A pair of wide, curious eyes peeks at him from behind the threadbare curtains. The white fabric flutters in an icy draft that sneaks past the wooden window frame, and this is not the first time Bilbo noticed his observer. Though then he dismissed them as something conjured up by his feverish mind. Even now, he sees shadows dancing across the floor as the light shifts and dwindles, and the air smells of ash and winter.
The weeks spent sneaking through Thranduil’s dungeons have left Bilbo exhausted and emaciated both in body and mind. The escape brought on a rattling cough, fever and nightmares. Whispers in the back of his mind, strange echoes in the corridors and a cold that has sunk deep into his bones. Now he’s laid up, sick and delirious, and he still can hear the voices, still sees the shadows of elves moving in the corner of his room.
But they always vanish when he tries to focus.
Today he feels a little better. Still dizzy and weak, but at least he’s awake and aware. And so he realizes that the little boy watching him from behind the curtain is no hallucination. Not a hallucination, then, but something seems off about him.
The child cannot be much older than ten, his eyes wide with a mix of fear and curiosity. His clothes have faded to nondescript rags of brown and grey – they do not move in the draft.
“Hello,” Bilbo calls out gently, wondering how the child got into his room. Perhaps he sought to hide here and did not know the Master had let this house to Thorin’s company.
The boy flinches and melts backwards through the wall. All that remains are the fading daylight outside and the draft of icy air.
Oh, Bilbo thinks to himself with a shudder, that’s it.
Somebody is holding his hand. There are voices, but Bilbo can't understand them - they seem to be coming from far away, seem to be speaking in a foreign language. He can't open his eyes either, and it appears he is floating?
There was water. Elves, orcs and arrows. His mind whirrs. It had been cold, so bitterly cold, and time had stretched into eternity. Boats on the water, but they had been in barrels - or did he dream that?
The dragon must have been a dream though, gliding on wide wings through a night sky. And the sky itself was on fire, as the world beneath crumbled away while a young boy watched it all.
"Bilbo," somebody is calling him, "Bilbo!"
The dragon roars and he doesn't hear it, and ghosts, it's been a long time since he's seen a ghost. Back when he was young, and during the fell winter, when he was so sick he didn't know what was real and what wasn't.
“Bilbo, do you know where you are?”
The world is a blur, and he wants to answer, because this shouldn’t be a question. He knows where he is, quite well, but then he sees a wide body of water, a town on stilts, mountains and a cursed forest. Recalls elves, trolls, orcs and dwarves – their faces, their voices, and this can’t be home, can’t be a dream either.
The hand on his forehead is too callused to be his mother’s.
Bilbo blinks, and slowly, achingly, the world readjusts itself. The ceiling above is dark, wooden, like in the guesthouses of Bree, and he knows this is not Bree. Under his hands, the blankets are spun from a thicker cotton, and there is a bite to the air. It smells of snow and water. And a hint of ashes beneath.
There are scattered memories of traveling whirling through his mind, of high mountain passes, howling wolves and a roaring river. It feels surreal, like one of those indulgent fantasies he entertained during his childhood.
But as oddly as time passes to him, he knows that those days are long gone.
“Bilbo,” somebody calls again, and when he blinks, Bilbo can make out the blurred outline of somebody leaning over him. A cool, wet cloth is rested against his forehead and he can’t help the small sigh of relief that falls from his lips.
Laketown, his addled brain recalls, he is in Laketown. They escaped Mirkwood and will soon head to the Lonely Mountain. Where the dragon awaits.
The dragon he just saw? The dragon that roared and wrought destruction as he watched on, a cold wind tearing at his clothes, whispering that not only fire can bring death. Wolves and snow – and darkness beckons once again.
“Just let him rest,” another voice says, “The fever isn’t rising further, it seems.”
Of course. The cold. The water had been freezing, and then they’d been outside for so long, convincing the Master of the town, convincing its people. It had grown dark and there had been snow in the air, and of course, Bilbo had fallen sick.
“But he was doing better, why did this happen? What if the fever spikes again?” the voice returns, “If it goes any higher…”
It might boil out his brains. Somebody once said that, Bilbo thinks. It does not sound like his father, so perhaps his grandfather told him, or maybe one of his uncles, but his memories are blurred and stretched and so prone to slipping into fevered visions.
Somebody hums. “I think this will be the worst of it. But somebody ought to stay with him in any case.”
The dwarves, Bilbo remembers, they were traveling. To reclaim the mountain. To -
They don’t need to, Bilbo wants to say, they need to prepare. He does not mind being alone, and … the ghost. The little boy who’d watched him, that poor, young ghosts, he’ll probably come and visit again.
It takes two days until he can stay awake and coherent for more than a few moments. And another three until Oin declares him on the mend, though not without a frown and a strict admonishment to take it easy.
“We’d thought you on the mend already, lad,” Oin grumbles, “And then you go and keel over and get worse than you were before. Never seen somethin’ like that before. Warn me the next time.”
And Bilbo blushes and promises, while quietly thinking that what he thought responsible must have been a hallucination after all.
He sees the boy again the day Oin allows him to leave the bed. Not for long – just so that he can have dinner with the rest of the company and convince them he hasn’t died yet. A frown remains on Oin’s face all the way through and as the evening draws to a close, Bilbo is glad when
Dwalin slips an arm under his knees and carries him back to his room without comment.
Bilbo is half asleep as he is set down on the bed. The food is heavy and warm in his stomach, and for once the cold has receded. Somebody tugs a blanket up and over his chest, and there is a hushed “sleep well” and then the door closes.
A cold breeze tickles Bilbo’s face. He opens his eyes, sees the curtains billow, and the boy is standing next to the window again. His heart jumps and for a moment he is frozen – wasn’t the boy a hallucination?
But his head feels cool and clear, and Bilbo gulps down the nervousness.
“Hello,” Bilbo calls out once more, “Is this your room?”
The boy twitches, but does not flee. Instead he turns and stares at Bilbo. He is really quite young, even though he may be taller than Bilbo. His face is thin and pale, his skin of a shade that no living thing possesses.
“No, not really,” he says, softly. The voice is nothing like the harsh whispers that have haunted Bilbo’s nightmares in Thranduil’s realm. Then he tilts his head. “You can see me?”
Bilbo nods, as the pieces fall into place. There is a price for this, but the boy does not need to know. Though perhaps he should warn Oin. “I can. Though not everybody does, do they?”
The company would have most certainly noticed a child haunting their abode.
“Yes. Though most, if they see me, are afraid,” the boy replies and looks sad.
“Well, I’m not,” Bilbo answers, making certain to smile encouragingly. His racing heart has calmed – it seems, even far from the Shire some things are not so different, “Or should I be?”
“No, no,” the boy hurries to reassure, “Though… some, some do not like it. Being seen, I mean. They stay in Dale, most of the time. But I don’t. I … it is a desolate place.”
He rubs at his arms and Bilbo’s heart clenches. Did this child die when dragon came? Was he one of the unfortunate souls that perished that day? What place is Dale now? A ruin, full of memories and ghosts?
“It gets lonely, doesn’t it?” Bilbo asks softly, and pushes himself upright. His chest is aching and his throat hurts, but his heart goes out to this strange, sad boy haunting his bedroom. Ghosts are rare in the Shire.
But then, such violent death is rare there, too.
The boy gives a slight nod and turns to gaze out of the window. Night has fallen, and Laketown is aglow by lanterns, their light reflected on the water and ice. A fresh layer of snow blankets most roofs – and early snows often mean harsh winters.
“Well, what is your name?” Bilbo inquires, both to draw the boy from his contemplations and to chase the ominous thoughts from his own mind.
“Gunthold” the boy says and his lips twitch, “But everybody always calls me Gunt.”
“Then I am pleased to meet you, Gunt,” Bilbo returns easily, “I am Bilbo Baggins from the Shire.”
Abruptly Gunt’s eyes widen in curiosity. “I never heard of this place. Where is it? Is it in the South? I heard there are great kingdoms there, and all kinds of strange people and animals live there. And it’s supposed to be always warm. Is that true?”
Bilbo laughs gently– even this poor soul is no different from his young nephews and nieces. “As far as I know, that is true, but I have never been to the south either. I come from the far west, behind the Misty Mountains.”
“That is amazing,” Gunt exclaims, “Have you seen the sea? What animals live there? Are there giants?”
“No, no,” Bilbo shakes his head, “Well, we did encounter stone giants on our journey, and they were – “
A knock on the door interrupts him. “Bilbo?” Bofur calls, “Are you alright?”
“Just fine,” Bilbo calls back. His voice comes out raspy, and he ends up coughing. When he looks up, eyes burning and watery, the boy has vanished.
The next day his fever has returned with vengeance. It doesn't quite make sense to the dwarves, and Oin, too, only shakes his head when we walks past Thorin who lingers in the doorway. At least his mind is not as hazy this time, Bilbo thinks and forces a smile on his face. He waves at their leader, who, after a moment, does come in.
"Master Baggins," Thorin says, studying Bilbo with a frown on his face, "I do not mean to disturb you."
Bilbo flops back against the pillow and waves. "Not at all," he rasps, feeling annoyed at how speaking still pains his throat, "The cracks in the ceiling are fairly dull company after a while."
"Oin did recommend more rest," Thorin replies, but he does sit on the chair that Oin just vacated. His presence alone seems to warm the room – and Bilbo senses those soft, hidden tremors in his fingers that he did not tell Oin about finally cease.
Bilbo shrugs. "I suppose I'll tire soon enough.” Dozing off has become easy – his body is exhausted as is his mind. And Laketown is shrouded either in fog or covered in snow; the light never enough to fully awaken him. “But what day is it? Haven't we lingered here for too long already?"
His voice is barely audible for those last syllables, and Thorin's forehead creases further. "That should be the last of your concerns,” he admonishes, “You will need to be sufficiently recovered before we set out."
“But Durin’s Day…” Bilbo rasps.
Thorin gives a small shake of his head. “There is still enough time. Oin is certain you will make a recovery until then.”
Bilbo nods thoughtfully. Oin is probably right. Back in the Shire, conversing with ghosts had only ever left him tired, but then he had been healthy.
And yet his heart is heavy. Once they set forth from Laketown, their path will carry them straight to the mountain and toward the dragon.
Perhaps the residue from his nightmares, or the odd encounter with the ghost have given his fears further fuel, but to him facing the dragon feels strangely final.
He wonders if he will see Laketown ever again.
"I was wondering," Bilbo asks, abruptly, "Did Laketown suffer much when Smaug came?"
Thorin doesn't flinch at the question, but his expression grows thoughtful. "Truthfully," he says after a moment, "I am not certain. Laketown was little more than a port for Dale, so not many people loved there. It burnt, and I am sure many died, but I did not see what happened to Laketown that day."
"I suppose it must have been terrible, anyway," Bilbo replies with a sigh, "I was merely wondering what inspired this reception of our company."
For a moment Thorin's lips quirk upwards, but it is a bitter grin. "The Master is a greedy fool. He has heard of Erebor's riches, and now looks forward to getting his hands on them. He doesn't much care about the danger Smaug represents, which is fortunate. He will not obstruct our goal."
“Bard would stop us, though,” Bilbo mutters, and Thorin’s features darken. “He would.”
Bilbo risks a glance at Thorin through his lashes, and though the dwarf’s face is foreboding, he cannot hold his tongue. “Don’t you think he has the right of it?”
“I mean,” Bilbo continues, thinking of the ghost he has seen, and the others that are undoubtedly around, “If Smaug attacks, the people here…”
Will all die, but to say it out loud feels like speaking a curse.
With a small sigh, Thorin relaxes his posture. “Bard’s fears are not wrong. I would be fool to think that,” he admits, “But what reason has the dragon to turn onto Laketown? All the gold he covets is in the mountain – and I believe he would rather die than abandon it.”
Due to his body’s erratic recovery schedule, Bilbo finds himself wide awake in the middle of the night. Bilbo rearranges himself, drawing the blankets a little tighter – the air in Laketown is chilly – already it is colder than most winters in the Shire. Though, he thinks, it is not merely weather. There is something unnatural that casts its shadow across the waters of the lake, darkening them, enshrouding the lands under its spell.
Once, when he was barely of age, he had visited the Barrow-downs with his cousins, and the air there had felt similar. Not as cold, but just as suffocating. Filled with grief, unfulfilled dreams and death – dragon fire is not the only thing that haunts these parts.
“Master Baggins?” somebody whispers, and Bilbo flinches violently.
With a pounding heart, he turns over to find Gunt peeking in from the window. The boy’s eyes study the room, and finding it empty, he floats inside.
“Gunt,” Bilbo sighs, and gathers himself, hiding his shaking hands under the cover.
“Am I … is this alright?” the boy inquires.
Bilbo casts a glance at the walls. They are thin – he did hear the company’s discussion downstairs some hours ago. And they won’t all be asleep now either – at least one dwarf will be keeping watch. “As long as you’re quiet.”
“Of course,” the boy whispers cheerfully, “I am a ghost. Being quiet isn’t difficult for me.”
Bilbo, who has seen ghosts suddenly stumble into tables or collide with walls they could traverse easily before, is about to protest, but Gunt comes closer. “They say you traveled with dwarves? Those are dwarves in this house, aren’t they? Some seem fairly tall.”
“They are,” Bilbo agrees with a snort, “Quite tall for dwarves. But they are dwarves in the end.”
“Ohh,” Gunt intones, leaning forward. It is odd how easy it is to forget he is a ghost and not living any longer. “You know, they say dwarves bring you luck. You must be very lucky, then. You are traveling together, aren’t you?”
Bilbo is unable to decide, whether or not he is lucky. “Perhaps… They have gotten me into quite some trouble, however.”
“You have to tell me about that. You have to tell me all of it!” Gunt is almost on Bilbo’s bed by the time he has completed his sentence. “Who are they? Why are you traveling together? What are you doing here? And where are you going?”
For a moment Bilbo hesitates. Wonders, if mentioning the goal is going to unsettled this boy, whose life was ended by the dragon.
“Erebor,” he breathes, “Those dwarves come from Erebor. They – we have come to reclaim their home.”
“They want to kill the dragon?” the boy echoes, with wide eyes. There is a spark – one that is not youthful curiosity – in them that makes the hairs on Bilbo’s neck rise.
“If he isn’t dead already,” Bilbo says lowly. His heart is pounding. If this is from exhaustion or fear he does not know.
Determination spreads across Gunt’s face, letting him appear a lot older suddenly. “That is good,” he murmurs, “I remember the day the dragon came – many died then. Many here in Laketown, but so many more in Dale and Erebor. They will be glad to see the beast gone.”
His vision blurs. Ice crawls through Bilbo’s veins, and it feels as if the strength is being drained right out of his body. So many ghosts, he thinks, and it makes his head spin – only now he is catching a glimpse of the desolation Smaug wrought.
“Master Baggins,” Gunt says, still sounding so oddly firm and grown up, “I will tell the others. We may be ghosts, but we want the dragon gone. We –“
He makes a sweeping gesture, and catches the mug on the nightstand. His arm should have passed through it.
But both Gunt and Bilbo can only watch in horror as the mug is swept off the nightstand and shatters on the ground.
“What -?” Gunt mutters, sounding young again, while realization floods through Bilbo’s mind and the door flies open. This shouldn’t be happening, Bilbo thinks, this is what they warned him off, this is –
“Who is there?!” Dwalin bellows, and Gunt disappears into thin air, and Bilbo can only turn a chalky white face to look at Dwalin. His heart is beating too fast, there is cold sweat on his forehead, and his mind is filled with pieces falling into places, forming a terrifying picture.
“Bilbo?” Dwalin asks, lowering his weapon, “Bilbo, what is it?”
Of course there is nobody else in the room. Even if there was, Dwalin might not have seen Gunt. Few have that sensitivity. Fewer survive into adulthood.
Bilbo swallows past the obstacle in his throat. “Nightmare,” he mumbles, and lets his head fall back against the pillow, closes his eyes against his spiraling vision, even though the back of his eyelids offers only further horrors.
He hears Dwalin stomping across the room, checking the door and the windows, before setting to collect the shards of the broken mug.
That is why so few survive, Bilbo thinks. He should tell Dwalin to inform Oin – his recovery is going to be set back by another day at least. But already the blackness is rising to embrace him.
As expected, it takes many more days, before Oin finally declares him recovered enough to leave the house. The healer is deeply worried by the number of setbacks Bilbo has suffered, wondering if there is no underlying reason for their burglar’s continued bad health. Bilbo would tell him, but he isn’t certain how dwarves feel about ghosts, and ever since that fateful night Gunt has kept his distance.
The company is treating him with extra care, and Bilbo is fighting an uphill struggle to convince them that he is not made from glass. It is made difficult by each blast of cold air that leaves him shuddering and the terrible pallor that greets him whenever he looks into the mirror.
Encounter with ghosts, Bilbo remembers back from when his parents told him, sap strength in a way that goes beneath flesh and blood. The drain of energy does little to hurt a healthy hobbit where a comfortable bed, sunshine and a full pantry are nearby – the damage dealt to a hobbit that is already sick however, is far more serious.
Thorin takes Bilbo aside, and his hand is a comfortable weight on Bilbo’s shoulder – in this town so haunted by death his dwarves are warm creatures. And there is honest concern in Thorin’s eyes when he asks Bilbo if he is well enough to continue the journey.
The time window is drawing to a close. They cannot tarry much longer – but Thorin will not force Bilbo to continue if his health is still so fragile.
Bilbo casts a glance outside. The Lonely Mountain is shrouded in dark clouds promising an early nightfall, but he knows that their journey’s final destination is near. A shudder runs down his spine.
“I’m quite ready,” Bilbo tells him, and Thorin’s lips quirk.
“Thank you,” he tells Bilbo, “Though we would not blame you should you opt to back out. Few of the dangers we encountered on this journey noted in the contract – it will not bind you, should you not wish for it.”
Bilbo’s heart warms a little, and he puts his own hand over Thorin’s. “True, but as I told you before – I’ll help you in taking back your home.”
Thorin’s fingers press into Bilbo’s shoulder for a moment. “And I cannot thank you enough for it.”
They exchange a smile, an understanding. After all those difficulties, they have finally reached this point where their hopes align. There is still so much Bilbo does not know, and so many things he has not mentioned, but for a moment, all is well.
On midday, Thorin announces to the company that they will be leaving the day after. A cheer goes up, and Fili and Kili drag Bilbo along as they go out for a last night of merriment. Most of Laketown dies after nightfall, but the tavern is lively, crowded and warm.
The beer tastes poor, and Bilbo thinks the bread they serve must be days old at least, but Bofur is singing and Bombur stacks up plates. At one point Fili climbs atop the table, toasted to by Dwalin, Oin and many, many men, while Kili is busy in what looks like a very engaged conversation with the barman.
At one point Bilbo steps outside for a breath of fresh air, enjoying the cold for once. Ice is building up on the lake, and Bilbo wonders dimly how the fishermen of Laketown will fare in winter. The wind is sharp and tastes like ash.
“You must be Master Baggins,” a voice says suddenly.
Bilbo jumps. With a hand to his heart he turns around and finds himself face to face with a woman. She is wearing furs and an elaborate hairdo – and Bilbo wonders what she is doing here at this hour, until he realizes that she, too, is a ghost.
“Yes,” he replies warily.
“I heard you want to kill the dragon,” she says imperiously. Where Gunt had been brimming with curiosity, her entire body radiates determination.
Bilbo nods and swallows. He had not expected news to spread so quickly – he had only told one young boy, after all. And now he has to wonder if he has not made a grievous mistake after all. The woman’s expression is fierce.
“Then we of Esgaroth and Dale wish you success,” she says, “Long have we waited for this day. Many of us wish to see the beast fall. And I speak as a messenger of those that remain from that time. Shall it be required, we will help.”
How, Bilbo wants to ask. But he bites down on his lower lip, recalls the shattered mug. Ice in his veins, his darkening vision.
This is not the Shire. These ghosts are not unfortunate souls needing guidance after an unforeseen accident. No neighbor’s boy coming to play even though he’d died a night ago. No spirit of Primrose Rootbed returning home hours after her body had been carried in after an accident at the mill. Or Harbold Wiltree trying to tidy up his study days after he had fallen off a ladder and broken his neck.
Dale’s ghosts have never been peaceful hobbits. Those here have known splendor, riches, devastation and war. They do not wish to tidy up their books or play a game – they wish for revenge.
As if she read his thoughts, the woman’s smile darkens further. “Dale’s records may have burned, but our late priest remembers. Do not worry about the how, Master Baggins. If you have need, call upon us – this is our one chance as well.”
At peace and at revenge.
Her smile is chilling, and Bilbo is only beginning to realize the scope of what he is being pulled into. Not just one ghost awaits in Dale -
“Bilbo,” somebody exclaims from behind them, and Bilbo’s heart skips a beat. But it’s only Ori, coming outside, too. The light from the tavern grounds him, different from the night’s darkness stretching across the water.
“Huh,” Ori mutters, when he reaches Bilbo, “Where did she go?”
“Who?” Bilbo asks.
“The woman you were talking to,” Ori replies with a shrug, “She sure looked interested.”
He smiles, but all Bilbo can think of is the fact that Ori saw her. Either Ori has the same odd gift Bilbo has – though he has always been certain that this gift has only ever been given to hobbits and none else – or something fouler is at work here.
He shudders. “Went home, I think,” he mumbles, and lets the wind carry away his words.
“Well, I doubt Thorin would have liked you chatting to strangers, anyway,” Ori laughs, “And Oin doesn’t think you should be staying out here so long. So, back inside or home?”
Bilbo forces his trembling hands to be still. “Home,” he says.”