of years did you have to live to carry on two separate conversations aloud and in your head and not get confused?

What brings a hobbit so far from the Shire? Your world is protected, and until all other worlds have fallen, will remain protected.

Protected? How?

Have you ever been to the harbor? Bilbo shook his head lightly, and she continued. Your world is connected to Valinor, the land beyond the veil. From the harbor, the elves who tire of living in the mortal realm can go beyond the veil, and live in the immortal one. They protect your world, to protect the crossing. So why have you left?

That was a lot to take in, and as the Lady was waiting for an answer, Bilbo put off trying to process it all. Though he did let himself wonder how elves had been passing through his world for so long without being noticed.

I left because I was needed, he answered simply. No one needed me in the Shire.

He heard Galadriel laugh in his head. If only we could all answer duty so readily.

“That was a strange thing for her to say,” Bilbo murmured to Myrtle as they were lead to where they would spend the night. “Isn’t she helping us?”

“Did you see her eyes? I don’t think she was thinking about the here and now.”

Chapter Text

Though Lothlorien was peaceful, and by all accounts should have been relaxing, most of the members of the company sat alone with their dæmons, quietly mulling over whatever the Lady had said to them. Even Fíli and Kíli, normally inseparable, were thoughtful, sitting on different sides of their little clearing. But Bilbo could only think of his short conversation with Galadriel for so long. He had learned there was good reason for the Shire to still be green and peaceful, and though he still had many questions, like why his world was apparently connected to the realm of the immortals, and why he had never seen an Elf if they passed through his world routinely, he could only sit and wonder for so long.

Bilbo took out his borrowed knife, running through one of Thorin’s drills while Myrtle practiced her footwork. He was halfway through the second drill when he saw Thorin stand up and start walking away, out of the clearing. Ordinarily this would not have been too strange. Thorin did what he pleased, after all. Except there was something strange about his gait, as if he were being drawn by a spell.

Bilbo followed on silent feet, and no one noticed, too preoccupied with their own problems.

Thorin disappeared down a small set of stone stairs, and Bilbo hurried a little to catch up. If he lost sight of Thorin now, he might never find him again, and why was he following him in the first place? Thorin wasn’t answerable to him.

“He looked like he had a spell on him,” Myrtle reminded him, and Bilbo redoubled his efforts.

When he reached the stairs, he saw that he needn’t have run: it was a dead end. Thorin was waiting at the bottom in front of a silver bowl set on a pedestal, and the Lady Galadriel stood across from him, smiling up at Bilbo mysteriously.

“It would appear that someone noticed your departure,” she observed, no displeasure or censure in her voice.

Thorin turned to look at him, his mouth slightly open, and maybe it was just the gentle light that covered Lothlorien, but Bilbo wondered how he’d never really noticed how handsome the dwarf king was. Well, not never. But he hadn’t fully appreciated it before.

“Because you were trying not to,” Myrtle muttered. Minty must have said something too, because Thorin nudged her with his foot.

“I-I’m sorry,” Bilbo stammered, pinned by their stares. “I thought- a spell-”

“Come down, Bilbo Baggins,” Galadriel said gently, and his feet moved down the stairs independently of his own will. “I was offering Thorin the chance to look into my mirror, and I offer you the same chance.” As she said this, she filled a pitcher with water from the nearby stream, and poured the water into the silver basin.

“You did not say what I would see,” Thorin said, a bit of an accusation in his voice. Minty sniffed the water gingerly. The swan dæmon pushed her back lightly with an outspread wing.

“Even the wisest cannot tell,” Galadriel admitted. “The mirror shows many things. Things that were, things that are, and some things… that have not yet come to pass. Will you look?”

Thorin was scratching his chin, looking a little unnerved. Bilbo wondered at it, when he already had an object that could do some of what Galadriel claimed the mirror could do.

“I will look,” Bilbo said, flushing a little when he realized that he had not yet been asked. “Er, if that’s alright.”

Galadriel and the swan both gestured to the mirror, and Bilbo stepped up to it hesitantly. “Do not touch the water,” the swan said, and then the water was no longer reflecting the moon and stars.

Bilbo saw a thin blade, too small to be a proper sword. He saw the wraiths (though he had never seen them before, he knew instantly they could be nothing else) tearing through the Shire, Lobelia trying to fight one off with her umbrella. He saw a land of ash and smoke. He saw a man who looked like Thorin die, his dæmon winking out of existence. He saw a great red dragon, unfurling its wings and filling the sky. He saw many things he couldn’t name or understand, but the last thing he saw would haunt him for many days to come.

He saw Thorin touching his dæmon, actually petting Myrtle. Thorin, breaking the taboo! And Myrtle, not clawing his face off in response! That could only mean one thing, and thinking about it brought a blush to his cheeks.

What did I see? Bilbo wondered.

A sampling of possible futures, Galadriel replied silently. And a little bit of the past.

The dying man, Bilbo knew immediately, and wondered how.

“What did you see?” Thorin asked insistently, and Bilbo nearly jumped out of his skin, bumping into Minty. “Was it that alarming?” Thorin just looked concerned now, making Bilbo feel a little guilty. But he couldn’t look at him! Thorin had been touching Myrtle!

“Ah, no, I was just thinking about what it all meant,” Bilbo hedged. It was not a complete lie. “I saw a lot of different things, but none of it really made sense.” He glanced over at the Lady, but she simply gazed back impassively.

What you see in the mirror is for you, she told him. You do not have to tell him.

Thorin apparently saw no harm in what Bilbo had described, because he took his turn at the mirror without further hesitation. It was interesting being on this side, Bilbo reflected. He could see nothing on the surface of the mirror except Thorin’s increasingly distressed face.

“I wonder what he’s seeing,” Bilbo muttered to Myrtle, who rubbed against Mingalaz comfortingly. Bilbo wished he could be so openly comforting, and where on earth were such thoughts coming from? It was just the light, he reminded himself. The light.

“Things that were,” Galadriel answered shortly, surprising Bilbo. She smiled. “He intends to tell you.”

Well wasn’t that the fastest way to make him feel guilty?

Thorin was stepping back from the mirror, a hand on his forehead. Bilbo hovered at his side uncertainly, but Thorin waved him off. “I’m fine,” he said roughly. “I just wish I had seen many things I didn’t understand.”

“What did you see then?” Bilbo asked hesitantly, and was surprised by the sudden flash of vulnerability in Thorin’s face. It vanished as quickly as it came, but he couldn’t just forget that he had seen it.

“I saw dwarves being tortured and mutilated, their dæmons becoming half-formed monsters, or worse,” Thorin related, a hard look in his eyes. “What does it mean, and why have I seen it?”

Galadriel turned to look at the sky, her dæmon taking flight. She waited until he vanished before answering. “Gandalf has told you of the cult of Men who created false dæmons, claiming that dæmons were evil creatures, created to lead us astray,” she reminded them, her voice calm as ever, though Bilbo thought he detected a note of anger. “Long ago, followers of that belief tried other experiments, seeking to find a dæmons’ true form.”

“But when a dæmon settles, that’s its true form,” Bilbo said, eyes wide. “Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Galadriel agreed. “But they were not satisfied. The experiments affected different races differently. Elves became orcs and goblins. You have seen goblins, I believe.” They both nodded, and Bilbo suddenly felt parched. “With an artificial dæmon, Men became wraiths, the very creatures that haunt your world. Without an artificial dæmon they simply died. An artificial dæmon made Hobbits become like that creature you found in the goblin tunnels. But dwarves… dwarves were unpredictable.”

Bilbo found himself seeking Myrtle’s warmth, separating her from Minty and putting her in his arms. He noticed that Thorin’s hands were clenched tightly at his sides. Unpredictable was underselling whatever Thorin had seen, apparently.

“Our dæmons became monsters,” Thorin spat, completing the thought.

“Sometimes,” Galadriel allowed. “Dæmons were a gift given to the dwarves by Eru, to a people he did not create. He could not predict what would happen, adding them to Mahal’s creations. Some of your people were completely unaffected. You cannot say that about mine.”

 


 

Hours later, Thorin Oakenshield still did not know why the mirror had shown him what it had. Expecting a series of disconnected images, he had instead been thrust head first into the suffering of his people. It was horrific and deeply disturbing, but what did it have to do with his quest?

“Probably nothing,” Mingalaz yawned. “She didn’t say you’d see something useful. Just that you’d see something.”

“You know better than that,” he replied sourly. “It was a warning.”

“Don’t be paranoid,” Mingalaz scolded, but there was a note of fear in her voice that told Thorin not to press the issue. She was just as afraid, but wasn’t ready to face it.

Instead, he said, “You’re right,” and left it at that.

Absently, he consulted the compass, asking what they should do next, and the answer simply confirmed what they were doing: “Go to the hidden valley.” He should have been comforted knowing that they were finally making progress, but he wasn’t. The wraiths had been Men once. Had Gandalf really not known? Or was it just another secret being kept from him?

“There are some things you have to see to believe,” Gandalf said, startling Thorin. The wizard couldn’t hear his thoughts, not like Galadriel, but it was possible that he’d spoken aloud and not realized it. “It is true, I knew the wraiths were once Men. But what would you have done with that information? At the time, you did not even know what Men were.”

“You gave me a task and kept information from me,” Thorin replied doggedly. “Every step of the way you have concealed and lied. Why should I now believe that you are really helping us? That Gondolin really holds the key to our salvation?”

Gandalf’s bushy eyebrows vanished under the brim of his hat. “Tell me Thorin, do you think the Lady Galadriel is a servant of evil?”

“No,” Thorin answered immediately. “I don’t know how, but I am certain.”

“And when her guards saw me, did they not immediately grant an audience?” Gandalf continued. “Do you think, if I intended to lead you astray, I would be welcome here?”

Thorin clenched his jaw. “No.” He did not think the Lady was likely to be taken in by anyone’s lies, least of all Gandalf’s.

Gandalf nodded. “No. Your suspicion is understandable, but in truth, I don’t have all the answers, and the ones I have could complicate matters without helping at all,” he explained. “I had to be careful.”

“But not anymore?” For a moment, Thorin wondered if Gandalf intended to leave again, now that they were so close. But no, he still hadn’t said what they needed to do after Gondolin.

“You are in full mastery of the compass, for all intents and purposes,” Gandalf reminded him with a twinkle in his eyes. “No secret is truly barred from you if you know how the frame the question. Yet you have not asked it much.”

“Something tells me it wouldn’t answer if I just asked aimless questions,” Thorin admitted. The obstinate way it answered only some questions, withholding information… A lot like Gandalf, in some ways. “It can answer any question, but that does not mean it will. How did you come by it, Gandalf?”

“I was very fortunate,” Gandalf said, suddenly grim. “I encountered your father on the journey that took his life, and he entrusted it to me, to give to you. It is an heirloom of your line, kept secret until it is time to pass it on.”

Thorin’s heart clenched in his chest, and Mingalaz licked his hand comfortingly. Or it would have been anyway, if her tongue wasn’t so rough. “He was still… present enough, after being attacked?”

“I was able to drive off the wraiths, but too much of him had been taken,” Gandalf related sadly. “He passed on shortly after giving it to me.” The wizard put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Soon enough you will be able to prevent your people from knowing any more of the grief these wraiths cause.”

Thorin’s eyes fell upon the sleeping forms of Fíli and Kíli. For a future where they could sleep without fear, like they were now, he would risk anything. Unconsciously, his eyes sought Bilbo next, who was tossing and turning fitfully in his bedroll. He wondered what troubled the hobbit, whose world was still green and pure, and made another silent promise to ensure their portal-finder had a home to return to, when all this was over.

The morning found them on the move again, weighed down with elvish field rations, and following Arwen deeper into the wood. Bilbo walked at her side, and the elf-maid matched his shorter stride thoughtfully. Thorin couldn’t hear the words, but he had little doubt that the hobbit was plying her with questions, and she didn’t seem to mind. But Bilbo seemed jumpy, and every time he glanced back at the dwarves, he’d meet Thorin’s eyes and look away quickly. It irritated Thorin. It made no sense, considering how quickly Bilbo had noticed he was gone and followed him the night before.

“Stop that,” Mingalaz scolding, swatting at his leg. “No brooding. We’re finally getting somewhere.”

Thorin bit back his retort that he wasn’t brooding, why would she say that? But it was still strange. Had he done something to make Bilbo avoid him? Crossed some line of Hobbit propriety that he wasn’t aware of? Not that Bilbo hadn’t been stepping all over dwarf propriety from day one, but still.

He resolved to approach Bilbo when they broke for lunch, a plan complicated by the fact that their lunch was Lembas, eaten while walking, and thus they didn’t stop. So he would have to pry Bilbo away from the elf. With the entire company no doubt watching and laughing behind their hands.

Strangely enough, it was Arwen who separated herself from Bilbo. “I need to speak to your king,” she said, her musical voice carrying across the distance as it hadn’t before. She wanted Thorin to hear.

“He’s not really my king, but-oh yes, alright,” was Bilbo’s faint reply, and then Thorin knew he had no choice but to change places with Bilbo, as Arwen was leading. He did not much care for being summoned by the elf-maid, but the irritation that spiked through him as he passed Bilbo and the hobbit averted his eyes convinced him that talking with Bilbo would not be terribly productive.

“What did you want to discuss?” Thorin asked politely. Mingalaz followed her nightingale off a way, scouting ahead.

“You are disturbed by what you saw in my grandmother’s mirror,” Arwen said with a gentle smile. “So is Bilbo. I have been talking to him to try and calm him down, but he is not easy. You saw only the past, but Bilbo saw the past and a possible future. Seeing the future is not without consequences. My father has such visions, and even he cannot say if by seeing a certain future, he has made that future impossible.”

Thorin mulled this over. “He saw my future,” he realized. “That is why he can’t look at me.” He saw my death, Thorin thought to himself. He had always suspected this venture would be fatal, and this was merely confirmation.

Arwen simply nodded. “I would not ask him about it. It is one thing for Bilbo to know a part of your possible future, but if you knew, it would certainly affect the outcome. Treat him as you always do, and he will forget his fears.”

They camped in the woods that night, the company cheerful and boisterous at the prospect of finally making progress in their journey. When Bilbo took out his dagger and started going through the forms Thorin had taught him, Thorin simply walked up and started fixing Bilbo’s posture again. The hobbit was initially startled, but they soon fell into a rhythm, and there was no more flinching or looking away.

“I think I’m starting to get the hang of this,” Bilbo panted after a successful parry. His eyes were gleaming with excitement, and Thorin swallowed heavily, his mouth suddenly dry.

“You have a long way to go,” he replied, shaking his head so that he didn’t have to make eye contact. “But that was a good parry. Again.”

It really was a miracle Mingalaz had settled on a form.

Chapter Text

It had taken some time, but Legolas had eventually cracked and told Tauriel everything about the audience Thorin had with his father. The relative privacy of going out ranging provided an opportunity that Thranduil wasn’t likely to overhear, making the elf-prince slightly more willing to talk. Given how quickly he told the entire tale, Tauriel got the impression he’d been eager to tell someone, and was impressed he’d lasted as long as he did.

“They came from another world,” he admitted at last, Tuiwel, his squirrel dæmon, scampering about eagerly on his shoulders. “Strange shadows attack travelers in their world, and they came here looking for the source. It is not here,” Legolas rushed to assure her. “So they continued on their way, and father asked that they not tell anyone the truth about where they came from.”

“Another world? And the King, he knew that other worlds existed?” Tauriel could not keep the edge out of her voice. She had known very early on that wherever the spiders were coming from, it was beyond their borders in some way, but the king had ignored her questions. If they were coming from another world, wouldn’t that explain why she could never find the nest?

“He said that other worlds were not his concern,” Legolas reported, his mouth a thin line. Tuiwel patted Tauriel’s kite dæmon Gailon’s wing comfortingly, but Gailon simply ruffled his feathers irritably and brushed her off. “That we must look to our own borders.”

“There are evil creatures festering in our woods, and then travelers from another world come, looking for the source of the evil in their world, and other worlds are not his concern?” Tauriel’s bow string fingers itched, and Gailon took off into the air, already scouting ahead whether Legolas agreed or not. Tuiwel chittered angrily at Gailon’s sudden departure. “When did we let evil become stronger than us? When did we decide to sit idly by while darkness grows?”

“You’re going to look for the portal, aren’t you?” Legolas did not look at all surprised. “Tauriel, if you defy my father-”

“My duty is to protect the wood, and I cannot do that if the spiders are coming from outside it,” Tauriel argued. “Will you come with me, or must I hunt down legions of spiders on my own? You know that I will if I must, but I would be glad of another bow.”

But Legolas was smiling a little, and she already knew what the answer would be. “You don’t even have to ask.”

 


 

Imladris was called the hidden valley for good reason. Though according to Arwen it was not shielded in the same way as Lothlorien, to get there one had to cross most of Lothlorien, enter a portal to a world guarded by stone giants, and evade the stone giants long enough to find the portal to Imladris. She assured them that she had made the trip many times and knew exactly where all the portals were, but they had good reason to doubt her. Dwarves might have been born from the stone, but they had the good sense to hear the words “stone giants” and be a little fearful. Dwalin blustered, insisting that everything was a giant to a dwarf, and he was sure he’d fought worse. Arwen had smiled and told him that stone giants were the foundations of the mountains, and thus were the size of mountains themselves.

“They have poor eyesight, especially for things that are much smaller than they are, so it is not too hard to sneak past them,” Arwen explained. “They are only active during thunderstorms, so if we are lucky, they won’t even be awake.”

Later, Thorin would wonder how it slipped Arwen’s mind to mention that there were also orcs.

It took another day to reach the portal, and Arwen confirmed that there was no point attempting a crossing that day. It was pouring on the other side, and the rumbling in the distance suggested that the giants were definitely awake. The tension of sitting and listening to the giants wreak havoc on the other side soon became too much, and the company was soon pairing off to spar again.

“I’m sure Dwalin will be more of a challenge,” Bilbo deflected when Thorin asked if he wanted to practice.

“That isn’t what I asked,” Thorin noted. “If Dwalin needs a sparring partner, he has many options, including taking on both of my nephews at once. I asked if you wanted one. If you do not, you need simply say so.”

It was true that teaching the hobbit didn’t provide him with much of a challenge, or even much exercise, but it was clear Bilbo needed the exertion and didn’t want to ask. He had been more cheerful, and talked to every member of the company that day, not just Arwen, but something was still troubling Bilbo. During such times, if Mingalaz was being difficult or unhelpful, Thorin had always found sparring helpful for clearing his mind.

Bilbo didn’t talk about what was troubling him, but he worked himself harder than usual. If how still he lay that night was any indication, the sparring helped him sleep, and that was enough.

Just after dawn, the company slipped through the portal, and into the world of the stone giants. The weather in that world had cleared overnight, and while there were large boulders strewn about in the aftermath of the fighting, of the giants themselves there was no sign. Still, there was something about the place… something in the air. There was a feeling of wrongness that Thorin couldn’t name.

“Something’s not right,” Dwalin muttered, hefting his axes into his hands. Daruthâ gave a mournful howl, cutting through the silent air. Nothing howled or chirped or barked back.

“Agreed, brother,” Balin replied grimly. “It’s too quiet. No birds or beasts except the ones we brought with us.”

It was rarely a good idea to ignore Balin and Dwalin’s combined instincts. If they agreed, danger was usually imminent. “Everyone back in formation!” Thorin bellowed, fear prickling at the back of his neck. The company rushed to obey, putting Bilbo firmly in the center. They offered Arwen the same, as she was their guide, but she only thanked them and said it wasn’t necessary.

“Orcs dwell in this world, but they rarely attack in full sunlight, so I thought we would be safe from them,” she admitted. “I have fought enough as a ranger in Lothlorien. What of your company? Are there orcs in your world?”

“There are raiding parties from time to time in Erebor,” Thorin confirmed. “Every dwarf here has fought against at least one of those parties, and we train for worse. We never knew where they were coming from, but they were always too few in number to be a true threat.” As he said it, he realized there was something off about what he was saying, but couldn’t place it.

Arwen looked like she was going to say something, perhaps pointing out the source of his current confusion,but then one of her ears twitched, and a black feathered arrow landed in the dirt at her feet. The orcs were upon them.

The first thing that became clear was that they were outnumbered, and not by a small amount The orcs swarmed into them, shrieking and hooting, carrying a foul stench. There had to be at least fifty, and even he and Dwalin had never faced so many at once without more of a force at their backs. To say nothing of having to protect the less experienced fighters. Their formation was quickly broken, and the fight dissolved into chaos and screams. Thorin did not know how the other members of the company fared, for he could not fight and try to keep track of them, but he at least was doing well.

Revulsion tore through him, and Thorin fell to his knees without knowing why. He heard Mingalaz whine, and he realized what was happening. One of the orcs had grabbed Mingalaz, was touching Mingalaz. He felt sick to his very core, and try as he might he could not rise. All of the strength had gone out of him, and he watched helplessly as Mingalaz flailed and writhed in the orc’s arms, to no avail. He saw Bilbo sneaking away from what was left of the center of the formation, approaching the orc with dagger drawn, and then something struck the back of his head and everything went dark.

 


 

When Thorin fell, something had come over Bilbo that he’d never felt before. The dwarves would later name it battle rage, but at the time, all he knew was that he must slit the throat of the orc holding Minty, and also possibly the one who clubbed Thorin in the back of the head. There was no ‘want’ or ‘considering.’ He was going to do it. He had never been so certain of anything in his life.

The death of the first orc was a blur, and he was barely aware of having killed it until the creature slumped to its knees and Minty fell limply to the ground. That having gone rather well, Bilbo prepared himself for the other orc, only to find that Dwalin had gotten to it first, and had Thorin slung over his back. Daisy was standing over Minty, growling viciously at any orc that got too close. Dwalin nodded, and Bilbo wondered if he was being thanked for saving Minty.

The blowing of a horn split through the battle noise, and then suddenly the orcs were falling, bright arrows bursting through their throats. “Ada!” Arwen cried, and Bilbo’s neck nearly cracked from how quickly he looked around. Armored Elves on horseback were speeding towards them, their bows held aloft as they fired arrow after arrow into the now fleeing orc pack.

“D’ya think they’re bitter about this being the second time we’ve been saved from certain danger by elves?” Myrtle muttered into Bilbo’s ear when he retrieved her from the ground.

“What’s there to be bitter about? We’re not dead!” And thankfully, that was true. A quick survey of the company revealed that while some were sporting more serious wounds, like the long gash on Kíli’s arm, they were all fine. There was a moment when Fíli and Kíli saw Thorin being carried by Dwalin, and it was clear by the way their faces fell that they feared the worst, but then they saw Minty on Bifur’s dæmon’s back, and they were calm again. She would have vanished if Thorin was dead.

Arwen spoke at a distance with the rider at the head of the column, and when he approached, Gandalf stepped forward to meet him.

“Mithrandir,” the rider greeted him, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. He did not look surprised to see them. “Arwen claims you have brought some people who need our help.” Of course, Bilbo realized. This was Arwen’s father. He wondered how he could have missed it; the resemblance was striking.

“My Lord Elrond,” Gandalf said with a slight bow, returning the greeting. “I would introduce you to the Company of Thorin Oakenshield, but the leader of our company is presently out of sorts from that orc attack.” He gestured to the still-unconscious Thorin being carried by Dwalin.

“That I think we may safely save for later,” Elrond observed, an eye on something too far away for Bilbo to see. “Let us make for Imladris and treat the wounded.” His dæmon, a large eagle, took off from where she sat on the saddle horn and wheeled overhead. Scouting, Bilbo guessed.

The Elves tried to put Thorin on a horse, but Dwalin wouldn’t relinquish him, so their pace was slow. It was midday when they reached the portal to Imladris, and Thorin had not awakened. The dwarf king was stripped and bathed, and the few wounds he had were carefully treated, but still he didn’t wake up. Rather than use the rooms the elves offered them, the whole company camped out in Thorin’s room, Gandalf excepted, waiting for him to awaken. Myrtle sat on the bed next to Minty, and Bilbo didn’t think to question why the other dwarves would allowed this.

“My father is a skilled healer, but head wounds are always difficult, and with an orc touching his dæmon…” Arwen trailed off. “It won’t do any good if you all get sick with worry.”

The dwarves and Bilbo were unmoved, and luckily Thorin began to stir just before sunset, Minty flexing her claws into Myrtle’s side and startling the poor badger. Her squeak alerted the entire room, who were instantly at Thorin’s bedside.

“The hobbit,” Thorin croaked, and Bilbo was pulled bodily to the front by the other dwarves. Thorin was glaring at him, his eyes seeming brighter and colder surrounded by bruises, but otherwise it was the same glare he’d greeting Bilbo with outside Erebor. Bilbo’s heart shuddered at the sight. But then Thorin’s expression softened, and he was pulling Bilbo to his chest in a slightly awkward embrace. “You reckless, reckless hobbit,” he murmured, and Bilbo was glad that his face was hidden. He was blushing clear to the roots of his hair, he was absolutely sure of it.

“They had Minty,” he argued weakly. “Something came over me.”

“And it’s good that it did,” the dæmon in question agreed, staring at Thorin until he gave in. “I prefer being alive, if it’s all the same to everyone.”

“Mingalaz,” Thorin said, not making eye contact, and initially Bilbo didn’t understand him.

“What?” Bilbo asked, noticing that Thorin seemed a little flushed, but dismissing it. He’d just woken up from being unconscious, of course his complexion was going to be a little off.

“My dæmon’s name,” Thorin clarified, his voice oddly rough. “Mingalaz. It means ‘of the sky.’ Don’t call her ‘Minty’ anymore. She doesn’t care for it.”

Bilbo had spent long enough among dwarves by this point to understand what it meant that Thorin was finally volunteering his dæmon’s name, though not quite long enough to understand the significance of what her name meant. He assumed it was a reference to the striking eyes they shared, and thought little more of it. It didn’t occur to him that Thorin in particular would be less than eager to share his dæmon’s name, because what kind of dwarf was he with a secret name about the sky? Dwarves were earth born and earth bound, and the name Mingalaz was his secret shame.

Bilbo, knowing none of this, said, “It’s a lovely name,” with a great deal of sincerity, and was surprised when Thorin definitely blushed this time and ordered everyone out of the room.

“Aw, but Uncle-” Kíli complained, and then Thorin’s glare was on him and there was no choice but to make a tactical retreat.

Outside, Bilbo was mobbed by dwarves eager to tell him their dæmons names as well, because if Thorin trusted him, it would be an insult for them not to do the same. At this point, Kíli was able to proudly declare that he’d beaten them all and told Bilbo Kurdaz’s name days ago, when not ten minutes prior it had been a secret for them both to take to their graves.

Bilbo could barely catch any of the names over the din (and he wasn’t even sure that Bifur was sharing that information, given that everything he said was in Khuzdul anyway), but one dwarf managed to make himself heard despite that.

“Daruthâ,” he said, his rough voice cutting through the chaos easily. “The mourner.” Daruthâ nudged Myrtle with her nose, and whispered something in her ear, the words being transmitted to Bilbo through Myrtle.

“We would have told you even if Thorin didn’t.”

And that was how Bilbo knew that Gandalf had been right all along. Myrtle had led him home. He’d had to earn his place here, but he’d done it, and that was that.

That night he sat with the company once the Elves let Thorin out of bed, and drank and sang rowdy tunes with the best of them. He was a little concerned about insulting their host, but as he looked over at Lord Elrond, in close conversation with Gandalf about something or other, he thought he saw a bit of wistfulness in the elf’s eyes. Out of respect for that, he kept the dwarves from getting too terribly rowdy, and he retired to his room feeling much more cheerful than he had any right to be under the circumstances. They still had to consult Lord Elrond, and meet the one who could guide them to Gondolin, but now such worries didn’t concern him.

“We’re not going back to the Shire, are we?” Myrtle asked softly, snuggling into Bilbo’s side.

“Not if I can help it,” and for the moment, he truly meant it.

Chapter Text

The dwarves' trail through the woods had long since gone cold, but Tauriel did not become Captain of the Guard without learning a thing or two about tracking. Retracing their steps to the location of the spider attack, it was a simple matter to find their trail. Between their heavy footfalls and their lack of effort to disguise signs of their passage, it was still fairly clear where they had come from.

Tauriel and Legolas did not have to go far before the trail stopped, and Tauriel internally cursed her slowness. The portal was so close! Viewed from the wrong angle, it was completely invisible, which was how their rangers had missed it all this time. No one expected to see a shimmering hole leading to what looked like a barren wasteland.

“This is not a good idea,” Gailon contributed, already flying ahead through the portal to investigate.

“You only say that so that if it goes poorly, you can say ‘I told you so,’” Tauriel replied with a slight smile, following her dæmon without looking back. Legolas and Tuiwel followed, with a quick glance behind them, and then they were utterly out of their depth.

“There are no traces on the ground on this side,” Legolas observed, kneeling lightly on the ground. Tuiwel hopped off his shoulder, searching the ground more closely, and ultimately shaking her head.

“It’s too hard,” she chirruped. “It wouldn’t have left any sign of them in the first place.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt of where they came from,” Tauriel observed, pointing to the solitary peak rising in the distance. “Gailon?”

The kite dæmon soared ahead, needing no further encouragement. As he put more distance between himself and the elves, it increased the range of Tauriel’s hearing, and the distant sound of hammers striking anvils confirmed her suspicions. She set off toward the mountain.

“I thought we were looking for the source of the spiders?” Legolas observed, eyebrows raised.

“If we want to find where dark creatures gather in this world, we should ask the dwarves,” Tauriel replied. “They knew nothing of the spiders, but perhaps any dark creatures dwelling in their world will.”

“The wraiths? The dwarves came to Mirkwood in order to find their source. I doubt we’ll have more luck finding their source,” Legolas disagreed, but followed her anyway.

“They were warriors,” Tauriel reminded him. “Wraiths can’t be the only dark creatures they have. An orc den, for instance.”

“Ah,” Legolas breathed, nodding slightly. “Lead the way.”


 

“So, you seek the lost Kingdom of Gondolin, in order to destroy the wraiths that prey on your people,” Elrond summarized, his dæmon fixing Thorin with a piercing stare that Bilbo was glad not to be on the receiving end of. “I must admit, this news concerns me. The isolation of the worlds has been stabilizing, but it also means that we do not know what occurs in distant lands. Tell me what else you have seen.”

“Giant spiders in Mirkwood,” Bilbo offered, counting off on his fingers.

“Goblins thriving under mountains, and a creature with a false dæmon,” Thorin said grimly. “Men who carelessly break the taboo, and a world wiped clean because its’ inhabitants believed that dæmons were the source of evil.”

“A plague in a city of Men, and a world protected by a magical shield,” Balin concluded. “Not to mention the orcs in the mountains, which you saw, and the orcs that dwell in our own world.”

“Gandalf,” Elrond said, accusation or a warning in his voice, Bilbo couldn’t tell which. His dæmon ruffled her feathers irritably, turning her gaze on Gandalf’s moth dæmon.

“I know,” Gandalf admitted, sounding a little embarrassed. “We’ve been blind, and in our blindness, it would appear that our enemy has returned.”

“‘Our enemy?’” Thorin repeated, eyebrows raised. “Gandalf, I have tolerated much, but-”

“In the first age of our worlds, one of the Valar, Melkor, decided he would have dominion over all life,” Elrond interrupted, and Thorin stilled, apparently satisfied that he was getting an explanation. Mingalaz groomed herself absently, but as Bilbo had learned, that didn’t mean she couldn’t strike at any moment. “Melkor was given a new name: Morgoth. Much of the First Age was spent resisting him, and in the end, he was defeated and imprisoned. In time, one of his former servants, known now as Sauron, decided to take up his mantle, hiding among the people and whispering lies into their ears.”

“‘Old lies,’” Myrtle murmured, remembering their conversation with Abdel in Harad.

“Some say Morgoth rebelled because Eru made the Valar and Maiar without dæmons, but gave them to Elves, Men, and Dwarves, though this cannot be confirmed. He tried experimenting on them, with mixed results, and his servant used those corrupted beings as proof that dæmons were evil,” Elrond explained heavily. He looked so much older than Galadriel, Bilbo noticed, and wondered why. “Sauron’s actions led to imprisonment in Numenor, but this only helped him. He spread his evil to the Numenorians, until the Valar destroyed Numenor, hoping that would be the end of it.”

“I take it that it wasn’t,” Thorin observed with just a hint of sarcasm.

“It would appear not,” Elrond agreed. “Everything you have described sounds like him, sending his advance forces into worlds, testing the waters.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” Bilbo asked, clutching Myrtle close. “Do we still need swords from Gondolin? This sounds-”

“Bigger than us,” Thorin finished for him, his mouth set in a grim line. “If he is the source of the wraiths, it seems like I have no choice, but if the Valar could not destroy him…”

“They could have,” Gandalf corrected him. “But it would have done far more damage than what we saw in Numenor. The swords will enable us to fight his servants, while we try to discover the source of his strength. I know this is more than any of you signed up for, but as the threat to your world is most imminent…”

“Does this servant of Morgoth’s have some kind of grudge against dwarves?” Bilbo asked curiously. “The spiders in Mirkwood were bad, but they weren’t sucking the life out of people, and normal weapons worked on them.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” Elrond admitted. “Perhaps because the dwarves were born without dæmons, and given them afterwards.”

“So to Gondolin we must go after all,” Balin surmised. “Do you know where it is, Lord Elrond?”

“No, but my lieutenant Glorfindel dwelt there, a long time ago, and was a friend to the king and a captain of the guard,” Elrond explained. “If anyone can find that kingdom, it is he.”

“Before that, you should take some time to rest and think,” the eagle said suddenly, her voice gentler than Bilbo would have thought. “You have learned much, and need time to process it.”

Recognizing a dismissal, they went their separate ways, Bilbo and Myrtle taking the time to explore Imladris that they had neglected the day before. It was very different from Lothlorien, not hemmed in by huge trees, but still built around the natural valley, and the water flowing down from the Bruinen. Even though Elrond claimed the world wasn’t shielded in the same way as Lothlorien, there was no denying that this was another healthy world, and Bilbo wondered why they were both so different from Mirkwood.

“Gandalf said that Gondolin was the lost Kingdom of the High Elves, and that their magic was what gave the swords power against the wraiths,” Myrtle murmured. “Maybe none of the Mirkwood elves have that kind of power.”

Bilbo sighed and sat down on a nearby bench, gazing down on the valley. “I always thought mother knew so much, but all she had was bits and pieces from Gandalf, same as us.”

“At least we have more bits and pieces now. It doesn’t change anything for us,” Myrtle said decisively.

“You’re right,” Bilbo agreed, and though he had only just sat down, jumped back up in search of Ori, to record everything they had learned.


 

After their talk with Elrond, the elven healers had insisted on Thorin returning promptly to bed. He protested, but his heart hadn’t been in it. His head throbbed with every step, and for all the epithets about dwarves having heads made of rock, they aren’t immune to blows to the back of them. The healers recommended quiet and rest, and while Thorin could do quiet, his was not a restful nature. He was more comfortable doing and acting, preferably for his people or his family. Lying in bed yet again while the wraiths closed in, not to mention this other enemy who controlled them, wasn’t something he could tolerate with good grace.

He spent an hour discussing plans with Balin, but there really wasn’t much to discuss. When he was better, they would speak to Glorfindel, and to Gondolin they would go. Fíli and Kíli came next, excited to tell him about the wonders of Imladris, but the healers had specified that he needed quiet, and they could not provide that for long. Dwalin could, but as they primarily communicated nonverbally, he wasn’t the most stimulating companion for bedridden Thorin. Óin fussed, and was kicked out; Glóin objected to his brother being thrown out and was also thrown out. Dori caught Nori palming something and they were both thrown out, while Ori offered Thorin a book from the Imladris library, which he accepted gratefully. Ori left on his own, feeling a little more cheerful for having been of use to the king. Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur were all summarily thrown out for causing a ruckus.

The only one left to provide company was Bilbo, who was last in line simply because he felt that even after what had passed the day before, he was still the newest member of the company, and should still go last. If the others sabotaged their own time with Thorin to move Bilbo up the line, well, Thorin certainly never suspected it.

“I can’t say I’m surprised that the others failed to be quiet company,” Bilbo admitted, setting Myrtle lightly on his lap. Mingalaz nudged her with her nose until Myrtle crawled onto the bed, and let the mountain lion groom her. Thorin wondered what Bilbo thought of such an interaction, but then it wasn’t like Mingalaz hadn’t attached herself to Myrtle before.

“Some were more successful than others at quiet, but I cannot just lie here while someone watches me silently,” Thorin complained. “At least Ori thought to bring me something to read, but I hope I won’t be bedridden long enough to finish it.”

Bilbo nodded in understanding. “What would you like me to do then? I think quiet I can do, but I’m not so sure about stimulating.”

Thorin already had something in mind, though he was a little embarrassed to ask it. “You said your mother traveled to other worlds, and told you about it,” he recalled distantly, “or maybe Gandalf said it.”

Bilbo’s eyes widened a little, as if he hadn’t expected Thorin to remember. “Yes, she used to tell me the old stories she’d learned about those worlds when I was a child,” he admitted. “I’m only just now seeing how little she really knew.”

Thorin nodded slowly, looking intently at Bilbo. “I do not know if my mother saw other worlds, but she used to tell me tales of them. Tell me some of what your mother told you.”

“Well, let’s see what I can remember,” Bilbo hedged. “She told me about dwarves, and their cities built within mountains, but none of that is news to you.”

“No, though if she visited our world, that would be news,” Thorin admitted. “I would have remembered seeing another hobbit.”

“I don’t know about that,” Bilbo disagreed. “We can pass unseen if we choose, and given that not too many people know about other worlds, she probably would have wanted to go unnoticed.”

Thorin wasn’t convinced that a hobbit from another world could go unnoticed, but he didn’t press the issue. If Bilbo could sneak up on an orc during the middle of an ambush, then his mother was probably equally capable. “Very well,” he conceded. “What else did she tell you?” Mingalaz had finished grooming Myrtle by now, but had not relinquished her. Thorin hoped Bilbo hadn’t noticed, but then the badger didn’t seem too bothered, sitting patiently between Mingalaz’s paws. He tried not to think about how his behavior mirrored his dæmons’.

“A lot about the elves,” Bilbo admitted. “Enough that I think she came here, to Imladris. She talked about a lovely house in a valley, with little streams running through everything. It was too long ago for me to remember if she ever said what it was called, but that sounds like here. I don’t think she could have been to Mirkwood, based on how she spoke of wood elves.”

“What did she say?” Thorin asked curiously, running his fingers through Mingalaz’s fur. It had been clear even in Mirkwood that Thranduil was different from his people, and now it was clear he was different from the other elves they’d met. Galadriel in particular stood out. She felt like a higher form of life, her eyes seeing the unseen, while Thranduil saw threats and troubles. Worldly concerns.

“She said they were… less refined,” he settled on diplomatically. “And I suppose that’s probably true. We’ve passed a night here without any mention of drinking contests. At least on the side of our hosts.”

“It’s a shame,” Thorin muttered. “I could use a drink.”

“Not with that injury, you can’t!” Bilbo protested firmly. “The worst medicine for a head wound is alcohol.”

Thorin winced: Myrtle was digging her claws into Mingalaz. “It was a joke, Bilbo,” Thorin said weakly, and Myrtle’s claws retracted. “I am more than capable of taking care of myself,” he added more petulantly.

“Are you?” Bilbo asked with an arched brow. “Then why do you keep ending up bedridden?”

“Because he’s careless about his own health,” Mingalaz grumbled. “He needs someone to keep on top of such things for him. Are you volunteering?” She fixed Bilbo with her sharp gaze, not relinquishing her grip on Myrtle in the slightest. Thorin was torn between wanting to quiet her and wanting to hear the answer. He was not so young and trusting anymore, giving out Mingalaz’s name on whims. The last of his resistance had been chipped away by Bilbo’s reckless attack. Mingalaz had been right from the very beginning: he definitely had feelings for the hobbit.

But then, of course Mingalaz had been right. She was the more honest part of him, clearly apparent in how she draped herself over Myrtle.

“I thought you were more than capable of taking care of yourself?” Bilbo reminded Thorin, that eyebrow still raised tauntingly.

“You see that Mingalaz and I disagree,” he replied with a shrug.

“No you don’t,” Myrtle disagreed, shaking free of Mingalaz. “The question is, which of you is being honest, and which is lying?”

“Now Myrtle, that’s not necessarily the case,” Bilbo scolded, allowing Myrtle back into his lap. “Thorin’s not a liar, he is just often wrong.”

Thorin made a choking sound. “Often wrong? I did not realize that telling you Mingalaz’s name was an invitation to be insulted,” he observed, raising both eyebrows in challenge.

Bilbo simply smiled, not backing down. “It isn’t? I thought it meant that you trusted me. That includes trusting my opinion.”

“And your opinion is that I am often wrong,” Thorin repeated slowly. Cheeky, blunt hobbit! “Is this how your people address royalty?”

“We don’t have royalty, so I suppose so,” Bilbo agreed easily. He opened his mouth to speak again, but that was the moment that their eavesdroppers chose to fall out of their hiding places, Kíli landing from the tree he’d taken residence in with a thud and a shout.

“What was that for?” he called up, apparently heedless that he’d been noticed.

“Get back in the tree before they see you,” a voice that was definitely Nori’s whispered.

“Too late,” Thorin said, staring at Kíli pointedly. His head whipped around to look at them, his eyes the size of dinner plates. Thorin thought he saw his nephew gulp, and prepared to give him a proper scolding.

Bilbo beat him to it. “For goodness sake, Kíli! If you break your neck climbing trees, we’ll have to stay even longer! And what were you doing up there? I hardly think there’s anything worth spying on happening.”

Kíli looked back and forth between the two of them, looking even more cornered than before Bilbo had spoken, if that was possible. There was a pleading look in his eyes, as if he expected Thorin to rescue him! Thorin snorted and leaned back into his pillows. He needed his rest, after all.

“Um, well, that is…” Kíli tried hesitantly, quailing under Bilbo’s glare. “I thought uncle might be overexerting himself…”

“So you hid in a tree,” Bilbo surmised flatly. “No, no, I’m sorry my lad, but while I may be younger than you lot, I was not born yesterday. Run back to the others, and take Nori, and anyone else in the trees with you.”

They trooped out in defeat, ‘they’ consisting of Fíli, Kíli, Nori and Bofur. How four dwarves had fit in those spindly trees was anyone’s guess, but Thorin couldn’t find it in him to be bothered. It was delightful, not having to be the one to scold Kíli for once.

“Honestly,” Bilbo huffed. “I don’t know what they expected to hear.”

Thorin had all too good an idea, and the slight flush to Bilbo’s cheeks suggested that he wasn’t actually so clueless. Interesting.

“You lasted the longest of everyone,” Thorin reminded him. “They were probably just curious what we could be talking about that kept me or the healers from having you thrown out.”

Bilbo let out a relieved breath, which didn’t escape Thorin’s careful notice. “Oh, well if that’s all. They might try being a little less rambunctious. If they could hide in trees that long, they have to be capable of a little more quiet.”

Thorin wondered if it was okay to hope that maybe, just maybe, the way Myrtle was shifting uncomfortably said more than Bilbo’s words.

Chapter Text

Tauriel and Legolas were lucky that Dís had more easily believed her mother’s old stories as an adult than Thorin had. The longer their king was gone, the twitchier the guards became, watching every shadow with axes drawn just in case it was a wraith. Thorin had mentioned a few details about the existence of other worlds, but it was easy to forget that in the grip of fear, and he had known very little when he set out.

It was safe to say that the Elves received a welcome as armed to the teeth as they had initially given the dwarves. But it was clear that strange as they were, they weren’t wraiths, so were taken to meet Acting-Queen Dís, though with more guards than they might normally have used. Such a strange, tall folk, Tauriel heard one of them mutter.

“This is pointless, Tauriel,” Legolas murmured, so quietly that only elven ears could have heard him. “They do not know about the spiders, and they are afraid.”

“The King is also afraid,” Tauriel reminded him in the same tone, staring straight ahead. Gailon stayed close on her shoulder. She had the feeling they would shoot first and ask questions later if they saw Gailon go too far from her. “You should know better than I how to speak to people who are afraid, having more experience.”

Legolas gave her a long-suffering look but said nothing.

Tauriel expected to be taken to the throne room, but evidently Acting-Queen Dís had different ideas. When they passed the passage to the throne room, it soon became clear why: despite the narrow path to the throne over a ravine, it was a fairly public space. Whatever they had to say, the Acting-Queen apparently wasn’t going to risk it being public.

“It’s for the best really,” Gailon whispered. “We don’t know how much they know, and they don’t really need a panic right now.”

“Not that we know much more,” she replied wryly, and then they were stopping in front of a door. The guards knocked, once, twice, three times, and the door swung open into a little parlor.

“Her highness is-” the servant who opened the door began, his eyes widening at the sight of the Elves. “Oh,” he breathed, and hurried off into another room. Tauriel heard muffled conversation, and then another dwarf emerged, who she knew immediately to be the Acting-Queen. The fact that she resembled Thorin and her sons had little enough to do with it; there was a solid dignity in her bearing, as if she were the mountain itself and would not be shaken so easily. Tauriel wasn’t confused for a moment by the facial hair, though clearly Legolas was. She knew another woman when she saw one.

“Your highness,” Tauriel said with a gracious bow, Legolas following her lead. He might be the prince, but this was her mission. He was just tagging along. “I am Tauriel, Captain of the Woodland Guard, and this is Legolas, Prince of the Woodland Realm.”

Dís pursed her lips. “None of those names or places mean anything to me, but you look like Elves, and doubtless come from another world, so you’d better come in.”

 


 

Thorin had spent much of their time among Elves feeling short, which was a new and unpleasant feeling, but Glorfindel didn’t make him feel that way. The yellow-haired elf certainly was tall, but where most of the Elves had a distant look in their eyes, like they were contemplating greater concerns, Glorfindel’s eyes were clearly fixed on what was in front of him.

“When Elves die, they are reembodied,” Elrond’s dæmon had told them before they met Glorfindel. Elrond had not been present, and that was extremely alien to them. “Glorfindel died a long time ago, fighting a demon of Morgoth, and he returned to this world with perspective. I think you will find him different.”

An Elf with a mongoose dæmon certainly was different. And the fact that he took one look at Bilbo and offered his hand, saying, “I believe I met your mother.”

Bilbo and Elrond both started.

“Of course, how did I not see it?” Elrond realized, looking at Bilbo with new eyes.

“My mother really did come here?” Bilbo asked, taking the offered hand with a touch of awe.

“Mithrandir brought her, some years back,” Glorfindel confirmed easily. Thorin wondered if the Elves saw the passage of time differently. Bilbo’s mother had traveled before marrying Bilbo’s father, which would have made the meeting more than 50 years ago. Hardly some years back, even by his own reckoning.

“I thought so,” Bilbo murmured, petting Myrtle absently. “Did you tell her about Gondolin then?”

Glorfindel nodded. “She wanted to know all kinds of things, and just the average tale wouldn’t do,” he recalled fondly. “It had to be something extraordinary. The lost kingdom of my people was just barely enough.”

Bilbo looked suddenly thoughtful, and voiced a question that hadn’t even occurred to Thorin. “Why is it called the lost kingdom? We’ve been to many worlds by now, and even Numenor, flooded by the Valar, was easy enough to find,” he observed, rubbing his chin.

“Is it shielded, like Lothlorien?” Thorin asked, though that question raised even more questions. Who would be shielding it?

“No, it’s much simpler than that,” Glorfindel corrected them, shaking his head in mild amusement. “There are just no more portals into Gondolin. They were all closed, to prevent it from being looted, and its treasures being spread around the worlds.”

Bilbo’s face fell, and Thorin was struggling not to do the same, keeping a firm grip on Mingalaz so that she didn’t do anything foolish. Gandalf would not have sent them all this way for nothing, and indeed, the wizard didn’t seem troubled or surprised by this news. That had to be his comfort.

“We were told that you could show us the way,” Thorin reminded the elf, biting down on his frustration.

“And I can,” Glorfindel agreed, pulling a sheathed knife out of an inner pocket of his coat. “Some of the knives forged in Gondolin were discovered to have the power to cut open the walls between worlds. Not all, and they could only be used properly by those who were drawn to open portals, but I have such a knife, and you have such a person.”

Balin cleared his throat. “Could we not simply use this knife to destroy the wraiths? Why go to Gondolin when we have what we came for?”

“You will not destroy the enemy’s forces with a single knife,” Glorfindel answered, handing the weapon to Bilbo, “wielded by an untrained hobbit. You need less picky weapons, wielded by more skilled bearers. No offense intended.”

“None taken,” Bilbo assured him, drawing the weapon slowly and examining it. To Thorin’s more trained eye, it did look different from any steel blade he’d ever seen, and when Bilbo saw that he was looking, he handed it over. Thorin was shocked by the weight: there really was none. A weapon needed heft to some extent, but for Bilbo, it was perfect. He wasn’t going to win a contest of strength, so if his blade met another, he had probably already lost. Thorin handed it back.

“In addition to cutting through the connections between worlds, it will glow blue if orcs or goblins are close, which I imagine will be useful after that last ambush,” Gandalf observed.

“Hmm,” Bilbo hummed, sounding a little unconvinced. “If this knife can cut into other worlds, then couldn’t I just open a portal to Gondolin right here? There aren’t orcs there, are there?”

“Not anymore,” Glorfindel agreed. “But no, that wouldn’t work. It is true that every world is connected, but they aren’t all connected in the same way.”

“A portal to Gondolin opened here might lead you to plunging over a cliff, or being trapped in the sea, or somewhere equally fatal,” Elrond explained. “Not to mention that the city itself has impenetrable walls. No, you must follow Glorfindel to a place where we know it will be safe to cross over, and risk danger for a little longer.”

“So eager to part company, Bilbo?” Thorin asked lightly, raising an eyebrow.

Surprisingly, Bilbo didn’t have a retort ready. He blushed and stuttered, “N-no, that’s not-”

Myrtle huffed, interrupting him. She said something Thorin couldn’t hear, and though he could tell it was intended to calm Bilbo, it had the opposite effect. He got redder, and said nothing more for the rest of the conversation. Myrtle was also quiet, which was rare. Despite the rarity of dæmons speaking openly in dwarven society, Myrtle clearly had no such qualms, and it was influencing Mingalaz.

“Why should I keep quiet?” she asked as they trooped back to their room, Thorin being ordered to get as much rest as he could. “My opinion is worth no less than yours.”

“It arguably means more, which is why it should be shared less,” he replied ruefully. “Hobbits may be honest and simple, but I would prefer it if you kept our privacy.”

“‘Honest and simple’ are possibly the last words I would use to describe Bilbo,” Mingalaz replied airily.

 


 

Simply swinging the blade around did nothing except terrify Myrtle.

Bilbo paced around his small room, trying at different spots in the air, but it made no difference. Unlike finding the portals, this was evidently not instinctive. Either that, or he lacked the instincts. That alone was a terrifying thought, to come all this way and be of use, only to fail right when he was truly needed.

“Stop it,” Myrtle snapped. “It’s no use thinking like that. You need to focus.”

“Very helpful advice,” Bilbo replied sarcastically. “I will apply it immediately. What exactly do I need to focus on?”

Unexpectedly, Myrtle did have an answer. “You’ve watched Thorin read his compass. Maybe that’s what you need to do.”

Though that wasn’t a direct answer, it was more helpful than he had expected, and he went immediately to Thorin’s room. At his knock, Dwalin opened the door and admitted him without a word. Conveniently, Thorin was sitting up in bed, fiddling with the compass, and looked up immediately when Bilbo entered.

“Any luck?” he asked, clearly trying to restrain his eagerness.

“Not yet,” Bilbo admitted. “But Myrtle had an idea. Could I watch you read the compass?”

“What should I ask it?” Thorin was fiddling with the wheels, as if he already had some idea, but it was Dwalin who provided the answer.

“How to use the knife,” he supplied simply, and Bilbo was actually a little ashamed that he hadn’t thought of that. He’d simply wanted a look at Thorin’s concentration, not to have him divine the answer.

But Thorin did as Dwalin suggested, turning the wheels to ask the question, and Bilbo watched apprehensively as Thorin fell into that state of intense focus, where it seemed like he could see or hear nothing but the compass. Bilbo had hoped that watching Thorin concentrate like that would give him some idea of how to do that himself, because maybe it would heighten his ability to detect where portals could be. That didn’t happen, but at least Thorin now had an answer for him.

“It says that you must focus on the very tip of the blade, and slide it slowly through the air until you feel it snag on something,” Thorin explained, rubbing his eyes after the reading was done. “When it snags, you can cut that point open into a portal.”

“No swinging it about at random,” Mingalaz added drowsily. “You’ll just cut someone.”

With this advice in mind, Bilbo sought out Ori next, needing someone to take notes during his second attempt in case it worked and he forgot how to do it again. Ori sketched his stance, took note of the time of day, remarked on how focused Bilbo looked as he moved the knife, but it ended up being unnecessary.

With Thorin’s words in mind, Bilbo became the tip of the knife, and it wasn’t long before he felt the blade snag on something in the air. Opening his eyes, he couldn’t see whatever the blade was caught on, but there was definitely resistance. He pressed the blade against it a little harder, and felt the blade slip free, tearing right. Bilbo and Ori both gasped, and Ori’s dæmon hooted excitedly. There was a gash in the air, where his blade had cut. He brought the blade down, and to the left, and there was a complete portal hanging open in front of them.

“You really did it,” Ori breathed, staring for a moment before scribbling furiously into his notebook.

“I really did it,” Bilbo agreed, staring dazedly into the portal. There was no mistaking the green, lightly rolling hills. “It’s the shire,” he murmured, and Ori’s quill scratching stopped for a moment.

“Were you thinking of the Shire when you cut?” he asked, his quill poised to write down the answer. “Or do you think maybe you just recognize the feel of your own world?”

“I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular,” Bilbo replied, shaking his head. “Just being the tip of the blade.”

Ori nodded and made some notes. Before long, much of the company, as well as the elves, had noticed the sudden hole in the air, and were coming around to investigate. Bofur and his dæmon whistled in appreciation, either of the greenness of the shire or the fact that Bilbo had opened a portal, he did not know which. Bifur gabbed cheerfully in Khuzdul, and Bilbo was assured that he was comparing the color of the grass to emeralds, which Bilbo took for a compliment. He had told Bombur a thing or two about the plentiful food of his homeland, so it was with hungry eyes that Bombur examined the portal.

Gandalf and Glorfindel examined the portal more thoughtfully, and more importantly, taught Bilbo how to close the portals behind him. “It wouldn’t do for some curious fauntling to stumble onto this portal, and worry his parents by disappearing,” Gandalf reasoned, making Bilbo remember that everyone he knew probably thought he was dead.

“And Gandalf’s the murderer,” Myrtle muttered as they returned to their room after the spectacle.

“So while we have the means to go back, we still can’t,” Bilbo observed, studying the edge of the blade thoughtfully. “Lobelia might attack me with her umbrella, thinking the Shire has wraiths now.”

“She might have done that anyway,” Myrtle observed, shrugging her little shoulders. “There’s nothing between her and Bag End now. Not that you care.”

“You’re right,” Bilbo admitted, surprised at himself. “I don’t. As long as I have this knife, I can go anywhere I want. Even if in the end, the dwarves don’t want us around, it should be easy enough to find a pleasant world to call home with this.” Not that he wanted things to end that way, but it was good to have options. He still didn’t fully understand what it meant that the dwarves had shared their dæmons names. He wasn’t a dwarf after all, and had no way of knowing that they weren’t about to let him go.

“We could stay here,” Myrtle suggested, looking up at one of the slender trees thoughtfully. “I think they’d let us, if we really wanted to.”

“We would be honored,” Arwen said with a smile, emerging from a nearby door. “I was here for some of your mother’s visit, and everyone was quite taken with her. Her son would surely be welcome.”

“O-oh, Lady Arwen!” Bilbo exclaimed, bowing a little, which made her giggle.

“You don’t have to do that,” she assured him, still smiling. Bilbo wondered how she didn’t have lines of young men following her. She was exceptionally beautiful, and he said so, which made her laugh again. “Would you like to hear about one of my ancestors?”

Bilbo didn’t know what that had to do with anything, but he was never one to turn down a story. “Of course!” he assured her, and they sat down on a bench.

“She lived thousands of years ago, and was renowned for her beauty. Some say I look like her, and since some of them actually saw her, I suppose I have to believe them,” she said with a little laugh.

“Luthien Tinuviel,” Bilbo murmured absently, remembering the first words Galadriel had spoken in his head, and Arwen looked at him in surprise.

“You know about her? Ah, of course. I told your mother about her,” she remembered, her smile softening. “She died for love, I assume you know that too.”

“Yes,” Bilbo agreed sadly. “And refused to be reembodied without the man she loved.”

“I worry sometimes what being compared to her means for my future,” Arwen admitted, staring into the distance. “There has been peace between the worlds for thousands of years, but there has also been isolation. Am I supposed to fall in love with a Man? How can I, when our worlds are separate, and my father and grandmother forbid me to leave?” She twisted her lips ruefully. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“You offered me a story, and you’re telling me one,” Bilbo replied, patting her hand comfortingly. “I bothered you constantly during the trip here, so it’s only fair.”

Arwen laughed again. “Your mother told me to just run away. I’m an adult, and should be able to do what I want.”

“Because that’s what she would have done,” Bilbo agreed, smiling fondly. “But you’re still here, aren’t you?” Her dæmon chirped a little song, coming to perch on Myrtle’s head. As with everything, she endured it with grumpy patience.

“I suppose you’re right,” she conceded. “Maybe if you save the worlds, things will be different.”

“That’s a pretty big ‘if’,” Bilbo replied tartly. “Given that we still don’t know how exactly how we’re going to do that.”

“You can do it,” she assured him gently. “Hobbits are kept safe in the Shire for a reason.”

Those words made it very hard to fall asleep that night.

Chapter Text

“I’m afraid we can’t help you with your spiders,” Dís said with a shrug after Tauriel finished her explanation. Legolas gave her a look, as if to say, ‘told you so,’ but Tauriel ignored it. The way Dís’s dæmon was moving around, her eyes full of lively interest, Tauriel suspected there was still something they could get out of this. “I don’t think they would be able to survive here, given the state of our world at the moment.”

“Excluding the wraiths, do you have any other dark creatures here? Orcs, for example? I suspect finding some kind of nest will give us a clue,” Tauriel admitted, keeping Gailon close on her shoulder. She did not want him anywhere near the hyena.

“Orcs we do have,” Dís told them ruefully, patting her dæmon’s head lightly. “But we’ve never found their nest. Not for lack of trying you understand. It’s just that generally we leave none alive, and even when we don’t, something discourages pursuers before they get close to the nest.”

“That doesn’t seem suspicious to you?” Tauriel’s instincts were practically screaming at her. Something was wrong. Gailon shifted uncomfortably, confirming her suspicions.

“It’s absolutely suspicious,” Dís said with a nod. “But my grandfather wasn’t overly concerned with what happened outside the mountain, and after the wraiths killed him, my father was absolutely opposed to letting anyone leave. Now, no one wants to. I cannot order my people to risk the wraiths to fight orcs, on the off chance that they might find something.” She watched them with an expectant air, and that was when Tauriel knew that she’d won.

Legolas sighed quietly. “You cannot order your people, but you can ask us,” he said, with an air of resignation. Tauriel smiled a little. He had read her mind exactly. “We need to know in any case, so we offer our help.”

Dís smiled, and it looked like her dæmon was laughing under the table. “We would be very grateful if you would follow the next raiding party. They have become bolder since my brother left, so one will probably be along shortly,” she explained ruefully. “Until then, you will be honored guests, though I doubt we have any beds quite long enough to fit people of your stature.”

“Thankfully, we sleep sitting up, your highness,” Tauriel informed her, matching Dís’s smile a little more fully. “And I’m told we need less sleep than your kind in general.”

“Such convenient guests, offering to follow our orcs and not being the least bit troubled by our accommodations,” Dís observed, scratching her dæmon behind the ears. “Your manners are such a relief after dealing with grumpy old generals. I do hope you don’t get yourselves killed, and deprive me.”

“We have no intention of doing so,” Tauriel assured her with a bow, and Legolas followed suit.

 


 

The first world Bilbo was instructed to cut into was a wide open plain, with a ruin-covered hill in front of them, and woods behind. The ruins were the only sign of civilization that they saw, and Bilbo couldn’t decide if that was worrying or comforting. For better or for worse, the ruins were their destination, and Bilbo could only hope they weren’t haunted. It would be just their luck at this point.

“I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts anymore,” Myrtle groused good-naturedly, a sharp eye on Thorin, who was fiddling with the compass again, though he didn’t seem to be asking it anything in particular.

“I didn’t believe in dwarves either, and yet here we are,” Bilbo reminded her quietly.

Unluckily for him, it wasn’t quiet enough.

“What’s this now? You didn’t believe in dwarves?” Bofur asked in genial disbelief, teasing him. “Hear that lads? Bilbo didn’t believe in dwarves!”

He definitely heard one of the lads shout, “how could you!” completely seriously.

And of course Óin hadn’t understood a word of it, and asked, “Bilbo doesn’t care for whores?” There was nothing to do then but cover his face and ride out the laughter until Glóin managed to get the real idea through to his brother, at which point Óin was as indignant as the rest of them, his dæmon flapping her wings and screeching. Glorfindel simply watched the spectacle silently, smiling slightly, and Gandalf was clearly suppressing laughter, the traitor.

“Now, now,” Balin said soothingly. “Let us not forget that not a one of us had ever heard of a hobbit before. I think Bilbo can be excused for not believing that our kind was real.”

Not for the first, nor the last time, Bilbo wondered how long ago travel between worlds had been the rule, rather than the exception. Hobbits could be excused for forgetting such things. As long as they were comfortable, little else mattered, and that was why they knew so little of their own history. And the dwarves were similar, he supposed, though at some point they had taught the elves to forge. A long, long time ago.

“Gandalf, do you know what happened in this world?” Thorin asked suddenly, surprising Bilbo. “Do the ruins mean it is uninhabited?”

“I do not think it is uninhabited,” Gandalf said, wrinkling his forehead as he observed the landscape. “There was once a great kingdom of Men here, and it is clear from the state of those ruins that that kingdom is no longer thriving, but these roads are in good repair, so someone must be maintaining them.”

“That kingdom was defeated by the vilest of all the wraiths,” Glorfindel supplied conversationally. “The Witch-King of Angmar.”

“There were wraiths here?” Mingalaz asked, running her paws through the thick grass in disbelief. It certainly didn’t look like a world ravaged by wraiths. “Why is this world not a twisted hulk?”

“The Witch-King was called away by his master, and the Men of this world were able to recover, or so it is thought,” Glorfindel explained. “They made blades that could wound but not kill the wraiths, so I would assume they were able to keep their world from decaying, even if there was no saving their kingdom.”

“Why was the Witch-King called away?” Ori’s dæmon wondered, surprising everyone by speaking.

“Sauron had other plans,” Glorfindel said simply. “Your world, I suspect.”

This world was only a test, Bilbo thought to himself, but didn’t say. There was no point speculating about the motives of an immortal being.

The mood of the company took a sour turn for a while, each member lost in their private thoughts and conversing softly with their dæmons. As depressing as that brief tale had been, Bilbo did not want to dwell on it. They were seeing a new kind of world now, one that had been touched by darkness, but the darkness had left. It could not be called a healthy world, but it wasn’t a dying one.

When they passed travelers on the road, their eyes hard with suspicion and their dæmons thin and wiry, Bilbo had to revise his opinion. Better to avoid the inhabitants of this world.

They made camp that night under a thin stand of trees, within easy walking distance to the hilltop. “We go through in the morning,” Glorfindel said, and no one objected. Initially, Bilbo sat beside Ori, but the scribe was dutifully copying down everything they had learned about that world today, so Bilbo took out his new knife, and started practicing his forms. He should probably return the old one to Fíli, he thought absently, noticing that while Myrtle did keep clear of his footwork, Kurdaz was running all over, clearly trying to confound him.

“She’s as mischievous as Kíli,” Myrtle griped, swiping at the coyote. “You’d think at least one of them would have some sense.”

“I’m helping you practice,” Kurdaz whined. “Aren’t I?”

Bifur’s dæmon answered that before Bilbo could, charging into Kurdaz and escorting her back to Kíli. With Bofur’s help, Bilbo signed a thank you to Bifur, though he did wish he could have done it a little less forcefully, putting Bifur in a cheerful mood for the rest of the evening. Kíli sat next to his brother and pouted.

“You’re looking better,” Thorin observed, startling Bilbo out of his concentration. “That blade suits you better I think, as little as I would like to admit it.”

“It could just be because of its’ power,” Bilbo offered, sensitive to Thorin’s hurt dwarvish pride. “Because I can sense portals, a weapon that creates them just suits me.”

But Thorin shook his head stubbornly. “I am a king of craftsmen, Bilbo. I have made more weapons than you have seen in your life. I know,” he added ruefully, “the weight and balance are better for your size. You must rely on speed, so something small and thin suits you better than Fíli’s rather thick knives.”

Bilbo nodded and said nothing, resuming practicing his forms while Thorin watched, Myrtle darting back and forth, away from Mingalaz’s large paws. Eventually they switched to sparring, and by the end of their practice session, Bilbo had scored several solid hits, all due to catching Thorin by surprise. Myrtle didn’t land any hits on Mingalaz, but that wasn’t the goal of her training, as she admitted to Bilbo afterward. She wasn’t big or fast enough. Her training was about evasion.

“How can you avoid Mingalaz?” Bilbo asked curiously, grooming Myrtle’s fur in the fading light. “It seems like she would be too fast.”

“It’s about tricking her,” Myrtle explained. “Making her think I’m going to go one way, then going another. I don’t have to be faster, just smarter.”

“Hmm,” Bilbo mused. “It must be easier having a dæmon like yours,” he said to Ori conversationally. “Kirthâl can stay out of your way fairly easily.” And with a name that meant ‘the writer,’ it was obvious to anyone that she wasn’t a fighter.

“It’s true that’s useful in its’ own way, but no dwarf wants to have a dæmon that is only valuable in a fight for being able to stay out of the way,” Ori lamented. “They all want fighters, like Mingalaz and Daruthâ. A dæmon who doesn’t get in your way is only barely a step above one who can’t fight or hide. No offense Myrtle,” he rushed to assure her, realizing the badger fell into that category.

“I can stay out of the way now,” Myrtle sniffed. “I believe that means I have moved up a rank.”

“Mind your manners now,” Dori clucked at Ori, grooming his dæmon, and they wisely abandoned the subject. The rest of the night was quiet, except for Fíli and Kíli begging Thorin for their favorite story, of how he earned the name ‘Oakenshield.’ But all Thorin would say was that it wasn’t a story to be told in the shadow of a ruined kingdom, and so the story went untold.

 


 

It was a bit of a disappointment when they reached the top of the hill and Bilbo cut through, to have Glorfindel tell them that he wasn’t cutting a portal to Gondolin yet. “We have a bit farther to go,” was all he would say. So, with more than a little grumbling, the company entered the portal, emerging into a world that was oddly familiar, though Thorin couldn’t put his finger on why.

“It’s the mountains,” Mingalaz murmured. “In this light, they almost look blue.” Like the mountains where the Broadbeams and Firebeards lived. Also like that mountain range, this one looked like it had been cleaved asunder by an angry deity, chunks clearly missing in what must have been epic seismic activity.

“We have to find a way under the mountains,” Glorfindel said, and off they went.

“Gandalf,” Thorin began, his expression thoughtful. “Is there a reason these mountains are familiar to me?”

“I do not know,” Gandalf said, all surprise and innocence, and Thorin didn’t believe him for a second. “But did you really think that there might not be a world or two similar to yours? As I told you when we set out, there are many worlds. More than any mortal could visit in a lifetime. Some are bound to be similar.”

It was a dodge and they both knew it, but his explanation was too reasonable to justify continuing the argument, so Thorin left it alone. He glanced over at Balin and Dwalin, who both nodded.

But then there was something more important to notice. Bilbo hadn’t put his sword away yet, and it quickly became clear why: it was glowing faintly blue, the color becoming stronger all the time.

“Orcs,” Thorin and Glorfindel said at the same time, and as one, the company surged toward the mountains, seeking a more defensible position. In the end, they were pressed up against the cliff face, their dæmons behind them to keep them from the orcs’ grasp, but at least they didn’t have to watch their backs. The orcs were still some distance away, but they were gaining fast.

“We’re outnumbered,” Nori pointed out calmly.

“Any of us is worth ten orcs,” Fíli insisted, though it sounded hollow.

“That might be rough on the hobbit,” Dwalin observed, an eyebrow raised in amusement. Thorin calmed down a little. If Dwalin wasn’t worried, then they were probably going to be fine.

“There are three of them for every one of us,” Glorfindel counted quickly. “Not bad odds. Kíli, with me. We’ll pick some off before they reach us.”

Thorin felt a surge of pride as he watched his nephew match the ancient elf shot for shot. He remembered his mother telling him that elves were the finest archers in all the worlds, and yet apparently Kíli’s training and natural skill were not the least bit deficient in comparison. Not that it was a competition or anything.

Then the orcs were upon them, and there was no more time for idle thoughts. Thorin hacked and slashed with hard, heavy strokes, felling the orcs that ran at him before they could pierce their lines and get to the dæmons. Dwalin’s shouts beside him were familiar, and he fell into an easy rhythm. Whenever he had a moment, he would spare a glance for Bilbo and the younger members of the company, and the sight of them acquitting themselves well would give him renewed fervor.

When the battle was over, the company relatively unscathed and the remaining orcs retreating hastily, Thorin realized that of the four fights they had faced on this journey, this was the only one where they hadn’t needed a rescue. How utterly shameful. If Dís knew, he would never hear the end of it.

“It seems to me like those orcs were expecting us,” Dwalin observed, Daruthâ licking a small cut on his hand.

“It is possible that we just emerged right into their hunting ground,” Gandalf suggested, though there was a note of doubt in his voice. “They could have simply smelled fresh meat and come running.” No one contradicted him, though Thorin shared another look with Dwalin. If there was even the smallest chance that they were being followed, the others would need to stay more on top of their training. They had been lax since Imladris.

The company moved on in a hurry, eager for the shelter of the mountains. “That’s not right,” Thorin muttered, scratching Mingalaz behind the ears absently.

“The mountains are no safer than out here,” she agreed. “Orcs do not like sunlight, and these caves are probably their home.”

“Then we had better not make camp inside them,” Thorin decided, and told the company so. “Not unless we want to wake up the way we did in the Goblin Tunnels.”

Glorfindel hadn’t heard this story, and Gandalf had joined them after they had already been captured, so of course that particular adventure had to be retold, every member of the company contributing something to the telling. Even Bifur, unable to say anything that the elf would be able to understand, managed to mime certains parts of the experience. It was probably careless, walking and talking so boisterously when they had only just encountered orcs, but it was necessary. They were nervous, and needed to laugh about something. Thorin did not join their laughter, but he smiled along, just a little.

They camped at the base of the mountains, near a cave-mouth, though not too near. The way into Gondolin, Glorfindel claimed, was to cut through into the tunnels that lay under the city, for escape in the event of siege or discovery. They could not simply cut through anywhere and find where those tunnels let out, because the entrances had collapsed long ago. Likewise, they could not just cut a portal into the city proper, because the worlds didn’t line up that way, or so he claimed. Whatever that meant.

As dinner roasted over the fire, Thorin took out the compass, now a familiar weight in his hands. “Is this the right thing?” he asked it, and the response was an immediate ‘yes.’ He turned the wheels again, asking, “what must we do once we have the swords?” The answer troubled him, and he said it aloud, just to make sure he hadn’t imagined it.

“You must face a trial, and defeat the weakness in your blood. If you cannot, your people will not be saved,” he repeated quietly, glancing around to see if anyone had heard him. Absorbed in their own little dramas, it appeared that none had, though Bilbo was watching him with an unreadable expression. The hobbit looked away when they made eye contact, and Thorin decided his secret was probably safe for now.

But there was a part of him that wondered, growing stronger with every step they took toward Gondolin… wasn’t his task almost over? He’d gone looking for a way to defeat the wraiths. Even if there was more to be done, hadn’t he nearly done what he’d set out to do? The rest could be done without him if need be, for with Bilbo and Glorfindel, they had no further need of the compass really.

So he slept, doubt creeping into his heart, and though Thorin didn’t know it then, the trial had already begun.

Chapter Text

Acting-Queen Dís had been right. They had only been resting in their guest rooms for a few hours before the alarm for orc attack had gone up, the quiet of the mountain suddenly disturbed by horn calls and shouts, and Tauriel and Legolas had jumped into action. Apparently the guards had been told to leave the matter entirely to the elves, because not one of them lifted a finger to help. Tauriel preferred it that way. She had no doubt that their guards were professionals, but so was she. Doing it this way left everything to her discretion.

There were 20 orcs, and the majority were easily dispatched between the two of them. The remainder fled as planned, and Tauriel sent Gailon ahead to follow them, while she and Legolas (and Tuiwel, of course) followed at a slower pace, so as not to alert the orcs that they were being pursued. For Tauriel’s part, she enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. It had been nothing but spiders for so long, and they were a never-ending nuisance. Maybe hunting these orcs wouldn’t do anything about the spiders, but she was still doing something. Orcs had entered their lands every now and then, though less frequently since the spiders appeared, and maybe they had come from this world.

Protecting the wood from danger was her job, right?

She felt Gailon tugging on their bond, which was their signal to slow down again. “We’re getting close to their nest,” she told Legolas quietly, and with feather-light steps, they crept behind a cluster of boulders. Tuiwel scurried up to the top of the boulders, as she could spy without attracting the orcs attention.

“They’re going through these huge stone doors,” she reported softly. “Going deeper into a mountain.”

“We wouldn’t have much luck tracking them in there,” Legolas observed. “Our senses were deadened by the stone. I could barely hear anything in there, too many echoes.”

“Then we must bring this information back to the dwarves,” Tauriel decided. “Are there any markings on the door?”

“It’s closing!” Tuiwel squeaked. “It says, ‘The doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak Friend and Enter.’”

“Hopefully that will mean more to her highness than it does to us,” Legolas observed wryly, and Tuiwel scampered back down onto his shoulders. “We never did feel anything that made us want to avoid this place, did we?”

“No,” Tauriel agreed. “Maybe whatever it was is gone, or it wasn’t meant to affect elves.” Gailon had returned, and she held out a hand for him to land on. “Did you feel anything?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, nothing that would hold me back. But as I got nearer, I felt something similar to what coming through the portal felt like. There was something flowing in the air. Do you remember? It felt almost like starlight.”

Tauriel and Legolas both started. Neither of them had thought anything of that feeling, simply associating it with the portal. But Gailon hadn’t gone through one on his way to Moria. Had he?

“It looks like we have more questions than answers,” Legolas observed, and Tauriel agreed. And things had seemed so simple when they set out from Mirkwood.

 


 

The sense of safety Thorin felt when they entered the mountain tunnels confirmed his suspicions. He didn’t know how, but somehow, this mountain range was the same as one of the ones back home. But he knew instinctively that he wasn’t back in his own world. It didn’t make any sense, did it? How could they really be the same? He consulted the compass, but apparently he still hadn’t completely mastered it. One symbol kept coming up, and he wasn’t understanding it at all. He thrust it back into his pocket in disgust.

“It probably doesn’t matter,” Mingalaz reasoned quietly, but he really wasn’t in a mood to be reasoned with. Something was strange here, and his only means of knowing wasn’t choosing to make itself understood. It was like there was a memory tugging at the back of his mind, demanding his attention, but whenever he turned to look at it, it ran away.

“You’re probably right,” he said instead, and did his best to ignore the feeling.

They descended deeper and deeper into the mountains, and occasionally something on the cave walls would catch the torchlight a certain way that made him think it was the ghost of a cirth rune, or a carving that time had worn down to its skeleton. Mingalaz just shook her head whenever this happened, as if to say that he was being paranoid, and jumping at shadows. But then he noticed that Dori was running one of his hands along the wall as they walked, as if feeling for something, and was comforted knowing that if he was imagining it, he wasn’t the only one imagining it.

Thorin watched the other members of the company now as they descended. Gandalf led with his staff aloft, light coming from the crystal on top, Glorfindel just behind him. If either of them had noticed anything odd, Thorin didn’t expect to be able to see it on their faces. Bilbo was near them, his little sword held out to sense orcs in the one hand, and Myrtle clutched close in his other arm. Balin and Dwalin were both shifting uncomfortably, their shoulders high and rigid, and their dæmons talking to each other quietly. They were unsettled and didn’t know why, he guessed.

Meanwhile, Glóin tromped forward obliviously, while Óin adjusted his ear trumpet, but neither of them appeared to have noticed anything. Fíli and Kíli looked ready for action, weapons held loosely in their hands and their dæmons muscles tensed, but they weren’t really looking at anything in particular. Aside from Dori, Nori looked relaxed, though that meant little. His dæmon was turning over something in her nimble fingers, which could have been anything from a coin to something she found in the tunnels. Ori was looking around nervously, but that was normal for him. And of course Bifur was twitchy, Bofur was relaxed, and Bombur was eating something.

Thorin was about to look away, thoroughly chastised by the general disinterest of his company, when he noticed that Bombur’s dæmon wasn’t hanging from his beard like she normally was. Since she wasn’t actually a bat, she wasn’t actually nocturnal; she just didn’t like the sun. The only light in the caves was from Gandalf’s staff and their handful of torches, so she was flapping around a little, enjoying the darkness. He would have thought nothing of it, except that she screeched at a patch of wall, and suddenly Bombur was looking at him.

“She found something,” he said, swallowing first.

“Not jumping at shadows then,” Thorin muttered, and Mingalaz nipped his leg. They both knew that bats used sound waves to see, which was how they functioned better in the dark than other animals, so if she had found something, it was really there.

Thorin noted that when the company halted to investigate, Glorfindel looked a little uncomfortable, but brightened a little when they all drew close to the indicated spot. There was a marking on the wall, and it looked… well, not recent, but newer than some of the ruins they’d seen on this journey.

“I put this here, a long time ago,” the elf admitted, tracing the lines of the rune. “I thought maybe someone else had been here and was leaving their own signs, but this is one of mine. We’re almost deep enough to cut through.”

“See? They were just markings left by Glorfindel,” Mingalaz said teasingly once they started moving again. “Not whatever ridiculous thing you were imagining.”

“I was imagining that there was writing on the wall, and I was right,” he reminded her. “Now be quiet.” Kíli was looking at him as if to say, ‘see, she does it all the time, you can’t scold me about it anymore,’ and that was not a road he wanted to be walking down.

“Cut through here,” Glorfindel was telling Bilbo, silencing any blossoming arguments. “Think of a city on a hill in a valley, made of white stone, with silver fountains everywhere, and you’ll find the right world.”

“White stone again?” Bilbo observed nervously, holding up the blade. “Like Numenor and Minas Anor.”

“There’s no such thing as cursed rock, lad.” Dwalin said gruffly, as if reading Bilbo’s thoughts. “Though building out of such flashy materials does make you a bigger target.”

“Given how much gold we saw during our handful of hours in Erebor, I don’t think you get to talk,” Bilbo replied tartly, and closed his eyes to concentrate. Daruthâ nudged Myrtle with her nose, but said nothing. Soon, there was yet another shimmering portal open in the air, though the world on the other side looked a lot like the tunnels they were in now. Of course it would, that’s how they were getting in.

Still, it felt a little anticlimactic. This was the Lost Kingdom of Gondolin, which even the Numenorians had long searched for, and they were sneaking in through the basement like thieves in the night. But then, they were thieves, weren’t they? They’d come to steal swords, and just because their owners were dead didn’t make them less of thieves.

“Thorin.” Bilbo was looking at him oddly, and Thorin realized that he was the last one on the wrong side of the portal. He stepped through with an acknowledging nod, not trusting himself to speak through his embarrassment, and watched Bilbo fumble for the edges of the portal, closing it behind them.

“Do we have a backup plan if these tunnels have collapsed closer to the surface?” Bofur asked casually, conferring silently with his dæmon. “Some of us are certainly miners, but we’re not exactly traveling with all the materials.”

“Bilbo’s sword can do more than cut through the connections between worlds,” Glorfindel said by way of explanation. “You have to be careful with that blade, because it can cut through just about anything. Hopefully it won’t be necessary, as it’s not exactly the ideal tool for tunneling. I didn’t suggest using it on the tunnel entrances, because you could just as easily cause another cave in.”

“You might have mentioned that when you gave it to me,” Bilbo complained. “I was using it for weapons practice! I could have seriously injured someone!”

“You did seriously injure someone, when we fought the orcs,” Thorin reminded him, and Bilbo’s eyes were glued to the floor, as if that had only just occurred to him. “Now we know, you have to practice with the flat of the blade or with another weapon. No harm done.”

But Bilbo said nothing.

 


 

“You killed an orc before, when it had Mingalaz,” Myrtle reminded Bilbo softly as they trooped toward daylight. “That can’t be what’s bothering you now.”

“It’s not,” Bilbo assured her, matching her volume. “They attacked us and we fought back. We’d be dead otherwise, and I know that. But what if I had hurt Thorin? I’m already responsible for several of his injuries!”

“No you’re not,” Myrtle insisted grumpily. “He is. And you didn’t hurt him, so don’t worry about it. We’re almost there, now isn’t the time for ridiculous doubts. As far as you know, our adventure is almost over.”

Bilbo’s eyes widened in surprise. “You’re right, I hadn’t realized that.”

“Exactly. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so rather than waste time, you should be enjoying your time with these idiots,” Myrtle said, burying her little face in Bilbo’s neck. “To say nothing of learning all you can. We’re in a world that was no more than a fairy tale until recently, and we’re here with someone who used to live here. You should be pressing him for information!”

Myrtle was absolutely right. If, in the end, he had no choice but to return to the Shire (a notion that was becoming more unpalatable by the day, though he couldn’t bring himself to be completely honest about why), he might as well get to work recording the history of other worlds. Even if only one other person in the Shire would appreciate the effort, it seemed like a good thing to do. The worlds had existed in ignorance and isolation for too long. Not that that was his decision to make really, but Bilbo didn’t care. They didn’t know what was going to happen, and he felt like he needed to be prepared for anything.

Glorfindel was willing enough to share some things, but when it came to why the world was considered lost, and why there weren’t any more portals connected to it, he fell silent. He did say that the careless use of blades like the one he had given Bilbo were a factor, and that easy access to more of them could have had fairly serious consequences, but he wouldn’t say more than that. Bilbo was disappointed, but he could see the first glimmer of sunshine up ahead, and that was enough to banish gloomy thoughts. Another ancient city was just beyond that light, waiting for him to explore.

He supposed he expected the city to be in ruins, because how could it not be, but rather than ruins, the city was closer to dust. The walls around the city were still intact, standing tall and proud against the forces of time, but the city itself was not like Numenor. There were rings of stone, some standing as high as his waist, which denoted where buildings had been, but there were no buildings that still had roofs or proper walls. Every now and then, they would pass a pool of stagnant water, choked with weeds and slick, mossy stones.

“The fountains Glorfindel mentioned,” Myrtle murmured after they had passed several, and Bilbo resisted the urge to touch the water. Who knew what diseases it carried, after all this time?

“How long ago was it that people last lived here?” he mused, not expected Glorfindel to hear him and reply.

“Nearly 6,000 years ago, I think,” the elf replied. “My people didn’t completely leave the city then, but it was badly damaged during the fight with Morgoth, and many lives were lost. No one really wanted to rebuild it. It felt haunted by the ghosts of the people we failed to save. There were too many memories.”

“I thought elves didn’t truly die,” Ori observed, his quill at the ready. “I thought you were just reembodied.”

“That is true, the first time,” Glorfindel allowed. “But death isn’t without a cost, and it’s very rare to be reembodied a second or third time. The pain becomes too much to bear, they say.”

They fell silent then, the party watching Thorin as he fiddled with the compass. Bilbo felt that Glorfindel’s explanation raised more questions than it had answered, but he was starting to wonder if that was just the way of adventures. Maybe there was just too much to know, and this wasn’t the Shire, where there was an answer to every well-meaning enquiry. Not that that was going to stop him from wanting to know.

“The swords are in the heart of the city,” Thorin reported, looking dissatisfied. “I trust you know how to get there?”

“Like I was there yesterday,” Glorfindel assured him, picking his way through the rubble as if he’d been born to it. His dæmon bounded quickly ahead of him, and was soon completely out of sight. Bilbo shuddered a little at the sight, and noticed some of the dwarves did too. None of them were completely used to the way elves’ dæmons could just walk away like that. She returned before long though, and Glorfindel turned to them, looking slightly abashed. “But it’s too late for us to make it there today.”

Bilbo saw the frustration in the dwarves posture when they made camp that night under a massive tree. They were so close to being able to save their people. Every delay must chafe badly. They needed a distraction, and he suspected he knew who could create one. Setting Myrtle on the ground softly, Bilbo crept over to where Fíli and Kíli sat.

Kíli started by saying, “We haven’t done anything, I swear,” but Bilbo waved that away.

“Obviously that’s not true, but I’m not here about that,” he said with a raised eyebrow. Kurdaz nudged Myrtle with her nose, suddenly more curious.

“Then what is it?” Fíli asked curiously. “You want something, right?”

“Keep your voice down,” Bilbo scolded. “I just thought, everyone seems a little tense, and you two might know how to lighten the mood.”

They exchanged a look. “We just might,” Kíli agreed, and then they were casually approaching their uncle, their dæmons trying to look nonchalant. They failed, and Thorin was clearly eyeing his nephews with suspicion. Bilbo heard them say something about “telling the story,” and eventually Thorin sighed and gave in.

“My nephews have been begging to hear the story of how I earned the title ‘Oakenshield,’ even though they both have the tale memorized,” Thorin told the company, rubbing his temples in resignation. “Does anyone else-”

The rest of his question was drowned out by the sudden enthusiasm of the company. Bilbo of course had never heard the story, and though he was sure the dwarves must all be familiar with it, he doubted they had all heard it from the man himself. Glorfindel even looked a little interested, and Bilbo suspected the elf had a few titles of his own.

“It’s a rather embarrassing tale, so I won’t be repeating it,” Thorin cautioned them, letting out a huff when Mingalaz plopped down on his lap, as if heedless of her weight. “When my brother and I were young, we were also careless, and liked to play outside the mountain. One day, we went too far, and were ambushed by orcs. Frerin was injured, and I had nothing to defend myself, but then I saw a branch on the ground from a nearby oak tree. With that branch, I defended both of us until help arrived, and so became ‘Oakenshield.’ The title was more of a joke than an honor.” Thorin was smiling though, so if that title ever troubled him, Bilbo thought he had long since made peace with it.

“That wasn’t an embarrassing story at all,” Bilbo observed, and Myrtle nodded with as much vigor as she could muster. It wasn’t much. The dwarves stared at Bilbo open-mouthed, and he wondered what he had said wrong now.

“It is inconceivable for our children to be so thoughtless as to leave the mountain unarmed,” Thorin explained, once his fellows had picked their jaws up off the ground. “And for the princes to be so careless…”

“So what? You were kids. Children are supposed to be careless,” Bilbo argued, noticing that he was still getting odd looks. But Thorin had a brother! Maybe that was who he had seen die in the mirror. That… wasn’t something he could just carelessly ask about.

“The difference between a peaceful world and a troubled one,” Gandalf observed sadly, and the melancholy mood returned. Bilbo found himself glanced over at Thorin, and every now and then he would catch Thorin looking away.

“Do you think what I said bothered him?” he asked Myrtle in a soft whisper, and the badger snorted in response.

“I think you have feelings for him, and you’re reading too much into every action,” Myrtle replied, matching his volume.

“That’s ridiculous,” Bilbo spluttered. “I don’t have feelings for him.” At Myrtle’s utterly disbelieving stare, he amended the statement a little. “I mean, I like him well enough, especially once he stopped glaring at us, but Thorin’s someone you admire from afar, like a statue or something.”

Myrtle snorted again. “That’s giving him too much credit, though maybe dwarves think being called a statue is a compliment. He’s a king, but what is that to us? He’s on a grand quest, but then again so are we. Don’t be foolish.”

He caught Thorin looking away again, and suspected that more foolishness was going to be hard to avoid.

Chapter Text

“‘The doors of Durin, Lord of Moria?’” Dís repeated faintly. Her dæmon was shaking, and Tauriel wondered if maybe this was a report they shouldn’t have brought back. “The name of Durin I know, he is my ancestor and the founder of our clan. But… I don’t know why, I think I’ve always thought that Erebor was his kingdom. And something is telling me now how wrong that was.” She shook her head. “I need to do some research.”

“I don’t know how much help we can be, but I offer my service anyway,” Tauriel said, stroking Gailon’s ruffled feathers. He had been cheerful enough outside the mountain, soaring through the sky, but he didn’t like being underground much.

“Orcs taking refuge in what looks like an abandoned dwarf kingdom,” Legolas mused. “I can’t say that’s what I expected to find when we left the wood.”

“Will you return to your father?” Tauriel asked, biting down on her trepidation. She didn’t need Legolas’s help, but she did like having it.

The elf prince shook his head. “No. Something is moving in the darkness, something that needs to be dealt with. I hope you will accept my help as well, your highness.”

“How can I refuse?” Dís observed, smiling slightly. Her dæmon cackled, her yellow eyes watching them with a distinctly predatory gaze. “I don’t know how much of our older texts you’ll be able to read, as our language is not taught to outsiders, but if you could read that door, we must have writings that you can read.” Regally, she swept out into the hallway, leaving the elves to follow. Where their height had intimidated the other dwarves, Dís almost made the elves feel gangly and awkward. Almost. Dís was clearly someone who was never uncomfortable, and Tauriel envied her that. Fighting was Tauriel’s area, not people. There was a reason Gailon was a bird of prey.

Erebor’s library was impressive, a long room with high ceilings, shelves of tomes and tablets stretching off into the distance. The light in the room was natural, provided by thin skylights cut into the rock, and Tauriel savored the feeling of the light on her skin. She didn’t need to look at Gailon to know that he taken off, soaring up to the skylights. The gasps and mutters of the dwarf scholars was enough to confirm that, reminding her that dwarf dæmons were very short range. She noted that Tuiwel was keeping close to Legolas, probably for that reason.

Dís led them all the way to the back, into shelves that looked like they hadn’t been touched in decades at least. The dust was thick in the air, and Tauriel noticed that Dís’s dæmon seemed unsettled, snuffling and tossing her head.

“No one goes near these books anymore, rumor has it that they’re cursed,” Dís explained. “That same feeling that kept us from following the orcs kept us from going too near these books.”

“But you’re here now,” Legolas pointed out.

“They say Elves have mysterious powers,” Dís observed. “I feel a little unsettled, but not enough to walk away. Pick out a book, see if you can read it, and we’ll see what we can find.”

If it didn’t seem like this was work for a Queen and a Prince, no one said anything about it.

 


 

Bilbo wondered what he had expected to find at the city center. It was as ruined as the rest of the city, and the swords weren’t just laying there, waiting for them.

“This city was looted after it fell,” Glorfindel explained heavily. “Only some of our blades could open portals, and as no one was making them anymore, they were in demand. The open portals you’ve encountered so far were left by ancient owners of these weapons, who carelessly, or intentionally, left the portals open.”

“What swords are left will be under the rubble, I have no doubt,” Gandalf suggested, and though Bilbo had to wonder if anything trapped under the rock would still have an edge, the dwarves apparently weren’t discouraged, and got right to work shifting the rock.

“This is our area,” Bofur assured him when he tried to help, and so Bilbo was left sitting off to one side, feeling more useless than he had yet.

“We’d just get in their way,” Myrtle muttered, settling onto Bilbo’s lap. “We may be better at fighting, but we’re not strong, and we know nothing about stone.”

“I know, I know,” Bilbo replied, trying not to snap at her. “It just doesn’t feel right, sitting and watching while they work.”

“Then do something else,” Myrtle suggested. “Practice with the knife, or practice making portals. There have to be some tricks to it that you haven’t discovered yet.”

There were, as it turned out. So far, he had focused on the world that Glorfindel described, and that was the world he opened. But, if he dragged his blade through the air, he could feel all of the possible openings, and each felt a little different. He had opened a portal to the Shire the first time because he had a natural affinity with his own world, or so it seemed. When the tip of the blade touched the opening for the Shire, he felt a strange warmth, although he discovered that Erebor felt similar, except hard instead of soft. When Ori tired, he trotted over to take notes on what Bilbo had discovered.

“I’d like to see some of your notes someday,” Bilbo said, sheathing the knife. “There must be an encyclopedia’s worth already.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s all terribly dry,” Ori demurred, and Bilbo was forced to accept that for the moment.

“I think I found something,” Fíli called from where he and Kíli were shifting some rock, and everyone quickly dropped what they were doing to hurry over. From what Bilbo could see, and that was admittedly not much, there might be some very dusty sheaths under their pile of rubble. Or something else. It could just be an ornately carved piece of wood, though he doubted something like that would have survived the elements for so long. Only a sliver of something under the rubble was visible, and Bilbo didn’t have Elf eyes.

“Move those rocks aside,” Thorin ordered, and the dwarves sprang into action with new vigor. Their efforts and Fíli’s observations were rewarded: they found two swords hidden under the rubble, their sheaths positively encrusted with an age or two’s worth of dirt and dust. But when they were drawn, the swords looked just like Bilbo’s, without a trace of rust or wear on them. The dwarves looked at them in awe, but on Glorfindel they had quite another effect.

“Of all the swords to be hiding here, I never expected these,” he breathed, his eyes wide and fixed on the swords.

“You know these blades?” Gandalf asked curiously, feeling the weight of one of them.

“The one you hold was made for my king,” Glorfindel said, not looking away. “Glamdring, the foe-hammer. The other,” he observed, turning to the one Thorin was examining, “is Orcrist, the goblin-cleaver, and the mate of Glamdring.”

“These swords have a sentimental value for you,” Mingalaz observed. “Perhaps it would be better-”

Glorfindel shook his head. “No. Swords are weapons, meant to be used. Their wielders are long dead, and these swords can save lives now. Take them, and do what their original owners could not.”

Bilbo wondered why no one questioned that Thorin received one of the swords, and Gandalf got the other. Didn’t they say that they wouldn’t save their world with just one blade? Gandalf would help of course, but it looked like he had other ideas, based on the way he was conversing quietly with his dæmon. Thorin meanwhile was curled up with his compass, probably asking it what to do next, and the rest of the company fell into familiar patterns. Did any of them wonder what was next?

Bilbo looked over at Dwalin, but he and Daruthâ were leaning against a wall, looking relaxed but alert. No help there. Dwalin was just waiting for orders.

Suddenly, Thorin straightened, tucking the compass away, and instantly everyone else was alert. “What next?” Dwalin asked, as the company automatically gathered around.

“It said that we should try to go home,” Thorin said, his brow knit in puzzlement.

“That would probably be for the best,” Gandalf agreed. “I have some things to look into myself before I can say if there is more that you must do to protect your people. For now, returning with a weapon that can fight the wraiths will at the very least stabilize the situation there.”

“And you need the other sword for protection during your travels,” Balin observed, his lips pursed and eyebrows raised. Ranakâl ruffled her feathers irritably. So they were questioning Gandalf taking the other sword.

“You know firsthand now that one never knows what dangers might be encountered on the road between worlds,” Gandalf replied, raising his own eyebrows. “I’ll keep it as a reminder that your task is not yet over, Thorin Oakenshield. This is merely a temporary reprieve for your people, not a final solution.”

The company settled in for the night, Bilbo drawing closer to Thorin unconsciously. Would he be going home with the dwarves, or would they send him back to the Shire?

“You look like you want to say something to me,” Thorin observed, startling Bilbo. Mingalaz stalked close to Myrtle, who responded by burying herself in Bilbo’s bedroll.

“I was just wondering what going home means for me,” Bilbo admitted. “The journey is uncertain right now, and I don’t even know if I want to go back to the Shire. They probably think I’m dead.”

“I’m relieved to hear you say that,” Thorin admitted quietly, then quickly reassured, “not for the reason you suspect. But much about the journey is uncertain in my mind as well. I feel that I have done what I set out to do, and that if there is more, others may do that. I need to return to my people, and give them leadership. At the same time, I wonder if there is more to do, and if doing it would be running away.”

Bilbo realized his mouth was hanging open, and promptly closed it. “I’m glad you didn’t say you were relieved that my neighbors think I’m dead,” he said lamely, unable to think of a proper response to Thorin’s admission. He felt like he’d been granted a great intimacy, like Thorin had opened a small window into his mind. Maybe that was normal now that he knew Mingalaz’s name.

“You hesitate. I have disappointed your ideas of what a king should be,” Thorin guessed, his face falling a little.

“No, no,” Bilbo rushed to assure him. “I have no ideas about what a king should be, and it almost seems like neither do you.”

Thorin looked like he’d taken a blow to the chest, and Mingalaz sat stock still. Bilbo was about to apologize for going too far when Thorin spoke instead. “A king gives everything for his people,” he said slowly. “But my father and grandfather both died because they started acting strangely, and threw themselves in the path of the wraiths. I fear some sickness lay in their minds, and that it is in mine as well.”

“An abnormal dæmon, childhood recklessness, some say these are signs that something is not quite right,” Mingalaz observed darkly, rubbing her head against Thorin. “When we have a task, we can forget those words. Without one, we cannot.”

Long after the conversation was over, Bilbo would worry, and feel more than a little guilty for wondering if the fact that Thorin had shared so much with him meant something.

 


 

“You didn’t have to make it about you,” Mingalaz muttered as the company trekked back the way they came. They needed to find a good spot to cut portals for Gandalf and Glorfindel. “He was practically begging you to ask him to stay in Erebor.”

“And I wanted to warn him that that might not be a good idea,” Thorin replied firmly. “I am hardly the one who said too much.”

Mingalaz grumbled, but Fíli and Kíli had returned from scouting and were eager to give him their report, so his dæmon quieted.

“The tunnel exits aren’t caved in as badly Glorfindel thought, so he and Gandalf can take a shorter way back,” Fíli reported. Bundâl was covered in dust and dirt though, so clearly it wasn’t an easy way.

“And we’re to cave them in properly once they’re gone, to make it harder to get here,” Kíli concluded. “He wasn’t happy that our dæmons were able to get through.”

“No surprise, this city is ancient and full of secrets,” Kurdaz observed, nodding along with herself. “He probably wants to protect his old home from looters.”

“Looters like us,” Bundâl replied wryly.

“We had permission!” Kurdaz shot back, adopting a more aggressive pose. Mingalaz cuffed them both on the head.

“Find out if Bofur and Bifur still have any mining explosives,” Thorin ordered, and his nephews took off immediately, and were replaced by Balin.

“You’re worried about something,” Balin observed.

“I’m not,” Thorin assured him, but Balin looked unconvinced.

“How long have I known you, Thorin? You didn’t even try to scold the lads for their foolishness. Something is wrong,” Balin concluded, he and Ranakâl looking at him with matching piercing gazes.

Thorin sighed heavily. “The compass said that we should ‘try’ to go home. I’m just worried that it won’t be as easy as we think, because it said ‘try.’”

Balin tsked, and shook his head lightly. “It undoubtedly means something, but what can be done? We will be vigilant, and that is all we can do,” he assured Thorin. There was more to this worry, from the compass’s earlier words about a trial, but Thorin didn’t mention it. Balin was right, there was nothing they could really do.

Fíli and Kíli had not lied: there was light coming from the end of the tunnel, though it was fragmented. Time had worn some of the collapse away, leaving holes near the top that small dæmons could worm through, though he had no idea how Glorfindel intended he and Gandalf to get through.

The Elf quickly answered that question by shifting some of the rocks, and the miners in his company rushed to help. The hole was soon big enough for someone tall and thin to slip through, though his dwarves would have struggled, and Glóin and Bifur’s dæmons never would have fit.

“Cut a portal here,” Glorfindel instructed Bilbo, pointing to the far side of the hole they’d widened. Thorin tried not to stare as Bilbo wiggled into the hole, his knife extended in front of him.

“What should I be thinking of?” Bilbo asked, his voice muffled by the rock still surrounding him. Myrtle was sitting about as far from him as she could get, eyeing the remains of the cave in with clear distaste.

“Imladris,” Glorfindel supplied. “If I had known this was in this state, we could have avoided the two worlds in between.”

When Bilbo made his cut and pulled back, squirming out of the gap, Thorin caught a glimpse of the world he’d cut open. It didn’t look like Imladris. All he saw was a scrubgrass plain, with a heavy boulder set into it. Bilbo was scratching his head, as if he agreed with Thorin’s silent thoughts. “It felt like Imladris, but this doesn’t look right,” he admitted.

“No, you’ve done admirably,” Gandalf assured him. “This is the hidden entrance, which is why it is called the hidden valley. It is another way in, and out if we had known this way was open to us.”

“We saw that a world can recover from the evil of the wraiths,” Thorin said. “Though it was a detour, it was not a worthless one.”

“And we also saw a mountain range that looks strangely familiar,” Mingalaz muttered, inaudible to any except Thorin. “That probably had value too.”

“I am glad you think so,” Gandalf said with the faintest hint of a smile. “Well, I will find my way to Erebor when I have news, and I trust you can handle things there in the meantime.” He offered his hand, which Thorin shook.

“Thank you for your help so far,” Thorin told him graciously, and Gandalf snorted.

“Oh, my help, is it? I am afraid that my true help is yet to come, though I hope that I am wrong. Be well until that time, and do not take any rash actions without me,” Gandalf concluded, and then the wizard was crawling through the hole, into the portal beyond.

“Oh, so we can take rash actions with him,” Mingalaz muttered, and Thorin nudged her into silence with his foot.

Glorfindel was next, his mongoose dæmon already through the portal. “I do not often lead parties into my old homeland. There is too much death and decay there, and it is better to let it rest. But, if our relics can protect the living, I am glad I was able to be of service.” He bent slightly and grasped Thorin’s shoulder, and Thorin returned the gestured.

“We are grateful for your help,” Thorin assured him, and he really did mean it. “I doubt we could have gotten this far otherwise.”

Glorfindel smiled, but then his smile faltered. “I only hope it will be enough,” he said cryptically, and then he was gone, and the portal was closed behind him. But there was no time to dwell on his words. They needed to close the tunnel behind him, and make for the world with the blue mountains. Thorin gave the order, the explosives were placed, and they retreated deeper into the tunnels to cut their way to safety. The boom that tore through the tunnels as Bilbo closed the portal behind them suggested that no one would be able to go that way for a long time to come.

Chapter Text

It seemed absolutely strange that it was so easy to find the information they sought, when not one of the dwarves knew a thing about this ‘Moria,’ or Khazad-dum, as they learned the proper Khuzdul name was. There had been books and books on it, though they had been buried under other books, describing its greatness, and how much of a shame it was that it was no more. According to some records, it had only fallen a thousand years ago, and to Tauriel, forgetting something that recent was inconceivable. It was still well within living memory for elves, and only a few generations for dwarves.

How then could they have forgotten it?

Tuiwel was chirruping excitedly, and Tauriel glanced over at Legolas. He was engrossed in whatever he was reading, his intense gaze traveling down the page at a rapid clip.

“You found something,” Tauriel observed, coming to look over his shoulder. The left page was covered in runes that she couldn’t read, but the right page was what she assumed had captured his attention. It depicted some manner of demon, wreathed in flame, rising from some kind of shining abyss. Small figures cowered from the giant creature, and it was only Dís’s hushed exclamation that tore her attention away from it.

“Durin’s bane,” the dwarf queen breathed, her eyes fixed on the text.

“You know of this creature?” Tauriel had never seen anything like it before.

Dís shook her head. “No, that’s just what the runes say. But now that I say it aloud, something about it does sound familiar.”

“Read the rest,” her dæmon urged her, surprising the elves by speaking aloud, but Dís was clearly distracted, and so she only did as she was told.

“‘Here lie the accounts of the few miners who saw the beast come forth from the abyss, and lived long enough to tell of it,’” Dís read, her eyes shooting down the page. “‘A new seam of mithril had been discovered, and they were working on opening it, when a sickening crack sounded, and several of the miners found their lines cut, plunging into the abyss, where it is assumed they died instantly.’”

“Skip ahead some,” her dæmon muttered, and Dís rolled her eyes.

“‘The surviving miners looked down, and saw a strange glowing light near the walls below them, though the darkness beneath them looked blacker than ever,’” Dís continued with a sharp look at her dæmon. “‘Then, a monstrous hand reached out from the abyss. Then another. They saw the tips of wings and horns, and then the demon itself emerged and they fled. For a full year, Durin V tried to fight the demon, but mundane weapons did not harm it, and Durin’s folk fled, eventually establishing this home, the kingdom of Erebor. We call the beast ‘Durin’s bane,’ as it still dwells in his kingdom.’”

Tauriel was left with the same question gnawing at her: how could the dwarves have forgotten something like this? Only now, she had some new questions: What was the ancient demon that climbed out of the abyss? And what was the golden light, and the cracking sound that heralded it? She didn’t know how, but she was certain that these were questions that needed answering if she wanted to protect the Wood.

 


 

Something was undeniably wrong. Bilbo claimed he had encountered resistance cutting through to Erebor, and recalling Glorfindel’s words about how the worlds lined up, Thorin had encouraged him to open a portal to another world, and they would find their way from there. Thorin was regretting this suggestion.

The world Bilbo had led them to seemed normal enough. They were inside a mountain, and he should be happy about that. But his instincts were screaming at him to get out, and Mingalaz was shaking like a leaf. She couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, tell him why, and that was worrying. Before he had been able to ask the other members of the company if their dæmons felt the same, or suggest that they turn back, a tremor had shaken the mountain, and he’d feared that Bilbo wouldn’t know what to do. Trusting that the others could handle a little seismic activity, he’d rushed forward to help the hobbit. In the end, he and Bilbo had been trapped on one side of a cave in. Having used all of their mining explosives and being unwilling to risk another cave in trying to cut through with Bilbo’s sword, there was no easy way to break down the wall. Breathing hadn’t become any more difficult, which suggested an exit, so ultimately Thorin and Bilbo had moved on. They could reunite with the rest of the group somewhere else in the mountain.

That was looking less and less likely the longer they wandered. Mingalaz was growling and snapping, her fur standing on end, and wouldn’t respond to any attempt to communicate. Myrtle looked unsettled, but she was quite able to tell them both that she was fine.

“Perhaps it would be wiser to leave this world, travel some distance, then return,” Thorin suggested, and Bilbo tried as much.

“I can’t cut through,” he panted after several failed attempts. “We must be underground in every world.”

So they had no choice except to follow the path, with an increasingly unstable Mingalaz in tow. Thorin couldn’t understand it. He felt fine, for the most part. If anything, watching Mingalaz act like a rabid animal was making him unstable. He remembered what he had seen in the mirror, and he wondered.

The tunnel eventually started widening, until they reached a chamber with ceilings high enough that his grandfather might have envied them. A natural air pocket? But something about the stone looked like it had been shaped by hands and tools, not wind and water. Like the mountains they had passed through on the way to Gondolin, these walls looked as though they had once held dwarves.

Lost in these thoughts, Thorin did not immediately notice that Bilbo and Myrtle had gone still, but when he did, he followed the Hobbit’s gaze. What he had initially taken for part of the wall was apparently a living creature, because as he watched, it drew breath. The longer he looked, the more he wondered at his inattention. Walls did not generally have scales or spines.

Or wings.

“Back in the tunnel,” Thorin murmured, throwing an arm in front of Bilbo.

Bilbo nodded quickly, though he didn’t go immediately. “What is it?” he whispered, his eyes fixed on the giant creature before them.

Thorin had never seen one, or at least he thought he hadn’t, but he knew the name instinctively. “Dragon,” he replied in a clipped tone, settling on shoving the hobbit back into the tunnel.

When he heard Mingalaz growl, a full-throated bark almost, her fangs bared at a creature she could not fight, Thorin knew he was too late. The dragon’s breathing changed, no longer the steady rhythm of sleep, and it started shifting. It wouldn’t be a fast process, moving all that bulk, but there was no point fleeing deeper into the tunnels. The dragon might not be able to pursue them, but if the legends were true, it could breath fire, which could absolutely follow them, as well as eat up their air. Something that size could also bring the mountain down around their heads.

“You will have to face a trial,” the compass had said. What a trial this was.

While Thorin contemplated what to do, the dragon wasted no time picking itself up from its slumber, and was now turning to face them. Thorin wondered how he had missed that it was sitting on a pile of gold, and that it looked like there was something sitting on its’ back.

The dragon stared at Thorin, its huge eyes boring into him, and Thorin stared back with what defiance he could muster. Mingalaz was in the throes of panic, and he did his best to ignore her. The dragon surprised him, and if its reptilian mouth was capable of smiling, he suspected it was doing so now.

“Oakenshield,” the dragon said, his sonorous voice shaking Thorin’s very bones. He knew Bilbo was behind him, and he felt the hobbit’s grip on the back of his jacket tighten. “I wondered how much longer it would be before you found your way here.”

“How do you know that name?” Thorin demanded, hoping that his voice didn’t shake too much. The way the dragon’s head and neck moved as the beast considered him was almost serpentine. It turned his stomach.

“I have been here and there,” the dragon replied, sparing Bilbo a glance before turning its’ attention back to Thorin. “I have seen things, and met one who told me you would one day join me.”

“Join… you?” Thorin’s throat was dry, and he struggled to keep drawing even breaths. He felt claws pressing into his shirt, and tried to let that feeling steady him.

“I know all about you, Thorin Oakenshield,” the dragon continued, with an air of unconcern. “I know where you come from, I know what your weaknesses are, and most importantly, I know your dæmon’s name.”

Thorin couldn’t speak, wondering who had betrayed him to this creature, but the dragon simply laughed. “Oh, no one told me. I know. The ones who are susceptible always have the same types of names. Always something to do with the sky. The sky! As if filthy dwarves have any business taking flight! Mingalaz, really,” he spat.

“Who are… susceptible?” Thorin managed to croak out, his eyes locked with the dragons’. All he could do was repeat after the dragon dumbly, it seemed. "Susceptible to what?"

Another reptilian snort. “Why, to becoming dragons, of course.”

And that was when Thorin realized that Mingalaz had started growing scales.

 


 

Bilbo hadn’t grown up on tales of dragons, as his mother had been lucky enough to avoid seeing one. But every child in the Shire knew that you never tell a dragon your name, and you never look one in the eyes. That’s all they need to hypnotize you. Other details might vary in the telling, but that was always the same. And this dragon was clearly hypnotizing Thorin. The longer the dragon talked, the less Thorin seemed capable of speaking, and all the while Mingalaz was writhing, tearing at the scales with her increasingly sharp claws.

The dragon swiveled its’ neck, and Bilbo caught a glimpse of what was sitting on its back: an ancient, wizened dwarf, whose head lolled back helplessly. Bilbo shuddered. When Thorin had said that after torture, dwarven dæmons had become monsters, this was what he had meant. If he didn’t do something, Mingalaz was going to become a dragon, and Thorin would sit blindly on her back, his mind utterly gone.

“We have to do something,” Bilbo hissed, holding Myrtle close.

“If we can distract Thorin, break his eyeline with the dragon, maybe the hypnosis will stop, and Mingalaz will go back to normal,” Myrtle suggested.

“I doubt it’s that simple,” Bilbo replied, grabbing Thorin’s shoulder and trying to shake it. Thorin didn’t even budge, let alone look his way. “It must take a lot to make an adult’s dæmon change, even if Thorin was vulnerable to that change. I don’t think we can break something like that so easily.” Even as they spoke, Mingalaz’s fangs were elongating, and she was definitely getting bigger. They were running out of time.

“When Mingalaz is a dragon, it will be too late,” Myrtle hissed, clawing at Bilbo until he dropped her. “I’ll try with Mingalaz. You figure something out with Thorin.” Bilbo heard the dragon tell Thorin that he could use this power to protect his people, and saw how Thorin was clutching his head, and heedless of the dragon, hurried out in front of Thorin.

The dwarf king looked right through him, his clear blue eyes seeing nothing except the dragon. So Bilbo tried talking to him. “He’s wrong, Thorin,” Bilbo said, his voice pleading. “Mingalaz isn’t named that because she was meant to be a dragon. She’s named that because of her eyes, the same as yours. They look like they were taken from the sky, and trapped on the ground.”

Thorin blinked, his eyes still hazy and unfocused, but it was a reaction. It was something.

Encouraged, Bilbo went on. “Your eyes may be strange for a dwarf, but they are nothing to be ashamed of. It just means you were born to have your eyes focused on the horizon, on bigger and better things,” Bilbo continued. “You can’t protect your people if Mingalaz is a dragon and you’ve lost your mind. You might be able to kill the wraiths, but probably not, and anyway you would be likelier to kill your own in the process. You can’t give up now. You have to see this journey through, to the very end.”

Bilbo had the dragon’s full attention now that Mingalaz’s transformation was slowing. “You know nothing,” the dragon boomed, his teeth inches from Bilbo’s head, and his foul breath filling the air. “Who are you, to say such things? A thief! A thief who would steal my kin from me!”

He should have been afraid. Bilbo was well within reach of a creature that could as easily kill him as blink. But he wasn’t afraid. The dragon needed Thorin, that much was clear. As long as Bilbo stayed close to Thorin, the dragon couldn’t hurt him without risking Thorin. Probably. But as long as the dragon was focusing on him, and not Thorin, the hypnotism ought to break, right? The childhood warnings had been admittedly vague on the subject of breaking a dragon’s hypnosis except to avoid it entirely.

“I have not come to steal from you,” Bilbo said, hoping the quaver in his voice wasn’t too obvious. He steadfastly refused to make direct eye contact. “We were merely passing through, and I would be grateful if you would let us continue to pass through.”

“Not likely,” the dragon replied, somehow managing to slip sarcasm through his massive fangs. “He stays, and you die.”

Bilbo doubted the dragon had the dexterity to separate him from Thorin without also crushing Thorin, but just to be safe, as the claws came down, he slammed into Thorin with all the strength he could muster, pushing them both backward, farther into the tunnel. He heard the whoosh as the claws just barely avoided him, and the frustrated grunts from the dragon when he found that he’d missed.

His relief was short-lived. A quick glance at Mingalaz revealed that while he’d been chatting with the dragon, her transformation had sped up again, and if her cries meant anything, it wasn’t painless. She was now twice as large as she had been, scales covering most of her body, and those were definitely wing buds bursting out of her back. Swallowing his disgust, Bilbo turned back to Thorin, who he was definitely not sitting on top of, pressing into the ground, not at all. Thorin was watching him bemusedly, his attention no longer fixed on the dragon, but there was also no recognition in his eyes.

Of course there wasn’t, Bilbo scolded himself with a shake of the head. If Thorin was really in there, he would have shoved him off by now, or demanded that he never put himself in that kind of danger again. He would have… done more than just stare up at him.

“No, he has to be in there,” Bilbo muttered, steeling himself. He couldn’t give up now. There had to be something that could snap Thorin out of it. Words had done something, but they clearly weren’t enough when the dragon could just counter with words of his own. But what could he do? He was determined not to lose Thorin to this, but was determination enough?

“Show him,” Myrtle said suddenly, her attempts to calm Mingalaz clearly not working. Then again, Mingalaz had been beyond reason even before encountering the dragon. Myrtle’s soft words and gentle touches did nothing then, and less now.

“What?” Bilbo asked, Myrtle’s curt suggestion not making any sense.

The badger grunted irritably. “Show him your determination. Show him that you’re not willing to lose him. He and Mingalaz told us that they need to feel necessary, remember?” Myrtle pointed out, referencing a conversation that felt like it had been so long ago now. “This isn’t the time to keep denying that we care about these idiots. If you don’t do something, all we’ll have left of them is regret. And possibly burns. You can go back to blushing and avoiding eye contact when we make it out of this.”

He wanted to deny that he had done any of those things, but this wasn’t the time. Thorin’s eyes were growing more and more distant all the time, so he couldn’t dither and flounder in indecision. Bilbo felt a little bad doing this when Thorin’s mind was under attack, but Myrtle was right. If nothing else, he might shock Thorin out of the hypnosis, and if he failed, his death would probably be punishment enough for trespassing against a hypnotized man.

“I’m going to wake you up,” Bilbo told Thorin, trying to maintain eye contact. Thorin’s eyes were tight and unfocused with pain, so Bilbo assumed that he had not been heard. Oh well. Taking a deep, gulping breath, Bilbo leaned down, and kissed Thorin.

It wasn’t an ideal first kiss by any means, with the other half of the kiss not currently master of his own mind, dæmon shrieking in agony nearby, but this was hardly the time to feel disappointed. And after several long, agonizing moments, the strangest thing began happening: Thorin was kissing him back.

Chapter Text

A balrog of Morgoth. The light of the two trees. An abyss torn open under the world, bleeding the world dry. A red-haired elf maid constructing some sort of spyglass, not knowing exactly what it was she was looking for. Galadriel had seen many things in her mirror, enough to know that she was witnessing the distant and more recent past of another world. But what bearing that past would have on the present, she could not say.

“What did you see?” Ornalaurëa asked, his wings folded at his sides. “I do not understand the images that passed over our bond.”

“The answers to questions that someone else has been asking,” she guessed, her eyes turned skyward. “I must open a portal to the realm of the Dwarves. I have overlooked something, and the turning point is already upon them. It might be too late, but I must warn them anyway.”

“Overlooked what?” Ornalaurëa wondered, tilting his head. “That’s not like you.”

“The wraiths never had the power to render a world barren,” Galadriel replied grimly. “The power to end life swiftly, either by blade or by stealing a dæmon’s power… those are their powers. They do not siphon the life of a world.”

Ornalaurëa clacked his beak a few times before responding. “The abyss you saw…? What was flowing out of it?”

In answer, Galadriel toyed with a lock of her hair, said to resemble the light of the two trees. “The source of all life.”

 


 

It was almost alarming, the ferocity with which Thorin returned the kiss. For someone who had spent a lot of time in the last several minutes staring at him dumbly, Thorin seemed remarkably interested. In fact, Bilbo tried to sit up, convinced that the kiss had done what he had intended, only to find himself trapped by one of Thorin’s large hands pressing on the small of his back. Rather than squeak or try to free himself, Bilbo glanced over at Mingalaz. She seemed to be shrinking before his very eyes, the scales and wing buds retreating, and she wasn’t growling and crying out anymore.

“It’s working,” Myrtle confirmed tiredly, stroking Mingalaz’s rapidly sprouting fur gently. “Keep kissing him.” Bilbo rolled his eyes, because really, how romantic. Then again, that had hardly been his first thought when he’d made the decision to lock lips.

Thorin growled, demanding his full attention, and Bilbo intended to give it… until a claw like a meat hook slammed into his chest and he collided with the tunnel wall.

“Right, the dragon,” Bilbo wheezed, the wind and definitely some blood knocked out of him. And something had cracked, though he couldn’t tell if it was the stone behind him or his ribs. His spine maybe?

“You’re in shock,” Myrtle said with a pained grunt, hobbling over to him. “Stop trying to think, just pet me.”

“If my arms still work,” Bilbo quipped, but he found that they did, and petting Myrtle did do wonders for his panic. Until he saw what he had missed while recovering from being thrown against a wall.

Thorin had recovered his feet at some point, and stood with Orcrist drawn, positively snarling at the dragon. As for Mingalaz… Bilbo’s heart sank. Whatever effect he’d had on her transformation had been reversed in an instant. Where the mountain lion had been now stood a glistening black dragon, her scales shining like obsidian in the faint light. She was smaller than the other dragon, but with her fangs bared and wings extended, Bilbo suspected she was easily fiercer. His heart clenched when he saw that her eyes were still that same shade of blue that had initially entranced him.

Bilbo could just barely make out Mingalaz roaring, “YOU DO NOT TOUCH HIM,” before she threw herself at the red dragon. He thought he saw real fear in the other dragon’s eyes as he spat a gout of flame at her, but it was too late. Bilbo hadn’t been able to stop the transformation, but he had broken the hypnosis. Mingalaz was fully a dragon, and she and Thorin were fully in control of their own minds.

“Why protect a lesser being?” the dragon mused, baring his fangs at Mingalaz. “You have achieved your true potential, become what you were always meant to be: a higher form of life.”

“Lies,” Mingalaz spat. “This form is due to a weakness in our blood, and a weakness of our minds. If I must take this form, I will use it against you, the one who awoke me, to protect the one who tried to save me.”

“Even if we cannot be saved,” Thorin added softly, so that only Bilbo could hear.

Bilbo tried to say something, tried to protest the foolishness that he knew was coming, but his head was swimming and his tongue felt thick and useless in his mouth. But Myrtle had seen something, for she stiffened in Bilbo’s lap. “The others,” she said softly, nodding toward a tunnel entrance they hadn’t noticed in all the chaos with the dragon. The rest of the company was standing there, watching the fight with various degrees of apprehension or excitement on their faces. Had any of them ever seen a dragon before? Did they even know what one was?

Two things happened then. Myrtle shouted, “Kíli, shoot the dwarf on the red dragon’s back!”

At the same time, Thorin shouted, “Dwalin, get Bilbo and Myrtle and go!”

Those two orders didn’t countermand each other, so Kíli took aim, and Dwalin and Daruthâ sped off toward Bilbo. The breath whooshed out of Bilbo again when he was thrown unceremoniously over Dwalin’s shoulder, and yes those ribs were definitely damaged. Myrtle refused similar treatment, instead clambering onto the wolf’s back and holding on tight with her claws.

“A little softer if you please,” Bilbo gasped. Bouncing against Dwalin’s back as the dwarf ran was not enjoyable in the least, but Dwalin simply ignored him.

The other tunnel was wide and high-ceilinged, so much so that it felt odd to call it a tunnel. It reminded him a little of what he’d seen in Erebor, though considering that there were dwarves here, that couldn’t be too surprising. Bilbo supposed this was how the other dragon left the mountain, so at least Thorin would be able to follow them, if- when he won, Bilbo amended.

“Did you get him?” Myrtle demanded of Kíli once the archer withdrew and rejoined the fleeing company.

“Clipped him,” Kíli replied shortly, his mouth a tight line. Kurdaz had her tail between her legs. “That other dwarf was all skin and bones, so I don’t even know if I hit anything important.”

“Was that dragon… that dwarf’s dæmon?” Ori asked, clutching Kirthâl close.

“The black dragon was definitely Mingalaz, so that does seem to be the case,” Balin concluded, the corners of his eyes tight with worry. “Though I don’t know how that would have happened.”

Bilbo felt the eyes of the company upon him, but he didn’t know what he could say. He wished Gandalf hadn’t left them, though the wizard never was one to give much information. “The lady Galadriel told Thorin that a long time ago, the same people who created those artificial dæmons did other experiments, and that dwarf dæmons were unpredictable,” he settled on, trying to ignore the dull ache in his chest at his own words. “Thorin saw more than that in her magic mirror, but all he said was that he saw dæmons becoming monsters.”

“Of course he wouldn’t have mentioned it,” Dwalin muttered. “Every now and then throughout our history, a dragon would appear and trouble our people. If any of us had known that those dragons were the dæmons of tortured dwarves…” Or maybe they had known, and just forgotten, Bilbo mused. Hadn’t Thorin said that Mingalaz had been small and slow when they were young? Could that have been some kind of internal inhibitor? A defense mechanism to prevent a dragon from being born?

“It’s unconscionable!” Dori exclaimed. “If all that is true, then this evil has been tormenting our people in secret for thousands of years! The wraiths weren’t even the beginning!”

Bilbo couldn’t remember if Thorin had ever explained that the wraiths were Men who’d been involved in similar experiments. But it was clear he didn’t need to, the dwarves were already riled into a froth. He suspected if Gandalf said they’d need to walk into an active volcano to defeat Sauron, they would fight each other for the honor of going first.

Exactly as Gandalf had planned?

“What about Thorin?” Fíli demanded, looking back without slowing his pace. “We’re just going to leave him behind?”

“In a fight between dragons, we’re no better than ants,” Balin observed with a sharp shake of the head. “Thorin ordered us to leave, and we have no choice but to obey. We’ll wait for him outside, and have faith in his victory.”

Bilbo could tell by the sullen faces and tightening grips on weapons that this order chafed, but the dwarves kept to the path, marching resolutely away from the fading sounds of draconic battle. Eventually, he realized that the light had been growing for some time, and they emerged from the mountains onto a scorched plain. Bilbo was finally, finally set down, free at last from jostling, but Óin immediately approached with a grim expression.

“Let’s have a look at those ribs, lad.”

 


 

It was a strange thing, having every doubt and every strange thing about you suddenly click into place. It was almost freeing, knowing that he hadn’t just imagined it. He was different, and in a dangerous way. He wondered if his father and grandfather had died for the same reason that he anticipated dying now. They had both acted strangely, and maybe dragon hypnosis had been the cause. Though how a dragon could have gotten around their world without anyone noticing, he had no idea. But it was a start.

Thorin snorted. What a time to be making discoveries.

Speaking of discoveries, there was the matter of Bilbo-

Mingalaz roared. Right, even if she was doing most of the work, he still had a part to play. If he was still alive at the end of this fight, there would be time to think about that after. Mustering what agility he possessed, he crawled onto his dæmon’s back. Her neck was next, but she was moving too quickly, dodging and weaving around the other dragon’s fire. He was going to have to hope that she would get close enough to the other dragon for him to safely jump on its back. The very idea was repugnant. He might have fallen, but breaking the taboo was another matter.

Thorin could practically hear Mingalaz snarking about how breaking the taboo might distract the dragon, which would be a good thing. But at her size, she couldn’t snark quietly anymore, so he had to settle for imagining it. He ignored the part of him that wondered if she would ever be small enough again.

He readied himself for the jump, holding tightly to one of Mingalaz’s more prominent back spines. Whatever happened afterward, he needed to kill the dwarf connected to this dragon. And possibly bring down the entire mountain. There could be more dragons in there, their minds corrupted or utterly gone from centuries of lack of use. If even one dragon found its way into a portal, it could wipe out an entire world. Which was undoubtedly the fate that had been intended for him, he realized. A weapon against his own people.

Thorin shuddered. No, that wasn’t going to happen, no matter what he had to do to prevent it. ‘You must overcome a trial,’ the compass had said. ‘Defeat the weakness in your blood.’ It was all so clear now, and one way or another, he was going to do just that. He had no choice.

Trusting his gut, he jumped, and landed roughly on the back of the other dragon.

The effect was instantaneous. The dragon screeched and bellowed, trying to thrash and throw Thorin off. Grasping the scales tighter to hold on only made the dragon thrash harder. Then Mingalaz was there, struggling to hold the other dragon down, or at least keep it from moving too much. Every blow she took felt like being kicked in the chest, but he could think of no other way to get to this dragon’s dwarf. For all of Mingalaz’s heroic efforts, this dragon clearly had centuries of practice protecting the useless creature on it’s back.

Which raised other questions, like how the dwarf could have possibly lived that long, but practicing his rock climbing skills on the back of a dragon wasn’t really the time to try and find answers to those questions. If he survived this, there would be time.

His slow, steady climbing eventually paid off, despite several solid attempts to throw him off. He reached the wizened dwarf, and was greeted with a sickening sight. He had wondered how such a weak, unconscious being could stay on the back of a flailing dragon, and to that at least, he had an answer.

They had fused.

As grotesque as the sight of the ancient dwarf on the dragon’s back had been, seeing that dwarf and dæmon were actually joined, with the dwarf’s legs either gone or embedded in the dragon’s back, Thorin felt his breakfast threatening to escape. This was beyond the pale. It would be a mercy to end this mockery of life.

It took only one swift stroke with Orcrist, and without a shriek or gout of flame, the dragon vanished, and the headless dwarf fell to the ground. Along with Thorin, who hadn’t expected the dæmon to blink out of existence quite so quickly.

“Graceful,” Mingalaz observed with a slight lisp. She probably wasn’t used to her new jaw shape and teeth size, Thorin realized wryly.

“I didn’t sever my spine, which after seeing that poor bastard, is about all I could have hoped for,” Thorin replied, rubbing the side he’d landed on.

Mingalaz gave a reptilian snort. “So what now? I seem to recall you thinking something about bring down the mountain.”

“There may be more dragons in here, and we can’t let them escape,” Thorin reminded her grimly. “If you smash enough support pillars, it should do the job.”

“And, are we going to be escaping this?” Mingalaz asked delicately. “I do seem to be a dragon now. Thankfully, you seem to be more in control of yourself than that poor dead fellow there.”

“Maybe it’s a slow process, going mad over the ages,” Thorin suggested, sitting cross-legged on the ground. “Or maybe, because Bilbo broke the hypnosis, that won’t happen to us.”

“Or maybe, the fact that I transformed at all means that it’s already too late for both of us,” Mingalaz muttered, plopping onto the ground with enough force to shake the cavern, and trying to rest her definitely-too-large head in his lap. She settled for the very front of her mouth. “Changes like this don’t happen easily, and it’s not like it only affected me. My transformation is a result of something happening to you. You changed, and you might be having a moment of clarity now, but it’s clear to me that those don’t last forever.”

“I know,” Thorin said softly, his hands clenched into fists. He wanted to slam them into the ground, pound his frustration into the earth, but he didn’t. There was no point. “Maybe, Bilbo-”

“What, can turn me back with true love’s kiss?” Mingalaz interrupted, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “It only worked the first time because it distracted you. You weren’t listening to the other dragon, so your mind wasn’t changing. That’s not going to work a second time, especially now that I’m fully transformed. Your mind changed. Period, end of story. ”

“Gandalf may know something, or the Lady Galadriel,” Thorin pointed out, though his words sounded hollow and desperate in his own ears. “She did say that dwarves were unpredictable. There’s nothing that says my mind can’t change back.”

Mingalaz sighed, and a puff of smoke came with it. Thorin did his best not to cough. “It’s not like I want to die in here you know,” she reminded him. “But rather than cling to false hope, I would rather die and give our people a chance.”

“We can always die once we escape this place, if there is truly no salvation for us,” Thorin suggested, stroking her inky black scales as if they were still the soft fur he’d known for so long. “But I would rather die running from a tunnel collapse than sitting here, watching the tunnel collapse. And if there is a way out of this, we can’t allow Sauron to do this,” he gestured at Mingalaz, “to our people.”

“Well, now that we’ve established death preferences, I suppose we can’t wait around any longer,” Mingalaz replied. “If another dragon shows up, they might object to me smashing the supports.”

There were many things that Thorin wanted to say. That he didn’t want to die, not now, with a purpose in his heart as well as the possibility of- well, something, was the current leader, but there was no point in saying it. Mingalaz knew. So instead, mustering some of his old confidence, he made a decision. “Let’s go to work.”

Chapter Text

The mountains were falling. Bilbo could only watch in terrified awe as the ground beneath their feet shook violently, smoke rising from the mountains, while everything else fell. He clutched Myrtle to his chest, and for once, she didn’t even pretend to struggle. She didn’t want to watch either.

“How is this possible?” Bilbo demanded, his voice stronger than he would have expected. “How can something bring a mountain down?”

The dwarves adopted thoughtful expressions, and Bilbo realized that they were probably the best people to ask. Of course they were, he’d seen them cause at least one controlled underground explosion. And it did seem to be distracting them from the implications of the mountain falling down when there had been no sign of Thorin.

“That was an awfully large open chamber,” Bofur observed, scratching his beard.

“With only those support pillars holding it all up,” Bombur contributed with a nod. Bifur tried to add something that Bilbo couldn’t understand, but it was also met with a thoughtful nod.

“Nice dwarven architecture that, but it wasn’t made to withstand a dragon,” Glóin pointed out.

“Depending on how thick the rock was in that chamber, destroying the pillars could at least collapse that chamber,” Dwalin pointed out gruffly. “Mingalaz can probably crush rock easily now. It’d be like Thorin to at least try.”

“He does favor plans that others might consider suicidal,” Balin agreed, shaking his head lightly.

“I think anyone would consider crashing a mountain on your head suicidal,” Bilbo replied, his voice rising as he said it. He was trying so hard not to shout, but they were all so damnably calm about it! Well, except Fíli and Kíli, who were both silent and deathly pale. Their dæmons were howling and barking, as if they hoped Mingalaz might hear it, and lead Thorin to them.

“Maybe… Maybe it wasn’t planned,” Ori suggested, twisting his scarf with a nervous look at the falling mountain.

“The supports could have been destroyed by accident during the fight,” Dori concluded, nodding slowly.

“I don’t think the other dragon would be that stupid,” Nori said bluntly. “It lives in that mountain. It would know better.”

Which left Thorin being the author of a suicidal plan as the only possibility. Bilbo choked back a sob. Óin was still treating his wounds, and he didn’t want anyone to see… well, they hadn’t seen the kiss, had they? It would look a little strange for Bilbo to start bawling over Thorin if they didn’t know how he felt. Wouldn’t it? Fíli and Kíli would have more of a right to what he was feeling in the company’s eyes, wouldn’t they? He looked to Myrtle to confirm or deny his thoughts, but she wasn’t feeling talkative apparently. That made two of them.

Bilbo shook his head, and hoped no one noticed that too. He needn’t have worried. The whole company except Óin was watching the falling mountain apprehensively. As Óin stepped back, apparently satisfied with his bandaging, Bilbo thanked him and drew his knife. Which really needed a name, now that he thought of it. Glorfindel hadn’t said its name when he’d given it to him, but it must have one, right?

“He probably thought you should give it a name of your own,” Myrtle supplied softly. “He never did say that he was just loaning it to you.” Well that would bear thinking on. He had no idea how to properly name a sword. There were probably all kinds of rules. Something to ask Thorin… if he came back. No, when he came back. He wouldn’t have brought the mountain down without a plan, right?

Pushing that thought down, Bilbo concentrated and drew the sword through the air slowly, looking for a portal to Erebor. The tip of the blade quickly snagged on it, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He could tell by the way it felt that he would be able to cut through here, and take them back to Erebor without further delay. Once they knew of Thorin’s fate for certain, that is. At least they wouldn’t have to use another world as an intermediary. That had proven a mistake.

“Something’s coming out of the fog,” Kumathâl chirped excitedly, flying back down to sit on Bofur’s hat.

“Does it look like Thorin?” Bofur asked, adjusting his hat a little. Kumathâl trilled at him.

“Don’t know,” she replied airily, and Bilbo suspected she would have shrugged if she could. “I’m not a bird of prey. My eyes aren’t that good in fog.”

Bilbo heard Bofur mutter something that sounded a lot like, ‘what are you good for then,’ which earned him a prompt peck on the top of the head, but he couldn’t laugh. They were either about to be in serious danger, or Thorin was returning to them. Or maybe the two weren’t mutually exclusive. He gripped Myrtle a little tighter at the thought. He’d helped Thorin regain control of himself for a moment, but what if it hadn’t lasted? Mingalaz transforming really couldn’t be a good thing. It wasn’t natural. Once your dæmon settled on a form, that was it. And forcible transformations? With the exception of what Thorin and Galadriel had described, he’d never heard of anything like that. If something like that happened in the Shire… well, he shuddered to think. He was already an eccentric for having a badger dæmon, but what if he returned to the Shire and Myrtle had taken a new form? He wouldn’t be allowed back, most likely. Dark magic, his neighbors would murmur, and then everyone would politely ask him to leave.

Possibly with pitchforks.

Well, he might get that anyway, considering that everyone thought he was dead. Not that he wanted to go back anyway! He just missed his books, and the portraits of his parents that hung above the mantle.

“Quit your pity party and listen,” Myrtle muttered. “Do you hear that?”

Bilbo kept himself from asking, ‘hear what?’ and listened. He didn’t have to listen that hard. Thudding footfalls shook the ground slightly. There could be no doubt that those footfalls belonged to a dragon, though which dragon was the question. Maybe there had been more inside, and the fight had woken one of them.

Kurdaz and Bundâl disagreed with Bilbo’s silent optimism apparently, because they immediately sprang up, darting off into the fog, and forcing Kíli and Fíli to follow. Dwalin muttered something that sounded a lot like, “Excitable idiots,” and set off after them, Daruthâ at his heels.

“Yes, everyone walk into the fog that the debris kicked up,” Balin observed, rubbing his temples. “How many times have I told them not to carelessly breath in dust?”

But Bilbo heard the rumble of a familiar voice, and was tempted to run off as well. He couldn’t make out any words, but that was definitely Thorin’s voice. He set Myrtle on the ground, and slowly rose to his feet.

Mingalaz was visible first, her dark form towering above the treetops. It had always been a challenge to get much out of her expressions with her inscrutable feline face, and her new reptilian face was no easier to decipher, but she almost looked embarrassed. He got the impression she was trying to make herself look small, with her head bowed and her wings tightly folded. Kurdaz and Bundâl were sniffing at her claws curiously, and she was clearly trying her best to ignore them. Her usual response would have been to smack them, but at her current size, that could easily end very poorly.

Thorin emerged from the mist behind her, looking a bit bruised and leaning on Dwalin, but otherwise no worse for wear. He was weakly swatting at Fíli and Kíli, who were buzzing around him like bees. He couldn’t avoid Óin though, who pounced immediately to start treating him. Bilbo heard Thorin’s weak protests about being completely fine and looked away. Thorin was okay. He couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact at the moment, but Thorin was okay.

“You’re not going to talk to him?” Myrtle asked softly, prodding Bilbo’s bare foot with a claw.

“Not in front of everyone else, no,” Bilbo replied tartly. “I think Thorin’s treatment, and what we’re going to do next are a bit more important than what you’re thinking of.”

Myrtle snorted. “How selfless.”

“You know that’s not why.”

 


 

Thorin should have been thinking of other things while Óin salved and bandaged his wounds. Things like, whatever news Gandalf brought back, he was already decided: they were going to destroy Sauron. He could not allow anyone to do to his people what had been done to him, and Sauron, as a servant of Morgoth, was the source. They were going to stop him, and that was that. That was what he should have been thinking about, but as he had already decided, his mind had moved on to the other hanging thread.

Bilbo.

He heard Mingalaz snort as the thought crossed his mind, and frankly he suspected everyone else had heard it too. She really wasn’t capable of being quiet anymore. He thought he knew what she would say though, if she could. ‘I doubt he would have done that as a distraction if he didn’t feel something for you, he’s not the type. So court him properly. And maybe have one of the others mention to him what courting looks like.’ Yes, that sounded like Mingalaz. Really, what reason did he have not to do that? Other than the fact that they were on an important quest, she could so easily be wrong, and he was very possibly going to go mad. These weren’t the right circumstances for courting, and Mingalaz ought to understand that.

Speaking of his dæmon, no one had said a word about Mingalaz being a dragon. In fact, Balin chose that moment to inquire about the plan.

“The same as it was before, return to Erebor and wait for Gandalf,” Thorin replied firmly. “Hopefully he will have some information about Sauron.”

“You mean to go after him then?” Balin didn’t sound as surprised as he would have expected, though Ranakâl was watching him attentively.

“If I can use Orcrist against him, then yes,” Thorin agreed. “The Valar failed to drown him, and the Maiar are not to be trifled with, but Gandalf said something in Imladris that strikes me. He mentioned finding ‘the source of Sauron’s power.’ We might be able to destroy whatever that is.”

“That’s a rather large logical leap,” Balin observed, but again, he didn’t seem to be outright objecting to the idea. Strange.

“The wraiths are vulnerable to Orcrist, and maybe as their master, part of him will be too. I don’t know,” Thorin admitted. “But I don’t want to do nothing. If he attacks our people more directly, they could end up like this.” He gestured at Mingalaz.

“You seem fine,” Dwalin pointed out, an eyebrow raised.

“Another reason to speak with Gandalf,” Thorin countered.

“Can you even get in the mountain with Mingalaz like that?” Dwalin continued in the same tone. “We might have to widen some doorways.”

“You saw the mountain fall down, right?” Kíli asked, coming to Thorin’s defense now. “I think they can handle it.”

“But can Bilbo cut a portal large enough?” Fíli wondered, and suddenly all eyes were on Bilbo. Thorin noticed how Bilbo seemed to fold in on himself at the sudden attention, and wanted to march over and wrap his arms around him… but without a chance to talk, that wouldn’t be proper.

“Maybe not as tall as her full height, but she can bend down,” Bilbo reasoned, not really looking at anything in particular. “Her full width shouldn’t be a problem.”

Meanwhile, the other flying dæmons were fluttering around Mingalaz, inspecting her new form. Azùgar, with her clever raccoon fingers was inspecting her scales, as if she were looking for valuables. “Can you fly now?” Ghelêkh squeaked, flapping back over to resume her usual upside-down perch on Bombur’s mustache.

“I don’t know,” Mingalaz admitted. “I haven’t tried.”

“Wings look functional,” Sakh announced, the barn owl’s large eyes clearly seeing something Thorin couldn’t. Her name did mean ‘the seer’ after all.

Experimentally, Ursaz and Tabadruk rammed into Mingalaz’s scaled sides. She glanced at them, but Thorin didn’t feel any pain. “Strong armor,” Ursaz noted, flinching back a little. Glóin was holding his head, suggesting that her horns had been jarred by the strike. Hyashur, Dori’s persian cat dæmon, who had unusually remained uninvolved in the inspection, raised her paws in protest.

“I’m not going near those claws,” she announced. “I’m a little smarter than Azùgar, who is perhaps three seconds from being sliced open.”

It was true, Thorin observed wryly. Azùgar’s inspection had brought her very close to Mingalaz’s claws, and Mingalaz looked just annoyed enough to start experimenting with how much force she could safely used. Nori wisely retrieved his dæmon before harm could come to her.

“There, all done,” Óin announced, stepping back from Thorin. “Next time think before you bring a mountain down.”

Thorin pursed his lips, and thought he would do no such thing, but there was no point in arguing with healers. Even if he really hadn’t been that injured in the first place. He was more worried about Bilbo slamming into that wall, but the hobbit didn’t look especially pained.

“Bilbo, if you would,” Thorin prompted him. Bilbo simply nodded and drew his knife. Soon there was the largest portal any of them had ever seen, more than wide enough to accommodate Mingalaz’s new width. As they passed through, Thorin wondered at the dead, brown state of his world. Had it been that bad when he left? Or had he just seen so many green worlds to make him notice the difference?

After taking quick stock of their location (and Bilbo closing the portal behind them), they determined that they were surprisingly close to Erebor. Just a bit north of the mountain, and that close overlap with the dragon’s world was more than a little alarming. Thorin hadn’t taken the time to properly explore the “dragon sanctum” as he was now calling it, and perhaps he should have. There could have been a portal down there somewhere, along with more dragons. Bringing the mountain down would hopefully take care of the other dragons, but not the portal. Well, if there was one, hopefully it was buried under tons of rock.

He knew Mingalaz would say that he was being shortsighted if she could say so without everyone hearing.

“How are we supposed to approach the mountain with Mingalaz like that?” Bilbo asked suddenly, Myrtle sitting snugly in his arms. “Won’t there be guards? They’ll see her first, won’t they?”

“And start shooting on sight,” Bofur agreed, though he didn’t sound as cavalier as he usually did about such things.

“If our dæmon’s tests mean anything, they won’t be able to hurt her with mere arrows,” Glóin observed confidently.

“But what if some stray shots hit Thorin? Or the rest of us for that matter?” Bilbo demanded.

“They won’t shoot,” Thorin said confidently, ignoring the stirrings he felt at Bilbo’s visible concern. “Mingalaz, show them.”

The dragon rolled her eyes, but started walking off in another direction. An apparent side effect of the transformation was the ability to be farther apart, much like the Elves and their dæmons.

“Oh,” Bilbo said softly. “So Mingalaz can wait somewhere until we have time to explain.”

Thorin nodded. “I trust you can take care of yourself until we return,” he said, and Mingalaz rolled her eyes again as she marched back.

“Better than you can, if past experience is any indication,” she replied, nudging him with a claw. It was a struggle to stay on his feet. Was this really permanent? She had never really adapted to being as large as she’d settled on, and this was… well. Did dæmons get this large naturally?

Mingalaz suddenly straightened, and her huge nostrils flared. “I smell Elves,” she announced, her head dropping to the ground to catch the scent better, as if she were a hound and not a dragon. “Yes, Elves went into the mountain. Somewhat recently.” She lifted her head back up, and her snout was covered with dirt. Well, if the guards saw her do that, maybe they wouldn’t be so terrified.

“They must have found the portal in the woods,” Balin observed thoughtfully.

“That assumes that they’re Mirkwood Elves,” Ori pointed out. “They could be from Imladris or Lothlorien, or somewhere else we haven’t been.”

“Fair point lad, and perhaps one of those other kinds would be better,” Balin allowed. “We did sneak of out the Woodland Realm. They may not be happy to see us again.”

“Can you tell?” Thorin asked Mingalaz, and she shook her head.

“The smell is muddled,” she admitted. “And everything smells different like this. I can smell layers to things that I couldn’t before. Even you smell a little different.” She almost sounded like she was pouting, but it was a little hard to tell.

Thorin wanted to ask her if the world smelled different, but as they approached the mountain, he got his answer. There had been some grass near the mountainside before, even if it had been short and wilted, but there was none now. He swallowed heavily. How much time did their world have left if a few weeks made such a big difference? Was it already too late?

Absently, he took out the compass and turned the wheels, hoping it could at least give him a timeframe, but as the needle moved in response, he realized that he couldn’t understand it. What had once been so clear was now about as clear as mud.

His mouth was dry. Reading the compass had depended on being in the right state of mind, or so it had seemed. Had he lost that state of mind? Was it because of Mingalaz?

The transformation, once begun, could not be undone, no matter what Bilbo Baggins might have tried. The seal was broken. But, his intervention did allow you to keep your mind. As for the compass, it is too soon to say, but you are likely panicking. I suppose I was right when I said dwarves were unpredictable.

Thorin very nearly tripped over his own feet. He had an answer then to which Elves Mingalaz had smelled: the Lady Galadriel must have come personally. If he walked a little faster after that, no one said a word about it, doubtless focused on their own inner conversations with that Lady.

Chapter Text

With Mingalaz waiting by the lake at the foot of the mountain, the company reached Erebor without further incident. Once or twice, Thorin thought he saw the hint of a wraith out of the corner of his eye, but they didn’t approach, keeping to the fringes of his vision. Perhaps they knew what he carried, and feared the blade. That could complicate dealing with them… for which he still had no plan beyond getting the sword in the first place. Between Thorin and Bilbo they had two, and if Gandalf returned they would have three, but if the wraiths didn’t attack, what were they supposed to do? They couldn’t just let the wraiths move to the other kingdoms. Thorin regretted not asking Gandalf more questions, or the compass when he had been able to read it. Maybe he wasn’t ever going to know, having so clearly failed his trial. Still, the thought that wraiths would avoid him because of Orcrist comforted him a little, knowing he wasn’t about to die the way his father and grandfather had. Against the wraiths at least, he could defend himself.

He might die in a new, different way, but then Thorin had always been different. For example, he could die getting shot by his own guards, spooked by the sight of their king with no dæmon. He had forgotten that possibility, as they approached and a ripple of fear went through the guards. He wondered how much worse it would have been had he let Mingalaz come with them to the gate. As it stood, it was only the presence of the other dwarves, so clearly Thorin’s companions, that stayed their bows. They wouldn’t lower them completely though, so Dís had to meet them outside the gates first, to verify their identities.

“I thought they were lying when they said my brother had appeared without his dæmon,” she admitted, Abkund hiding behind her legs in a rare show of hesitation. “For a moment I thought it might have been Frerin.” Or his shade, she left unsaid.

That brief show of vulnerability cut Thorin like a knife. It wasn’t like Dís to speak so openly in front of others. He wished he didn’t have bad news for her.

“Mingalaz transformed,” he said softly, not wanting the guards to hear. “I thought the sight of her in her current form would upset the guards more than seeing me without her, putting our lives at risk. As a result of the transformation, we can be farther apart, so she is waiting down by the lake. I can retrieve her, if you like. They could probably use a drill that isn’t for a wraith or orc attack.”

“So you and Mingalaz are like the Elves now,” Dís observed, surprising Thorin. But then again, Mingalaz had smelled Elves. They must be here somewhere. “But what do you mean she transformed? Are you trying to tell me she never really settled?” One of her eyebrows was cocked in disbelief, and her hands had settled onto her hips.

“No, she did settle, but something caused her to change. I was hoping to ask Gandalf about it,” he admitted, unwilling to say more before others. He didn’t want the guards to hear that Mingalaz had become a dragon. It would cast doubts on his ability to rule, and while he might not mind that for himself, if such talk were to turn to Dís or her sons, he would never forgive himself.

“Gandalf isn’t here, but we have a few Elven visitors who claim to know you,” Dís told him frankly, turning on her heel to enter the mountain. The company followed reluctantly. Dís clearly knew that information was being kept from her, and they did not want to be near here if she decided not to take it anymore. “Prince Legolas and Captain Tauriel from the Woodland Realm, and Lady Galadriel from Lothlorien. Legolas and Tauriel have been helping us with our orc problem.”

“How thoughtful of them,” Thorin replied, sharing a look with Balin, who furrowed his brow but said nothing.

“I admit that’s not what they came here to do, but we stumbled onto something that you may find interesting. The Lady Galadriel certainly did,” she added casually. “And she said that it couldn’t wait.”

The company received no shortage of strange looks and whispers as they navigated the halls, which didn’t feel right considering that they had achieved what they had set out to do. Thorin tried not to take it personally, though with Mingalaz currently sitting on a beach in dragon form, it was hard not to. Perhaps his people felt that he’d been running away from his responsibilities, or they thought his reappearance was proof that his quest had failed. As it turned out, it was none of those things causing the whispers.

“During your absence, our Elven allies discovered that we are actually fighting a war on two fronts,” Dís explained as she swept into the council chamber, moving toward the throne, but remembering that Thorin being back meant she was no longer in charge, took the seat to his right. “You went after our enemies from the outside, but there is actually an enemy on the inside as well. One that has been around for much longer, even before grandfather’s rule.”

The elves were already in the chamber, Thorin noted, greeting them with a slight inclination of the head. Behind him, the rest of the company bowed a little further. Tauriel looked a little uncomfortable at this attention, fiddling with a little spyglass in her hands, though Legolas and Galadriel both replied with nods of their own. Galadriel’s voice didn’t enter his mind, and none of the other members of the company looked to be communicating with her. Interesting.

“Your orcs come from a place called Khazad-dum, which was a dwarven kingdom until some sort of demon appeared and slaughtered everyone, according to what we found in your library,” Tauriel reported, still fiddling with the spyglass. “The doors had words, written in our language, calling the place Moria.”

Thorin remembered his grandfather saying something that could have been about that place, but his memory was strangely hazy. Dís smiled. “You don’t really remember anything about it, do you? What if I told you that Khazad-dum was the kingdom of Durin I, our forefather?”

It was like being punched in the stomach. “How could I have forgotten something that important? How could we allow orcs-”

Dís shook her head, cutting him off. “I didn’t remember either, and neither did anyone else. It turns out there is good reason for that.”

“I had a strange feeling when I passed through the portal into this world, and that same feeling again near Moria,” Tauriel said. “It felt almost like starlight against my skin, yet not. From instinct, I spoke to some of your craftsmen, and we made this.” She held up the spyglass. “At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing.” She handed the spyglass to a guard, who brought it to Thorin.

Thorin put the spyglass to one eye, not really knowing what to expect, and choking back a gasp when he saw that the room was flooded with gold and silver light. It seemed to cluster around people, and dæmons particularly. Around the elves, and Galadriel in particular, it was blindingly thick, and he had to look away. He passed the spyglass down the table, and Dís handed it to Kíli. She must have already seen what it could show, Thorin supposed, glancing at Kíli. He was staring at Tauriel, enraptured by what the spyglass showed, and Dís nudged him under the table. Kíli sheepishly looked away.

“I take it you know now,” Balin prompted Tauriel, but it was Galadriel who answered.

“Long ago, in the realm of the Valar, they planted two trees. One gave off pure golden light, the other pure silver. Until the creation of the sun and the moon, they were the only lights in the world. They were not mere lights, though. Exposure to them affected people, and that is what gave rise to the high elves.

“The trees were killed, and the sun and moon created to replace them, but some of their light remains in this world,” Galadriel explained impassively. She spoke as if she had seen it. “It is the light of knowledge, and memory, which you can see with this glass. It is the source of life, and it is leaving your world rapidly, through the abyss that the demon tore open. Once this world is drained, it will keep attracting the Light, and all other worlds will lose their Light to it.”

“And this abyss… felt the same as a portal?” Bilbo asked hesitantly. The lady turned her eyes upon him kindly.

“They are one and the same,” she said simply. “This is the real reason this world is dying, not the wraiths, who were doubtless sent to prevent your people from leaving the mountains and learning the truth. Your people forgot Khazad-dum, forgot that it had been their mighty home in ages past, because the light of knowledge is leaving this world. The wraiths are a problem, but this is more serious.”

“So, this is what you meant by an enemy on the inside,” Thorin observed. “You have not been idle in my absence. What has been done about the abyss?”

“Nothing yet,” Legolas told him. “None here know how to close a portal, least of all one guarded by legions of orcs and an ancient demon. Lady Galadriel said that ones were coming who did know.”

“I must say, your assistance has been very helpful, and we are grateful for it, but what keeps the two of you here?” Balin asked Legolas and Tauriel, suddenly changing the subject. Away from Bilbo, Thorin noted, his eyes narrowing. “We have no spiders here. This is hardly your problem.”

The elves shared a surprisingly guilty look. “This evil will grow, and could spread to other worlds,” Tauriel said firmly. “What stops this demon from leaving Moria and entering our homeland? And if all portals are the same as this chasm, all worlds will just as surely die, even if the chasm is closed.”

“You left without permission, and can’t go back,” Bofur observed, and the elves exchanged another guilty look. Right on the mark.

You are worried about your dæmon. Galadriel’s voice came into his head unbidden, driving out the rest of the noise.

Yes.

If nothing is done, her state will affect you, and you will once again lose your mind. This time, it may not return so easily.

What must I do? Thorin couldn’t keep the despair out of his mind’s voice. It was as he had feared. It had been too optimistic to think that just because he felt fine, he must be completely well. What had happened to Mingalaz was not a natural occurrence.

I will summon Gandalf, and we will see what can be done. Dwarves were not made by the same hand that made all others, and so do not have the same weaknesses. I believe something can be done. There is always hope, Thorin Oakenshield.

That would have to be enough for now. Thorin reached out with his mind, seeking Mingalaz. She lay on the beach, trying to fish with her newly unwieldy claws, and he had to resist the urge to snort. She was fine for now, and so was he. They would have to plan for their world, and plan for whatever task Gandalf gave them next, but at least that could be planned for. Mingalaz would have to wait a little longer. Hopefully, his mind would hold steady until then.

Thorin sought Bilbo, but the hobbit wasn’t looking his way. That was another problem. He felt something foreign stir in him the longer he looked, like the dragon in his heart slowly uncoiling, and he looked away.

They needed to talk.

 


 

Bilbo fled the council chamber as soon as was polite. He was tired, both physically and emotionally, and maybe having to face Thorin with nothing resolved was taxing his nerves. Not that it was Thorin’s fault, the dwarf king had bigger problems. But guilt over having such thoughts was exhausting in and of itself. He was grateful when one of Dís’s guards had appeared, and offered to show him to his room.

His room. No one had really discussed it, but it was clear they assumed that whatever came next, Bilbo would be with them. Had to be, really, if they were to get anywhere.

He buried his face in Myrtle’s fur. He still wasn’t completely used to being necessary. In the Shire, he’d been able to lock himself away, and no one really cared or was effected either way. That wasn’t the case here.

“Which means you need to talk to Thorin,” Myrtle muttered. “Instead of scurrying off to be alone at the first chance.”

“I need to do no such thing,” Bilbo hissed, his eyes trained on the guard’s dog dæmon. “Anyway, we’re back in Erebor, he’s back to being a king, and there’s no way I can just walk in unannounced and have a chat with him.”

“Bilbo!” The sound of Thorin’s voice raised the hair on the back of Bilbo’s neck, causing him to straighten, but he didn’t turn around. The guard who was leading him had stopped though, forcing him to stop as well. “We haven’t had a chance to talk since…” The dragon? The kiss? Either would have been accurate, but Thorin simply trailed off.

“You’ve had a lot to deal with,” Bilbo replied with his back turned, aware of the guard who was still well within hearing range. “I picked a bad time to...” Like Thorin, he couldn’t quite bring himself to finish the sentence. He had only kissed Thorin, it wasn’t like he had told him anything. Maybe Thorin thought it meant nothing, and was only intended as a distraction, rather than a confession.

Thorin let out a frustrated growl, surprising Bilbo into facing him. “If not for you, I would not be here right now,” Thorin said frankly. “Lady Galadriel believes there may be some way to return Mingalaz to her previous form. I make no promises, but if there is, and we succeed… Give me the chance to respond.”

Bilbo realized that his mouth was hanging open and abruptly shut it. “That sounded like an order,” he replied, eyebrow raised defiantly. “Last I checked, I was not your subject.”

“Not yet,” Thorin said, turning back toward the council chamber, his voice suddenly husky in a way that sent shivers down Bilbo’s spine. It made him remember the kiss, the way Thorin had responded instantly, and his cheeks reddened. He kept his eyes fixed on the floor for the rest of the trip to his temporary home.

The first thing that surprised him about the room was that there was natural light, provided by a few thin slits in the wall. It must be high up, rather than deep underground, he realized. He wondered if he was in danger from wraiths with these windows, but his hand found the knife on his hip and he calmed down immediately. Of course, he could just kill them if they made it this far. He had a sword from Gondolin, after all.

A sword that still needed a name.

“Maybe a great sword name just isn’t for us,” he observed, setting the weapon on a side table and sitting on the bed with Myrtle. “Maybe it needs a proper, hobbity name.”

“I think sword names are supposed to inspire fear,” Myrtle replied with a yawn. “A name like ‘Skipped Breakfast’ might scare a hobbit, but no one else.”

“Well, I can’t wield something as threatening as ‘The Goblin Cleaver,’ or ‘The Foe Hammer,” Bilbo replied tartly. “Besides having no need for something so fanciful. Yes, it must be something simple and straightforward.”

“Cutter,” Myrtle suggested sarcastically. “That’s to the point.”

Bilbo didn’t dignify that idea with a response, preferring to give his room another silent inspection. The windows had side-tracked him, preventing him from noticing the thick, fur carpets that he sank his toes into gratefully. The rest of the room was hardly a hobbit’s idea of comfort, the thick stone walls and floor cool to the touch, explaining the need for the carpet. But the bed was large and soft, the rest of the bedroom furniture much larger than he needed, and the walls featured carvings that became more beautiful the more his eyes adjusted to the light.

“We have more than just the bedroom, you know,” Myrtle informed him, slipping off the bed to waddle toward a doorway that Bilbo hadn’t noticed. The tug on their bond forced him to follow, and he couldn’t help but think it might be convenient to have a bond like the Elves did, or like Thorin now. He could just hide Myrtle in a tree when he needed to fight. Though if Myrtle had to forcibly change shape to make it happen…

The next room over was a comfortable sitting room, furnished with armchairs and a sofa, though Bilbo wondered how comfortable it would be if the entire company tried to cram into it. He had no doubt they would try if their stay in Erebor was longer than a day or two. It was their home, so it very well might be. And Bilbo had to decide if he might want to make it his home too, once the wraiths were gone and the chasm sealed. Here, he attracted stares, true, but it wasn’t because of Myrtle. He had even seen in passing a dwarf or two with badger dæmons of their own! That did make the decision a little easier, when he considered that others like him lived in Erebor, even if they were dwarves.

“Not that I have to make the decision right now,” he muttered to himself, trying out one of the armchairs. It was softer than he expected, causing him to sink down as if the chair had a mind to try and swallow him. “I guess dwarves like their comforts too.”

“Mother always said that they don’t leave their mountains unless they have to,” Myrtle recalled, settling into an armchair of her own. “Not unlike us and Bag End, really. It shows you how important this quest was to them.”

“No wonder none of them ever said what they would do once we found the swords,” Bilbo observed sleepily. “They assumed they would just go home, fight the wraiths, and that would be it. Problem solved. Only, it’s more complicated than that, and even if we stop the wraiths, more trouble could just as easily show up.”

“You don’t sound very troubled by all that,” Myrtle said. “You weren’t really ready for the adventure to be over, were you?”

But Bilbo didn’t answer, and Myrtle didn’t care, because they had fallen asleep in the armchairs. Even Dís, who stopped by in the hopes of speaking more to the strange little creature that her brother had run after, let them rest in peace. There weren’t going to be many peaceful nights left.

Chapter Text

Gandalf arrived sometime during the night, with all the grouchiness and irritability of a man who had been doing something important, only to be interrupted by the children squabbling. Bilbo learned this when he joined the company for breakfast, and found the wizard sullenly smoking his pipe in the corner. Thorin had not yet arrived, and Bilbo suspected that Galadriel had not told Gandalf why she had summoned him. Thorin’s appearance would clear that up, though Gandalf’s mood would probably not improve. The discovery that in your absence, everything had gone about as bad as it possibly could, could not be a pleasant one.

The wizard did brighten up a little when he saw Bilbo though, inviting him to his corner to join him for a smoke. “Bilbo Baggins! I half thought that they called me here to tell me they lost you somewhere!”

Bilbo laughed, but it felt a little strange laughing with Gandalf over the idea that he got trapped in the wilderness somewhere, and no one had noticed until he was far behind. “As you can see, I’m quite well,” he told Gandalf as cheerfully as he could under the circumstances.

“And I am glad to see it,” Gandalf admitted, though Bilbo sensed a ‘but’ coming. “However, I was very close to a breakthrough, and to be summoned only a few days into my research with no indication as to why… I trust I am not the only one who knows that the fate of the worlds is at stake?”

“It’s because the fate of the worlds is at stake that you were summoned,” Bilbo told him, hoping he didn’t sound too impatient. “A lot happened in Erebor while Thorin was away, and a few things happened to us after you left as well.” Gandalf looked ready to scold Bilbo for being deliberately obtuse, but Bilbo simply pointed at the doorway, where Thorin had appeared, without Mingalaz. “You can see there one of the problems.”

Gandalf squinted at Thorin, and then his eyes flew open, his brows drawing back in horror. It was the natural reaction, Bilbo thought, but he wished the wizard could be less obvious about it. For Thorin’s sake at least. “Goodness gracious me. What has happened?”

“I think Thorin would be more comfortable if he were the one to tell you,” Bilbo replied, exhaling smoke. “I imagine that’s why no one else has mentioned it.”

Gandalf made an assenting sound, his eyes following Thorin intently as he crossed the room. “And this is not the only problem, is it?”

“No, only the one we haven’t worked out a solution to yet,” Bilbo admitted grimly.

“Well, well, perhaps calling me back was the right choice after all,” Gandalf observed, putting away his pipe and straightening up. “The situation in Erebor is clearly more serious than I had thought.”

Bilbo did not see Gandalf again that day, the wizard sequestering himself first with Thorin, to hear his explanation no doubt, then with Dís to hear about their other problems, and lastly with Lady Galadriel. That was a conversation that Bilbo wished he could sit in on, but then again, maybe that would be no use. One tended to miss half the conversation anyway where the Lady was involved.

So instead, finding the dwarves deep in preparations for dealing with Khazad-dum and feeling that his only contribution there was to say that he would come and close the portal if they needed him to, Bilbo turned his feet toward the library. Ori drew him a map, and between that and Myrtle’s nose, he found it eventually.

The first thing that struck him about Erebor’s library was the complete lack of organization. Maybe it had only been since Dís had put the elves to work doing research, but there were books and tablets strewn everywhere, and no one seemed to be doing anything about it. It reminded him of the library in Numenor, though with less mold and fewer skeletons. He clutched Myrtle close, fearing to lose her amidst all the clutter.

“E-excuse me,” he addressed a nearby scribe. The scribe didn’t seem to register his words, but his owl dæmon swiveled her head to face him, fixing him with her lamp-like eyes. Encouraged, he went on. “Is this place always like this?” He gestured vaguely at the mess, only realizing afterward that the scribe couldn’t see what he was doing.

“Her Highness said too much important knowledge was buried under or trapped behind other tomes, so we are currently cataloguing every work in our library,” the scribe answered tonelessly, his quill scratching away on what Bilbo now realized was a list.

Bilbo’s fingers itched at the disarray, and Myrtle rolled her eyes, knowing what was coming next. “Is there anything I can help with? I came with the intention of doing research, but with the state things are in, I can see that wouldn’t be productive.”

This time, the dwarf scholar turned to face him properly, scrutinizing Bilbo with a sharp eye. “You’re the hobbit,” the scholar said finally. “You can’t read our language then, but we have many works written in Common. You can help with those.” He handed Bilbo a piece of parchment, a quill and ink bottle, and pointed him toward a pile of books.

“So much for instructions,” Myrtle muttered, waddling over toward the pile once Bilbo set her down. “I suppose you should just write down the titles, and maybe a brief summary of their contents if you can find one without reading the whole thing.”

Bilbo picked up the nearest book. “‘A Brief History of the Economic Relations Between the Seven Dwarf Clans,’” he read wryly. “I see they only write their most exciting books in Common.”

“Wouldn’t you?” Myrtle observed, burrowing into the pile to see if she could find something more interesting. “Obviously dwarf secrets are going to be written in their language, so that outsiders like us can’t understand them.”

Bilbo paused, his quill hovering over the ink bottle. “But when was the last time they saw ‘outsiders like us’?” he asked thoughtfully. “Aside from Gandalf, anyway. Who is really an outsider, when the only inhabitants of your world are dwarves?”

“Probably a holdover from when people did travel between worlds,” Myrtle replied with a shrug. “And traditions, like superstitions, are hard to break, even when your people have forgotten why they were put in place. We know a thing or two about that.”

That was certainly true. Many of his neighbors back in Hobbiton feared going too far from their own doorways, and as far as Bilbo knew, there was no reason for that. Their world was not only peaceful and safe, it was shielded by Elves! And it had always been so, as far as Bilbo knew. His people didn’t even have legends about dangerous things. His most exciting adventure in the Shire had been the day he and his mother had come across a lost mountain lion, and she had ignored them entirely. What were they so afraid of, really?

Bilbo shook his head, and scribbled down the name of the book. No point in dwelling on it, unless he managed to find a book in here that explained it.

Ori found him there hours later, in danger of being buried by the teetering stack of books that he’d added to the list, and somehow still awake despite the dryness of the material. “They want you in the council chamber,” Ori reported with a wistful look at the state of the library. “There’s some disagreement on the plan.”

Myrtle muttered something about “what does that have to do with us,” but Bilbo was already setting down his quill and tidying up the area. Picking up Myrtle, he left the list of books he’d examined with the scribe, who only acknowledged it with a grunt.

“What kind of disagreement?” he asked Ori once they were out of the library. “I don’t know the first thing about planning an attack.”

“You don’t need to,” Ori assured him hurriedly. “But the disagreement… well, it’s about you.”

“What about me?” Bilbo demanded, feeling a chill in his veins.

“Thorin doesn’t want you to come,” Kirthâl replied when Ori hesitated. “He says that Gandalf knows how to close portals just as well, and he could even teach them all how to do it. There’s no reason to risk your life, he says.”

He immediately went from feeling cold with worry to boiling with anger. “Oh, he thinks that, does he?” he said as calmly as he could manage, though Ori flinched anyway. “And I suppose when Gandalf finally determines how to deal with Sauron, he’ll try to leave me behind too!”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Myrtle replied grumpily. “The fool must have forgotten who led him to his shiny new sword.”

“Well, we just have to remind him then, don’t we?”

 


 

Bilbo was fuming, and Thorin didn’t think he deserved that.

“We have no idea how many orcs we could face, to say nothing of some demon of Morgoth’s which was know next to nothing about,” Thorin argued. “You have become a competent fighter, certainly skilled enough for the dangers we have faced so far, but this is different. Not everyone will come back.”

“I know that it’s not exactly a Sunday picnic!” Bilbo replied sharply. “If anything, you shouldn’t be going on this mission either, in the state you’re in! But because you’re the king, no one can tell you otherwise.”

Thorin readied himself to give an angry retort, but a glance at Balin and Dwalin revealed that Bilbo had hit the mark. Neither of them was making eye contact. So Thorin changed his tack, unwilling to give up his own place on the mission.

“I cannot guarantee your safety,” he said grimly, giving Bilbo an appraising look. The hobbit didn’t back down under his gaze, and Thorin fought back a bit of a grin. Even with his mind going, and his dæmon turned into a dragon, Bilbo wasn’t the least bit afraid of him. As it should be.

“When have you ever been able to?” Bilbo pointed out. “You need us, and you know it. We can find the fastest way to the chasm, unless you just happen to know how this place is laid out? I thought no dwarf had set foot in this place in generations.”

Thorin gritted his teeth. Of course. He didn’t want to put Bilbo at risk, but he had forgotten that Bilbo and Myrtle could find portals, and that that skill might be, okay would be, useful here to avoid unnecessary confrontations. “Very well,” he agreed finally. “Fíli, Kíli, take Bilbo to the armory. See if you can find something that suits him. Nothing too heavy. We leave in the morning, at first light.”

His nephews snapped to attention immediately, though Thorin heard Bilbo’s protests echoing down the hall as they led him away. Once they faded, he ran his hands through his hair and sighed. A dwarf would have thought this a generous gift, but of course Bilbo would have no idea what he was being offered.

“He’s right, you know,” Balin said, breaking into his reverie. Ranakâl croaked in what was probably agreement.

“I know,” Thorin admitted heavily. “But I can’t stay behind in Erebor while everyone else puts themselves at risk.” Which was probably how Bilbo had felt as well, but he’d done his best to ignore that anyway. Mingalaz wasn’t here to stare and call him a hypocrite.

“What did Gandalf say?” Dwalin asked, changing the subject.

Another sigh. Dwalin couldn’t have asked a worse question. “He said that he doesn’t know, that I am the first case of this that he has encountered,” Thorin replied, rubbing his temples. “But like the Lady, he is convinced there must be a way to undo it. The answer, he said, lies in my mind somewhere, which anyone could have determined.”

Balin looked thoughtful, scratching his chin with one hand. “Is it possible…?” He trailed off.

“Is what possible?” Thorin asked tiredly. Talking with ancient elves and wizards, who had far more questions than answers, had not put him in the mood for vagueness. Not that he ever was.

“Well, Mingalaz changed shape. We associate changes of that kind with pubescence, as dæmons shapes become fixed during that time,” Balin summarized quickly. “What causes them to fix on a shape is generally romantic or sexual awakening, though this is not the case for everyone. If I may ask-”

“Yes, that was the case for me,” Thorin answered, feeling his face grow warm and looking down. He suddenly found one of his rings very interesting. Much more interesting than facing Balin.

“In that case, do you think it is possible that replicating the original change could cause Mingalaz to remember her true form, and return to it?” Balin suggested cautiously.

Dwalin snorted. “Thorin’ll go mad before that happens.”

Thorin couldn’t help but agree. If going into Khazad-dum was more of a risk than he wanted Bilbo to take, he definitely didn’t want the hobbit anywhere near Mingalaz in her current state. Wait a second…

He narrowed his eyes. “Balin.”

Balin looked away.

“You didn’t think it was a secret, did you?” Dwalin asked, an eyebrow raised in amusement.

“And Kíli saw what happened in the cave, with the dragon,” Balin added, still not making eye contact. “I’m sure Bilbo would agree to help, if you asked without barking at him. Perhaps wait until the last argument wears off.”

Thorin wished he had Mingalaz at his side to cuff Daruthâ, who was snickering. At least Ranakâl was just ruffling her feathers and looking away.

“Assuming you managed to hit on the right idea, where Gandalf and Galadriel could not,” Thorin replied sourly.

“It’s just a suggestion,” Balin said with a shrug. “Get some rest. No point in tiring yourself out thinking about it.”

Thorin nodded absently, knowing that sleep would be impossible without Mingalaz nearby. But what could he do? Her current form was still a secret, and he was under strict orders not to show himself without her too much, lest there be talk. In the morning, when they gathered their forces to enter Khazad-dum, they would have to tell the assembled dwarves the truth. Mingalaz could be helpful in her current form, helpful enough that he couldn’t justify leaving her behind. She, like Bilbo, wasn’t likely to agree to being left behind in any case.

He retired to bed anyway, sleeping fitfully, but at least he slept. When he woke, he was surprised to find Dís waiting, sitting quietly in his parlor.

“You brought my sons back safe and sound,” she observed, her eyes fixed on a point on the wall.

“As I swore I would,” Thorin agreed, nodding.

“At the time, I regretted not asking one more thing of you,” she admitted, turning to look at him, her eyes bright. “Since you were able to bring them back safely, do so again. And make sure you’re with them. We have lost too many to the wraiths, and I have no doubt our people suffered huge losses from what waits in Khazad-dum. Do not let it take you too.”

“Dís-”

“I know you,” she cut him off. “You need purpose, a task, something that you must do, in order to keep yourself grounded. That’s probably how that dragon got into your mind: you felt you no longer had a task. Well, I am giving you one. Close that portal, then come home and find out what our ancient schemers have determined is the next step.”

There was nothing else he could say, except, “I will.”

Everyone who was going to Khazad-dum was already assembled when he arrived, even Mingalaz, who received wary looks, but no crossbow bolts. The plan was simple: Thorin and Mingalaz lead with Orcrist to ward off wraiths from the front. Bilbo was in the center of the formation, with Tauriel and Legolas on either side as bodyguards, and Gandalf rode in a circle around the group, creating a three pronged barrier against wraith attack. Once they entered Khazad-dum, their formation would change as the situation dictated it. The first goal was closing the chasm. Fighting anything inside was secondary, and that included the demon. If they encountered it, Gandalf claimed he had something prepared.

When Thorin reached the head of the formation, he saw what Gandalf meant.

“Glorfindel! I thought you had returned to Imladris,” Thorin observed, greeting the elf in surprise.

“I did, and then Gandalf informed me my services might be required again,” Glorfindel explained. “The demon inside Khazad-dum sounds like a Balrog of Morgoth. I fought one once, a long time ago. It took my life, but with Gandalf, we may be able to subdue one at a lesser cost.”

“Then I am grateful for you help and expertise,” Thorin replied, his shoulders sagging in relief. If it could be killed, and someone was along who had killed one, they had much less to fear. Before, he might have asked why Glorfindel had involved himself, but now Thorin had the answer. The chasm in Khazad-dum would eventually drain all worlds, and if the balrog could make more such chasms, that would be it. All life would be snuffed out. And perhaps Glorfindel had a score to settled with balrogs.

Feeling substantially better about the possibility of success, Thorin mounted Mingalaz, stroking her scales as he once petted her fur.

“Has anyone tried to hurt you?” he asked quietly, and she snorted, smoke coming out of her nostrils.

“Gandalf had to throw up a barrier initially, but once he explained, and once they noticed that I wasn’t attacking or flame-broiling anyone, they backed off. And then I might have rolled around in the dirt a little,” she admitted, stretching languidly as she rose from sitting.

“I’m sure they found that very threatening,” Thorin replied, raising an eyebrow. “Do you still feel like a cat inside?”

“I am still a cat inside,” she told him sharply. “Just my outside has changed.”

“Hmm,” Thorin hummed softly, but said nothing.

Chapter Text

Thorin expected some kind of greeting once they entered Khazad-dum. A rain of arrows perhaps, or orcs charging with their swords drawn. Yet when they arrived, there was only dust and silence, and the sound of their own footsteps echoing against the walls.

“This could be a trap,” Gandalf cautioned, appearing at Thorin’s side with his staff before him, faint light coming from the crystal atop it. “To draw us further in and flank us to prevent escape.”

“We knew that was a possibility when we planned this,” Thorin replied evenly. It was why he’d brought a few extra soldiers in addition to the company and the Elves. “They cannot have expected Mingalaz, and I doubt they can successfully flank her.”

“No, that is true,” Gandalf allowed, his expression lightening. “Which way to the chasm, Bilbo?”

The glint of mithril was just barely visible under Bilbo’s collar. Fíli and Kíli had good eyes: they’d found the most valuable armor in the treasury, and the armor most likely to fit Bilbo without being cumbersome. When Thorin had expressed appreciation of this fact, and made it clear to Bilbo that it was a gift, and how valuable a gift it was, Bilbo had flushed violently and tried to refuse it. Thorin wondered if one of the others had explained courting to Bilbo, or if his attempted refusal was just from natural modesty. He had instructed them to find armor for Bilbo on his behalf, so it could be considered a courting gift from Thorin.

Thorin once again felt something foreign rear up inside him at the thought of Bilbo accepting a courting gift from him. If that was all it took to bring the madness closer, Balin’s idea was clearly not going to work.

He half-expected Mingalaz to snort, and tell him that what he was feeling wasn’t madness, but the result of extended celibacy, but she didn’t even react to the thought. Thorin shook his head. This was hardly the time for such thoughts and she must know it.

“Left,” Bilbo said after a moment of concentration, and Myrtle confirmed this with a nod. “It doesn’t feel very far away.” Nevertheless, Bilbo drew his blade, giving Thorin a start. It wasn’t glowing. Gandalf noticed as well, drawing Glamdring to double-check. It wasn’t glowing either. Where had the orcs all gone?

Mingalaz huffed irritably, and realization dawned on Thorin as they followed Bilbo’s directions. The chasm was a portal. The orcs were using it to come from their world. Maybe this portal was where the wraiths had come through as well. If they closed this portal…

Thorin let out a little huff of laughter. On the very first day, he had promised Gandalf not to do what he was currently contemplating. Even when this was done, there would be more to do. If he was still him by then.

“Thorin, stop!” Bilbo’s shout made him stop short, with one foot hanging over a yawning abyss. He tried to step away from the edge calmly, but he was overwhelmed by sudden vertigo, and ended up slumping against Mingalaz as he stared down into the abyss.

Maybe it wasn’t vertigo, but the light of the two trees being so thick here that he was able to see it falling out of the world, that made him nauseous. What should have been a dark chamber was as bright as day, lit by the fading gold and silver light flowing down into the abyss. So this really was why the world was dying.

“Where does this portal go?” He heard Bilbo ask Gandalf, the hobbit peering down into the abyss. “I don’t see anything on the other side.”

“The void, I suspect,” Gandalf replied thoughtfully. “It is where Morgoth and those of his followers who could be found were banished to. The light of the two trees does not reach there, and so as it flows out of your world into the void, it is destroyed.”

“Could the orcs be coming through from there?” Bilbo asked curiously.

“No, orcs cannot live in the void,” Gandalf answered with more certainty. “The balrog could, because the void is part of its nature, but orcs are different. There is probably another portal somewhere leading to the world they come from.”

“They don’t just live here?” Ori asked, his journal out again as he scribbled down notes.

“I doubt the balrog much cares for constant company,” Glorfindel observed. “Used to the quiet of the void, it would probably clear out any inhabitants if they stayed here for too long.”

Gandalf was stroking his beard thoughtfully, as if there was more he might say, but eventually he just shook his head. “Now, we must approach the problem of closing this portal. It’s the largest I’ve ever seen. Do you think you can handle it, Bilbo?”

Bilbo shook his head. “It might work better if we had people at each of the corners,” he suggested, cutting a quick portal. “Anyone who wants to help, come over here and we’ll teach you how to close a portal.”

“Everyone else, take out your ropes and prepare them for lowering the closers,” Thorin instructed. “Keep your weapons at the ready. If we’re attacked during this, the closers are defenseless.”

Kíli, Glorfindel, Tauriel, Legolas, and the other archers set up a defensive perimeter, while Gandalf explored the stone bridge that crossed the abyss, muttering to himself and tapping his staff here and there. Thorin hoped whatever he was doing would give them a little more time if they were attacked, especially if the attacker was the balrog. Mingalaz parked herself on the other side of the bridge, effectively blocking travel across it. Thorin felt vulnerable with his dæmon sitting right in harms way, but she was much less vulnerable than he at this point. So he focused on tying solid knots in his rope, to prevent whoever it would carry from plunging to their death.

“You all seem to have the hang of it, so let’s not wait any longer,” Bilbo declared, sheathing his knife and lifting Myrtle into his arms. “Make sure your dæmon is secure. If they fall, that’s it for both of you.”

In the end it was Bilbo, Bofur, Fíli and Ori who descended into the abyss. Thorin didn’t like handing Bilbo’s rope off to someone else, but Fíli was his heir. No one else was handling his rope, not after the promise he had made Dís. Bilbo would be safe with Dwalin.

“There is no sign of the Balrog, best start lowering them,” Gandalf declared, glancing over his shoulder.

“Even if there were, I can take him,” Mingalaz said with a yawn

Gandalf started lecturing Mingalaz, but Thorin tuned it out. He needed to focus on lowering Fíli into the abyss, and that was already challenging enough with all of the light. He rubbed his eyes. “What’s it like down there?” Thorin called.

“Can’t see much,” Fíli admitted. “It’s too bright, my eyes can’t get used to it.”

“Go slowly,” Thorin ordered the other dwarves holding ropes. “We don’t want to drop them into the void because they can’t tell where it starts.”

A tremendous boom shook the cavern, and Thorin almost lost his grip on the rope. Not now! His head shot up, but there was nothing to see, except Gandalf and the archers standing tense by the bridge, and Mingalaz rising from her sitting position.

“I found the bottom!” Bilbo cried, his voice echoing more than he liked at the moment.

“Start closing,” Gandalf barked. “It is here, and it knows we are too.”

The change was immediate. Even without looking down, Thorin knew they had started. Already the bright light in the chamber was fading as they lessened the torrent flowing out of their world.

Another boom shook the cavern, with greater force than before. Maybe he was imagining it, but the room felt warmer. “How long?” he called down to the closers, adjusting his grip on Fíli’s rope so that he could reach farther.

“Almost done,” Bilbo replied, as yet another boom shook the chamber. Looking down, Thorin couldn’t even see their forms in the abyss. The light of the two trees was almost gone, and while Thorin’s eyes were good in the dark, they were useless so soon after seeing so much brightness.

“Pull us up!” Fíli cried, and Thorin responded immediately, his muscles straining at the rope. Shrieks rent the air, and he pulled faster. Of course the orcs would time their attack to match the balrog’s. Of course that would happen when their portal closers were still fairly far down.

Then Mingalaz roared, and he knew they were out of time.

 


 

None of the portal closers were waiting to be lifted. With Myrtle secure in his improvised harness, Bilbo was climbing up the rope about as fast as Dwalin was lifting it. Bofur and Ori were doing the same, though faster since their dæmons could fly. Fíli on the other hand was struggling. Bundâl was larger than Myrtle, and her limbs were awkward in the harness. She was a natural climber, but fear had turned her into a thrashing burden, slowing Fíli’s ascent.

“We have to help them,” Bilbo said with a worried look at the pair.

“How?” Myrtle asked flatly. “They’re over there, and we’re over here. I doubt Dwalin would appreciate it if we started swinging.”

“I doubt he would appreciate Fíli falling to his death, either,” Bilbo replied sharply. “Maybe say something encouraging to Bundâl? Her panic is making Fíli panic, and now they’re feeding off each other.”

“Encouraging,” Myrtle snorted. “Right. Bundâl, if you don’t sit still and let Fíli climb, you are both going to die. Very soon, in fact. You feel those tremors? You feel how they keep getting stronger? When the source of those tremors gets here, Thorin won’t be able to hold your rope anymore.”

Bundâl did freeze in place, though she looked ready to cry. Fíli on the other hand looked grimly determined, and redoubled his climbing pace. Still, Bilbo was scandalized.

“I told you to say something encouraging!” he scolded, his arms starting to shake from the effort.

“You should have known better,” Myrtle replied frankly. “Also, we’re being shot at.”

On cue, an arrow whizzed past Bilbo’s ear, striking the stone wall and rebounding with a loud clatter.

“You’re almost there,” Dwalin said with a grunt, his voice nearer than Bilbo expected. Then Myrtle was torn off his back, presumably by Daruthâ, and a strong arm pulled him up the rest of the way by the back of his coat.

Bilbo took a moment to sit on his hands and knees to catch his breath, before looking at the situation he’d climbed into. Bofur had already reached the top, and Dori was pulling Ori over the edge that very moment. Fíli was a few steps behind, but it looked like he was going to make it without further trouble. It was a good thing too, Bilbo thought with a gulp. The other side of the chasm was crawling with orcs, though the archers and Mingalaz were mowing them down as quickly as they could. Even Mingalaz was being overwhelmed by their sheer numbers, not yet used to her new form. What did it feel like to be Thorin, with his dæmon being touched all over by orcs? Maybe it was different now, with her entire body covered in hard scales. How else could he focus on pulling up Fíli?

Where had so many orcs come from so quickly?

The ground shook again, almost knocking Bilbo over. He saw a hand come over the edge, and on instinct, stabbed it. The orc let out a fierce shriek, screaming something that sounded like, “it stings!” before plunging down into the abyss.

Inspiration struck. “What about Sting for a name, Myrtle?” he asked, looking at the blade in a new light.

“Sure, whatever, this is hardly the time!” she snapped. “Someone is shooting at you again!”

“There are too many!” Gandalf shouted from the bridge, his sword drawn and glowing bright blue. “You’ll never get to the portal they’re coming from.”

“What are we supposed to do, then?” Thorin demanded, heaving Fíli out of the abyss at last. “If they follow us out of Khazad-dum, we will be overrun.” His words were punctuated by the strongest boom yet.

“I know. I have a plan,” Gandalf assured him. “And regardless, the balrog must be dealt with. Take your people back to Erebor, and prepare your defenses against any orcs that follow. Glorfindel and I will handle the rest.”

Thorin still hesitated to give the order, his jaw set stiffly like he wanted to protest, and Bilbo decided to intervene. “We did what we came to do,” Bilbo reminded him over the noise from the fighting. “This world will start to heal with that abyss closed. The rest can wait.”

Some of the tension seemed to seep out of Thorin, though when he nodded it was still stiff. “Pull back to Erebor! Provide cover fire for Gandalf and Glorfindel as you retreat!”

With Mingalaz drawing most of the enemy fire and attention, it was a surprisingly organized retreat, though every time he heard the twang of a bowstring, his heart clenched with fear that the orcs had finally found a weak spot on the giant dragon. That fear faded the closer they got to escaping Khazad-dum, though dragging Kíli away from providing cover fire had been a near thing. An arrow had grazed Kurdaz, and by the way Kíli shook and shivered, it had been poisoned.

Still, Bilbo could see the light ahead of them, spurring them on, when Thorin let out a scream like nothing he had ever heard, and collapsed.

“Mingalaz didn’t follow us,” Myrtle breathed. “She stayed behind, and they were expecting the balrog any second…”

Keep running.

Bilbo nearly tripped. The Lady Galadriel had an impressive range, apparently.

The dragon will follow, but you must keep moving.

Dwalin had already slung Thorin over his back, so Bilbo had no choice but to follow, and hope that Gandalf and Glorfindel would make it out too. And Mingalaz.

Bilbo shuddered. The orcs had found something to pierce Mingalaz’s armor: the Balrog. How could Gandalf and Glorfindel stand against something like that? He almost wished he had seen even a glimpse of it, to have some idea of what such a monstrosity looked like.

“Probably better not to know,” he muttered, clutching Myrtle close as he ran.

“I like not being crisped for your idle curiosity,” Myrtle agreed.

They emerged into the sunshine, Bilbo collapsing on his hands and knees for the second time in less than 20 minutes. Dori dragged him back onto his feet.

“We have to keep going,” he said apologetically, slapping Bilbo lightly on the back and taking off running again.

They ran for another 10 minutes, Bilbo’s legs and lungs burning from the effort, before a horrendous crack rent the air, and a huge black dragon exploded out of Khazad-dum’s doors, barreling toward them at top speed. She spread her massive wings, and took off into the sky with an angry growl. As she passed them, Bilbo saw an ugly burn on her side.

“Fire hot enough to burn a dragon,” Ori said in open-mouthed awe between heavy breaths.

“That’s not something to look so excited about,” Nori observed wryly. “Mingalaz was smart, she knew when to cut and run. She knew an enemy she couldn’t fight.”

“Not until after it hit her once,” Balin observed, his eyes on Mingalaz’s soaring form. Like Thorin, Bilbo thought, finding some humor in the situation despite himself. The laughter that followed suggested he’d actually voiced that thought aloud.

“It would be so easy to sit on all of you,” Mingalaz grumbled from the sky. “It might even be worth the risk of sitting on Thorin.”

“I would prefer it if you refrained,” Thorin complained weakly. “Have we lost anyone?”

“Aside from Gandalf and Glorfindel, somehow everyone is still here,” Balin assured him. “Mingalaz did well shielding us from the main brunt of their attack, and we haven’t been followed thus far.”

“And I doubt we will be followed,” Glóin declared. “From that racket, Mingalaz must’ve collapsed something when she left.”

“Will Gandalf and Glorfindel be able to get out?” Tauriel asked in sudden alarm, turning to look back at the entrance to Khazad-dum. Her dæmon took off in that direction without another word.

“Gandalf’s a wizard!” Fíli declared. “He’ll think of something.”

“But what does it even mean to be a wizard?” Kíli wondered, and no one could bring themselves to admit they’d never really considered it. Yet another question they should have asked sooner.

Chapter Text

Gandalf and Glorfindel returned to Erebor hours after the rest had gone to Khazad-dum, fairly pummeled, but alive. Gandalf waved off attempts at medical attention, saying, “The fight took almost all of my strength, but sleep will restore it all in time. And more readily without being poked at.” He wouldn’t answer any other questions, except to say that neither the balrog nor the orcs would trouble them again from that direction.

Yet, try as he might, Bilbo couldn’t sleep. Erebor was safe from the inside, and the wraiths didn’t approach them because of the weapons they carried, but these facts provided no comfort. The wraiths were still out there, probably preying on the other dwarf kingdoms. The main leak draining this world had been closed, and the balrog taken care of, but Thorin was still…

And all of that was saying nothing about Sauron, who was of course the source of all this. If only Gandalf played his cards a little farther from the vest, Bilbo thought sourly, finally giving up on sleep and rolling out of bed.

A thud, followed by an angry grunt, came from the next room, suggesting that his neighbor was similarly troubled.

“You’d think more people would be sleeping tonight, considering what we did today,” Bilbo muttered, petting Myrtle absently.

“There’s still more to do,” a voice on the other side of the wall replied, sounding muffled but not the least bit daunted by that idea. It was a very familiar voice.

“You need your rest to do those things, Thorin,” Bilbo scolded, placing a hand against the cool stone wall.

“I don’t think you get to lecture me,” Thorin said, though he sounded amused. Bilbo was probably imagining it. He just couldn’t hear Thorin properly through the wall.

“Is it normal to put guests in the room next to the King?” Bilbo asked, changing the subject abruptly.

“As our portal-finder and portal-maker, you are an honored guest,” Thorin replied, and Bilbo wished he could see what kind of expression he had on his face while saying it. “And, you are from another world. We rarely leave our mountain halls unless we must, so outsiders of any kind are strange to us. Some might not be as respectful as they should if we didn’t put you in a place of honor.”

A chill ran down Bilbo’s spine. He could only hope Thorin meant that people would stare more openly, like they did back in the Shire, rather than be openly hostile. “I did notice some of your people staring when we first arrived,” he admitted, turning to stand with his back against the wall. He slid down the wall until he was sitting on the plush fur rug, running his fingers through it absently. Fur rugs were uncommon in the Shire, since few hobbits were of the hunting persuasion.

“That wasn’t about you,” Thorin insisted sharply, surprising him. “Without Mingalaz I am more of a topic of gossip than you ever could have been.”

Bilbo hesitated. Was Thorin inviting him to ask more, or just looking for a sympathetic ear? Maybe he just couldn’t sleep and needed to talk. “Have Gandalf and Galadriel come up with anything?”

“No,” Thorin answered harshly, and Bilbo heard a thunk from the other side. Probably Thorin putting his forehead against the wall. “Balin had an idea, but I doubt he knows more of this than a wizard and an elf born thousands of years ago.”

Bilbo’s heart ached for Thorin. He couldn’t even imagine something like that happening with Myrtle, so what comfort could he give? The only thing he could think of, letting Thorin hold Myrtle, was too bold to even suggest. If asked, Myrtle would doubtless agree, rolling her eyes and saying this was just the natural progression after flinging himself at Thorin, but after Thorin had asked him to wait… he couldn’t bring himself to test whatever resolve was holding Thorin back.

So, instead he said, “I’m sure they’ll find a way. Gandalf told you to find the lost kingdom of Gondolin, and we did in the end, when even the Numenorians couldn’t. Where there’s life, there’s hope.”

There was silence from the other side of the wall for a long time, so long that Bilbo thought Thorin had fallen asleep standing there, or just walked away. But then, as he felt himself starting to nod off, his body finally ready for sleep, he heard, “Thank you,” full of quiet relief, come from Thorin’s side of the wall.

“You’re welcome,” he replied with a sleepy smile, his good manners winning out over sudden tiredness, before letting Myrtle nudge him back toward the bed and collapsing in a heap. Nothing was resolved, but he hardly expected that much. Just easing Thorin’s mind a little was enough. Stress wouldn’t help Mingalaz turn back, or keep Thorin’s mind in one piece.

Bilbo awoke to a pair of furry snouts shoved in his face, sniffing eagerly without touching him. He couldn’t resist groaning. “How did you two get in here?”

“No doors are locked to the princes of Erebor,” Kíli declared with a shrug, and the dæmons retreated before Myrtle could take a swipe at them. At least he seemed to have recovered from his wounds quickly.

“There’s a meeting this morning to decide what’s to be done next, but we wanted to talk to you first,” Fíli admitted, scooping up Bundâl and stroking her fur absently.

“One might ask why you didn’t feel the need to knock, but with Thorin next door, I’m assuming you didn’t want him to hear whatever it is you have to say,” Bilbo surmised, sitting up at lat and rubbing his eyes tiredly.

“More like our mother would have something to say if she heard us talking to you about this,” Kíli observed, scratching the back of his head nervously.

“She might be inclined to accuse us of meddling, and then meddle herself,” Kurdaz agreed with a vigorous nod.

“Are you going to tell us what exactly that is at some point, or do we need to guess?” Myrtle griped, and the lads straightened suddenly.

“No one’s bothered to explain how dwarves court, have they?” Fíli asked. Bilbo almost fell off the bed in surprise.

“No, and I don’t see why it would have come up,” he fibbed, and was disappointed when he saw that neither of them seemed to believe him. They stood in identical poses, with eyebrows raised and arms crossed over their chests.

“It might come up soon,” Kíli warned. “Remember the armor we chose for you? Remember how Uncle made a point of saying how rare and expensive it was, and said explicitly it was supposed to be a gift from him to you? Our people consider that a declaration of intent.”

So maybe more had been resolved than he had initially assumed. But hadn’t Thorin said that he would answer after Mingalaz was returned to her true form?

Ah, right, Bilbo realized then. He had kind of shot that suggestion down. Maybe Thorin was trying to ask him a little more politely with this gift? Bilbo snorted. Trust a dwarf to try and throw money at the problem, when he could have just asked instead of ordering.

“And how does one normally respond to such a declaration?” Bilbo asked, with feigned disinterest that he knew was fooling no one. “Is it normal to make these declarations during times of such uncertainty?”

“There’s no time like the present,” Kurdaz replied, which Bilbo supposed was enough of an answer to the second question. “And what you give depends on how you feel about his declaration.”

Bilbo supposed that should have been obvious. “What would I give him if I wanted to say that I thought he was going to wait, and if he’s not, he should have said so?” he asked innocently.

Fíli and Kíli sported matching smirks.

“Boots, to suggest that he’s running away with himself,” Fíli answered seriously.

“Ah, well I don’t know the first thing about shoes, considering that I don’t wear them, but I will take that into consideration,” Bilbo promised them. “Now, I think you said something about an important meeting that we should be at?”

 


 

“I may have been less than entirely honest with you,” Gandalf admitted, to the surprise of absolutely no one.

“And I have no doubt that you will continue to be,” Thorin observed. “But I fail to see what that has to do with this.”

“Well, in the beginning, I told you that you could use swords from Gondolin to defeat the wraiths and that was true, but perhaps not entirely to the point,” Gandalf explained. To his credit, he did look a little embarrassed. “You may have noticed the way they seem to flee from you now that you carry Orcrist.”

Thorin nodded, his hand automatically going under the table to pet Mingalaz… who wasn’t there. He pulled his hand back, feeling a little colder than usual.

“We cannot fight them, can we?” Balin asked wryly, an eyebrow raised. Ranakâl had her eyes fixed on Gandalf, staring him down as if begging him to disagree.

“We could try, but it would not be productive,” Gandalf said. “When I left, I had a suspicion, and though my research was interrupted, I had time enough to confirm that suspicion. As you know, the wraiths answer to Sauron. Before you even set out, I suspected that he had not been destroyed for this very reason, because there had always been rumors that their lives were bound to his.”

Thorin tried to bite back his frustration, but that was getting harder with every passing day. “Gandalf, if you are trying to tell me that we got these swords for nothing-”

“No, that is not what I am trying to tell you at all,” Gandalf rushed to assure him. “It stands to reason that if Sauron’s servants are weak to these blades, so is he, does it not? But why? How could one of the Maiar, even a fallen one, have such a weakness? The answer is surprisingly simple. What have Sauron and his former master always hated? In the worlds you visited, where was their evil strongest?”

“Against dæmons,” Ori responded immediately, surprising the room. Gandalf just nodded in satisfaction.

“Exactly. And to what purpose? At last, I discovered the truth: Sauron created an artificial dæmon for himself, and connected the artificial dæmons of his servants to it, so that he could bend them to his will,” Gandalf finally explained. “It made him even more powerful, for this gift was denied the Valar and Maiar. But at the same time, it gave him a weakness.”

“If we destroy his artificial dæmon, he’ll die, and so will the wraiths, and every other foul thing he’s inflicted on the worlds,” Bilbo exclaimed, and the room erupted into momentary chaos until Gandalf regained control.

“Obviously, it is protected,” Gandalf continued with a sharp look at the dwarves. “But, I believe that the swords we went to such trouble to obtain will be effective on it, and that is the real reason I suggested you look for them.”

Thorin did not like being deceived, but Gandalf had not lied about the essentials: they had the tools necessary to rid his world of the wraiths.

“So now what?” Dwalin asked. “We go out looking for wherever this Sauron is hiding?”

“It is not that simple,” Gandalf conceded. “As the Lady Galadriel explained, all portals are slowing draining the light from their worlds, so every portal must be closed, and we cannot just open new ones thoughtlessly. I know where we must go, so we will go straight there with no side trips, while the Elves close the remaining open portals.”

Thorin’s heart clenched in his chest. The worlds must be permanently isolated? If Bilbo had to choose between never seeing his home again, or a life of peace and plenty, would Thorin even stand a chance? It hadn’t been long, and they only had that one kiss, but it was already more than Thorin was willing to give up. It wasn’t practical to make decisions that one couldn’t take back based on so little, and he knew that, but he couldn’t stop himself from hoping that someone had explained to Bilbo what that mithril vest meant, and that courting was proceeding despite his current state. It was cruel of him to wish that, when it would likely only make the decision harder, but Thorin had always been greedy.

“What about Thorin?” Kíli demanded suddenly. “We can’t do this until he’s well, or no one will be left in our world who can help him!”

“I had not forgotten,” Gandalf assured him a little more gently. “Now that you have the swords, we have a little more room to breathe. We can wait until Thorin is healed.”

“So you’ve thought of something?” Dori demanded. “Oh Mr. Gandalf, I knew you-”

“I have not,” Gandalf interrupted grimly. “I have tried a few spells, along with our elven allies, but this is an ancient evil that was done to him. A few hours in your library may yield more fruitful results, as Thorin is not the first dwarf to meet this fate. After this meeting is concluded, that is my destination, and any who wish to join me, may do so.”

Thorin doubted that his company taking over the library to look up obscure ancient accounts of misfortune would be terribly productive, but he let them pull him along. There was little more to discuss for the moment, and he was leaving ruling to Dís for now, while his mind was… fragile. She had been less than pleased to hear that Mingalaz had tangled with Durin’s Bane, but everyone had returned intact, so her anger quickly petered out.

They spent a lively afternoon in the library, the whole company putting aside whatever else they’d planned for that day to dig through some of the more ancient tomes and tablets, scratching their heads over some of the more archaic language. Thorin endured such suggestions as bathing in some kind of soup made from boiled lizards, which he doubted they could find anyway, or wearing golden ornaments carved with meaningless symbols, which didn’t seem likely for warding off dragon considering their fondness for gold. Yet another tome suggested trying to peel off all of Mingalaz’s scales one by one, and that her true form would be hidden underneath, but Thorin flatly refused to try that. He couldn’t bear the thought of someone else touching Mingalaz while tearing at her flesh, but the idea of doing it himself was equally painful. In the end, they retired without finding anything useful.

“There is a way,” Galadriel assured him quietly over dinner. “I have seen you restored, ruling over a peaceful world with your dæmon healthy again, so it can be done. Your future is not yet decided.”

It would have been easier to believe her had Bilbo not spent all of dinner avoiding eye contact. There at least his future seemed certain enough.

“How long can we afford to wait before striking at Sauron?” Thorin asked her softly, trying to avoid the attention of the rest of the table. If any of them heard him they would probably assume he had given up.

She did not answer immediately, and when she did, it felt like she was changing the subject. “Do you know what Gandalf and Glorfindel did in Khazad-dum? I do not think Gandalf will want to tell you,” she admitted mysteriously.

“He doesn’t seem eager to discuss it,” Thorin agreed, sparing the wizard a glance. Yet another person avoiding eye contact.

“That is because after he and Glorfindel defeated the Balrog, he closed the portal the orcs had been coming through, and brought Khazad-dum down on them,” she explained, her eyes distant with all the things she could see that were invisible to him.

Thorin didn’t know what to say. By all accounts, Khazad-dum was a great kingdom of old, full of wealth beyond counting, but they had all forgotten it until recently. He should feel a sense of loss, with more of his people’s history utterly destroyed, but destroying it had made them safer. He should be angry with Gandalf, but he wasn’t. What good had those dead, empty halls been doing them, except providing a hiding place for dark creatures?

He left dinner early, unable to tolerate much more of the concerned whispers and stares without snapping at someone. Judging by the way everyone he passed scattered in his wake, his expression must be almost as bad, Thorin decided, allowing himself a smile.

His smile flickered when he saw the wrapped package sitting in front of his door. “Who left this?” he asked his guards, who were shifting uncomfortably.

“The hobbit, your Majesty,” they answered in unison.

Deciding that the package was probably safe if it came from Bilbo, Thorin picked it up and carried it inside the room, unwrapping as he went. Under the wrappings were a new pair of boots that he had no idea how Bilbo could have obtained in such a short time, but their arrival answered the question he hadn’t dared to ask.

If Mingalaz were here, she would be rolling her eyes and saying, “See? You need to talk to him about things like this, or he won’t understand what you’re on about.” But she wasn’t, and that was exactly the problem that had Thorin running in circles.

Unable to sleep, and not wanting to initiate another nighttime conversation with Bilbo without some help, Thorin wandered down to Mingalaz’s beach. Every warning about going out alone, and especially after dark, didn’t seem to matter anymore. The orcs were gone, he could handle the wraiths, and frankly Mingalaz was one of the monsters everyone warned their children about. There was nothing left to fear.

“Nothing except a cheeky hobbit and his badger,” Thorin muttered, kicking off his boots and digging his toes into the sand.

“So you’ve finally come to your senses, and decided you need my help there,” Mingalaz observed, her huge bulk rising out of the dark water.

“It’s so strange, being without you,” Thorin admitted, stroking the scales on her snout. “I never felt alone until I couldn’t talk to you. I have no idea what I should be doing anymore.”

Mingalaz snorted. “That’s not true at all. You want to protect Erebor. You want to run off into danger if it means that everyone here will be protected. You also want to see if there’s more to things with Bilbo than a desperate kiss under difficult circumstances. I think you should do both.”

“But what about you?” Thorin demanded. “Every day that passes, I feel something creeping up on me. A madness that will lead both of us down a path we don’t want. I can’t just ignore that when making these choices.”

“Yes you can,” Mingalaz replied airily. “What if the way to save us is to do what you want? The more you worry, the more you think about the dragon in the cave, the more power you give that hypnosis. Do what you want, and not what that dragon wanted, and we’ll be fine.”

Thorin ached to give in. “But what if you’re wrong?”

She shrugged her huge shoulders. “Then at least we will have been happy for a time, and won’t have anything left to regret.”

Mingalaz made it sound so simple, but that wasn’t anything unusual for her. She might have the form of a dragon, but the core of her was unchanged, and Thorin drew comfort from that fact. She was still Mingalaz, and Mingalaz was almost never wrong.

“So, be straightforward with Bilbo,” Thorin surmised, earning another reptilian snort.

“Straightforwardness is in our nature, except where it comes to matters of the heart,” she muttered. “I’d say it’s time to overcome that weakness. Maybe that was the trial the compass was referring to.”

Thorin laughed, though he doubted it. His trial was undoubtedly resisting the dragon hypnosis, and on that score he had failed utterly. No wonder he couldn’t read the compass anymore.

“Thorin,” Mingalaz said, a warning in her voice. “Do what I say for once in your life. Don’t think yourself into a corner. That’s how we ended up like this in the first place.”

Chapter Text

When he woke up, Bilbo wasn’t initially sure what had caused it. His meager windows didn’t let in enough light to disturb him, as hobbits were deep sleepers even in the worst of times once sleep found them. And oh had he learned to fall asleep in less than favorable circumstances on this journey. Likewise, there were no overeager young dwarves here to harass him, and Myrtle’s claws weren’t digging into anything sensitive. Then a heavy knock sounded on the door, and he realized that it was probably the first knock that had woken him. At least someone here knows how to knock, he thought wryly, reaching for a dressing gown that wasn’t there.

“Oh right, not Bag End,” he huffed quietly, deciding as he pushed himself out of bed that whoever felt the need to disturb him in the morning could deal with the sight of him in his sleeping clothes. From what he knew of dwarves by now, he doubted it would offend anyone’s sensibilities. They might not even be aware of the message it was meant to send. That at least was something Bilbo missed about the Shire. Hobbits knew when they were being rude.

The next knock was a little louder, his visitor no doubt growing impatient. Bilbo grimaced and gathered up Myrtle. She went without complaint, which was a rare thing. She was usually the first to complain about uninvited morning visitors, and the first to suggest they be sent on their way. Did she know who was on the other side of the door?

“Just a moment if you please! Some of us are a little slow in the mornings,” he called, wrenching the door open.

The sight of Thorin standing there, his fist extended for another knock, made Bilbo wish for his absent dressing gown again. Not that Thorin hadn’t seen worse, but they weren’t out tramping about on the road anymore. At least Thorin had the sense to look uncomfortable as well.

“I received your gift last night,” Thorin began, meeting his eyes with such an intensity that Bilbo felt pinned by his gaze. “Until recently, I always had Mingalaz to tell me how foolish I was being, and without her there to ground me, I became truly foolish, pushing you away with one hand and drawing you closer with the other. I thought, it would be better to wait until I knew what the future held, but-”

“But no one ever knows what the future holds,” Bilbo finished for him, smiling wryly. “Even the Lady Galadriel said as much.”

“Exactly,” Thorin agreed, nodding slowly. “Better to die with no regrets than to live wondering what you missed by being indecisive.”

“Don’t talk about dying so casually,” Bilbo scolded him, his words punctuated by Myrtle brandishing her claws. “I didn’t try my best to save you in that cave only for you to go off and get yourself killed.”

Without meaning it, Bilbo had brought the conversation around to the kiss, a subject they had both been steadfastly avoiding. Thorin was clearly aware of this too, as he suddenly found one of the wall carvings very interesting, freeing Bilbo from his gaze. Knowing what Thorin would want to ask, but might take a while to get to, Bilbo decided to save him the trouble.

“In the cave, Myrtle suggested that I shock you, in the hope of breaking the hypnosis,” Bilbo began, fidgeting with a knot in Myrtle’s fur that wasn’t there. “But I wouldn’t have thought of it if I hadn’t wanted to do that for some time.” It had been rather Tookish of him, Bilbo thought privately. His mother would probably be proud.

Thorin’s shoulders sagged in what Bilbo hoped was relief. “You tried to pull away,” he said, meeting Bilbo’s eyes again. “When I regained enough of my mind to think about it, I thought you were just trying whatever you could think of, and when it seemed to work, you were in a hurry to end it.”

“There was a fire-breathing dragon directly behind us,” Bilbo reminded him with a laugh. “It wasn’t really the time for, well, that,” he finished lamely, his free hand gesticulating somewhat spastically. Thorin gave a self-deprecating laugh, but didn’t give any other response. He was still standing in the hallway, Bilbo realized, his face reddening. How many people had heard them?

“Would you like to come in?” Myrtle asked, saving Bilbo from his embarrassment. “Perhaps all of Erebor doesn’t need to be able to eavesdrop on their king’s love-related misunderstandings.” Bilbo stepped back from the door, and Thorin accepted the invitation without a word. Perhaps because he was now standing in Bilbo’s bedroom, the hobbit realized. Oh, why couldn’t the main door open into his parlor? What if Thorin thought it was an invitation for more?

Instead, Thorin chuckled, and it send a rush of warmth through Bilbo’s veins. “I was in such a hurry to talk to you and clarify what that kiss meant, that I forgot I would likely find you in less than ideal circumstances. I should-”

“You should stay,” Bilbo interrupted, pressing a hand against Thorin’s chest. “Myrtle only just invited you in. It would be rude to leave so quickly.” Bilbo’s hand felt warm on Thorin’s chest, and though he knew he should remove it, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He could feel a rapid heartbeat on his palm, but he wasn’t sure if it was his or Thorin’s. In his other arm, Myrtle was oddly still, as if she was waiting with bated breath for something to happen.

Thorin captured Bilbo’s hand in his much larger one, his brilliant blue eyes boring into Bilbo’s in that way that made it hard to breathe. “The day you stumbled into my world, Mingalaz and I were drawn to you and Myrtle,” Thorin said, his voice suddenly husky. “I didn’t want to give in to it, because you could leave at any moment. The instant the journey became too hard for you, you could go back to your safe home and think of us no more. Except, that never happened. Even now, you’re still here.”

“A Baggins stands by his word,” Bilbo replied, his cheeks reddening. It was such a lame explanation, and it didn’t cover nearly all of what he meant by it. Oh, for some of his mother’s spirit now!

“Oh?” Thorin’s warm breath brushed against Bilbo’s face, and it gave him courage.

“And I… might have wanted you to smile at me at least once,” Bilbo admitted. Myrtle started squirming then, and he had to break eye contact to set her down. When their eyes met again, Bilbo only had a second to register that something had changed in Thorin’s expression before Thorin’s free hand was cupping his cheek and the dwarf king was kissing him roughly.

Too roughly in fact. Bilbo nipped Thorin’s lower lip in warning, and the kisses were instantly gentler. Encouraged, Bilbo tangled his hands in Thorin’s thick hair, pressing against him eagerly. Pressed against Thorin’s chest, he could feel the pounding of the dwarf king’s heart, which was hammering out of control. He let it fuel his own excitement, heat rushing through his veins at this proof of Thorin’s interest. Even with Thorin trying to crush him into a wall, which earned another nip, it was hard to believe that a dwarf would be interested in him that way. Their bodies were so different, which was hard to ignore with Thorin’s hard muscles pressing into him.

One of Myrtle’s claws tapped his foot, her signal that he needed to stop thinking so much. Bilbo grinned into the kiss, causing Thorin to pull back a little, looking at him in lust-clouded bemusement.

“Something amuses you?” Thorin asked, his breathing heavy and his face flushed. It was… a very good look for him.

Bilbo shook his head. “No, I’m just happy. I trust you’re familiar with the feeling,” he said with a raised eyebrow.

“Happiness is a bit of an indulgence when you’re a king,” Thorin replied with a smirk. “But I allow it from time to time.”

“Like right now?” Bilbo teased, toying with one of Thorin’s braids.

“That goes without saying,” Thorin answered frankly, and leaned back in for another kiss.

A knock sounded on the door, and they both froze in place.

“Bilbo?” Balin called from the other side. “Her Highness wishes to remind you that you have a breakfast engagement with her this morning, and to ask that if you happen to see Thorin, to tell him that he is also expected. He’s not in his room, and no one seems to have seen him.”

There was a question in Balin’s words, which of course Bilbo chose to ignore. “Thank you for the reminder,” he called back. “If I happen to see Thorin I’ll be sure to mention it to him, though I can’t imagine where he could be.”

They waited until Balin’s footsteps retreated before moving again, Bilbo shoving Thorin toward the door. “Get going, before someone sees you,” he ordered.

Thorin didn’t budge. “Would it be a problem if someone saw me?” he asked, his voice neutral.

“You chose not to tell Balin that you were here,” Bilbo reminded him. “I assumed that meant that you don’t want them all meddling?”

“No, I do not,” Thorin admitted heavily. “I suspect they have already meddled more than enough.”

 


 

Thorin left with as much stealth as he could manage, though not without first kissing Bilbo again. The close proximity of their rooms meant that he didn’t have far to go, which considering Thorin’s meager stealth skills, was probably fortunate.

How was he going to get through breakfast with Dís? He felt lightheaded, and far more cheerful than he had been in a long time. She would notice and discern the cause. She had always been good at reading people, especially her brothers.

These unhelpful thoughts were the reason why Thorin reached his sister’s parlor last, with Bilbo and his nephews already in attendance. He was in too thoughtful a mood to notice that there were petitioners following him, and he couldn’t escape until their grievances were properly aired.

“So good of you to finally join us, Thorin,” Dís observed, her sarcasm not the least bit lost on him. “I hope you didn’t get lost.”

“My sense of direction is only poor aboveground, dear sister,” Thorin replied, taking his appointed seat. “I was waylaid by petitioners seeking an audience, and they would not take ‘speak to her highness’ as an answer.”

Dís rolled her eyes dramatically. “Ah yes, the staunch old guard, who cannot bring themselves to follow the orders of a woman. You would never be so foolish, would you boys?” she asked her sons, who immediately straightened and nodded stiffly. “I trust you didn’t give way?”

“I named you Acting Queen and resigned from the post of King until the wraiths are gone specifically to avoid these kinds of disagreements,” Thorin replied irritably. “I have half a mind to let them see Mingalaz, and then decide if they really want my assistance.”

“I think I would pay to see that,” Dís replied with a laugh, which was mirrored by Abkund. At this point, Thorin might pay to see it too. There had to be some benefits to Mingalaz’s shape change. “So, Bilbo,” Dís began, turning to the hobbit. “I’m told that all of the portals between worlds must be sealed. What will you do? I understand you’ve earned the affection of my sons at least, who would be very sorry to see you go.”

Bilbo reddened, and Thorin tried not to show his own interest in the subject. “I never really wanted to go back to the Shire,” Bilbo admitted. “At times I missed my books, and my armchair, but those are just things, and I could bring those here if I really wanted. But knowing that I wouldn’t ever be able to go back… I don’t know. With the company, I felt at home, but Erebor doesn’t feel like home yet. It seems like a very cruel choice to have to make, and I don’t have much time to make it.”

“It does seem cruel,” Dís agreed hotly. “I’m sure Thorin would agree with me when I say that if you want to make Erebor your home, you would be welcome. But if it can’t be, well, that is your choice to make, and no one will begrudge you that.”

“Thank you, your highness,” Bilbo said earnestly, though Thorin flinched, knowing his sister would be offended.

Dís raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I see. So my brother is Thorin, but I am ‘your highness?’ Hobbits must be a cruel, perverse folk.”

“They really are,” Kíli confirmed, suddenly brightening up at the opportunity to tease someone.

“He asked me not to mention this, but Bilbo used to spar with Uncle using a sword that could cut through anything!” Fíli told his mother conspiratorially. “Uncle wasn’t always the kindest to him, but to seek that kind of revenge…”

“Oh, I knew it!” Dís exclaimed. “They seem like such a soft folk, but then look at the claws on his dæmon!”

Bilbo’s mouth opened and closed several times, as if he had never been in this situation before, and had no idea how to stop it. He had never mentioned having siblings, Thorin recalled, content to watch the scene unfold. He had been the target of his sister and her sons more than a few times in his life, and he was simply grateful to not be the target now.

“First of all, I had no notion that Sting was so very sharp,” Bilbo settled on, giving Fíli a stern look. “Secondly, hobbits believe in manners above all things. Thorin told me that titles were not to be used among the company, so I left them off, but I would never presume-”

His tirade was interrupted by a burst of laughter from the arbiter of this misunderstanding, which her sons quickly joined, though Bilbo looked entirely lost.

“She was just teasing you,” Thorin explained, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “And that is how she asks people to do things: indirectly.”

“Oh, well if that’s all,” Bilbo exclaimed in visible relief. “Thank you for your generosity, Dís.” Bilbo’s second attempt was more successful at earning the princess’s approval. She smiled magnanimously, and Thorin found himself joining in. The teasing could have been so much worse.

After breakfast, Thorin decided to allow the company one more day of fruitless searching in the library. Gandalf seemed to think they could spare the time, and Thorin wanted to give Bilbo a little more time to decide what he wanted to do. He wouldn’t blame him if Bilbo wanted to go back to the Shire. Choosing to stay in Erebor over some camaraderie and a few kisses was fairly flimsy reasoning, and he couldn’t justify asking Bilbo to stay as Dís had. All he could do was give Bilbo more time, and prepare himself for yet another possibly suicidal quest.

At least this one would be fairly short compared to looking for Gondolin.

“Our best weapons will be stealth,” Gandalf had said firmly when he’d explained the plan. “I can describe the world to Bilbo and he can get us there, but this is the world from which all of our troubles originate. We cannot simply walk in, and hope to find what we are looking for.”

So of course while everyone else sought a cure for Thorin, Gandalf tinkered around in the deeper levels of Erebor, muttering and tapping his staff as if that would show him the best place to open a portal. Though perhaps it would. Thorin had no idea how Gandalf’s magic was supposed to work, and he couldn’t just ask the compass. Not that he had tried recently, but nothing had changed. There was no reason it would suddenly work again.

Thorin slumped against a wall. Between Mingalaz, Bilbo, and the compass, he was being crippled by doubt, and all he could think to do was face the problems threatening his people, and hope the others resolved themselves. He had never been very good at solving more personal problems, and that was how the dragon had hypnotized him in the first place. Now, he was surrounded by them on all sides, and expected to deal with them while his world was in danger. Maybe his trial wasn’t over yet.

 


 

“This is the spot,” Galadriel announced, running a delicate hand over a spot on the wall. Gandalf saw no difference, but he hadn’t expected to. On this plane, there was no difference.

Gandalf marked the spot by drawing a rune with his staff. “There is nothing left to do now except wait until Thorin is ready,” he declared, lowering his staff.

Galadriel closed her eyes briefly. “You are no closer to finding a cure for him?”

He shook his head. “No, and I think he doesn’t believe that one exists.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “You are no closer, because you already know the cure,” she guessed, with a bit of a rebuke in her tone.

“It would do no good to tell him,” Gandalf countered apologetically. “If he knows, it won’t work, as it must happen naturally. It requires emotional impact, like striking a heart to restart it.”

“You might tell him that,” Galadriel said, eyebrows raised. Her dæmon stared at Gandalf coldly.

“I might,” Gandalf allowed. “Though if I know anything of the stubbornness of dwarves, he won’t be satisfied until he knows.”

Galadriel did not reply, but it was obvious enough what she was thinking: if Gandalf had been freer with information sooner, maybe he wouldn’t have this problem now.

Chapter Text

“We leave for Sauron’s stronghold tomorrow,” Thorin announced to the company the next morning, his tone leaving no room for argument. He watched their faces fall, but he had no choice. All he could do was move forward. “Make your final preparations today. Any who wish to remain behind may do so without judgment. All of you have braved enough to be the subject of many ballads.”

Every dwarf there protested loudly. How dare he suggest that they would stay behind, their honor was impugned at the very notion, etc. He hadn’t expected anything else. Bilbo wasn’t joining in, but there was a determined set to his jaw. Of course he was coming with. Even if they could get into Sauron’s fortress without him, Bilbo would hide in someone’s pack if necessary.

Thorin felt the ghost of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He was beginning to realize that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He was destined to be surprised that day.

Their elven visitors were still in residence, and when they were told of the plan, insisted on being included as well.

“Our spiders were sent by Sauron,” Tauriel insisted firmly. “It is my duty to help defeat him.”

“It is our duty,” Legolas added.

Thorin didn’t even need to ask Glorfindel. The older elf was simply seen sharpening arrows and checking his bowstring, and they knew he intended to come.

As for the Lady Galadriel, Thorin wasn’t surprised to hear that she had other plans. “While your people attack, mine will set about closing every portal they can find,” she told him, her eyes distant. “By the time your work is done, all that will remain is for Bilbo to cut a portal leading back here.”

“What of his sword?” Balin asked, his tone carefully neutral. Ranakâl watched Galadriel with a careful eye, as if watching for a lie. “And what of any others with the same power? They are not all accounted for.”

“They just have to break them,” Dwalin pointed out.

“Is that even possible?” Ori asked, his dæmon examining Sting, which had been left on the table. “Aren’t they supposed to be magic?”

“They may be magic swords, but they’re still swords,” Dori said confidently. “Like all weapons, they can be broken.”

“It may not be necessary to do so, but it is possible to do,” Galadriel assured them, stroking her dæmon’s feathered head.

“Why would it not be necessary?” Bilbo asked suddenly, setting Myrtle on the table as he stood. “I thought leaving any portal open, even for a short time, would cause the light to drain, and could let evil into the world. Under what circumstances would it not be necessary to destroy a sword that can open portals?”

She turned her mysterious smile on him, and Thorin watched Bilbo wilt a little. “Even the very wise cannot see all ends,” Gandalf observed lightly, ending the subject without answering it.

Well, that was hardly unusual.

Balin waited until the company had dispersed to voice his more private concerns to Thorin. “Why now? We can take a little more time to rest and recover.”

“The longer we wait, the harder it will be to leave,” Thorin replied firmly. “This must be done, and if there is no cure to be found for me, better we set off sooner than later.”

Balin patted his arm sympathetically. “Have you tried what I suggested? Just to be sure before we leave?”

“No, but I will,” he swore, returning the touch. “Thank you, Balin.”

With nothing left to do, Thorin wandered down to Mingalaz’s beach, shucking off his boots and digging his toes in the sand. Mingalaz said nothing, and found that he was glad for her silence. Just having her beside him was a rarity these days, and he took comfort in her presence, even if it wasn’t the form he had known for so long. Stroking her smooth scales, it almost felt like similar mornings spent on this same beach, before the world had gone mad.

Well, and before he had been King.

“Has anyone disturbed you while you’ve been here?” he asked Mingalaz, dipping a toe into the water.

“Aside from you, no one leaves the safety of the walls,” Mingalaz said with a shrug. “I wish I could be inside with you, but even the wraiths leave me alone.”

Not because she carried elvish steel, though. Because they knew her as a creature like themselves, born of dark anguish. Thorin’s heart beat painfully in his chest. Yes, he was going to try what Balin suggested, because at this point, he would try anything if there was a chance it would work.

As if summoned by those thoughts, Thorin heard the crunch of familiar footsteps, and Bilbo appeared on the beach, Myrtle held securely in his arms. She started to thrash as they approached Mingalaz, and at first he thought it was from fear. When Bilbo set her down though, she was right up to the dragon, and in one of the bizarrest sights he had ever seen, they bumped noses. Maybe Mingalaz had learned to master the intricacies of her new form quicker than he’d thought.

“Dwalin said you’d be down here,” Bilbo said by way of explanation, sitting down beside him. “I don’t have any preparations to make, except to tell you what my decision is.”

“I see,” Thorin replied, not sure what else to say. He settled for looking at Bilbo expectantly.

“I decided to stay,” Bilbo said without looking at him. He was tracing a pattern in the sand with one of his fingers, and Thorin wondered if it was a coincidence that it resembled the pattern on one of his rings. “Erebor may not feel like home right now, but the Shire hasn’t felt like one since my mother died. Even if-” Bilbo cut himself off, taking a deep breath. “I think I would regret it if I went back to the way I was living before.”

“I see,” Thorin repeated dumbly, earning a snort from Mingalaz.

Bilbo sighed. “Is that all you have to say?”

“I never dared to hope that you would agree to stay,” Thorin admitted, running a hand through his hair. “I didn’t think of anything to say.”

“Oh, Thorin,” Bilbo sighed again. “What would you have said if I decided to go back to the Shire?”

“That I understood why you made that choice. Stable homes are important to my people, which is what makes it so hard to believe that we forgot Khazad-dum. The loss of that home would have been deeply traumatic,” Thorin explained. “And, I would have asked you to try one last thing for me.”

Bilbo tilted his head curiously. “Try what?”

Mingalaz snorted again, fencing in Myrtle with her tail.

“Balin thought that recreating the circumstances that caused Mingalaz to settle on her form might make her return to it,” Thorin told him heavily.

“So you want me to touch her?” Bilbo asked, the corners of his eyes crinkling with mirth. “You might have said something sooner.”

“Oh no, no hobbits near the dragon,” Mingalaz yawned. “I might scorch the hair off your feet, or something equally unpleasant.”

“She’s dangerous,” Thorin argued weakly.

“But not vicious,” Bilbo pointed out, eyebrows raised as he plucked Myrtle from Mingalaz’s grasp. “Here, take Myrtle. It’s only fair.”

Touching Myrtle sent a giddy thrill through Thorin’s body. There was none of the unpleasantness from when the orcs had grabbed Mingalaz, and judging by the shiver that ran through Bilbo, he felt the same. If Thorin had been less stubborn, he would have known that they would end up this way all the way back in the goblin tunnels, when Mingalaz had kicked Bilbo. It hadn’t felt quite like this, but there had been none of the usual discomfort that came from breaking the taboo. Any other dwarf would have taken that as a sign.

Myrtle settled snugly into Thorin’s arms without any of the grumbling or thrashing that he associated with Bilbo carrying her, so he gave her snout an experimental stroke. Myrtle made a pleased sound in the back of her throat, while Bilbo gasped, and gave him a sharp look.

“Later, if you please,” he said, his breath hitching slightly, and Thorin stilled. He had asked Bilbo to do something after all, might as well let him do it.

He expected Bilbo to touch whatever was closest, but he reached for Mingalaz’s head, which she lowered obligingly. As his hand drew nearer, Thorin realized that his nerves were practically singing in anticipation, and not entirely because Mingalaz could turn back. He wanted Bilbo to touch her again, more than he had ever wanted anything.

When Bilbo’s hand settled on Mingalaz’s snout, it was like every muscle in his body relaxed at once. It was like coming home to a warm meal and a warm fire after an entire day spent in the rain. Like the first inhale after staying too long underwater. There was none of that foreign feeling that sometimes came out when he looked at Bilbo, as if it were being burned away by Bilbo’s touch. He felt so, so good… but Mingalaz was still a dragon.

“I guess it didn’t work,” Bilbo said apologetically, not removing his hand from Mingalaz, who was clearly leaning into his touch.

“It’s not your fault,” Thorin replied firmly. “It was just an idea Balin had.”

 


 

Bilbo knew that Thorin was trying to reassure both of them in that moment. As far as he knew, that was the only viable suggestion anyone had come up with, and it had failed. Of course Thorin would be disappointed. But maybe it wasn’t the end of the world?

He scratched at Mingalaz’s scales, watching her pupils dilate with what he hoped was pleasure. “Cheeky hobbit,” she muttered, a puff of smoke rushing out between her sharp teeth. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to tease a dragon?”

“No, just not to laugh at one,” Bilbo replied tartly. “But you’re more of a large lizard, really.”

Thorin let out a choked laugh. “‘A large lizard?’”

“Technically true,” Myrtle agreed cheerfully. “Except for that fire-breathing business.”

“A significant exception,” Thorin observed, his voice surprisingly close. Bilbo turned, barely managing to avoid jumping in surprise. Thorin and Myrtle were directly behind him, and he’d been too focused on Mingalaz to notice the change in his bond with Myrtle. He found himself hoping that holding Myrtle had a similar effect on Thorin, considering that he hadn’t set her down yet.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mingalaz spit fire,” Bilbo observed, wincing at the way his voice cracked on the last word. “With just the smoke, it’s easy enough to forget.”

Thorin chuckled. “I think you’re the only one who feels that way.”

Bilbo was seized by the urge to say something corny. To tell Thorin that he could make him forget. Clearly Thorin holding Myrtle was dangerous for his state of mind. It was like being drunk on the Gaffer’s homebrew. All sorts of bad ideas were born under those kinds of circumstances.

He turned back around to avoid the temptation, rubbing Mingalaz’s scales fiercely. Thorin’s sudden intake of breath sent shivers down his spine, or maybe that was Thorin returning the gesture on Myrtle’s fur. His knees weakened, and he stumbled backward, knocking into Thorin and Myrtle. Bilbo had to resist the urge to laugh. It seemed like even though Mingalaz was supposedly the problem, Myrtle was always the one between them.

What did that say about their chances, he wondered?

“You’re really going to stay,” Thorin said softly, and Bilbo stifled a laugh. Thorin’s reaction to that revelation had been lackluster, but apparently that was because he was still processing it.

“Yes you silly dwarf, I’m really going to stay,” Bilbo replied tartly, keeping his back turned to hide his blush.

“Your ears are turning red,” Thorin observed, rustling behind him. Bilbo felt one of Myrtle’s claws tap against his bare foot, and guessed he’d been setting her down.

“Well if they are, it’s your fault,” Bilbo said, turning to face him with his hands on his hips. “You always have to be so dramatic.”

There was more they could have said while they were being unusually honest with each other, about dwarves and dragons, family burdens and never quite fitting in, about dreaming mothers and more practical fathers, but there would be time for that later. For now, as their eyes met and the distance between them seemed to close ever so naturally, all that mattered was the feel of their bodies pressed together and stolen kisses under the watchful eye of an ocean-eyed black dragon.

Out there on the beach, hidden by Mingalaz’s bulk, none of the various problems plaguing the worlds seemed to have any bearing on the present. They would tomorrow of course, but wasn’t that always the way of things? Tomorrow he would have to face the prospect of never seeing the Shire again. Tomorrow, after opening his last portal, there would be nothing special or useful about Bilbo Baggins once again.

But for today, he was the portal-finder, the world-cutter, King-kisser. Lovely titles, really. And they would have to do.

 


 

Kíli wasn’t usually a nervous wreck around women. Fíli told him that he was sometimes a little awkward, but it felt genuine. A point in his favor rather than a deduction.

Elves were an entirely different matter.

If Kíli was being completely honest, he’d been carrying an itty bitty torch for Tauriel from the moment she’d dropped out of the tree. Kurdaz would roll her eyes at this, and say that Mingalaz’s flames must be positively miniscule then. Kíli did his best to ignore her, trying everything he could think of to strike up conversation whenever he saw the flame-haired elf maid. Sometimes she stopped and her eyes would soften with genuine interest in whatever he was saying, and sometimes she would look like a trapped deer and scamper off.

“What do you think I’m doing wrong?” Kíli asked, scratching his still depressingly sparse chin. He’d assembled his best minds, which really just meant Fíli, Ori, and their dæmons.

“We don’t know much about Elven courting,” Ori pointed out, keeping his dæmon tucked in his scarf. She did tend to get tossed back and forth between Kurdaz and Bundâl like a ball. “Maybe you’re breaking one of the rules.”

“She’d know that he doesn’t know anything about that though,” Fíli argued.

“An oversight during our visit,” Kurdaz lamented. “Ori should have asked someone. It wouldn’t have looked suspicious.”

Ori sputtered indignantly. “Yes it would’ve! And anyway, if she knows Kíli doesn’t know, then he must be doing something else wrong.”

“Do you think it’s because I’m too tall?” Kíli asked seriously. “I know my beard still hasn’t come in, but-”

“I don’t think their standards of beauty are the same as ours,” Fíli said placatingly. “They’re all tall and thin, and have you seen many elves with full beards? If anything, you might be too short.”

“Or just smell of desperation,” Bundâl added teasingly.

“I don’t actually smell, do I?” Kíli asked nervously, taking quick sniffs of his clothes. “Or maybe I just smell like dwarf, and she doesn’t like that-”

“Or, we could try asking Prince Legolas,” Fíli suggested.

That seemed too mortifying, even for Kíli, so in the end, Fíli was left to carry out his own idea, asking one prince to another, if there was a reason that his guard captain seemed so nervous at times.

“Being without her dæmon makes her apprehensive, and he needs to fly outside the mountain regularly,” Legolas answered. If he suspected their purpose, he didn’t show it. “She means no offense.”

“And she has given none, we were just concerned that maybe her accommodations were not to her liking,” Fíli explained smoothly, and was able to report back to the group without any trouble.

“Of course that was it,” Kíli exclaimed, slapping his forehead. “How could I not have seen it?”

Not even the warnings of his best minds that maybe trying to woo an elf-maid who would probably be going back to her own world permanently very soon was enough to hold him back. Which was why, hours later when his uncle returned from a very long trip to Mingalaz’s beach, he found Kíli deep in conversation with a red-haired elf-maid on the battlements under the stars. Kíli didn’t even notice, but if he had, he would have seen a fond smile on Thorin’s face.

Chapter Text

Even under the mountains on their way to Gondolin, Bilbo had never been as far underground as he currently was in Erebor, following winding passages into the depths of the earth. He never doubted the sturdiness of the dwarven architecture, as they seemed to favor thick, hard lines that seemed stable enough, but he couldn’t shake the fear that he would be buried down here. Hobbits lived in holes in the ground, and this was an abyss by comparison.

It was that whole being an abyss business that made it possible to get Mingalaz down here, even if it had been a bit dicey at the front gate. She’d been fitted with a saddle that must have been made in secret overnight, which Gandalf claimed was a precaution if they needed to escape in a hurry. If Thorin thought anything about the prospect of cramming everyone onto his dæmon’s back, he didn’t say so. At least there would be one less rider than originally anticipated: the Lady Galadriel had requested Glorfindel’s assistance in closing the remaining open portals, and he had agreed. Bilbo just hoped they wouldn’t miss his help.

So they descended deeper and deeper following ancient stairs, while Mingalaz flapped her giant wings slowly in pursuit. It seemed to go on forever, but so had the abyss in Khazad-dum, and he’d seen the truth of that. Still, he hoped Mingalaz was good at hovering. How quickly did dragons tire, he wondered?

“This is the spot,” Gandalf announced. They were nowhere near the bottom, if the dark depths beneath Mingalaz were any indication. As he suspected, she wouldn’t be able to land.

“The tunnel isn’t wide enough here for me to cut a portal that Mingalaz can fit through,” Bilbo admitted, scratching his head. He could always mount Mingalaz and cut from there, but it would be hard to balance, and did he really want to show off that he could touch her without a problem? “It would be easier if she could land, but-”

“We wouldn’t be able to enter Mordor at that depth,” Gandalf finished for him. “I hadn’t considered that.”

Bilbo distinctly heard Dwalin mutter something that sounded a lot like “measure twice, cut once,” but before he could offer any opinion on this practical dwarven idiom, something had grabbed him from behind and was lifting him quickly into the air. Myrtle automatically stiffened in his arms, as if sensing a predator. But if Myrtle had been carried like this before…

“Mingalaz, put them down,” Thorin scolded, genuine fear in his eyes.

Oh. He was in the jaws of a dragon.

She seemed to be managing her teeth well, somehow. He didn’t think he was being speared by them, anyway. But Mingalaz could hardly explain what she was about with her teeth digging into his mithril shirt! Oh, why did she have to be so like Thorin?

Suddenly he was swinging violently, tossed about like a rag doll between Mingalaz’s teeth. “Oh, this is the exact opposite of helpful,” he moaned, hoping his breakfast would manage to stay down.

“Draw Sting,” Myrtle ordered, her teeth clenched with effort. “I don’t think she’s just discovered a new toy, maybe it just didn’t occur to her to explain herself before she picked us up.”

Bilbo gave Thorin his best glare, and to his credit, Thorin did look sheepish. Still, he drew Sting, and it quickly became clear what Mingalaz wanted him to do. Her spastic head movements ceased, and she carried Bilbo slowly through the air, forming a huge rectangle. She wanted to help him cut a portal that she would fit through, he realized with a snort. She might be a dragon, but she was definitely still Mingalaz.

“You might have explained yourself,” he scolded her, but then let his mind slip into the concentration needed to find the opening. He didn’t need Gandalf’s guidance to know which one was correct: a flash of heat surged through him when Sting found it. Not only heat, but another feeling that he couldn’t name. His stomach curdled the longer he maintained contact with it, a weakness creeping into his limbs. No time to waste then.

With Mingalaz holding him securely, he made the cut, letting her draw him slowly through the air while he did the same with Sting. When they finished, Bilbo was left to gape through the largest portal he’d ever made. He’d known that they’d be coming through underground, but he had expected tunnels like the ones in Erebor. In Mordor, they were looking into an underground prison.

Rows and rows of cells hewn into the rock lined the walls, containing shadowed forms that he couldn’t make out anything about. Faintly, he heard moans, but nothing more spirited than that. The room itself was far larger than he would have expected for a prison, but if she was careful, Mingalaz would be able to move around without too much trouble. There were no guards that he could see, but that could change at any time. Best to get everyone through now, before someone stumbled across the portal and raised the alarm.

Bilbo gestured for everyone to follow, then dropped through the portal as Mingalaz’s teeth finally released him. He watched as the others, careful to avoid direct contact with Mingalaz, used her as a bridge to enter, with Mingalaz herself flying through last and landing with an audible thud. At Gandalf’s nod, he tugged the portal closed. Gandalf claimed there would be another way out, though he couldn’t imagine what.

“What use do they have for a prison?” Tauriel asked, her dæmon grooming himself compulsively and sitting as close to her head as he could. Legolas looked equally unnerved. “I would have thought that they kill all intruders on sight.”

“Experimentation,” Thorin guessed grimly.

Gandalf nodded in absent agreement, gesturing that they should hurry on without him, and approached some of the cells. Bilbo watched him at a distance, some instinct telling him that he would regret getting close, until Mingalaz was nudging him after the dwarves with her snout, and there was really no arguing with that. He started off at a jog, doing his best not to look at the inhabitants of the cells as he ran. For their part, they didn’t seem terribly interested in him either.

“This place smells of death,” Myrtle complained in a hushed voice. “Not in the usual sense either… I can’t explain it.”

“I don’t smell anything, but I trust your nose,” he assured her. “This is the source of all our troubles, so it’s bound to be a little strange.” For the first time since Mirkwood, Bilbo saw huge, thick spiderwebs in some of the corners of the room. He picked up his pace to catch up with the group. Better not to linger here, he decided with a heavy swallow.

He reached the group in time to hear Tauriel saying, “I said that we would find the source of the spiders.”

“I will never doubt you again,” Legolas replied with a faint smile, though his expression quickly became serious again. Mirth could not last long in such a place, Bilbo suspected, jumping as a more energetic prisoner banged on the bars.

“Shouldn’t we do something for them?” Ori asked, drifting near one of the cells. Kirthâl fluttered above him, leaning closer to the cell, her curiosity winning out over her usual caution.

Dori promptly tugged him back to the group. “They’re as likely to attack you as to thank you,” he scolded, his dæmon eyeing Ori’s as if she wanted to snatch her out of the air.

“There is not much we can do for them,” Gandalf agreed, returning from his inspection. “Every one of them has an incurable condition in varying stages. They will be released of course, but…”

“The result of an experiment? Or a side effect of this place?” Óin asked, his medical interest apparently defeating his deafness.

“In a manner of speaking,” Gandalf confirmed cryptically, without really answering either question.

“Will it affect us?” Thorin demanded, and Gandalf shook his head.

“No, we won’t be here long, so I doubt there is anything to fear,” he replied easily enough, though without inspiring confidence.

The prison emptied out into a large open chamber, with more high-ceilinged tunnels branching off from it. Looking up, Bilbo discovered that this chamber had no ceiling: they were at the bottom of a deep pit. Given what he had seen of orcs and climbing, it was probably no hardship for them to get in and out. For the sickly prisoners in the cells, escape was probably more difficult.

“Where to?” Kíli asked, looking back and forth between Thorin and Gandalf. A sickly feeling settled in Bilbo’s stomach when he saw that Thorin was fiddling with the compass absently, but didn’t look at it or ask it a question. He still couldn’t read it.

“We must find Sauron’s false dæmon,” Gandalf said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world to do, really.

As if on cue, Tauriel’s dæmon sped off out of the pit. “He will scout for us,” Tauriel assured them, though her eyes followed the direction he had gone long past anyone’s ability to still see him.

“Now,” Balin began, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “How do we get out of this pit?”

 


 

“No.”

“How else do you suggest we get out of the pit, then?” Thorin asked, trying to sound patient and not like he was grinding his teeth.

“I don’t know,” Mingalaz replied, flicking her tail out carelessly. “But I’ll get shot down the second my head clears the pit. It’s suicidal. We agreed not to do that anymore. I thought that was why we didn’t just come through above ground.”

“Would they really shoot you down, though?” Bofur wondered. “Wasn’t Sauron creating dragons? It could be in this very pit.”

“You might just blend in,” Bombur agreed.

Mingalaz grimaced… or maybe she was smiling? Thorin still struggled with reading her new face. “That might work, but a pile of dwarves on my back will probably attract attention.”

“If it’s for a short time, I can conceal us a little,” Gandalf offered. “Behind your wings, we would hardly be visible in any case.”

Mingalaz ground her teeth together a few times, but eventually nodded. “Fine. Where am I flying to?”

“You will a lone black tower, reaching into the sky,” Gandalf instructed as the party climbed carefully onto Mingalaz’s back. “That is our likely destination. You will not be able to fit inside, so once we are within, it would be wise to try hiding yourself.”

Mingalaz snorted, but made no reply. Satisfied that they had some kind of plan, Thorin looked over the company. “Does everyone have something to hold on to?” he asked, gripping one of Mingalaz’s spines. The others could not do that, even Bilbo. It might distract Mingalaz in the air.

There was a chorus of grunts and other assenting sounds, and without warning, Mingalaz stretched her wings, and took off into the air. Thorin couldn’t remember the last time he did something quite so alarming. Her body did not stay still during flight, which he supposed he should have anticipated. The resulting rocking was almost like what he imagined being in a boat must be like… in the middle of a storm on the ocean.

Eventually, she cleared the pit, and Mordor was laid out before them. Thorin saw now why they had bothered to enter the world through the pit, even if it meant flying out of it. The world was a long, grey plain, ringed on all sides by a distant mountain range. Standing starkly above it all were two landmarks: a mountain, spewing ash and fire from its peak, and a black tower. At the top of the tower, a eye made of flame stared down at everything, never looking in one place for very long. If they had come through a portal on the surface, the eye would have seen them and had them killed immediately. Seeing a dragon emerge from the pit on the other hand was a different story. The eye glanced at Mingalaz, but quickly moved on, confirming Thorin’s suspicion: some of the prisoners down there were dwarves, and Sauron was trying to transform their dæmons into weapons. Even when Mingalaz made for the tower, the eye didn’t spare her any further attention.

“Is that Sauron?” Bilbo asked, squinting against the ash that filled the air. Myrtle’s fur was already full of it.

“It is a form he takes,” Gandalf confirmed. “In truth, I doubt we could have avoided his notice without Mingalaz in this form.”

“A blessing in disguise, then,” Balin observed, and Thorin felt his eyes on the back of his neck, but didn’t turn. He wished Balin would stop trying to put a positive spin on such an obvious proof of his own depravity. Even if he hadn’t felt any of those odd stirrings since Bilbo touched Mingalaz.

As they approached the tower, at first Thorin thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. The surface of the tower seemed to be moving, and eventually he realized that it was just orcs, scurrying here and there in a flutter of activity. How were they going to get past that?

“Mingalaz should toss us through a window,” Dwalin suggested. “We won’t make it if we have to climb all the way to the top.”

“Who said we had to climb to the top?” Glóin demanded, eyeing the tower dubiously.

“That is the likely location of the artificial dæmon,” Tauriel supplied, her dæmon returning to alight on her arm. “Gailon saw something that might be it near the top.”

“What did it look like?” Legolas asked. Where the dwarves clung to parts of the saddle for dear life, both of the elves looked perfectly stable without doing so. Gandalf at least had to hold on with one hand. And Kíli was going to fall to his death if he kept trying to impress Tauriel by not holding on either.

“Gailon didn’t get a good look at it,” Tauriel said with an apologetic shrug. “But he saw a figure leaning over something, and holding it close.”

“Vague, but that does seem likely,” Gandalf agreed.

“Through an upper floor then,” Mingalaz confirmed with gritted teeth. “Clench your jaws, I don’t want anyone biting off their tongue.”

It happened alarmingly quickly. One moment they were flying toward the tower at what felt like a leisurely pace, and the next, Mingalaz had shifted her weight, and catapulted them into a window. As they hurdled through the air toward the glass, Thorin spared a moment of worry for Bilbo. Depending on how the hobbit hit the glass, he was the most likely to get seriously cut up.

And then they were crashing through, glass shards flying everywhere, and Thorin just had enough sense to curl into a ball and let his thick clothes protect him. He landed hard, knocking the wind out of his chest, but was otherwise unharmed after shaking the glass out of his thick hair. The rest of the dwarves were much the same, and the elves appeared to have waited to jump through until the glass was broken, judging by the complete lack of glass or cuts on their persons. As for Bilbo and Gandalf, Thorin saw the outline of a shield fading, and relief flooded him. Gandalf had protected Bilbo.

For a moment, shame replaced his relief that he had not been the one to offer protection, but he pushed that feeling down. They hadn’t told anyone the truth yet, and there hadn’t been much time to think anyway.

“Let us hurry,” Gandalf cautioned sharply as the dwarves picked themselves and their bruised dæmons off the ground. “Our enemy is one of the Maiar, a foe far beyond mortals. He has chosen to become more like a mortal, and this makes him vulnerable, but that is only an advantage if he doesn’t kill us before we get closer.”

“There’s some stairs over here,” Dwalin called, and they were off and running, the blue glow of Sting, Orcrist and Glamdring urging them forward.

“You are well?” Thorin checked with Bilbo as they ran, allowing himself to be impressed at how easily Bilbo kept up with them now.

“Myrtle’s a bit jostled, but that’s not unusual,” Bilbo assured him, flashing a quick smile. “I’m more worried about Mingalaz. She won’t be able to hide out there after nearly crashing into the tower, will she?”

“Who says that kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time?” Thorin reasoned, patting Bilbo on the back. “A newly changed dæmon behaving erratically can’t be unusual considering what they’re put through here.”

Rather than being comforted, Bilbo gave him a sharp look. His eyes seemed to say, “I was worried about you, you big, dumb dwarf,” though perhaps it was only meant to convey that last part, Thorin allowed wryly. Rather than feeling chastened, he felt a strange lightness in his heart. Once this was over, if everything went well, he’d have all the time in the world to decipher those looks.

As they ran toward the top of the tower, he wasn’t willing to entertain any other possibility. They were going to destroy the artificial dæmon and stop the flow of darkness into the worlds, Mingalaz was going to return to her true form, Bilbo was going to return with them to Erebor and attempts at courting would go well, their world would become healthy again in time. This was the future that Thorin saw, and lacking the ability to ask the compass, he had no choice but to believe in it and push forward.

His optimism had never been fully rewarded before, so why did he believe it would start now?

Chapter Text

Near the top, Mingalaz had said, yet the stairs seemed to go on forever above them. They ran and ran, expecting to reach the top or encounter pursuit, but neither came. There was just the sound of their boots and increasingly heavy breathing, and the stairs, spiraling above them almost infinitely.

“This is not natural,” Óin declared, trying his ear trumpet as he ran as if he would hear the wrongness somehow. “Some manner of spell is at work here.”

“I believe you are right,” Gandalf agreed, whispering a few inaudible words to his moth dæmon, who fluttered away. “The tower knows that we are intruders, even if its master does not, and our arrival activated a spell of concealment.”

“Can you break it?” Dwalin asked impatiently, and Gandalf gave him a sharp look.

“I believe I can, but I will do so more easily without dwarves hounding me,” he scolded, and the party took that as their sign to stop running for the moment, and wait.

Gandalf had never really worked more complicated magic in front of Thorin than a few blasts of light or a shield, so he let himself feel a little curious about the whole thing. The dwarves had their own magic, but much of it had been lost or forgotten. The workmanship of the compass made Thorin ache at the thought. It was a divinely inspired object, made using skills no dwarf possessed anymore. What dwarf wouldn’t see it and long to be able to harness those ancient skills?

For now, he would settle for just being able to read it again.

Thorin suspected that their ancient magic was different from Gandalf’s, though. Gandalf muttered words in a language he did not know, periodically slamming his staff on the ground and generating a small shockwave. As far as he could see, nothing else was happening, though Gandalf’s muttering hadn’t turned discouraged. Finally, the wizard lowered his staff and the company glanced about them. Nothing looked any different, and Thorin wondered if maybe Gandalf was outmatched here. They really did know nothing about Gandalf’s magic, including how strong it was. This late in the game, it was hardly the time to give it serious consideration.

Gandalf simply shook his head and set off up the stairs, leaving them to follow. Thorin noticed an immediate difference, seeing a landing up ahead where previously there had been none, and unconsciously moved closer to Bilbo and his nephews. He saw that they all had their hands on their weapons, their dæmons tensed and ready for trouble, and he relaxed slightly.

The doors in the room they’d broken into burst open, and orcs streamed in furiously, their shrieks filling the room as they surged forward. There was only a moment to decide what to do, and Thorin knew immediately that they could not all stand and fight as they had done before. There were too many orcs, and not enough space to maneuver. They were going to have to split up.

“I reckon we can handle this one,” Bofur said, hefting his pickaxe while his dæmon fluttered above his head, chirping insistently at the orcs. Bombur and Bifur both moved to stand beside him, and Tabadruk looked ready to charge right into their midst. “Whaddya think?”

“Not without my axe, you won’t,” Glóin declared, a stubborn glint in his eye. “Eh, brother?”

Óin didn’t even pretend not to understand. “You’ll need someone to patch you up when all this is done,” he agreed.

Dori and Nori had joined them as well against the oncoming tide, though Dori shoved Ori back to the rest of the group. “You’re to stay with Thorin, and that’s that!” he told the younger dwarf sharply, and then the orcs were upon them, and it was time for the groups to separate.

“Will they be alright?” Legolas asked, glancing back briefly as they ran. “They are badly outnumbered.”

“Never underestimate a dwarf in a tight spot,” Balin advised them, though the way he was stroking Ranakâl’s feathers suggested that he was not quite so sanguine. No one questioned him, and they continued up the stairs without slackening their pace.

The first landing held nothing of interest. It didn’t look lived in, or even used. The next landing was similar, and Thorin supposed that Mingalaz must have gotten them closer to the top than he’d supposed. A few buffer floors between Sauron and everyone else in Mordor made sense. Thorin didn’t know what title Sauron styled himself with, but he was essentially the king. That alone merited some space, and then one had to consider his less mundane powers.

They did pass a few badly damaged orcish skeletons on their climb, confirming Thorin’s suspicions. Those who managed to get up here uninvited did not leave.

Bilbo touched his arm, snapping him out of these musings. “You’re making too much noise when you walk,” he whispered apologetically, and Thorin realized that he’d missed some kind of sign that they were switching to stealth.

The Elves were leading, their superior senses more likely to detect a threat in time to deal with it, while Kíli and Ori stuck close behind them, ranged weapons drawn and held in front of them. After alerting Thorin, Bilbo returned to his position next to Fíli, and Dwalin and Thorin fell in behind them. Thorin could see why the change had happened: everyone’s dæmons had gone quiet, and some of them were visibly shaking. He was unaffected because Mingalaz was not there, and it unnerved him. Did the elves feel like this all the time? That said, he wasn’t the only one unaffected, and that was a comfort. One could never be sure if Gandalf’s dæmon was present or not, but the wizard seemed grim rather than concerned.

Thorin shook his head to banish these thoughts, and peered around the corner. This room had no windows, unlike the other floors they had passed, lit only by torches placed throughout the room. Seeing in darkness was no hardship, but the air was smoky without any ventilation, so initially he wasn’t convinced they had reached the right place. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness and the smoke, he saw an indistinct figure further in the room, though he could say little else about it. Something about the proportions felt odd, unhealthy even, but maybe it was just a trick of the light.

“This is what Gailon saw,” Tauriel confirmed quietly. “This is our destination.”

“Send in Bilbo and Myrtle first,” Gandalf ordered, his expression thoughtful. “They are the smallest and the quietest, and if they go unnoticed, we will test how far that figure’s awareness extends.”

“We can’t just charge in, swords swinging?” Kíli asked, his face falling in disappointment.

“That might be more exciting, but this is potentially a very powerful being we are dealing with, lad,” Balin scolded quietly. “If we run in and he vaporizes us, that’s it. No more.”

Thorin met Bilbo’s eyes. “You don’t have to do this. The elves may be taller, but they are just as quiet,” he urged the hobbit softly, noticing the slight shiver running through Myrtle.

“No, I have to,” Bilbo disagreed. “I told you before, if there’s something I can do, I have to do it.”

“Even if we would rather not,” Myrtle muttered. Without thinking, Thorin patted her head gently, and the shivering stopped. As he watched the worry leave Bilbo’s face, the lines and creases smoothing out, he was glad Kíli couldn’t shout without getting them all killed. They could talk about his flub later.

Bilbo took a deep breath. “Wish me luck,” he said, and stepped around the corner.

 


 

The figure didn’t react in any noticeable way to Bilbo entering his room, which Bilbo decided was a good sign, and not proof that there were so many traps hidden in the room that its inhabitant felt complacent enough to ignore him. Taking careful steps, and holding Myrtle a little more tightly than she probably preferred, he went deeper into the room, not walking straight toward the figure, but not walking away from it either.

Nothing.

He set Myrtle down, his arms tiring from carrying her up that endless flight of stairs.

Nothing.

Looking back at where their splinter of the company was waiting, he gave a shot wave, signalling the next person to try entering the room, and then turned back to study the figure. He swallowed heavily at the sight. They were skin and bones, much like the creature they’d seen in the Goblin Tunnels, with their skin stretched so tightly to appear translucent. Their eyes were white and milky, and fixed intently on something in their bony hands, twisted like claws. If Bilbo squinted, he could see the evidence of former beauty, ruined by time.

And yet this was undeniably Sauron, and how could time affect one of the Maiar?

“Seeking the gift given to mortals, Sauron became like a mortal himself,” Gandalf said suddenly, breaking the silence of the darkened room. Bilbo expected Sauron to move, say something, react in some way, but he didn’t seem to heard Gandalf at all. Maybe he couldn’t.

The rest of the company had entered the room by now, having been far less careful than Bilbo, and still eliciting no response. Was he even still alive? Bilbo wondered if he should check for a heartbeat or breathing, but maybe the Maiar didn’t breath or have hearts.

A realization came to him. “Didn’t you say that eye was one of the forms Sauron could take?” Bilbo asked hurriedly. “Maybe he’s not in this body right now, because he’s busy being the eye.”

“Or because this body isn’t exactly the height of mobility,” Myrtle muttered, looking askance at the wasted form.

“Then we may only have a few moments,” Thorin deduced impatiently. “Find the artificial dæmon.”

None of them wanted to touch this delicate creature, but their target was obviously clenched tightly in his hands, so there was little choice. Ultimately it was Dwalin who rolled his eyes at their squeamishness and pulled the hands apart, though not without more straining than they would have expected. Even a weakened Maia was dangerous, apparently.

When Dwalin plucked the object forth, Bilbo couldn’t believe his eyes. They had never gotten a good look at an artificial dæmon, which seemed odd, but now it made complete sense to him: Sauron’s artificial dæmon was a ring. It was a simple gold band, completely unremarkable in appearance in nearly every way. If the other artificial dæmons were equally nondescript, no wonder they’d never seen one up close. They were much easier to hide from sight than a badger or a mountain lion. Or a dragon.

Thorin looked skeptical. “Are the swords really necessary to destroy that? Melting it down ought to be more effective.”

“This is not mere gold,” Gandalf said sharply. “Into this ring, Sauron infused a part of himself, and used that to control the other artificial dæmons that he tricked a craftsman into making. It is therefore weak to the magic of the high elves, and little else.”

“Get on with it,” Dwalin muttered, his dæmon tossing her head and growling deep in her throat. Thorin nodded, and drew Orcrist, holding it over the ring.

The wizened figured immediately snapped to attention (literally, much to Bilbo’s stomach’s discomfort), lunging at Thorin with surprising strength and knocking the dwarf to the ground. Bilbo watched in growing horror as the remaining dwarves and the elves tried and failed to separate the two. Apparently even a substantially weakened Maia was still more than a couple of elves and dwarves could easily handle. Without accidently beheading Thorin, anyway.

He started forward with Sting drawn, intending to at least try and help in some way, though Myrtle stabbed him in the feet with her claws to show her disapproval. Something about his approach caused Sauron’s head to snap up briefly, and this gave Gandalf the opening he needed to knock him off Thorin, who somehow still had the ring. Bilbo swallowed heavily as Gandalf shot a bolt of fire into Sauron’s chest once he’d gotten him off Thorin, but he didn’t even flinch at the blow.

What would they have done if Sauron had preferred to stay all Maia, and just overrun their worlds with awful things? But that probably never would have happened, he had to remind himself. Evil entered the worlds because of a thirst for dæmons. Without that, none of this would have happened.

So perhaps he wasn’t entirely ungrateful to the creature Gandalf was currently struggling to pin down.

Thorin prepared to bring Orcrist down on the ring once again, and once again Sauron sensed the threat and intercepted him. This time, Sauron dragged the ring forcefully from Thorin’s hands, and placed it on his own finger. A strange calmness seemed to settle over his features, his tightly stretched skin relaxing slightly.

Gandalf, more ruthless than Bilbo would have thought at the start of their journey, choose that moment to strike, bringing Glamdring down on Sauron’s hand, and severing his fingers in one clean stroke.

“So the swords really can hurt him,” Fíli breathed, he and his dæmon staring at the sight with identical expressions.

“Thorin, now!” Gandalf shouted, driving Sauron away from his severed fingers with what was clearly all of his remaining strength. Tauriel and Legolas fired arrows into Sauron’s chest, but while both hammered home, they didn’t even slow him down.

This time, Thorin didn’t hesitate. He slammed Orcrist into the ring, splitting it solidly in two. It vanished almost immediately, as if it really had been a dæmon and not gold. Bilbo shuddered, picking up Myrtle instinctively. No one had ever been able to answer how such abominations were created.

A shrieking, howling sound filled the air, and it took Bilbo a moment to realize that it wasn’t coming completely from the shriveled husk that was Sauron, though he certainly was making enough noise as his carapace caved in and he turned to dust. The foundation of the tower was crumbling, causing the whole building to scream out in protest. Then there were the shrieks of the orcs trapped in the tower, and maybe the wraiths too, back in the dwarves’ world. At least he hoped so.

“We need to get out of the tower!” Balin shouted, running back toward the stairs. Bilbo pelted after him, and the rest of them followed on his heels. Thankfully they didn’t have to go far: Mingalaz was waiting by the windows on the lower floor, the glass already broken by the tower’s convulsions. The rest of the company who had been left behind on an earlier floor waited on her back, and relief flooded Bilbo. They were all going to be okay!

They piled onto Mingalaz, who sped away from the collapsing tower as fast as she could, her wings straining with effort. “How are we getting out of this world?” she demanded between heavy breaths.

“Help is coming,” Gandalf assured her, his moth dæmon suddenly reappearing and settling on his scarf. His eyes were fixed on the horizon, so Bilbo followed his gaze until he saw black shapes approaching rapidly. He squinted, but they were too far away.

Once they were clear of shrapnel from the collapsing tower, Mingalaz landed with a heavy thud, ruffling her wings as a signal that they all needed to get off before she kicked them off. Bilbo never took his eyes off the approaching shapes, causing him to stumble into Thorin on the dismount. Thorin’s good-natured snort suggested that he wasn’t the least bit bothered.

“Eagles,” Bilbo breathed once they were finally close enough. “The eagles are coming!” He remembered his mother telling him of how she had ridden one once. They were giant creatures, and extremely proud. And apparently they could travel between worlds without a portal, if they were their ride.

“Yes, the eagles of Manwë,” Gandalf agreed, a glimmer of good humor in his eyes. “World boundaries are meaningless to them as the servants of the Valar of the wind. They will return us to our respective worlds.”

Ori tapped Bilbo’s arm. “You’re coming with us, aren’t you?”

Bilbo opened his mouth to agree, and noticed the sudden furrow in Gandalf’s brow. “I thought I was,” he said instead, he and Myrtle turning an accusing stare on the wizard.

“I am sorry, Bilbo,” Gandalf said heavily. “I know I told you that Myrtle would lead you home, but I learned something dreadful from the prisoners in the pit.”

“They were all sick,” Óin observed, and Bilbo’s heart clenched in his chest.

“Yes,” Gandalf agreed. “But it was not a sickness of the body. They had all been brought here from other worlds some years ago, and all of them, without fail, developed incurable heart conditions approximately ten years after arriving.”

“And you said that was a side effect of being in Mordor,” Bilbo reminded him testily, his grip on Myrtle tightening. Somehow, he knew that he wasn’t going to like what Gandalf had to say.

“And it is,” Gandalf said, his mouth a tight line. “But it would have been the same in any other world that wasn’t their own. I have determined that, with few exceptions for those whose worlds have been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, a dæmon can only live a full healthy life in the world that birthed it. Traveling back and forth for a time does no harm, but if you remain in Erebor, you will die after little more than a decade.”

Bilbo’s veins felt like they were full of ice. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, true, but he was still in his prime by Hobbit standards. He would die without having the chance to grow old. It might not have been much of a life until the dwarves came into it, but was he really prepared to end it so easily? People died for less, and it felt like a waste. He could have been killed by goblins, orcs, spiders, a balrog… but to die of an illness, because Erebor would make Myrtle sick? It was a respectable, hobbity way to die he supposed, but that wasn’t what this journey had been about.

A sob worked it’s way up his throat. Hadn’t he been looking for his home?

He clutched Myrtle close, and she didn’t resist or complain. Of course she wouldn’t. They both knew that he couldn’t do this. He didn’t want to break a promise to Thorin, but… what could he do? On this journey, he’d had no guarantees about his fate, but that hadn’t meant he was quite done with the world of the living. Would ten years with Thorin be worth forgoing a longer life? Would a long life, going back to the isolation and the stares really be a full life? Or an enjoyable one? The emptiness of Bag End had chafed before, wouldn’t it be unbearable now?

And of course asking Thorin to make that same choice was impossible. Thorin couldn’t give up what he had, just to die in ten years. He’d never considered asking Thorin to come to Bag End permanently, and these new conditions hadn’t changed that. Thorin was a king, and kings had responsibilities that hobbits did not. His choice was to separate, or die in Thorin’s arms.

Was it truly awful of him that he didn’t want to? He had a nice, comfortable life in the Shire, all things considered. It might not be completely fulfilling, but it was a life, and that was worth more than all the gold in Erebor.

It wasn’t until Thorin’s hand settled on his shoulder that he realized that he and Myrtle were shivering. “You have to live,” Thorin said so insistently, Bilbo couldn’t look away from him. “I would never forgive myself…” What had been going on in Thorin’s mind while he tried to decide if he could live without him?

“I’m sorry,” Bilbo replied thickly, the corners of his eyes burning with tears he longed to shed. “I shouldn’t have gotten everyone’s hopes up.” His voice cracked on the last word, and that was apparently all Thorin needed. He crushed Bilbo and Myrtle into his chest, swallowing them in a surprisingly gentle warmth. The tears came then, and Bilbo sobbed silently into the fur of Thorin’s coat until the eagles arrived. This was it, he thought as the tears flowed freely. The last time they would be together. It would just be him and Myrtle, for the next 50 years.

That thought had never been so painful as it was at that moment. How had his mother outlived his father by so many years?

Maybe the stories she’d told had been enough to bring some light into the world. That would have to be enough for him now.

“Time to go,” Gandalf said gently, forcing Bilbo to detach himself from Thorin.

“Zâyungi zu,” Thorin murmured, before the rest of the company surged forward to get hugs of their own.

After slightly more restrained goodbyes with the elves, only Mingalaz remained, watching at a bit of a distance. Her eyes held so many swirling emotions, so many undraconic thoughts and feelings, that Bilbo wished with all his heart that he’d been able to turn her back. She knelt for him, and after setting Myrtle on her head, he did his best to embrace her snout, pressing their foreheads together and started crying again. He couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be Thorin right now, having his dæmon embraced under such unpleasant circumstances, but he couldn’t bring himself to think too much about it. He deserved a moment of selfishness, didn’t he? There weren’t going to be many such moments left.

“I’m sorry,” he choked out, his body racked with sobs. “I couldn’t do anything to save you.” The words were as much for Thorin as for Mingalaz, and they all knew it.

Mingalaz snorted, and nuzzled him gently. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said with an air of injured pride. “You’ve done more than anyone else. More than we deserve.”

“But I was going to save you,” he insisted, meeting her eyes fiercely. “It was going to take time, but I was going to do it! Somehow.” How, he didn’t know, but he believed it with all his heart.

Mingalaz nuzzled him again, a little harder this time, causing him to stumble. “You already did,” she assured him softly. “I’ll say again what Thorin said, in a language you can understand: I love you.”

Then he was being packed onto an eagle and whisked away without another chance to say anything. They all were really, but at least the dwarves were together. They had each other, and so did the elves, who admittedly seemed a little distressed as well by the idea of a permanent parting. Bilbo just had Myrtle and Gandalf, and Gandalf would doubtless only go with him so far. He was so wrapped up in his own self pity, he didn’t notice the light that enveloped Mingalaz as they flew away, and by the time he did look back, he couldn’t see them anymore.

As they flew, Bilbo absently holding on to the eagle’s back, he remembered that he still had questions Gandalf had refused to answer. What would the elves do to get across the Veil to Valinor, now that the way to the Shire was closed? How had they been crossing the Shire without being noticed? What was the Sundering, mentioned in the old Numenorian texts? But none of those questions seemed to matter anymore, not with Thorin, Mingalaz, and the rest of the dwarves gone from his life. He shut them and those memories away, locking them in the same box that his memories of his mother had been stored in. Thorin loved him? Then why had he waited until the most painful possible moment to say so? No, it was better to keep such thoughts under lock and key.

“You are so good at pushing pain away,” his mother had said after his father had died, her eyes always sad now with that loss. “A real Baggins.” But he had known she wished he had more Took in him, so that they could suffer together. Being too Tookish hurt, and he remembered that now. It was easier to be boring and respectable, because then you only had boring, respectable problems.

So, for now, the real question was, how many of his things had his relatives made off with?

Chapter Text

When Bilbo Baggins and his faithful badger dæmon Myrtle reappeared in the Shire, it had taken more than a few simple assurances to convince the superstitious folk that it really was him, and he really wasn’t dead. He couldn’t tell them about the portal, considering that it wasn’t there anymore, but claiming that he had been swept away by the Water, and found himself somewhere utterly unfamiliar was close enough to the truth to be believeable. That didn’t mean he was spared the trouble of having to liberate his stolen spoons from every relative who had plundered the place, but at least no one threw anything at him.

Silence became his friend once again, though the emptiness of Bag End felt even more oppressive than it had after his mother died. He felt like he should do something, put the knowledge gained over his journey to use in some way, but he had no idea how, and what good would it do, really? The worlds had gone back to their natural state, sitting so very close to each other without ever really touching. It was better this way, he knew. They were safe from future incursions by those who would spread darkness, unless swords like Sting fell into their hands.

Should he break Sting, he wondered? Gandalf had never adequately answered that question, and anyway, he didn’t even know if he had the means to break it. When he had tried to open a portal with it, he couldn’t seem to find the notches denoting other worlds, so perhaps he had already broken it by mistake. It was a magic sword after all, with governing rules that he couldn’t even begin to understand, and the Shire was an entirely unmagical place.

Well, that wasn’t completely true, considering it was under the protection of the elves, but it was thoroughly mundane by comparison.

Overwhelmed by this mundanity, it took several weeks of moping before Bilbo noticed that something was not as he had left it. He was sweeping in front of his door, Myrtle dozing on the bench, when he stopped to wipe some dust off his forehead, staring absently into the distance. But the horizon was different, in a way that it shouldn’t have taken so long to notice.

“Myrtle,” Bilbo called out, shaking her roughly. “Look over there!”

Myrtle blinked blearily, squinting off into the distance. “What exactly am I supposed to be seeing?”

“Mountains!” Bilbo said in exasperation. “There were never mountains near the Shire before!”

Myrtle stilled, her sleep eyes instantly attentive. “I think Gandalf lied to us again,” she said irritably. “Or rather, left out an important detail.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Bilbo agreed, already scooping her up and dashing inside for his rucksack and a few essentials.

 


 

Thorin should return to being king. With his people saved, and Mingalaz once again small and at his side, there was no more reason to sequester himself away and avoid Erebor’s utterly mundane internal politics. Aside from disliking them of course, and feeling that his sister was more qualified to deal patiently with such things. But if he abdicated outright, it would be Fíli who would have to take the throne, and he wasn’t yet ready for that. He also wasn’t ready to face his responsibilities again, so they stayed in limbo.

He spent much of his day learning to read the compass again. His last message from the Lady was that his compass was powered by the Light of the Two Trees, which was how it had so many answers, and that he could learn to read it again in time. Before, his ability to read it came out of a desperate need and a task to fulfill, and as an heirloom of his line it had responded to that. When Mingalaz had transformed, it had no longer recognized him, and reading it had been impossible. Now, when learning to read it was no longer essential to survival, it could be done slowly, and he could think of little else to do that wouldn’t cause him pain.

Dís did not consider this tolerable. “At least sit in while I address petitioners today,” she wheedled, Abkund trying her best to look nonthreatening. She wasn’t very practiced at it, and only managed to look slightly less amused. “Or wrestle with Dwalin! I know that tends to help you think straight.”

That would have been effective if he were angry, or otherwise upset, but he just felt adrift, as if the thing keeping him grounded had been torn away. It left him feeling weak, and without energy. Fighting Dwalin in such a state would result in being used as a punching bag until Dwalin realized his heart wasn’t in it. So sitting in the throne room it would have to be, if only to keep his sister off his back.

As he walked there, Mingalaz padding along silently at his side, he found himself checking to make sure she was still there. He wondered how the elves functioned when their dæmons could just run away from them if they chose. Mingalaz still had that ability, their bond permanently stretched by the experience, and it unnerved him more than he wanted to admit.

“You’re quiet,” he said, reaching down and scratching her ears. It was such a familiar gesture, and he almost ached at being able to do it again.

“I have the same reason to be quiet as you,” she replied, without even a hint of sarcasm. “Bilbo and Myrtle saved our kingdom, and saved us. And we’ll never see them again. Excuse me if I don’t feel like cracking jokes.”

“I don’t expect you to,” he told her seriously. “But you used to like to talk things through. Even when I didn’t want to.”

Mingalaz sighed. “I got used to keeping my thoughts to myself,” she admitted. “It will take time to get that way again.”

Thorin nodded, and opened his mouth to say something, but his speech was arrested by the sight of Kíli barreling down an intersecting hallway, Kurdaz leaping past him as if she’d seen prey. He stepped into the hallway, and looking in Kíli’s direction revealed the source of his sudden burst of speed: a red-haired elf maid, with a kite dæmon on her shoulder. He was almost as astonished as Kíli. How could she be here? Were Elves not affected in the same way?

The object of Tauriel’s visit was apparently not Kíli though, because after a short exchange, she strode up to Thorin, her long legs covering the distance more efficiently than Kíli’s had.

“How did you get here?” Thorin demanded, the shock of seeing her making him a little ruder than he should have been. Mingalaz nudged his leg in warning.

“You truly haven’t been outside,” she observed, her eyes widening slightly. “I suppose what they say about dwarves and their mountains is true.”

“There is nothing for us out there,” Thorin replied, a little more sharply than he’d intended, but Tauriel didn’t seem offended. Even their guards had been withdrawn, trusting the walls to protect them from whatever mundane threats might emerge so soon after defeating Sauron.

“Some might disagree,” her dæmon said, Gailon, Thorin thought his name was, eyeing Thorin with an unreadable expression.

Thorin looked down at Mingalaz, and she shrugged her feline shoulders. Not expecting to see much aside from the slow recovery of their world, Thorin and Kíli let Tauriel lead them back the way she had come, through the gates, and out into the world. Thorin’s eyes struggled to adjust to the sunlight, used to the dimmer lights in the mountain. But when he could see, he immediately realized his mistake. In the past, he had been able to see the other dwarf kingdoms, their mountains rising in the distance. They were all gone, or at least out of sight. The road he would have taken to Khazad-dum was now covered in a very familiar forest.

“Is that Mirkwood?” Mingalaz gasped, her eyes narrowing as if she doubted what she was seeing.

“It is the Woodland Realm,” Tauriel agreed, Gailon already taking off and soaring toward their home. “We killed the remaining spiders, and none returned. After that, we noticed subtle changes in our geography, and pressing outside the woods, saw things that had not been there before. We asked our king for the truth, and at last he gave it.”

“The truth?” Thorin could scarcely breathe, remembering Thranduil’s words about ‘the sundering’. He had come to assume that it referred to the worlds becoming more isolated after the fall of Numenor, but what if it didn’t?

Tauriel’s eyes took on a distant look as she stared down at her wood. “In the beginning, there was only one world. Then the evil one, who our King refused to name, spread his darkness, enslaving the Avari, my ancestors. In time, his evil grew so great, that in order to destroy him, the Valar split the world into many to keep his darkness from spreading.”

 


 

“That was called ‘The Sundering,’” Elrond told Bilbo. He’d crossed paths with a party from Imladris, headed for the Havens, and they had been able to direct him to Imladris. There, Elrond had taken little convincing to finally tell all. “It was not a smooth process, and many worlds were not inhabitable after that separation. They had been too badly damaged by Morgoth, or their structural supports destroyed when part were left behind in another world. Gondolin was one such world.”

“That’s how they didn’t know that their swords could open portals until after the city was destroyed,” Bilbo realized. “There had been nothing to cut into until then.”

“Exactly,” Elrond agreed with a nod. “Delighted with their discovery, these elves were careless, leaving hundreds of open portals in their wakes. This did allow trade to pass through the worlds as it had before, without which Moria never would have become the great kingdom it was. The dwarves in particular were affected by this isolation: during the First Age, they relied on Men for their food. They had to come up with alternate sources quickly, and the trade with the Elves kept them from starvation until they could come up with something.”

Bilbo nodded slowly, the gears whirring in his head. “So that’s why we all have a common language,” he murmured thoughtfully. “The worlds were one. They were split, but darkness still found a way in. And now, with darkness defeated, the worlds are one again? Why wouldn’t Gandalf tell us that would happen?”

“I imagine he did not know,” Elrond observed, his dæmon watching Bilbo intently. “We had no way of knowing what would happen, and if nothing did, there was no need to know that the worlds had all been one originally.”

“He definitely thought something might happen,” Myrtle muttered sourly. “Remember how Galadriel said that breaking Sting might not be necessary?”

“I’m sure they had their reasons,” Elrond said, though there was a wry twist to his mouth. Of course, he hadn’t told them that much either, but when they’d been in Imladris, their plan hadn’t yet fully crystallized. He at least had an excuse.

“Right, well, that’s enough of that,” Bilbo decided. “Do you have a map that might help me find the Lonely Mountain?”

 


 

“Thorin, you can’t just run off into the wild!” Balin said, shaking his head in exasperation. Ranakâl settled for laughing harshly. “We know nothing about the world out there. You would be lost within hours.”

“The elves can guide me through Mirkwood,” Thorin argued, reaching out to Mingalaz for comfort, and calming instantly when he felt her there.

“But what about beyond? Maybe there are worlds we have encountered in between, but maybe not! You don’t even know what the Shire looks like,” Balin concluded, crossing his arms over his chest.

“He’ll have me with him,” Dwalin said gruffly, Daruthâ giving a bark of agreement.

Balin was not impressed. “Oh, lovely. The two most stubborn dwarves in all of Erebor, off on an adventure, without even a map! Might as well crown Fíli now, for all the likelihood of your returning.”

“Our king may know,” Tauriel said slowly, as if nervous of attracting so much angry attention. “His father was born before the world was sundered.”

Thorin and Dwalin both gave Balin a look as if to say, ‘see, we’ll be fine,’ and the stalwart advisor gave up.

“Stay with the elves,” he said with a sigh. “And you get to tell your sister what you’re doing.”

What was already a daunting task was made even more difficult by Fíli and Kíli insisting on coming. And then the rest of the company would not be left behind, but there at least Thorin had authority. Over his oldest friends and his nephews, he had long since accepted that he had none.

The dwarves of Erebor were apparently getting used to the sight of their King walking off, Thorin reflected as he received his official farewell. It was a sign of the times that they didn’t look worried, and there were no whispers or bets about whether or not he would return. The wraiths were gone, and his people weren’t afraid anymore.

Now, if he could get Thranduil to be more illuminating than at their first meeting…

 


 

“These are definitely the mountains with the goblin tunnels,” Myrtle said quietly, her eyes darting back and forth nervously. “Do you think they’re still down there?”

“Probably,” Bilbo replied easily, not looking up from the map. “We’ll stay out of the caves.”

Myrtle fell silent for a moment, studying Bilbo with her sharp eyes. “You’ve changed, you know.”

“Have I?” Bilbo asked, pocketing the map.

“You have,” Myrtle insisted, tapping his foot with a claw. “We’re hundreds of miles from home, alone, in a world that no one has seen together in thousands of years! We’ve gone beyond Tookish, into entirely unhobbity.”

“We can always turn back,” he offered, scooping her into his arms.

“No we can’t,” Myrtle disagreed with a snort. “If the map is right, we’re more than halfway there. What a waste it would be to turn back now.”

“So we’re in agree...ment,” Bilbo replied, his jaw slackening as he stared down the pass.

“Bilbo? What is it?” Myrtle demanded, twisting in his arms.

Bilbo didn’t answer, opting instead to run pell mell down the pass, the sharp rocks scraping his soles, but he didn’t care. It was too far away to say for sure, but in his heart he knew: Thorin was climbing the pass, and Mingalaz was a mountain lion again. They must have spotted him too, because the dwarves and their dæmons also broke into a run, and no one stopped until they had collided, hobbit and badger swallowed by a fierce group hug. It wasn’t until they released him that Bilbo realized there were tears at the corners of his eyes.

And Thorin’s, for that matter, though he quickly wiped them away.

“How far is the Shire from here?” Fíli asked curiously, giving his uncle a moment to recover his dignity.

“A few hundred miles,” Bilbo replied with a shrug. “I don’t know the exact distance, because I don’t think it’s ever been properly measured. Hobbits weren’t living in the Shire before the Sundering.”

“You walked all that way alone?” Thorin was staring at him in disbelief.

“The world isn’t quite as dangerous as it used to be. And I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me that Erebor is just on the other side of these mountains, now are you?” Bilbo asked, eyebrows raised in challenge. Of course, he knew roughly how far Erebor was. He had a map, after all.

“But I wasn’t alone,” Thorin argued, though the corners of his eyes were crinkled with mirth.

“Or you never would have made it this far,” Mingalaz muttered, grooming one of her paws absently. It was such a familiar mannerism, and Bilbo hadn’t realized how much he had missed it during her draconic period.

“Get on with it,” Dwalin muttered. “There are still goblins under these mountains.”

Thorin actually looked a little embarrassed, his cheeks faintly pink, though perhaps that was just the light. He cleared his throat, looking everywhere but at Bilbo. “Will you-”

“Yes, yes, why do you think I came all this way?” Bilbo interrupted, throwing up his hands in exasperation. As fun as it would have been to force Thorin to get the whole thing out, he’d been walking for two months now. He didn’t need to be asked to go to Erebor: he was finishing this journey whether the dwarves liked it or not. “Let’s get going.”

As they walked down the pass, Fíli and Kíli cheerfully detailing Thorin’s pouting and isolation after returning to Erebor, Bilbo let one of his hands slip onto Mingalaz’s head. He’d never properly touched her in this form, and he savored the feeling of her short, bristly fur against his fingers, so very different from the dragon’s scales. In response, Thorin reached for him, and his thick fingers found Myrtle’s fur, sending a shiver down Bilbo’s spine. Soon Myrtle was secure in Thorin’s arms, burrowing her snout into his long hair, and Mingalaz was butting her head against Bilbo’s hands, demanding further petting. The others could not fail to notice such intimate gestures, and they succeeded in embarrassing Fíli and Kíli into silence more thoroughly than anything else could.

As if they had a right, Bilbo thought with a snort as he settled into Thorin’s arms that night. But none of that mattered, not really. Not with Thorin looking at him like he was the world they had gone to so much trouble to find, instead of Gondolin. ‘Your dæmon will lead you home,’ Gandalf had said, and there was no other way to describe how he felt when Thorin’s lips pressed against his. He was home, and that would be true as long as Thorin and Mingalaz were beside him.

And there was another world that needed exploring.