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An Unexpected Pilgrimage

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People who went on adventures had a way of not coming back. Belladonna Took had been fond of saying that that was part of the fun, not knowing what would happen, but it was easy enough for her to say. She wasn’t her son, suddenly an orphan when his mother had failed to return. He had been an adult by then, but close to his mother as he’d been, her loss affected him deeply. The world seemed a little more dangerous once it had swallowed his mother.

And yet. Bilbo Baggins had felt “the itch” as Belladonna had called it. Going on rambles through the woods had been enough, until one day, it hadn’t. He felt the urge to see what lay beyond the Shire, and wondered why no one ever seemed to come back once they were out there. Was the world outside really so wonderful, that no one wanted to come back? Or did they all die, unable to survive in a land more dangerous than the one they had come from?

Bilbo knew that these fears and the itch for adventure had reached their peak when Gandalf appeared, his presence a reminder that some people did manage to come back. The Wizard had been the one to take his mother away, returning alone with little more than a shake of the head and an apology that he hadn’t been fast enough. No other explanation had been given, for all that he might deserve one. He wanted to hate Gandalf at times, because obviously his mother’s death was Gandalf’s fault, but if Gandalf kept coming back, maybe he could too.

That day, Gandalf was in a hurry, dashing down the lane as if he was being chased, and glancing behind him every now and then. Bilbo watched this strange behavior thoughtfully from his front step, but it could have nothing to do with him, could it?

“Ah, there you are,” Gandalf said without preamble, a bit of a reproach in his voice, as though Bilbo’s choice to sit on his doorstep and not in the woods was a personal affront. “We must go, and quickly.”

“Go?” Bilbo repeated, not quite believing his own ears. “Go where? This is all rather sudden-”

“You are needed,” Gandalf continued urgently. “But I could not come here without attracting notice, and I fear if we do not go quickly, there will be trouble.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Bilbo said stubbornly, even as the itch became unbearably demanding.

Gandalf sighed. “I am offering you the chance at an adventure, but I do not have time to explain, and if you do not take this chance, I fear the consequences may be dire. More than your comfortable life is at stake here.”

Bilbo should have ignored him. It was what a proper Baggins would have done. Well, tea first, then outright refusal. Gandalf wasn’t making any sense, and his mother’s death had made notions of adventure rather unpalatable.

But that was only if he felt like lying to himself.

“Let me get my rucksack and walking stick,” Bilbo said finally, turning and heading back into Bag End.

“Quickly,” Gandalf urged, and when Bilbo emerged, he saw why Gandalf was in such a hurry. Though it was midday, a strange darkness was falling over Hobbiton, and in the distance, he saw a strange form in the sky, large and oddly shapeless, the shadows seemingly coming from its body. Periodically, gouts of flame would emerge from the main body, and smash into the countryside. Bilbo heard screams, and knew it was time to run.

“What is that?” he demanded, struggling to keep pace with Gandalf’s longer legs.

“We call it Sin,” Gandalf said grimly, and that was the last thing he said until they were surrounded by more creatures he had never seen the like of before. Bilbo stumbled, nearly falling into one of the creatures. Covered in spines as they were, he was glad he hit the ground instead.

“Where did they come from?” he asked, gasping for breath. “There were never creatures like that here before.”

“Sin’s body,” Gandalf supplied. “It carries lesser fiends, who are left behind in its’ wake. We must fight them in order to escape.” He handed Bilbo a slim blade, exactly the right size for him, not that that would help much.

“I’ve never used a sword before,” he protested, watching the fiends close in. Nevermind that he had no idea what a fiend even was.

“Experience is the best teacher,” was Gandalf’s only reply before practically flinging himself at one of the fiends, and leaving Bilbo no choice except to follow.

His swings were wild, but the fiends didn’t seem that smart. A few of his hits connected, and that was apparently enough to get them out of the way. Encouraged, he and Gandalf surged forward, but the fiends were endless. A blow across the back of his head sent him sprawling, and the last thing he remembered before darkness claimed him was Gandalf’s voice telling him distantly not to tell anyone where he was from.

---

Bilbo awoke with a cough, saltwater burning his throat as it escaped his lungs. His eyes felt gritty as he opened them, and rubbing them with his hands only made it worse. When his vision cleared, he saw why: he was lying in shallow water, his upper torso on a sandy beach while his legs were buffeted by the gentle tides of the water they were floating on. He swallowed heavily, ignoring the burn. The Shire was miles from the ocean. How had he come so far? And what had happened to everyone else?

He remembered the heat of the flames and the screams of his neighbors, and nausea bubbled up in his belly.

“There’s someone on the beach!” A young man’s voice called out. From where, Bilbo couldn’t tell. He didn’t think trying to sit up would be a good idea at the moment.

“Go,” another voice answered immediately. This new voice was deeper and rougher, but something about it made Bilbo want to find the speaker. The air of command perhaps. That voice made him want to obey, and if he had more energy, that idea would have chafed.

As it was, when hands seized him, lifting him and turning him over in some kind of inspection, he didn’t even have the strength to object to some of the less necessary parts of the inspection. Really, what purpose did running a hand through his hair serve?

“He’s injured,” the young man reported. “And he’s got toxin in his hair. Coast is clear otherwise.”

“Make sure you clean your hands lad,” a new voice said. “Just a few cuts and scrapes it looks like, but if he has the toxin, Sin must be nearby.”

“Where are you from?” the second voice asked insistently, and Bilbo tried to crane his neck to face the speaker. His head just flopped uselessly back into the sand. He coughed as some of it got into his mouth. Gandalf’s warning was utterly forgotten in the face of choking on the beach.

“Leave it for later, Thorin,” the third voice scolded. “He’s probably still in shock. Let’s get him back to the camp.”

“If Sin is nearby-”

“The Shire,” Bilbo coughed, giving up on sitting up under his own power for the moment. “I’m from the Shire.” Silence greeted his words, to the point that Bilbo wondered if they’d just left him on the beach. He remembered Gandalf’s warning then, and wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake in telling them.

Then, “There’s no point asking him anything while the toxin’s still in his system,” the third voice said, breaking the silence. “Lad, wash out his hair, then bring him back to camp. We’ll send your brother along to help.”

“I don’t need help,” the young man insisted, but he did as he’d been ordered, lifting Bilbo like he was a sack of potatoes, and holding him above the water as he carefully washed out his hair. It felt practiced, as if he had done this many times before.

“What is ‘the toxin’?” Bilbo asked suddenly, startling the lad to the point that his fingers stilled for a moment.

“Sin leaves it behind,” he replied, resuming his work. “It makes your head go funny for a while.”

So they think I’m mad, Bilbo realized. He didn’t feel mad. Weak as a newborn kitten and beat up in ways he’d never felt before, but his mind at least felt fine, recent trauma aside.

“What’s your name?” the young man asked, smoothing back Bilbo’s damp hair and hoisting him back over his shoulder. It wasn’t the most dignified or comfortable way of being carried, but at least he was out of the sand.

“Bilbo. Bilbo Baggins,” he offered, opting not to comment on the young man’s lack of manners in not offering his own name first. He was being carried. It really wasn’t the time. “And you?”

“Kíli, son of Dís, at your service” the young man said, an odd hesitation in his tone.

His mother’s name, Bilbo guessed by the sound of it. The lad hadn’t known his father, and was used to people commenting on it, perhaps. He struggled to find the right words, but was saved by another young man, probably the brother, jogging toward them. The thing that struck Bilbo most about his appearance was the fact that the lad had a braided mustache. Well, that and he seemed taller and more heavily built than the people he was used to. He hadn’t had the chance to look much at Kíli from his position over his shoulder, but another hobbit wouldn’t have carried him this way so easily. Bilbo wasn’t too heavy by hobbit standards, but his belly was properly round.

A memory stirred at the back of his mind, but it was like trying to look directly at a skittish wild animal. He shook his head. No point in dwelling on it. If they were right, his head was being affected by that toxin anyway.

“I told them I could handle it,” Kíli complained as his brother approached. He stumbled on a branch, causing Bilbo to lurch forward precipitously.

“Dropping an injured person doesn’t count as handling it,” his brother responded, plucking Bilbo off Kíli’s back with ease. Being treated like a potato sack almost made him want to insist that he could walk, but he knew that would only end in embarrassment. Even without putting weight on them, he knew his legs felt like jelly.

“This is my brother, Fíli,” Kíli offered, rolling his eyes. Now that he could see Kíli, Bilbo noted that he looked even taller than his brother, though his build was a little trimmer, and he only had stubble compared to his brother’s close beard. Both of them wore thick, heavy clothes that made Bilbo wonder what climate they were native to. Hobbiton very rarely got cold enough to justify clothes that thick, even in the winter.

“At your service,” Fíli said, dipping slightly in a careful bow so as not to unseat Bilbo.

“Bilbo Baggins, at yours and your family’s,” Bilbo replied, remembering the proper words this time.

“Maybe we’ll take you up on that,” Kíli observed conversationally. “Our uncle’s a summoner, and he just dismissed most of his guardians. He could use another, when you’re feeling better.”

“Summoner? Guardians?” Bilbo was fairly certain he’d never heard those words before, or at least not spoken seriously. In stories, perhaps.

“Apprentice Summoner still, Kíli. You must have gotten a big dose of the toxin,” Fíli said, concern in his voice as he turned his attention to Bilbo.

“There was a lot in his hair,” Kíli agreed. “Well, there’s the camp. Why don’t we let Uncle explain?”

Fíli lowered Bilbo until he was sitting against a log in front of a roaring fire. He reached out an arm experimentally, and it didn’t immediately flop back down. Encouraged, he eagerly accepted the tin cup of water that Fíli handed him and drank greedily.

“Thank you,” he gasped when he had finished off the cup, the cold water rushing to his head. Fíli just nodded, and refilled the cup.

“Uncle, Bilbo doesn’t remember what summoners are!” Kíli said, prompting Bilbo to look over and see who he was addressing. His eyes met sharp blue ones, and he had to resist the urge to look away. Those eyes were assessing him, judging his worth, and looking away wouldn’t prevent that.

“And I suppose you didn’t think to explain,” he replied, looking back toward his nephew, revealing that he was the second speaker from when they’d found Bilbo on the beach. Thorin, Bilbo thought his name was.

“Well, you have to treat his wounds anyway,” Kíli mumbled, his eyes suddenly on Bilbo and not his uncle.

“I remember you saying they were not serious,” Thorin observed, but he was already rising, and crossing the campsite to kneel in front of Bilbo. Thorin was even taller than Kíli, with long dark hair that fell over his shoulders. His hair was a little wavy, but mostly straight. Bilbo was seized with the urge to touch it: he’d never seen such hair in the Shire. Hobbit hair was almost always curly. He was definitely far away from home.

Thorin brushed his fingers against a cut on Bilbo’s cheek, startling him. He reached up to touch the spot, and the cut was gone. He stared at Thorin in wonder, but oddly, the look in those blue eyes hardened.

“Summoners fight Sin,” Thorin said suddenly, inspecting the cuts and burns on Bilbo’s feet. “Using the power of the aeons, until we are strong enough to call the final aeon, and defeat Sin. They travel on pilgrimages to every temple, gathering new aeons. Guardians defend Summoners, so that they reach Zanarkand, where the final aeon lies.” He passed his hand over Bilbo’s burned feet, and he felt the pain lessen. Magic of some kind? Even though Gandalf was called a wizard, Bilbo had never seen anything like it before.

“And, what are aeons?” Bilbo prompted. Thorin gritted his teeth, and Bilbo could tell he was trying not to say, ‘they are what summoners summon.’

Instead, Thorin washed out a cut on Bilbo’s arm that was gritty with sand. “There are some who choose to offer up their souls to fight Sin,” he explained. “While still alive, they offer their souls to Yevon, and their souls are imprisoned in stone statues. There, they pray for Spira’s revival, and those prayers take shape, becoming an aeon.”

Bilbo had more questions, like what Yevon and Spira were, but he held his tongue. He got the impression that his gaps in knowledge were even greater than they normally expected from someone attacked by Sin. Instead, he looked across the fire, at Thorin’s other guardians. Fíli and Kíli he knew already, but there were two more, both veterans by the look of it. One looked friendly and had a long white beard, and the other was bald, heavily tattooed, and looked ready to fight the next thing that offended him. Under the circumstances, that could easily be Bilbo.

“Fíli said that you were an apprentice summoner,” Bilbo said instead, watching Thorin seal yet another cut. He hadn’t realized there’d been so many.

“I do not yet command any aeons,” Thorin replied in explanation, drawing back at last. “The first temple is but a few miles from here.”

Bilbo bit back a question about how they knew he could summon if he’d never done it. Thorin didn’t seem likely to take such a question well, and it was probably a rude question in any case.

“So,” Thorin continued, pinning Bilbo with his gaze. “Where do you come from?”

“I might ask you the same thing,” Bilbo pointed out, though he knew he was being rather rude under the circumstances. “I’ve never seen such tall folk before.”

That earned him some odd looks. “We’re dwarves,” Kíli supplied eventually, breaking the silence, though that hardly counted as an explanation. The name did sound somewhat familiar though, so he let it go.

“Well I am a hobbit of the Shire, as I tried to say earlier,” Bilbo replied, but the odd looks didn’t waver.

“There are no more hobbits,” the dwarf with the long white beard said, not unkindly. He was the third speaker, Bilbo realized. “The Shire was destroyed 500 years ago, and all of the hobbits with it. It’s called the Calm Lands now, and is uninhabited, like everything north of Macalania.”

“Yet he is undeniably a hobbit,” Thorin said, still staring Bilbo down. “He matches the old descriptions.”

“Destroyed?” Bilbo choked out. That attack… had killed them all? And carried him through time? How was that even possible? Such things only ever happened in fairy stories. Surely he must be dreaming.

“What do you remember?” Thorin demanded impatiently, and for once, it was easy to obey, if only to try and remember some detail that would prove them wrong.

“It was just a normal day, and then Gandalf showed up, telling me I needed to go right away, and then fire was raining from the sky-”

“Gandalf?” Thorin interrupted, his eyebrows flying up. The other dwarves exchanged looks.

“Yes, he’s an old friend of the family,” Bilbo replied, a little irritated by the interruption. “Do you know him?”

“There are few who haven’t at least heard of him,” the kindly-looking dwarf commented. “Gandalf has been a Guardian to many summoners, including a High Summoner or two, though he refuses the usual title given to Guardians.”

Odd that he’d never thought to mention that.

“Bilbo should come with us, at least until we get to Luca,” Fíli suggested. “Maybe Gandalf will be there, or someone else you know.”

“Or he could stay with us until we get to the Calm Lands,” Kíli countered, and Bilbo remembered his comment about Thorin needing another guardian. “We’re going there anyway, and if that’s his home…”

“There is nothing there,” the dwarf with the long beard said, not unkindly. “Dwalin and I have both seen it. And as for Luca, that is Thorin’s decision.”

Thorin said nothing, staring silently at Bilbo. None of these place names sounded the least bit familiar, so he couldn’t say he had much of a preference. But he did want to see the land where his home had been, even if just to confirm that he’d fallen through time.

“We’re not near either of those places, are we?” he asked hesitantly, hoping this wasn’t crossing another invisible line.

Thorin’s expression didn’t change. “Luca is two temples away, and the Calm Lands lie near the end of the journey. It will be dangerous, but not much more dangerous than staying here and waiting for a fiend to kill you.”

Bilbo’s head whirled. It was too much to accept at once. His home was gone, he was in a world where it would be so easy to die, and he’d been found by someone who immediately suspected there was more to the story. And Gandalf was apparently famous. He’d been famous in the Shire, true, but for fireworks, not… well, he still didn’t properly know what Sin was. Not that he could ask without attracting more attention. He’d seen Sin, and that was enough.

He rubbed his temples, feeling his consciousness slipping. It was too much, but Thorin was still watching him, waiting for an answer, even though the decision was his to make. “I appreciate any help you’re willing to give me,” Bilbo said at last.

“Try not to get in the way,” the tattooed dwarf said, his first utterance since Fíli set Bilbo near the fire.

“Really, brother,” the long-bearded dwarf scolded. “Helping those who have been attacked by Sin is everyone’s duty.”

“Defeating Sin is Thorin’s duty,” the tattooed dwarf pressed stubbornly, and said no more.

Thorin simply watched Bilbo with his piercing eyes, until Bilbo found that keeping his eyes open any longer was too much of a struggle, and fell asleep against the log. He didn’t know precisely where he was, he knew next to nothing about the people he was with, but his mind was overloaded, and his body was drained. As sleep claimed him, he hoped he wouldn’t dream of the Shire burning, and that wish was granted. Instead, he dreamed of piercing blue eyes belonging to someone who seemed to believe him even when no one else truly did. Even in dreams, Bilbo wondered if he was just imagining it.