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Made to Endure

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It is not exactly the fault of Big Folk that what they know of hobbits could comfortably fill the shortest of chapters. Men, especially those of Bree, might produce a page or page-in-a-half which would compliment Hobbit hospitality, farming, and the size of their pantries (while remarking on the frequency of their meals). Elves could possibly do a better job, being scholars of all Middle Earth, and give an account regarding Hobbits’ lost origins and the Wandering Days. Dwarves of course would not give Hobbits a singular paragraph, but the briefest of footnotes recognizing them as the one Free People of Arda that made Dwarrows seem tall in comparison.

While limited in length, much of what other races and the casual observer know of Hobbits is true. Hobbits do love good-tilled earth and are quite merry. Bright colors, good manners, and a firm understanding of respectability hold high reign in their society. For really, what could be better than good food, good cheer, and good company? However, while slightly bigoted to the Small Folk, the other races are not exactly at fault for thinking little of Hobbits. After all, Hobbits do not desire to disabuse them of their notions in the least.

And when some well-meaning Outsider would mention how it is a shame that Hobbits knew little of their past from before their Shire days …well, Hobbits are polite and wait to smirk at such an individual until after his back is turned. For, while Hobbits are inclined to be fat and do not hurry unnecessarily, they are nonetheless nimble and deft in their movements.* With sharp eyes and quick hearing, Hobbits are not at all unaware of what pitying strangers think. Especially when one considers how these little folk have mastered the art of disappearing swiftly and silently, so well that to Men it may seem magical.* Utter nonsense of course, for everyone knows that the elusiveness of hobbits is due solely to a professional skill, resulting from heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth.* Ahem, but to return to the topic at hand. While pity might be generously given by Outsiders, Hobbits really feel no need for it. For while the rest of Arda may have misplaced their knowledge on where Hobbits originated, Hobbits never have.

Hobbit history, you see, is a very secret thing and Hobbits are very discreet; much better than Elves or Dwarves when it comes to keeping secrets. Hobbit propriety and general sense dictates that one should be wary with how much any Outsider should know. For Hobbits were fashioned for a specific purpose, one they were almost destroyed for, and so to them discretion is the better form of valor. So all that Hobbits know of their history remains safe and secure solely in Hobbit knowledge, spread from parent to child and only ever written in their secret language Green Tongue.

Though secret, Hobbit origins are not the hardest of histories to remember. Hobbits are practical people after all and were thus made for a very practical purpose. Yet Hobbits are particularly fond of a good story. So when elderly hobbits relay Hobbit creation to fauntlings it is told somewhat similarly to the following tale.

After the wakening of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, the Valar watched over these beings and saw how their differences caused war and strife between the three races. Elves, as the Firstborn, patronized the others; gifting epitaphs of Engwar (‘the Sickly’) to Men and Naugrim (‘the Stunted People’) to the Dwarves. As the first children, Elves considered themselves superior to their mortal counterparts.

Meanwhile, Men found themselves distrustful of their long-lived companions. To Men the Elves were too distant with their love of starlight and the Dwarves were callous, devoted only to earthen treasures. What did these other races care for the fleetingness of a man’s lifetime? What depth of feeling could they have, when their lives lingered on and on through the years?

Lastly, the Dwarves, as the adopted children of Eru, could not reconcile with the other races. Why should they be looked down on for not being planned by Eru? Why should they who could shape the dullest stone into beauty be considered lesser than Eru’s true children?

And so as the Races' anger grew so did warfare and the Valar who observed them felt torn by pity. A solution was needed and so the Valar took it upon themselves to plead with Eru Ilúvatar. Eru listened to their grief and in turn agreed to grant a merciful boon to the Valar if they could but decide on a course of action. Long did they ponder but it seemed hopeless. How could one cause beings of free will to choose peace when each race held so keenly to their grievances.

It was Yavanna, who had previously pleaded for the creation of the Ents, along with her fellow Queens of the Valar Estë and Nienna who proposed a solution. A mediator race was needed to keep the peace, one that would not think it superior to the other races nor shy from their self-righteous anger. With the help of the other Valar they fashioned a new race of beings crafted with attributes of the other races. Their height and size resembled the Dwarves, yet their keen sight and hearing was akin to the Elves, and their appearance and life-spans closest to those of Men.

Whilst finishing their physical forms each Valar placed their mark upon these creatures. Manwë whispered wisdom in their ears, while Ulmo molded them spirits to be as untamable as his waters, and Tulkas shared his strength of heart. Of the Fëanturi, Irmo blessed them with a desire for all good things of the spirit over earthly treasures and Mandos kissed their brows so they would feel no fear at their last breath. Within their breast Varda kindled a tiny star to always light their path. Impulsively, Nessa shaped them sturdy feet so they might always be sure of their step and dance their merriment. Together Aulë and Estë crafted them hands that were meant to create, to tend, and heal. Upon their skins Vairë drew spells over hands, breast, and lips so they would never lose their stories. From Nienna they received hearts that felt as keenly as her own, so they would share in her mercy and endurance of the spirit. Lastly Yavanna, Vána, and Oromë came forth and sowed within their creations a love for all things that grew: bird, beast, and plant. So powerful was that love that these creatures would be guardians to all living things and come to speak with the earth. The earth would guard and love them dearly in return.

Finished with their task, the Valar presented their joint creation to Eru who accepted these creatures as their answer. Over each of the Valar-fashioned he shared his breath, struck alight the Flame inside their breast, and sung the melody these new creatures would occupy in the Music. So it came to be that when those creatures that would later be known as Hobbits first opened their eyes they were filled with tears from hearing Eru's song and feeling the earth’s love.

To keep those others that bore his Flame from seeing how different these new creatures were, Eru cloaked their spirits so they would seem unassuming. Not even the eyes of the Maiar or Eldar could pierce through the Creator's shroud unless allowed by one of the seemingly innocuous beings. Before they left, each Valar gave farewell to their creations and cautioned them to keep their purpose secret, least beings of darkness thought to do them harm. Then Manwë had the Eagles fly them to Arda where they came to settle north of the Vales of Anduin. There the Hobbits flourished, establishing their societies and sharing speech with the earth. They came into their own language Green Tongue and separated into three groups: Stoors, Fallohides, and Harfoots. The Stoors were those who loved the water that was akin to the spirits Ulmo gave them. They were of broad build and donned the beards and boots of men. The Fallohides felt dearest Oromë’s blessing most for they were lovers of trees and woodlands and those beast that resided within. They were taller and slimmer than their fellow hobbits, fairer of skin and hair.* Harfoots were smallest and shortest, skilled with their hands, and felt the call of earth the best. It was they that befriended the Entwives who taught them the secrets of root and soil. So the seasons passed and the Hobbits came into their own.

Yet, no matter if they were Harfoots, Fallohides, or Stoors, all knew when unrest grew and the earth cried out at the rising violence of Man, Dwarf, and Elf. At that time a hobbit or two would answer the call and go forth to act as councilor. Yet ever wary of the Valar’s warnings, those hobbits who ventured out would wear boots and go forth appearing as younglings of the other races. Wisdom from the mouths of babes some would recollect when hostility was averted and those children who had gently persuaded, manipulated, and cautioned had disappeared. Therefore, when the other races at last acknowledged the Hobbits existence, they did not associate them with those wise youngsters, but saw them only as distant relations to Men. Thus had Hobbits settled and begun to set about their purpose when darkness arose from the East.

In the Undying Lands, the Valar became restless at the rise of Sauron and though they had sent the Hobbits to ease tensions between the races, they knew their creations would be no match for Morgoth’s follower. Having kept the Hobbits creation secret from the Maiar, the Valar dispatched the Istari to aid the Free Peoples of Middle Earth. As Sauron’s Shadow spread the Hobbits struggled to keep their purpose. Not all animosity could they forestall, not all battles between the Free Folk could they prevent. Each failure during the time of Sauron cut close to the Hobbits' grieving hearts, wearying their spirits.

Although the other races did not know of the Hobbits' influence, Sauron’s lead servant, the Witch-King of Angmar, became suspicious of the creatures. In time he captured one who had gone to answer the call. Though she died before revealing anything, the head of the Nazgul sent forth a small host to destroy the creatures least they be some inconvenience to his master. As beings of peace, the Hobbits were completely unprepared for the attack and many of their numbers died before the grieving of the Earth brought forth relief. The Shape-shifters of the North, Mearas, Lintips, and the Great Eagles came as aid having heard the earth’s sorrow and savaged the Witch-King's host. The Hobbits, having suffered great losses, spent much of the end of the Second Age abandoning their old lands and building their new homes in the Vale of Anduin. Meanwhile, the war with Men and Elves so distracted Sauron’s servant he had no thoughts to spare for the odd creatures he had attempted to destroy.

From the Undying Lands, the Valar watched and grieved having realized how unprotected they had left the youngest of races. Yavanna pleaded to the other Valar to help safe-keep their creations and so together the Valar weaved a spell onto their decimated children. Upon each Hobbit family a bit of magic was blessed, a flickering thing left to form as it would with only one concern: that it should provide some skill to assist in keeping its owner safe. So each family developed a certain knack, starting with the Oldbucks, a Fallohide family, who could sense growing danger. Inherited traits, these knacks grew to different levels of skill and strength between family members. However, despite these blessings, most Hobbits took it upon themselves to learn the skills of bow, blade, and stave. For Hobbit memories are long and they desired to never see their homelands razed again.

Following the Valar’s blessing Hobbits remained in the Vale of Anduin until the third age, when the Oldbucks’ knack warned of darkness arising in the Greenwood. Thus the Wandering Days came to pass until the King of Arnor granted them the settlement of the Shire. All that was demanded of them was that they should keep the Great Bridge in repair and all other bridges and roads, speed the king’s messengers, and acknowledge his lordship.* The Hobbits honored this oath along with their sacred purpose even after the fall of Arnor.

It was around this time that one of the Istari, he who had taken on the name of Gandalf came to learn something of Hobbit nature. While their purpose was kept safe, Hobbit knacks were of a less secretive thing and Gandalf, having learned of them, thought he had found the beings that would be perfect in assisting his safekeeping of Middle Earth. Since the Hobbits found that his purposes often coincided with their own the Thain, the chosen leader after Arnor’s fall, agreed to allow those who wished to to accompany the wizard. So it came to pass that Hobbits came to remain complacently within the Shire. And, if ever one of their numbers heard the call to take up their created purpose, it could be certain that a rather meddlesome wizard would be visiting with a casual invite for an adventure.

So season followed season and perhaps all would have remained the same in the Shire with one of their numbers disappearing on an adventure every few years and occasionally returning. Perhaps Hobbits or at least a hobbit would never have had a greater part to play in the salvation of Middle Earth if Gandalf the Grey had never taken Gerontius Took on an adventure meaning to have him help defeat a dragon and ended up with him marrying one instead.

Chapter Text

Part of the strangeness of Bilbo Baggins was firmly blamed on the Old Took and his sole adventure. If Gerontius Took had never gallivanted off with that old greybeard Gandalf, he might have married a respectable hobbit lass and Bilbo might have been a more usual hobbit. But that, of course, was not what happened.

It surprised no one when Gerontius Took, future Thain of the Shire and only a few months past his majority, agreed to follow a rather frazzled wizard off to parts unknown. The youth, as the gossipers of Hobbiton would mutter, was prone to do something that foolish. After all, above all other Hobbit families Tooks were known for going off with that wizard fellow. Most likely due to their rather useful knack: Tooks conquered, whether it be a situation or an enemy. And while a Tookish faunt might lose a fight to another lad, they had a habit of making enemies into friends, conquering their opponents in a different way. Besides the Took family knack ran strong in Gerontius veins. He always bested any challenger, whether it was in knife-play with his cousins or a drinking competition. Yes, the Took boy would be just fine they all assumed and Shire life went on. So when a season passed and nothing was heard from the lad few bothered to comment. When another half year had gone by some began to worry. After another season more talk was had of locating a not-so-distant cousin to take Thainship since it seemed the current heir had gotten himself killed. By the time spring came about again and Gerontius had been gone five seasons, the Hobbits of the Shire were planning an unofficial memorial ceremony, since the Tooks refused to count the lad dead until they had some word from Gandalf. Therefore, it was a bit of a shock when a wizard-ridden horse and two hobbit-bearing ponies arrived in the midst of the mourning party. Gandalf and Gerontius didn’t know who was more startled, the other hobbits or the ponies. The interruption at least ended the competition between gardener Holmand and Lily Baggins to see who could weep more for the lost of their favorite drinking companion and dancing partner, respectively.

What was even more surprising was Gerontius’ female Hobbit companion. A non-denizen of the Shire, the lass was introduced by Gandalf as Adamanta, with no family name and, even worse, no knack. It took only a few moments for the Chubbs, a Family with a most unusual knack of discovering and retaining information, to agree to house the girl. A few months later the Shire celebrated a different type of gathering all together: the marriage of Gerontius Took to Adamanta Chubb, adopted daughter to the Family. And if a few comments were made about her slightly different features, cheekbones too sharp and feet a tad too small or hairless, most knew better than to say it around the newlyweds. And if someone noted how un-Hobbitish she tended to be, well that was only to be expected, since Adamanta was not actually a hobbit at all. But since she no longer looked like the dragon she was Adamanta could hardly fault them their opinions.

 

Those who did not blame Gerontius for Bilbo’s oddness held Gandalf responsible. Gerontius may have felt the call for adventure and heard the earth warn of the gathering resentment among Dwarves and Men in the south, but Gandalf was the one who thought it was a grand idea to take a Hobbit along to defeat a dragon. Gandalf, officially labeled a Disturber of the Peace after interrupting the memorial ceremony, felt the blame unjust. How was he to know that Arradeth the White, fell dragon of the South, had been one of those handful of dragons who had turned from Mogorth’s power and gone into exile?  Or  all that was needed to woo her was a rather dashing Took who wasn’t afraid to talk to her, the suggestion of a cozy smial, and the offer of as many pocket handkerchiefs as she could desire? So drawing upon her own magic and borrowing a bit of Gandalf's Arradeth took on her new Hobbitish form and name. After packing one chest with her most precious of treasures they headed off to the Shire, Gandalf believing the best outcome had happened with the firmest of convictions.

Despite what problems one might suppose would occur with having a dragon wife, Adamanta took to hobbit life quite well. Though much was helped along by her adopted Chubb family who insisted on teaching her the basics of respectability and cooking, something she took to quite well for a creature accustomed to eating her meat raw. Gerontius soon took over as Thain and his family grew vastly. Child after child was born: Isengrim, Hilidigard, Isumbras, Mirabella, Hildigrim, Isembold, Hildifons, Isembard, Hildebrand, Belladonna, Donnamira, and Isengar. With twelve children throughout their many years, Adamanta never had a moment to grow bored. Though sometimes, when her hobbit skin felt too confining, she would travel into the Old Forest for a week or two. But as she always returned no one mentioned it after the first few times. And if wild game became a little scarcer and the dark creatures that dwelled within the woods fell silent, no Bucklander or Bounder complained.

For an instant the couple had pondered if they should keep Adamanta’s true heritage a secret, but since the Shire had an entire history of keeping secrets they thought one more could hardly do any harm. Besides the Chubbs already knew. After all the undue fainting had ended the Shire grudgingly accepted their resident dragon. All that really changed was that on market days merchants argued with Adamanta less (she tended to have a bit of smoke trail out her mouth when she was extremely frustrated). It would have done no good to keep it secret anyway since it seemed Adamanta hardly aged having children well past the time any normal hobbit lass would have had to end. Alongside her Gerontius too seemed to maintain his youth far longer than expected. It wasn’t until his eighty-fifth year that their final child was born, nearly fifty years since their first son. When asked for the secret of his spryness, he’d only reply it was all due to his wife with a wink.

Of course their lives were not without complications. While Adamanta was able to shift between her hobbit and dragon forms when needed, it seemed her children could not do the same. In fact none seemed to harbor a dragon form at all. The most any seemed able to do was have a few scatterings of scale covered patches splatter their skin when they concentrated. Though her heart grieved that none of her hatchlings should learn to love sky and flame as she did, Adamanta was able to console herself. After all, Hobbits were creatures of water and earth and she could be content that her babes would never have to fear how dragons end. However, what the Thain couple should have been worrying about was the affects a fierce dragon spirit would have on hobbit children.

While their first five children came in quick succession, their following seven took a bit more time between each babe. So it came as no surprise that by the time Belladonna Took was born, her eldest brother had already reached majority. Now Tooks are used to wild children but Belladonna could put almost all of them to shame. Even her elder sister Mirabella, who ended up going off with Gandalf after having her first two fauntlings, was not considered half as adventuresome. 

Belladonna could not stay still and she needed no calling to try and wander off adventuring. If she wasn’t trying to follow her mother into the Old Forest or harassing the Bounders to make her part of the Watch, one could surely find her up a tree attempting to figure out the logistics of flight. At the age of twenty-two, she made it all the way to Bree on her own and had to be escorted back by two polite rangers who stayed for dinner. She caused her parents to worry so often that Gerontius soon became white-haired though his face remained middle-aged. Adamanta fretted most, for while her middle daughter's appearance was entirely Hobbitish, she was a stubborn as a dragon. Belladonna’s determination was such that, when Gandalf came about looking for an adventurer six years before her majority, she arranged that she would be the one accompanying him. With all the manipulation of the best hobbit councilor, Belladonna encouraged her mother’s latest trip to the forest, persuaded the Master of Buckland to have his meeting with the Thain at Brandybuck Hall, and snuck out from under her elder brothers’ noses. After a few minutes spent misrepresenting her age, Belladonna was running out of the Shire and out into the world.

Of course, on the return from their journey, Gandalf once again unfairly received the label Disturber of the Peace, this time personally from Gerontius. But once she had a taste of the world, Belladonna would not be stopped. She became a constant companion and friend to Gandalf throughout the years, eager to follow him into great wide Arda. She even managed to have a second adventure before her thirty-third birthday, much to Shire disapproval.

Yet Belladonna was someone who could not be predicted. For during one of her pauses between following Gandalf and journeying off on her own, she somehow managed to win the heart of a Mister Bungo Baggins. While all Hobbiton agreed that the union between the two families would be a very fine thing, the match was rather unexpected. Bungo Baggins, like all Baggins, was entirely respectable. He felt no adventuresome spirit and whilst he would answer the earth’s call if it came, Baggins hardly ever heard the calling. Not only that but he was almost twenty years her elder and most had expected him to slowly decline into bachelorhood. Besides by marrying a Baggins one risked getting the dour side of their knack, which was as strong as that of the Tooks. Where Tooks conquered, Baggins were fortunate, experiencing baffling amounts of good luck and wealth. While they doesn’t seem unpleasant such fortune had to originate from somewhere, so every generation or so one poor Baggins lad or lass ended up being Unfortunate. And as, everyone knew, Unfortunates’ drew all the bad luck and misfortunate of their Baggins brethren to them like bees to flowers. Unless the most recent Unfortunate had already been born, a Baggins couple hazarded the possibility of their child being the next.

But Belladonna cared nothing for risks or how odd others found the pairing. She had made up her mind and in short order exchanged a proposal bouquet with a blushing Bungo. They were wed on a fine midsummer day shortly after Bungo had completed the construction of his wedding-gift, a worthy smial called Bag-End. Hobbiton was put to uproar once again when Belladonna managed to drag Bungo off with her for an adventure to Rivendell in place of their honeymoon. Their return several months later came with the surprise of a much more carefree Bungo, a very pregnant Belladonna, and a visiting Gandalf.

Now an Unfortunate had not been born in the Baggins family for some time, but there was always one guaranteed way in which tell if a babe would be one: the babe’s mother whilst pregnant would have unfathomable luck. So it was no surprise after months of always getting the best prices at market, suffering no morning sickness, and having none of her baking burn (Belladonna was appalling at cooking) that Bilbo Baggins ended up being born Unfortunate. And while the Baggins family felt no ill will towards Unfortunates, some other Shire denizens viewed such children as inauspicious persons not to be associated with. Unwilling to have her son be a victim of dogmatic Hobbit ideology, Belladonna along with her Took relatives strived to make Bilbo feel extraordinary rather than unlucky. It certainly helped when she named a quite shocked Gandalf godfather to the babe.

So, while Bilbo grew up rather unpopular with some of the Shire's residents, his family remained steadfast in their defense of him. His cousin Fortinbras, twenty-three years his elder, was one of his fiercest champions. Besides the Took line had enough children his age Bilbo need not feel lonely. Often he could be found bedraggled and muddy playing with his cousin Adagrim’s children, Paladin and Esmeralda. One could find him climbing trees with Aunt Mirabella’s daughters Primula and Asphodel, who usually convinced their nephew Saradoc to come along. Or on clear days he was found in the company of Drogo Baggins, hunting the woods for elves. So Bilbo’s youngest years passed and despite being an Unfortunate, he seemed a usual hobbit.

 

The final blame for the peculiarity of Bilbo Baggins was oddly enough laid at the feet of Lobelia Bracegirdle. If she had not fallen out of a tree at the age of twelve, perhaps no one would have ever realized how unusual Bilbo truly was.

It occurred on a pleasant day in June. Bilbo, at the age of seven, was heading back from another successful raid on Mistress Cotton’s windowsill pies. Besides him, his cousins Primula and Drogo wiped bits of raspberry from mouths as Bilbo attempted to scrub some of the mud off his trousers. Just his luck that while acting as the distraction he fell into the Cotton’s pig-pen.  Ahead the Shire bustled with its usual noise and it wasn’t until they were walking past Erling Diggle’s famed apple tree that a commotion caught their attention. One unpleasant dog had treed a fauntling around their age and it took them a moment to recognize the lass as Lobelia Bracegirdle, dressed in her market best.

While Primula and Drogo argued it was best to leave the unpleasant girl up the tree, Bilbo felt an unsettling nudge of pity in his stomach. While the Bracegirdles were one of the families who would have naught to do with him, Bilbo and Lobelia had recently come to a rather reluctant truce. Just the other day, the odious Milos Burrow had been heckling Bilbo and when the Unfortunate had not responded, he turned his taunting on the strolling by Lobelia. Calling her a “blockheaded Bracegirdle from Hardbottle”, Milos had prepared to throw a lob of mud at her, when Bilbo neatly tripped him. Not one to give thanks aloud, Lobelia had taken to keeping her sharp tongue to herself. Now with her up a tree Bilbo felt he owed her some assistance.

The choice was abruptly taken from his hands when Lobelia’s foot slipped and she fell. A strange warmth filled Bilbo and without a thought he was over the Diggle’s fence and beneath the tree, moving swifter than he thought possible. The dog, a rather mad creature, snapped at him when Bilbo leapt upwards and grabbed the startled Lobelia. He shuddered at the threat. Heat suffused his body and within seconds, Bilbo had the hobbit lass firmly behind him as he snarled at the mad dog. Screams rose somewhere in the distance but Bilbo’s gaze never wavered from the cowed animal. It was not until sometime later that his mother’s voice broke through the haze of his mind.

“Bilbo?” His eyes shifted to her but the distance seemed wrong. Was his mother always that tall? Her breathing was so loud. And why were the other Hobbits cowering behind her.

“Bilbo.” Belladonna Baggins knelt down by her confused son, her eyes shimmering with worry. “Do you know me?” Of course he knew his Mama; he tried to answer but only an odd hissing gurgle passed his lips. Panic spread through him. Why could he not speak?

“You need to move so Lobelia can get out,” his mother’s voice soothed. Bilbo’s head snapped back to check over the Bracegirdle girl, when his eyes caught sight of something he could not believe. Lobelia seemed frozen in shock as well as both stared at the pale wings that protruded from Bilbo’s back. Or at least he assumed it was his back, though it appeared green-scaled and serpentine. His eyes drifted down towards his hands where instead he found sharp claws. What was wrong with him? A distressed whine escaped his throat as Bilbo twined his small dragon body into a ball and buried his head beneath a wing. He could feel his mother’s hand pressed firmly against his snout as she shouted for someone to send to Bag End where Adamanta was visiting.

Slowly, the noises he had ignored earlier became recognizable words as he lay there waiting. Something he soon came to regret.

“Lobelia,” Mistress Bracegirdle’s shrill voice rose hysterically as she spoke to her daughter. “Get away from that monster.”

Bilbo could not help his flinch and felt his mother stiffen.

“Now see here, Primrose,” Belladonna began.

Bilbo curled further into himself, only to be startled a moment later, when a small body flounced down next to his own. Peeling back his wing, he was surprised to find Lobelia pressed firmly against his side. She waved her bent umbrella threateningly at any Hobbit that approached, her other hand coming to rest on Bilbo’s neck. “Your grandmother’s coming and she’ll know how to fix it,” she told him confidently. Her eyes narrowed as she eyed the gathering crowd, falling lastly on her mother. “Bilbo’s my dragon,” she stated primly shushing the onlookers. “So you should be about your business, as this doesn’t concern you.”

The announcement was enough to keep the crowd in stunned silence until Adamanta Took came rushing in to take care of Bilbo, eventually calming him back into his hobbit form.

So it came to be by Bilbo’s seventh year he gained not only a dragon form but the everlasting friendship of Lobelia Bracegirdle, whom Drogo and Primula still found highly annoying.

After his first transformation, Bilbo spent much of his time with his grandmother, who took him on walks through the Old Forest and taught him all she could of dragon lore. While already proficient in Westron, Green Tongue, and the earth’s language, Bilbo’s studies fell to learning all the tongues Adamanta could teach him. Bilbo perhaps due to some inheritance of his dragon ancestry took to language like a duck to water. Determinedly Adamanta educated him on the tongue of dragons, Black Speech, those languages she knew of Men, and Khuzdul. Meanwhile Belladonna taught him her knowledge of the Elven tongues.  Bilbo’s dragon lessons often overlapped with his Hobbit ones in certain areas, such as in knowledge of plants, beasts, and healing. But what Adamanta trained him most on was shifting to and from dragon shape. While he was still little she would bring him to the Dingle, the clearing at the center of the Old Forest, and show him how to stretch his wings for flight, learning to hover and glide on the morning thermals. In her great dragon form she would snatch him whenever his wings faltered, unable to fly too high least they rise above the concealing protection of the trees. Eventually, in his fourteenth year, she also gave him the knowledge of those things a dragon should fear.

In that year Bilbo accompanied his grandmother an entire day’s walk into the Old Forest. There Adamanta transformed into her towering self, a shining white dragoness that stretched across the forest floor, her pearlescent wings kept firmly furled against her back. Bilbo shifted into his smaller green form and tucked himself against her side.

Adamanta nuzzled him gently and in the silence of the old trees and beneath the gleaming stars she gave her warning.

“They are several ways a dragon can die, Bilbo. Hatchlings are easiest to kill because their scales have not yet hardened. With enough strength one can easily smash an egg or harm a dragonet.” Her eyes darkened with the words and Bilbo’s heart stuttered at the anger in his grandmother’s voice. “When they’re older though, dragons are much harder to kill. There are three things that you have to fear as a Fire Drake. The first is a dragon’s soft place for every dragon has one. Once found it takes only a brave enough warrior and a strong enough weapon to take a dragon’s life. For Fire Drakes the second most feared death is that of cold.” She cradled him closer as if to warm them both. “If we become cold enough our inner flames will die. It is why we fear ice and water so. Finally, the third and easiest way to die is something a dragon can do only of their own volition and that is to give away our Heart.”

Bilbo pondered her words thoughtfully. “But didn’t you give grandfather your Heart?”

Adamanta returned his question with a smile. “Your grandfather’s has half my Heart; it is what shares my lifespan with his, for dragon Hearts heal and can even delay old age. A dragon can live on less than half a Heart, Bilbo. But whoever you grant it to holds your life in their hands. To choose the wrong person is a terrible thing. It is why most never give their Hearts away."

Bilbo snorted and shifted closer, yawning. “That’s not very brave of them.”

Adamanta chuckled at the sleepy dragonet. “Dragon hearts are not brave things, Bilbo. They are fierce and bold, but not brave. It takes fear and wisdom to defeat that fear to be brave.”

Bilbo’s eyes closed, heavy with sleep. “Mine will be,” he mumbled. “It’ll be the bravest.”

The following year, when the Fell Winter smothered the Shire in fear and despair, Bilbo did prove to be far braver than anyone had thought. In a fit of desperation, he risked the cold and wandered alone into the Hobbiton marketplace. There his Unfortunate presence drew the attention of many Wolves and Orcs. With only his mother’s boar spear as a weapon, Bilbo faced certain death, secure in the knowledge that at least he would no longer keep drawing the creatures to Bag-End. It was in this moment that the final oddness of Bilbo Baggins was revealed. Deep within himself, Bilbo’s Tookish knack of conquering merged with his Baggins’ Unfortunateness. Instead of drawing misfortunate to himself, he found he could redirect misfortune from one being to another. Thus, when a group of Rangers stumbled upon the Hobbiton market place hours later, they were shocked to find a pile of carcasses and one near-frozen fauntling. While one of their numbers headed off to find shelter from the chilled child, the others studied the corpses. The best of their trackers observed how most of the dead seemed to have been accidentally killed by one another, the snow around their feet particularly slippery, and only one large wolf had been impaled by the boar spear.

Bilbo Baggins though had more important things to be worried over for he had grown too cold. The ranger brought the lad to the shelter where many hobbits, including Belladonna and Adamanta where assisting those who had to abandon their smials due to Orc raids. Bilbo was placed before his grandmother who rested her hand gently above his breast. Within she could feel the final fluttering of his flame. Closing her eyes and pressing a kiss to her weeping daughter’s head, she made her final decision. Reaching into her chest Adamanta Took tore free the last of her dragon’s Heart and placed it within her grandchild’s breast.

So it came to pass that Arradeth the White died; her last sight was her grandson’s eyes fixed on her face.

In the following month, the Fell Winter ended and Adamanta Took was buried beneath her favorite tree. At her funeral, Bilbo who had not spoken since his grandmother’s death, knelt by the fresh grave and made two silent promises. Never again would he strive for a brave heart, a bold heart for the price was too high. Never would he give away his own Heart if it meant this much pain.

Bilbo held true to his promises for the next twenty-five years. He stood back and watched his age mates court and marry, while he contented himself with the duties he laid upon himself. He was satisfied he told himself. And if somewhere hidden in his heart he knew it was a lie, Bilbo pretended otherwise. If not for the return of Gandalf within his fortieth year, he may have continued do so.

Chapter Text

Though the bench sat nearby Bilbo preferred to lie in the grass, eyes closed and smoke drifting. The April morn was too nice to spend sitting about stiffly or working on the latest accounts, he thought. Idly he relaxed against the hillside of Bag-End, half-listening to the mutterings of the earth. It was in this state that a certain wizard found him.

Bilbo’s eyes remained closed as Gandalf’s long shadow fell over him, though his lip quirked a bit. “Good morning,” he said brightly. The words were followed by a perfect smoke ring.

“What do you mean?” The thump of his staff against the cobbles was sharp in the morning air. “Do you mean to wish me a good morning, or do you mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not? Or, perhaps you mean to say that you feel good on this particular morning. Or are you simply stating that this is a morning to be good on?”

A wide grin broke across Bilbo’s face and he opened his eyes to beam at the disgruntled visitor. “All of them at once, I suppose, godfather,” he said rising from his seat in the grass. “Though you should probably pay careful attention to the last.”

Gandalf disapprovingly squinted at the impertinent hobbit.  “Well, I’m pleased to find you remember something about me, even if it’s only how to annoy me.”

Bilbo rolled his eyes and launched himself at his godfather. “It’s wonderful to see you, Gandalf.” The wizard was quite helpless not to return the other’s smile or hug.

“It has been quite some time, my dear boy.”

“You’ve not be by since my coming of age.” Bilbo released Gandalf and stepped back to peer up the wizard. “I’ll not forget how you tried to do a jig and trod on Salvia Hornblower’s foot. I don’t think Salvia will ever forget either.”

Gandalf gave a fond smirk. “The Gaffer’s home brew was particularly fine that night.”

Bilbo chuckled before shaking his head. “Where are my manners? Come inside, I’m sure your hungry.” Bilbo turned towards the steps before pausing. “Unless you’ve business to take care of? In that case, you must stop by for tea tomorrow.” Bilbo gazed up expectantly.

Gandalf avoided the hobbit’s eyes, his fingers twisted almost nervously over his staff. “Your parents are off visiting Tuckborough are they not?”

Bilbo paused at Gandalf’s change of subject. While it was true that the elder Bagginses usually visited the Great Smial this time of year, Belladonna’s old hip injury had flared up and they had decided to remain at home. By now the two had probably just finished second breakfast, but Bilbo felt it might be best not to mention it. Gandalf was obviously up to something. The hobbit gave a small shrug. “It is that time of year,” his reply noncommittal. “Was there something you needed them for? Or can I help you?”

“That remains to be seen,” Gandalf muttered and then cleared his throat. “I’m,” he stated in a much firmer voice, “looking for someone to share in an adventure.”

“An adventure?” While that was hardly surprising news, Bilbo thought. “Do you need recommendations? Because cousin Dodinas has been complaining to Prim again that nothing ever happens to him. And just last week Jolly Bolger said he was planning to take a journey. I’m sure there were a few more.” Bilbo tapped his chin thoughtfully and looked back up at Gandalf. His hand stilled at the very pointed look he got in return.

“Oh no,” Bilbo breathed and shook his head. “No, no, no. Not this hobbit. Thank you very much for the offer but I’m indisposed. Too much to do really.” Flustered, he shook the ashes from his pipe. “Besides adventures mess up your time schedules. Make you let for dinner and other things.” Bilbo fought to restrain his babbling, a habit he had when he was uncomfortable. He took a deep breath. “It’s very kind of you to think of me. If you have the time tomorrow please stop by for tea. Good morning.” The last was spoken all at once as Bilbo scurried for the steps.

Gandalf harrumphed. “To think that I should have lived to be good-morninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I were selling buttons at the door.”

Bilbo’s hand rested on the door knob as he bristled. “I beg your pardon?” His behavior had been nowhere near that ungenerous thank you very much. If he had heard even the slightest hint of a calling he would have felt obligated to go. But Bilbo hadn’t and he wasn’t going to let someone bully him into doing what he didn’t want. Wizard or not.

Gandalf leant further on his staff, gaze focused on his godson. “You’ve changed, and not entirely for the better, Bilbo Baggins.” At Bilbo’s flinch Gandalf nodded his head. “Well that’s decided. It will be very good for you, and most amusing for me. I shall inform the others.”

“Inform the who? What? No. No. No! Wait. We do not want any adventures here, thank you.” Bilbo’s hand shook as he hurried to pry open the door. “Not today, no. I suggest you try over the Hill or across the Water. Good morning.” With that Bilbo scampered into the house and locked the door.

He had just slumped against the round frame when his mother’s voice echoed from the kitchen. “Bilbo is that you? What’s all that noise about?” Belladonna Took appeared, wiping her hands on a dish-cloth. Bilbo was still trying to form an answer when a scratching came from behind him.

Belladonna peered past her son. “Whatever is that?” Before he could stop her, Belladonna opened the door to find a rather guilty looking wizard staring back staff still raised. “Gandalf,” she said in surprise before smiling. “My dear, Gandalf.”

“Belladonna,” Gandalf’s voice was faint. He slowly lowered his staff.  “I thought you were in Tuckborough.”

Belladonna rolled her eyes. “I meant to be but the old hip. Well you know. Bungo,” she called further into the smial. “Bungo, come out here. It’s Gandalf.”

A third hobbit popped his head into the foyer. While Belladonna hardly looked past middle-age except her graying hair, this hobbit looked closer to his ninety years. Still spry despite his age and the whiteness of his hair, Bungo shuffled forward. “Hello, Gandalf. Come on, come in,” he gestured welcomingly and Gandalf found himself pulled forward by Belladonna.

It was only when Belladonna moved to close the door that she noted how Bilbo seemed to cringe back from the wizard. A certain suspicion entered her mind. As Bungo led their guest further into the smial with Bilbo trailing behind, the Took female stealthy slipped outside.

Meanwhile, Bilbo had been left alone in the kitchen with Gandalf. The atmosphere grew more and more uncomfortable as Bungo babbled from inside the pantry (nervous babbling seemed a familial trait). “You caught me a bit unprepared, I'm afraid. We've only got cold chicken and a bit of pickle… Oh, there's some cheese here — oh no, that won't do. Err, we got raspberry jam and an apple tart… Not much for afters, I'm afraid. Oh, no — we're all right! I've found some sponge-cake. I could make you some eggs if you like — Gandalf?"

“Just tea, thank you,” the wizard replied. The two remained sitting quietly until the elderly hobbit could rejoin them.

“Well aren’t you a fine pair. I’d think you’d be a bit more excited to see each other.” Bungo carefully poured tea for both Bilbo and Gandalf, before starting on cups for himself and Belladonna. “Whatever brings you by, Gandalf?”

Gandalf opened his mouth, but Bilbo never did get to hear whatever reply he had planned. Before a word could be said, Belladonna walked into the kitchen, a cross expression on his face. Bilbo gulped. The last time he’d seen that look was when Primrose Bracegirdle and Camellia Sackville-Baggins had contested Bilbo’s place as Lobelia’s and Otho’s groomsman. Bungo sighed and gave Bilbo an anxious frown.

“Yes, Gandalf, do tell us what brings you by. And while you’re at it explain why there is a dwarven rune carved into my freshly painted door.” Belladonna crossed her arms and glared at the wizard.

The following conversation was not at all comfortable for any of those involved. Gandalf especially seemed pained as his attention switched between Belladonna’s ire, Bungo’s disapproval, and Bilbo’s look of panic.

“So what I am to understand,” Belladonna said as Bungo poured her another cup of tea, “is that you felt Bilbo was your best choice for this adventure.” She lifted her cup. “An adventure where he is suppose to accompany a troop of dwarves…”

“They prefer dwarrows, Mum,” Bilbo interrupted as he fiddled with his seed-cake, his appetite having disappeared.

“A troop of dwarrows,” Belladonna continued smoothly, “on a journey you’d rather wait to discuss until after said dwarrows arrive to conduct business.” She blew gently on the hot tea while peering up at Gandalf between her lashes.

Gandalf cleared his throat. “Well they do mean to employ Bilbo, so the specifics should wait to be discussed until they are present.”

Bungo shook his head as he cut another slice of cheese. “Hobbits do not go adventuring with groups. It is not done.” The hobbits in the room exchanged a look. It was hard enough to keep secret the reasons why hobbits adventured without a band of Outsiders poking about.

Belladonna took a sip of tea. “And when will they be expected to arrive?”

Gandalf shrunk a little in his seat, an impressive thing to do since his chair was already too small for him. “Tonight.”

The cheese knife falling to the table sounded quite loud in the resulting hush.  “I’m sorry, I must have misheard.” It took all of Belladonna’s restraint to set her tea down softly. “But I could have sworn you said tonight.”

“Now, Belladonna…”

The hobbit woman continued as if the wizard had not spoken. “Because if I had not misheard. I would feel very upset that my dear friend had not warned me further in advance that I was suppose to host a band of dwarrows.”

“It’s only thirteen,” Gandalf mumbled into his beard.

“Or that said friend,” she continued, “did not have the decency to at least inform his godson’s parents first when proposing he go on an adventure.”

“I thought you were…”

“In Tuckborough. You’ve mentioned. I think you had rather planned on that. Though that is not what a friend would do. A friend would not arrange to arrive when they thought a certain hobbit was alone in order to coerce and manipulate him into joining an adventure. A friend would not invite guests to another’s home without informing said home’s owner. A friend would not pretend such behavior is acceptable. Certainly no friend of mine would do such a thing.”

Gandalf’s gaze remained fixed on the ground as Belladonna stood and gestured to Bilbo. “Bilbo, would you be good enough to run down to the market. We’ll need more provisions if we’re to host thirteen dwarves.” She swept out of the room and returned a moment latter with Bilbo’s blue jacket and a basket over one arm. She slipped them both into Bilbo’s hands and pushed him towards the door. “Best ask the Gamgee faunts for help. I’d think Bell could do with a reprieve as well.” She followed him to the smial’s doorway.

“Mum,” Bilbo started but Belladonna pressed a hand to his cheek.

“Run along, love. We don’t have the time to waste if we’re to be prepared for tonight.” She turned her head and glared at the inside of Bag-End. “Besides, I’ve some words to share with a wizard that no son should have to hear his mother say.”

Bilbo nodded and, once the door was closed, fled down the path. He wanted to be as far away as possible when his mother lost her temper.

 

*  * *

 

Gandalf was nowhere to be found when Bilbo returned. Not that he had time to worry about it. Bag-End was quickly bustling with preparations. Bungo had taken up residence in the kitchen, rushing about chopping, sautéing, roasting, cooking, baking, and stewing as many foods as possible. Belladonna (having been banned from cooking since shortly after Bilbo’s birth when she almost burned down the smial) took to airing guests’ rooms and organizing bedding. Bilbo ran back and forth between, kitchen, parlor, and garden helping with whatever he could. Night fell fast and it was as the last details were being finished and the final pies and cakes were baking in the oven that a knock was heard at the door.

Belladonna, who was arranging the chairs to fit more comfortably around the table, sent Bilbo to answer the door. Heart beating frantically, he opened it to face a tall, bald-headed dwarf.

“Dwalin, at your service.” The dwarf bowed.

Bilbo, realizing he was gawking, flushed and returned the bow with one of his own. “Bilbo Baggins, at yours. Excuse my manners. Please come in.”

Dwalin’s brow rose at the politeness of the hobbit and he stepped into the rather welcoming home.  He looked around impressed in spite of himself. The hole was much more comfy that he had expected. A polite cough drew his attention and he found the hobbit watching him with a hand held out. The lad looked even younger in the foyer’s lighting. “May I take your cloak,” the creature inquired.

Dwalin quickly undid the clasp and dropped the garment onto Bilbo.  “Which way, laddie? Is it down here?”

“I – is what down where?” Bilbo asked as he struggled out from underneath the cloak and placed it on the hook besides the door.

Dwalin began to head off into the hall, tracking mud. “Supper. He said there’d be food, and lot’s of it.”

“Well, there is but…could I just,” Bilbo said reaching out to stop the dwarf. 

Dwalin’s gaze flickered down to where the hobbit’s hand rested on his shoulder back up to Bilbo’s face. One brow rose. “That’s a bit forward, laddie. We’ve only just met.”

Bilbo blushed. Thankfully he was spared further embarrassment by the arrival of his mother.

“Bilbo, is this one of our guests?” Her eyes took in the mud trailed on the floor and the axes still affixed to the dwarf’s back, before bringing forth her most welcoming smile.

Bilbo rushed to perform introductions. “Mum, this is Mister Dwalin. Mister Dwalin might I introduce my mother, Belladonna Baggins née Took." 

“At your service, ma’am.” Dwalin gave another bow.

“And I’m at yours,” she replied her eyes twinkling merrily. “Come in, dear, you look as if you’ve had nothing to eat for a week. If you’ll kindly set your weapons and boots by the door, I’ll be happy to show you to dinner.”

Dwalin fell instantly for Belladonna’s charm. “Aye, of course.” His eyes fell to his muddy boots and the tracks he’d trailed across the wooden floor. The dwarf’s cheeks darkened at the mess he’d made of the sweet hobbit lady’s home. “Might I borrow a rag for the mud?”

A few moments later and floor once again clean, Dwalin found himself tucked cozily before a table bulging with food. He happily munched as Bilbo’s father, introduced as Bungo Baggins, continued to chat away quite happily at him. Belladonna ducked back in from the kitchen with a plate of scones she set before the salivating dwarf. “Here you are dear. I thought you might like these. You looked like you’d have a sweet tooth.” She gave a jaunty wink before sweeping back out of the room. Flushed, Dwalin turned his attention back to Bungo, who was still giving an account on what he had read about tattooing in regards to the Men of the South. It was a fascinating dialogue and Dwalin could not help but feel a warm regard for the elderly hobbits. Even their son, the Company’s soon-to-be fourteenth member, earned some of his favor with how conscientious he was in assisting his parents.

“Oh dear,” Bungo interrupted himself and made to rise. “I completely forgot to bring up the ale from the cellar.”

Bilbo straightened from where he leant against the wall, his hand pressing his father back into his chair. “I’ll get it, Da.”

Bungo shook his head. “Those barrels need at least two people.”

Dwalin wiped his fingers on the napkin Belladonna had given him and he stood. “I’ll help the laddie.”

“Oh we couldn’t have a guest….” “There’s really no need….” The two tried to protest but Dwalin insisted which was how Bilbo ended up in Bag-End’s cellar pushing barrels of ale with a dwarf.

“How many do you think will be needed, Mister Dwalin,” Bilbo said as her rolled his third barrel to the tall dwarf.

“Two more should do it, if you have them to spare.” Dwalin grunted as he loaded the newest barrel into the kitchen.

“Of course we do,” Bilbo replied fetching the next barrel. When they’d finished he browsed the bottles of wine at the end of the cellar. “Would any of your companions care for wine, Mister Dwalin,” he called back over his shoulder.

He jumped when the dwarf’s voice came from right behind him. “Call me Dwalin. Don’t care for that Mister fuss.” The dwarf looked closer at the wine bottles. “Dori and Gandalf might like the wine. Rest of us are fine with ale.”

Bilbo nodded and reached up for a bottle. “Thank you, Dwalin, and please call me Bilbo.” His hand rested on one bottle of wine before he pulled a different one down.

Dwalin followed him up and out of the cellar.“Why that one and not the other, laddie?”

Bilbo glanced back and flushed, before looking resolutely ahead. “The other is Gandalf’s favorite and, though it’s a petty type of revenge, he won’t like this one as much.

“And what’s the wizard done to you?”

Bilbo bit his lip. “May I ask you a question first, Dwalin?” The dwarf nodded. “When did Gandalf first mention me to you?”

The dwarf hummed, thinking. “He didn’t say much, but about a month back he told us we’d be meeting our last companion in the Shire.”

Bilbo’s shoulders slumped. “A whole month,” he whispered.

While not considered the brightest of dwarves, Dwalin knew when to rely on his gut and his gut had an awful foreboding. “How long have you been expecting us, laddie?”

“Since around ten or so this morning,” Bilbo murmured as he guided Dwalin back into the kitchen.

The arrival of Balin, prevented any further conversation. But even as he was cracking his forehead against his brother’s, Dwalin swore that when next he saw the wizard they would be exchanging words. He made a note to warn Thorin as well, hopefully before the king put his foot in his mouth.

For his part Balin was inclined to believe that hobbits were miracle-workers. Not only was his brother making polite conversation with the elderly two, he seemed on first name bases with their future burglar…and was that a napkin he was using. Balin blinked owlishly. If only an hour or two with these hobbits could install such manners then by Mahal’s beard, Hobbits must be extraordinary creatures.

The next knock at the door brought with it two rather young dwarves with roguish grins.

“Fili.”

“And Kili.”

“At your service.”

“You must be Mr. Boggins.”

Bilbo, who’d accompanied Belladonna the door, gave a little laugh. “Yes. Only we like to pronounce it Baggins.”

The dwarf lads’ smiles broadened with mischief. With all the keen senses of a Took female accustomed to troublesome faunts, Belladonna swooped in before more muddy boots entered her house. “Boots off at the door and weapons go in the corner. My, you two are young. And look how thin you are.” Mothering hands stripped cloaks and handled them to Bilbo, who hung them up. “We’ll soon fix that. There’s more than enough to go around. Now could I tempt either of you boys with a fruit tart?” Belladonna hastily herded her young charges ahead. Bilbo snickered at the look of awe that crossed their faces upon seeing the dining-room table.

“Fili, hit me. I think I’m dreaming,” Kili said.

Fili obliged by cuffing Kili’s head, which earned them the sharp-eyed disapproval of Belladonna. “No roughhousing inside. That’s what the garden is for.” She gestured for her husband, who abandoned his conversation with Dwalin and Balin to greet their newest guest. “Bungo, love, these fine lads are Fili and Kili. Boys may I introduce my husband Bungo Baggins. I’m Belladonna and you met Bilbo at the door.” Bilbo gave a polite nod from the hallway.

The next knock heralded the return of Gandalf and a pile of seven more dwarves. All three hobbits found themselves scrabbling to assist their guests with words of concern. “Are you alright?” “Terrible tumble.” “Oh no don’t worry about the mess.” “Just leave your boots at the door. Weapons in the corner. Bilbo, my boy, could you take their cloaks.”

Thus the Bagginses watched with something close to amused horror as twelve dwarves and a wizard settled around the dining table. One stern look from Belladonna was all it took to prevent walking on the furniture and subdue the throwing of food. Meanwhile, Bungo was having a merry time of starting as many conversations with as many dwarves as possible. That left Bilbo to make introductions and inquiries about which dwarves, if any, were willing to share guests’ rooms. It soon proved that the fussy fellow Dori was the best source of information for his purposes.

“Most of us will be quite willing to share, Mister Baggins. Almost all of us are in family units you see. Mister Balin and Mister Dwalin will have no trouble. You should have Mister Gloin and Mister Oin share; they’re the only ones who can stand each other’s snoring. Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur are all related as well, the latter being brothers and the former their cousin. It might be best to at least settle one of them with Bifur, he tends to have bad nights. The young lads are too rambunctious to share with anyone else. And of course,” Dori finished polishing off his fifth glass of wine, “my sisters Nori and Ori will be staying with me.”

Bilbo nodded and noted which dwarves apparently were female and which were not. It did not seem too difficult. The females seemed to have thinner beards and softer faces, though whatever feminine curves they had were hidden beneath layers of clothing. “Wasn’t there suppose to be thirteen of you?”

Dwalin was the one who replied from where he leant against the wall. “Our leader. He is late, is all. He travelled North to a meeting of our kin. He will come.”

Ori peered out of the dining room holding her plate. “Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt, but what should I do with my plate?”

“Here you go, Ori, give it to me,” Fili said with a wink, taking the plate and throwing it to Kili. Soon all the other dwarves were throwing crockery and cutlery.

Bungo ignored the goings on and continued his conversation about land laws with Balin (no one were quite sure how the topic had come up). Belladonna, who had seen worse game of skills between Bilbo and his friends, distracted herself with sneaking scones to Dwalin and trying to get Bombur to talk with her. It was left up to Bilbo to try and control the situation.

“Excuse me, that’s my mother’s West Farthing crockery.” He ducked a flying bowl. “And while the design’s not very fetching we’re giving it back to the Sackville-Baggins next birthday so don’t chip it.” Upon noticing the commotion in the dining room Bilbo attempted to halt further property damage. “And can,” he barely avoided a spoon, “can you not do that? You’ll blunt them!”

“Ooh, did you hear that, lads? He says we’ll blunt the knives,” Bofur mocked. The comment led into a rousing song started by Kili.

 

Blunt the knives, bend the forks

Smash the bottles and burn the corks

Chip the glasses and crack the plates

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!

Cut the cloth and tread on the fat

Leave the bones on the bedroom mat

Pour the milk on the pantry floor

Splash the wine on every door

Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl

Pound them up with a thumping pole

When you’ve finished, if any are whole

Send them down the hall to roll

...

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!

 

A stack of clean dishes sat in the kitchen well timed with the song’s completion. The last note had just faded with rousing applause from Belladonna, Bungo’s laughter, and even a slight smile from Bilbo, when a knock sounded at the door.

The Company fell silent. Gandalf broke the hush in his usual dramatic wizard fashion. “He is here.”

The dwarves headed towards the door, the Bagginses and Gandalf at the fore of the group. No one remarked on the silence of their hosts or noticed how the three hobbits’ ears had all began to twitch as the distant voice of the earth began to sound a warning.

Chapter Text

Thorin son of Thrain, son of Thror would-be King under the Mountain was already in a foul mood when his fist rapped on the bright green hobbit door. The council of Ered Luin had denied him and now Thorin was left to tell his faithful followers that no further help was coming. What hope they might have would therefore hinge entirely on Gandalf's plan and whatever fool he had gotten to agree to their quest. Occupied by such thoughts, the charm of the Shire was lost on the seething dwarf lord.

When the door opened Thorin had been prepared to find the hobbit hole distasteful. What he had not expected was to be greeted by not one but three hobbits, two of whom seemed too old and the last too young. His gaze fell on the youngest, the most likely to be Gandalf’s burglar candidate. He noted the creature’s dainty features and the unwell look on his face before dismissing him. Useless. His gaze swept past the hobbits to the wizard. “Gandalf. I thought you said this place would be easy to find. I lost my way, twice. Wouldn’t have found it at all had it not been for that mark on the door.” Thorin returned the Company’s bows with a nod of greeting.

At the mention of the mark, Belladonna scowled at Gandalf. Bungo patted her hand soothingly and gave Thorin a small nod. “Shire paths can be a bit confounding if you’re not from around here. Once in a while strangers get turned around,” he conceded congenially.

Thorin stiffened with offense and opened his mouth to respond when Gandalf pressed forward. “Ah, yes the mark; put it there myself.” He glanced at Belladonna and quickly added, “I’ll take care of that before we leave. But for now introductions.” The wizard maneuvered himself to face both the Baggins family and Thorin. “Belladonna and Bungo Baggins are your hosts, and Bilbo their son. Bagginses, allow me to introduce the leader of our company, Thorin Oakenshield.”

Thorin’s gaze fell once again on the youngest hobbit. He found himself circling the little fellow, his eyes catching on the play of light in the creature’s honey-brown curls. “So, this is the Hobbit.” Belladonna and Bungo stilled at his tone.

From the hallway Dwalin called warningly, “Thorin.” The king raised his hand to silence him, his focus solely on the hobbit before him. From the hall, Nori snickered as Dwalin growled something about feet and mouths beneath his breath. “Tell me, Mr. Baggins, have you done much fighting?”

Bilbo’s breaths fell harshly from his lips. He struggled to pay attention to the dwarf’s words as the cry of the earth grew louder and louder. He had never heard of a calling like this and the leader’s entrance had only made the sound shriller. †Death and war follow this one†, the world screamed. Bilbo’s stomach lurched as he struggled to contain the noise. “Pardon me?” His words were faint in his ears, the roaring of the earth gradually fading.

“Axe or sword? What’s your weapon of choice?” The sneer in Thorin’s voice was evident.

Bilbo straightened, his gaze meeting that of the dwarf’s. A flicker of flame entered his eyes as memories rose. Blood on the snow and the coarse feel of the boar-spear in his hands. The cheering of his cousins at the Took tournaments when his knives found their marks. The screams of fell things as tooth and claw sliced through them during his patrols in the Old Forest. The look in his grandmother’s eyes as his stupidity stole her last breath. Bilbo shook himself, finding the dwarf lord staring down at him. He quickly lowered his eyes and allowed his mouth to form a placid smile. “Well, I have some skill at Conkers, if you must know, but I fail to see why that’s relevant.”

Thorin blinked, when Bilbo broke their stare. At first look the hobbit’s eyes had been blue-green but he could have sworn they were almost yellow for a moment. It mattered not. He gathered together his wits and pulled away upon realizing how close he had leant towards the younger male. “Thought as much.” He turned his head towards those members of the Company who stood behind him, his voice louder. “He looks more like a grocer than a burglar.”

The few chuckles that arose from his fellow dwarves were soon silenced by the older male hobbit. “Well I never.” Bungo pressed himself between Thorin and Bilbo, outrage on his face. “Now you listen here, Mister Oakenshield. Leader of your Company or not, I’ll not stand for you belittling my son in my own doorway. You are my guest and I’ll be more than happy to see to your comfort. But,” he leant towards the speechless king one finger raised threateningly, “do not demean any member of my household.”  As though to make up for his impoliteness, the older hobbit quickly stepped back. “Now then,” he said and began to usher dwarves back into the dining room. “It looks like you could use a good meal and we have plenty left.” Dwalin pulled Thorin along as Bungo continued to shoo errant Company members. “My father, Mungo, always said it’s best to discuss business on full stomachs. Or was that after a nap. Might’ve been before noon now that I think of it.” Bungo’s babbling faded as he directed the Company back to the table, leaving Bilbo, Belladonna, and Gandalf in the foyer.

“What does he mean by burglar,” Belladonna asked, stepping towards Gandalf. The wizard took one look at the hobbit woman before he fled into the dining room after her guests.

Before Belladonna could follow, Bilbo grasped his mother’s hand. ῁῁Did you hear? It called so terribly.῁῁ His voice shook and he squeezed her fingers so tightly Belladonna fought not to wince.  As quickly as he had taken her hand Bilbo released it. He wrapped his arms around himself, his eyes gleaming. ῁῁Sorry. Sorry.῁῁

Belladonna’s heart wept at the fear in her son’s voice. Unlike her gently boy, she had never dreaded her need for adventure or her call. Yet she had never heard the earth sound so foreboding. Belladonna shivered at the memory of its tone. Gently she pried Bilbo’s arms open and took his hands in hers. She leant her forehead against his and for several moments the two stood their sharing nothing but breath.  In time she pulled away to meet Bilbo’s eyes. ῁῁Do not be scared. Come. Let us hear what your godfather has to say. No tears, my little one.῁῁ She pressed a kiss to his forehead and guided him after her into the dining room.

 

Thorin had finished two plates of food already and had just started on a bowl of stew when out of the corner of his eye he saw the last two hobbits enter the room.

Balin spoke, “What news from the meeting in Ered Luin? Did they all come?”

Thorin felt his appetite leave him though he took another spoonful of soup. “Aye. Envoys from all seven clans.”

Around him the Company gave their approval.

Dwalin, his friend, seemed the only one to notice his hesitance. “What do the dwarves of the Iron Hills say,” the tattooed dwarf asked. “Is Dain with us?”

Thorin wished he could have given them any other news. “They will not come.” He set his food aside as the Company murmured their disappointment. Refusing to be cowardly, he raised his gaze to meet each face in turn. “They say this quest is ours and ours alone.”

Bilbo watched the stony face of the dwarves’ leader, with something close to sympathy. He would not have wanted to be the one to bear such news. He cleared his throat, drawing attention away from the leader and towards himself. “Yes, um, about that quest,” he began, feeling his ears reddening.

Gandalf was quick to interrupt. “Bilbo, my dear fellow, let us have a little more light.” Though he wished to refuse the wizard, Bilbo moved to fetch a candle and Belladonna followed.

“Far to the East,” began Gandalf, “over ranges and rivers, beyond woodlands and wastelands, lies a single solitary peak.”

Bilbo and Belladonna returned, placing a candle on either side of Gandalf. As he leant forward to see the map, Bilbo’s sleeve brushed Thorin’s arm. The dwarf glanced at the hobbit admiring the light’s illumination of his face before he brought his attention back to the map.

Bungo peered over Gandalf’s shoulder as Bilbo read, “The Lonely Mountain.”

 “Aye,” Gloin bragged from his side of the table. “Oin has read the portents, and the portents say it is time.”

The half-deaf dwarf addressed the Company. “Ravens have been seen flying back to the mountain as it was foretold: When the birds of yore return to Erebor, the reign of the beast will end.”

The hobbits exchanged a look of concern at his words. Bilbo licked his dry lips. “Uh, what beast,” he asked, once again garnering the Company’s attention.

Bofur helpfully answered him between puffs of pipe-smoke, “Well that would be a reference to Smaug the Terrible, chiefest and greatest calamity of our age. Airborne fire-breather, teeth like razors, claws like meat-hooks, extremely fond of precious metals—”

Bilbo gave the miner a look as if he were slightly addled. “Yes, I know what a dragon is.”

“I’m not afraid,” Ori cried, hopping up from her seat. Her braids swung wildly around her face. “I’m up for it. I’ll give him a taste of the Dwarfish iron right up his jacksie.”

Nori grinned at her sister and several of the Company gave a cheer in agreement. Dori was having none of it. He jerked his sister’s dress and scolded, “Sit down!”

Balin quickly drew the dwarves’ interest. “The task would be difficult enough with an army behind us. But we number just thirteen, and not thirteen of the best, nor brightest.”

Several called out objections. Bilbo rolled his eyes. Behind him Belladonna and Bungo each laid on a hand upon their son’s shoulders. The group was silenced only by Fili’s hand upon the table.

The blonde spoke with confidence, “We may be few in number, but we’re fighters, all of us, to the last dwarf!" 

“And you forget,” Kili added, “we have a wizard in our company. Gandalf will have killed hundreds of dragons in his time.”

That gained the Bagginses attention as they stared at the wizard their expressions varying from dread to fury. Gandalf looked about nervously. “Oh, well, now, uh, I-I-I wouldn’t say that, I—”

“How many, then,” Dori questioned.

The wizard appeared confused. “Uh, what?”

 “Well, how many dragons have you killed,” Dori continued. “Go on, give us a number!”

Embarrassed, Gandalf started coughing on his pipe smoke. Around him the dwarves jumped to their feet, arguing. During the commotion, Belladonna sidled up to him and tugged the wizard’s beard so they were eye to eye. “If you’ve signed my son up for some dragonslaying nonsense, Gandalf,” she threatened, emphasizing each word with a tug on his beard, “you’d better pray Primrose Bracegirdle has an extra bunk, because I won’t put you up in my home.” She let go of his wizard just as Thorin stood.

>>Silence,<< he yelled and the dwarves fell quiet. “If we have read these signs, do you not think others will have read them too? Rumors have begun to spread. The dragon Smaug has not been seen for 60 years. Eyes look east to the Mountain, assessing, wondering, weighing the risk. Perhaps the vast wealth of our people now lies unprotected. Do we sit back while others claim what is rightfully ours? Or do we seize this chance to take back Erebor?”  The Company broke out in cheers at Thorin’s war cry. >>To arms! To arms!<<

 “You forget,” Balin interjected, sobering his companions once more, “the front gate is sealed. There is no way into the mountain.”

“That, my dear Balin,” the wizard gave him a knowing look, “is not entirely true.” From beneath the folds of his cloak, Gandalf produced a dwarfish key. He offered it to Thorin who could only stare in recognition. When last he’d seen that key it had hung about his father’s throat. The dwarf’s heart gave a frantic beat.

“How came you by this,” Thorin breathed.

“It was given to me by your father, by Thrain, for safekeeping.” Pain throbbed within Thorin’s breast at the mention of his father’s name. His eyes met those of the wizard, feeling any hope of his father’s living extinguish. Gandalf’s gaze held pity as he handed him the key. “It is yours now.”

Fili interrupted the grave moment. “If there is a key, there must be a door.” Bilbo made a choked noise as he swallowed back a nervous laugh at the dwarf’s not-quite-quick wit. Gandalf shot the hobbit a disapproving look, which Bilbo ignored. The wizard frowned as his godson before turning back to the Company. He pointed to the runes on the map with his pipe. “These runes speak of a hidden passage to the lower halls.”

Kili smiled and clasped his brother’s back. “There’s another way in!” At that Bilbo strangled another laugh, wondering why these younger dwarves were prone to making such obvious statements.

Gandalf addressed Kili, “Well, if we can find it, but dwarf doors are invisible when closed.” This time Bilbo did nothing to stifle his soft snort, earning a glare from Thorin. Of course a dwarf would think making a door invisible a sensible thing. Bungo squeezed his son’s shoulder in gentle chastisement. Gandalf paid no heed to the exchange as he continued, “The answer lies hidden somewhere in this map and I do not have the skill to find it. But there are others in Middle-earth who can.” Thorin gave Gandalf an unreadable look. “The task I have in mind will require a great deal of stealth, and no small amount of courage.” His eyes flickered to Bilbo and then back to the Company. “But, if we are careful and clever, I believe that it can be done.”

“That’s why we need a burglar,” Ori said in realization. Belladonna stiffened at Bilbo’s side. Her hand tightened around his arm and her son returned her worried gaze.

“Hm, A good one, too,” Bungo hummed, missing his wife’s distress. “An expert, I’d imagine.” Bilbo cast Gandalf a look of disbelief.

“And is he,” Gloin asked, motioning to Bilbo. Belladonna’s eyes narrowed in anger.

Bungo looked about confused, “Is he what?”

Oin lifted his ear-horn higher. “He said he’s an expert!” Several dwarves chuckled at the comment.

Bungo gasped in appalled comprehension. “B-Bilbo? No, no, no, no, no. He’s not a burglar; he’s never stolen a thing in his life.” Bilbo strived to keep from looking guilty as he remembered Mistress Cotton’s pies.

“He is certainly,” Belladonna stated, eyes flashing, “not going on some dragonslaying debacle.” She faced Gandalf with evident rage. “If I wasn’t your friend, I’d smother with your own beard. You-you—” Belladonna broke off into several curses in Hobbitish that made Bungo’s ears blush. Bilbo’s mouth gaped at his mother’s impressive vocabulary.

The dwarves watched on in confusion until Gandalf eventually managed to interrupt Belladonna’s rant. “Bilbo is by no means being hired as a dragonslayer, my dear hobbit. He simply is being tasked with retrieving a few items from the hoard.”

Thorin nodded in agreement. “Once we have the Arkenstone, the symbol of my divine right to rule, my kin will come. Then the wyrm can face the steel of the seven dwarrow clans.”

“My son is still no burglar,” Bungo cried in affront.

Balin gave Bilbo a sympathetic look. “I’m afraid I have to agree with Mr. Baggins. His son is hardly burglar material.”

“Aye,” Dwalin agreed, “the wild is no place for gentlefolk who can neither fight nor fend for themselves.” All three hobbits looked at him with offense. Hobbits had traveled the wilds alone for years and were quite able to fend for themselves, thank you.  

Once again the group fell into arguing and Bilbo opened his mouth. It was his choice after all and he had been called. Before he could speak, Gandalf growled and rose to his full height. Anger laced his voice and darkness was cast over the now silent group. Even Belladonna and Bungo backed away in fear. Before them, Bilbo eyed his godfather with growing alarm. “Enough! If I say Bilbo Baggins is a burglar, then a burglar he is.” The darkness dispersed as quickly as it had appeared. Gandalf, once again the familiar odd old-man, continued. “Hobbits are remarkably light on their feet. In fact, they can pass unseen by most if they choose. And while the dragon is accustomed to the smell of dwarf, the scent of hobbit is all but unknown to him, which gives us a distinct advantage.” He sat down and addressed Thorin. “You asked me to find the fourteenth member of this company, and I have chosen Mr. Baggins. There’s a lot more to him than appearances suggest, and he’s got a great deal more to offer than any of you know, including himself. You must trust me on this.”

Thorin blinked. “Very well. We will do it your way.” He gestured towards Balin. “Give him the contract.”

“No, no, no,” Belladonna muttered. The hobbit lady stomped her foot and tramped from the room. The noise of several pans and pots clanging from the kitchen could be heard a moment later. Bungo and Bilbo winced. Hopefully Belladonna wasn’t angry enough to try cooking while she was at it.

Bofur attempted levity as several of the Company cast concerned looks towards the noise, “Alright, we’re off!”

Balin extended a long parchment to Bilbo. “It’s just the usual summary of out-of-pocket expenses, time required, remuneration, funeral arrangements, and so forth.”

Bilbo repressed a hysterical giggle. “Right. Funeral arrangements.” He took the contract from Balin but a moment later Bungo filched it from his fingers.

“If you don’t mind,” the elderly hobbit said, addressing Thorin and Balin, “I’d like to review this for my son.” He gave them a benign smile. “It would ease a father’s mind.”

The two dwarves exchanged a look before Thorin nodded and Bungo graciously took a seat, withdrew his reading glasses from his pocket, and made himself comfortable. Bilbo, left to his own devices, pulled up a stool in the corner. Close enough to his father to hear his advice, but far enough away that he could ignore Gandalf’s attempts to speak with him. Bilbo kept his eyes fixed on the floor. He did not see Thorin’s stare as the dwarf king silently observed the hobbit lad.

Meanwhile the rest of the Company’s eyes were fixed on the elder Mister Baggins. Bungo thrust his reading glasses back on his nose the farther down the contract he read. Eventually once the entire document met his perusal the old hobbit gently folded it back up. The Company watched without comment as he carefully aligned the creases, set glasses and contract on the table, and cleared his throat. “Right then,” Bungo said rising from his seat and smoothing out his weskit. “Bilbo,” His son looked up. “I know you’re of age to be making your own decisions but you shan’t be going with these folk. That,” he gestured towards where the contract lay, “was the worse piece of pony scat I have ever read.” He turned his disapproving eyes on the dwarves most of whom squirmed, avoiding his gaze. “Frankly, I am quite disappointed.” The gravity of the sentence hung in the air. Slightly amused, Bilbo noted how the youngest dwarves mimicked kicked puppies while Dwalin glared hostilely at his brother.

Thorin scowled. “And what did not meet your expectations, Mister Baggins?”

Bungo looked down his nose at the king. “About everything from the beginning to the end, my good sir. I wouldn’t let Camellia Sackville-Baggins sign that thing, much less my own child. You propose to hire my son as your burglar and offer him a contract that you may append ‘from time to time, at the sole discretion of the Director, with all new material being read as if originally included’. Balderdash.” He held his hand out and Balin, blinking, handed him the document. Bungo let it fall open and Bilbo settled back against the wall as his father began one of his famed tirades. “Not only that but most of your other offers are ridiculous as well. ‘The Company shall retain any and all Recovered Goods until such a time as a full and final reckoning can be made, from which the Total Profits can then be established. Then, and only then, will the Burglar’s fourteenth share be calculated and decided.’ Then it goes on to state that while Bilbo remains with you those goods ‘shall Remain the Property of the Company at all times, and in all respects, without limitation’.  As far as I understand that means during your quest my son can claim nothing and, since you’ll be the ones deciding his share, means by the end of your venture he may still get nothing. Not only that but he won’t even be given decent transportation home,” he said referring back to the contract. “‘Transport of any remains, in whole or in part, back to the country of Burglar’s origin is not included.’ Good to know that if my child dies, I won’t even be notified or entitled to his body or belongings. I suppose you told the same to these young ones’ families.” Bungo gestured to Fili, Kili, and Ori who paled. Many of the other Company members looked as if they stomachs had become a bit upset.

Thorin began to open his mouth, but Bungo, slightly red-faced, continued. “And if he does survive you’ve no responsibility to even lend him a pony home since ‘Return Journey is deemed outside the Terms of Reference’. Besides that you stated he’s to be hired as a Burglar to fetch this Arkenstone. But here,” Bungo’s finger jabbed the parchment, “it states he’s to perform ‘any other role [you] see fit, at [your] sole discretion from time to time.’ Well I suppose I should trust you not to just ask him to shuck his trousers and play paramour.”

Dori was unfortunate enough have taken a sip of tea when this was said and Nori was unlucky enough to be sitting by her brother when he ended spitting it back up. Bilbo could feel his ears reddening and dropped his head into his hands. Gandalf’s choking fit went unnoticed as all the other dwarves were too memorized to look away from the irate hobbit.

“And I would define a burglar as one who enters into some form of abode for the purposes of larceny. Yet you’ve sent my son provisions that he shall ‘devise means and methods to circumvent any difficulties arising from any illegal or illicit occupation or guardianship of Company’s rightful home and property.’” He turned to Gandalf who had taken to trying to shrink into the shadows. “A moment ago, you just guaranteed me that my son was not being hired as a dragonslayer. Well the disposal of a dragon guarding a hoard sounds like dragonslaying to me.”

Bofur chortled and Bungo rounded back on the group. Several dwarves visibly gulped as he narrowed his eyes. “Let me explain to you what I find unacceptable about your terms and conditions. What, if I were a less respectable hobbit, might make me throw you from my home for the insult you give my son?” He gaze roved around the table, glancing from one dwarf to the next reciting articles he had memorized.

“‘Present Company is not obliged to assist Burglar in this so-called ‘pest control’ phase of the Adventure.’ Well you may laugh, Mister Bofur. You are not obligated to risk your life in facing a dragon for a home that is not even yours.”  The smile on Bofur’s face faded and he bowed his head in shame, his hat slipping over his eyes.

“‘Disputes arising between the Contract Parties shall be heard and – judged by an Arbitrator of the Company’s choosing, and all pleas shall be – pleaded, shrewd, defended, answered, debated and judged in the Dwarvish Tongue.’” Balin balked at the anger in Bungo’s eyes. “As the dwarf who penned this travesty, Mister Balin, I’m sure you understand why I laugh at such a statement. If my lad must contest anything he will have to defend himself while speaking your language, a secret language at that, and you will choose the judge. Perhaps your legal system does not believe in impartiality or a fair trial.” 

He turned on Gloin, who looked as though he had swallowed a lemon. “‘Pipeweed and other such luxury items shall be provided by Burglar; indeed, and not only for himself, but for the other Members of the Company if such can be obtained along the way by means pertinent to his profession.’ Is this true, Master Gloin, that you would have Bilbo steal items that you might purchase instead? I thought you a dwarf of honor, who was not above doing fair trade. ”

Bungo moved on to the Ri siblings. “‘Breaches of any provision or provisions of this Contract by either party shall be heard, pleaded, debated, defended, answered and judged in a country of the Company’s choosing and at a time and date of the Company’s choosing. Burglar’s failure to appear constitutes acquiescence with Company’s ruling on the matter.’ We have not spoken much, Miss Nori, but I believe you can understand why I find it unfair that my son gets no say in where he should be judged. Nor even a say in choosing the time or date if he is accused of some nonsense.”

Bungo’s gaze flicked to Dori, who shifted uncomfortably, as he recited, “‘During the course of his employment with the Company, Burglar will hear, see, learn, apprehend, comprehend, and in short, gain knowledge of particular facts, ideas, plans, strategies, theories, geography, cartography, iconography, means, tactics and/or policies, whether actual, tangible, conceptual, historical or fanciful.’” The following line was addressed to Ori, “‘Burglar undertakes and agrees to maintain this knowledge in utmost secrecy and confidentiality and to neither divulge nor make known said knowledge by any means, including but not limited to speech, writing demonstration, re-enactment, mime, or storage and retrieval within means or apparatus currently known or unknown, or as yet unthought of.’ From the ink on your sleeve, Miss Ori, I assume your craft is to do with writing. How would you feel if I were to demand that you are not to pen anything at all from your visit to the Shire? Would you think it fair that I demand you write nothing of this escapade and let whatever historical significance it has be recorded by another race, whose ideas of important events may differ significantly from your own?” The young dwarrowdam’s lip wobbled and she glanced remorsefully at Bilbo.

Having lost no steam, though his voice had grown calmer Bungo faced Bombur. The large dwarf’s chin trembled with trepidation. “‘Meals provided [or not] at the sole discretion of the Director.’ Thus you’re not responsible for feeding him unless you feel like it. I suppose Bilbo’s health means nothing to you.”

Bungo’s attention shot to the younger dwarves. Fili and Kili looked dejected at the eldest Baggins’ pained expression. “‘Eviction or elimination of any undesirable guardian of Company’s property, goods or premises or holdings shall take priority over the recovery,’” he said to Kili. “‘Elimination shall take priority over eviction in any and all cases,’” was addressed to Fili. The hobbit took a calming breath and attempted to speak civilly to the princes. “That means, lads, that though he is being hired to rob for you, should he find a live dragon down there, Bilbo’s primary responsibility would be to get rid of it. And kill if preferably.” Startled by how the words contested what Thorin and Gandalf had stated the dwarf princes’ attention swung to their uncle, whose jaw was clenched in a pained line.

Continuing on to Oin, Bungo stated, “‘Unequal relative stature of Burglar and any discovered hostile guardian, occupier or squatter shall not constitute or be considered as grounds for refusal nor excuse against undertaking the forceful removal of said undesirable guest.’ Tell me, Mister Oin, as a healer would you recommend one of hobbit-stature to face a dragon unaided. Most who seek to preserve life would call that foolishness.”  Shakily the dwarf lowered his ear-horn and his eyes.

Bungo paused on Bifur, uncertain if he would understand, but gave him the same reprimanding tone as the others. “‘The Company may terminate this Contract for any reason or for no reason by giving one day’s notice to the Burglar.’ Am I to trust that if he became more burden to you than asset, perhaps due to a wound,” Bungo eyes flickered to the embedded axe, “that as long as you feel it is in your rights you may abandon him?”

Bungo’s attention turned then to Dwalin and there was such disappointment in his eyes that the dwarf recoiled. “‘Such termination will take effect upon the expiry of the notice period.’ Meaning that though Bilbo is beholden to you, this Company may for no reason at all determine he is no longer useful and he will have one day to collect himself.”

Bungo’s gaze swept past Gandalf and finally fell onto Thorin. “‘Burglar is ‘at the Service’ of Thorin and Company until released therefrom,’” Bungo spat, with more venom than Bilbo had ever heard from his father. “Not released once his task is finished or the quest complete but until you say so. You could legally bind my boy to you as an indentured servant for as long as it suited you. Is this what you asked all your Company to sign?”

None of the dwarves could meet his eyes as they had indeed not been asked to sign such a document. Slowly the elderly hobbit drew a shaky breath. “Before this day I did not believe the tales that spoke of Dwarrows as a selfish, greedy people. Nor did I listen when it was said that they cared little to nothing for the lives of others.” Bungo’s voice was soft in the near silence of the smial, the only sound the fire crackling in the sitting room. “But in this instance I find it hard to argue against such stories. Tell me Mister Oakenshield does the life of my son mean so little to your Company that you would insult him with this paltry contract, or is it just you who find no worth in Hobbits?”

In the stillness that followed Bungo’s words it seemed all held their breaths waiting on Thorin’s retort. The king vibrated with anger. Bilbo could not remember when he had risen but he quickly crossed to his father’s side and took his arm. Avoiding the gazes of the Company, Bilbo pulled his father protectively against him, angling him so that Bilbo stood between Bungo and Thorin. Bilbo’s eyes flickered over the stony set of the king’s face before he gently pressed his father towards the hall.

“I,” Bilbo forced the words past the thickness in his throat, “I think it best we all take some time to catch our breaths. Fresh air. Good for digestion and whatnot. Call if you need anything.” Bilbo unceremoniously pushed his father out of the dining room and the stunned dwarves watched as the hobbits disappeared down the hall.

The scrape of a chair drew all eyes to Thorin. He wrathful stare fell on Gandalf. “Wizard, what was—?”

A small cough interrupted as Belladonna stepped forward from the pantry into the hall. With a politely feigned smile on her face she sat a cooled pie down before Thorin. It clattered harshly against the table. “I thought you might still be hungry and your companions said you favored blackberries.” Her words ended with a clipped tone and a maniacal baring of teeth into the fiercest fake smile any had seen. “If you’ll excuse me.” Her gaze coolly swept over her guests with none of the initial warmth she had greeted them with prior. “Gandalf I believe I could use your assistance.” Nothing was said as the wizard meekly followed her out. Thorin’s eyes flickered from Nori to the where the hobbits and Gandalf had gone. The dam nodded before stealthy slipping away.

It was Balin who eventually spoke, “That could have gone better.” He sighed.

Thorin snorted. “Damn hobbits. Why Gandalf thought he should waste our time with such weak creatures, I have no idea. Of course they’d agree then try to back out of a bargain.”

Dwalin’s fist hit the table drawing every eye. He pointed accusingly at Thorin. “Do not insult our hosts. They’ve been nothing but kind and I won’t have you slight them. Bungo’s right. He should throw us out after offering them that kind of contract. Especially since none of them knew about us or our quest until this morning.”

The shock on Thorin’s face was swiftly followed by the outraged voices of ten dwarves. “WHAT?!”

 

Bilbo pushed a mug into his father’s hands and the older hobbit flapped a hand at his son. “Oh stop it. I’m fine; just give me a moment to sit.”

“Right,” Bilbo said sarcastically and took his own seat, “let’s all just sit quietly for a moment then.”

“You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long, Bilbo Baggins,” Gandalf said as he followed Belladonna into the room. “Tell me; when did time schedules and your mother’s dishes become so important to you? I remember a young Hobbit who always was running off in search of elves and the woods, who’d stay out late, come home after dark, trailing mud and twigs and fireflies. A young Hobbit who would have liked nothing better than to find out what was beyond the borders of the Shire.” Gandalf gestured to the maps and books that surrounded the study. “The world is not in your books and maps; it’s out there.”

Bilbo jumped up from his perch and marched towards the wizard. “I can’t just go running off into the blue. I am a Baggins, of Bag End."

Gandalf loomed over him in. “You are also a Took. Did you know—”

“If this is the story of great-great-great-great-uncle Bullroarer Took again I don’t want to hear it,” Bilbo snapped back.

Gandalf frowned. “You used to love that story.” He reached out to settle his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder and though the hobbit tensed, he did not shake it off.  Gandalf gave it a slight squeeze before taking a breath. “You must know, Bilbo, that Adamanta would not have wanted this for you? She would not wish you to tame yourself just because of her passing?”

Bilbo flinched as if struck and retreated from the wizard’s touch. His back hit the wall and he curled into himself. Alarmed by the hobbits reaction, Gandalf reached out once more for Bilbo only to find Bungo in his way.

“That is enough,” Belladonna roared with all the fierceness of her kind. Gandalf opened his mouth but shut it at her look. “Not one more word, Gandalf.” She swept past the worried wizard towards her son. “Bilbo,” she said calmingly but the hobbit cringed away from her.

“Air. I-I-I need air.” Between one word and the next the hobbit was stumbling out of the study. He had passed Nori’s hiding place and was staggering pass the dining-room when one of the dwarves cried out, “Mister Baggins.” Without warning the group surrounded him saying something about misunderstandings and no-good wizards. Bilbo could not understand them past the roaring in his ears. Panicked he fought against hands that pressed against him.

“What’s wrong with the lad?”

“Someone get Thorin.”

“Are you alright, Mister Baggins?”

Though he tried, Bilbo couldn’t get any air into his lungs. He struggled to free himself from the press of bodies. Suddenly Gandalf was there, Thorin at his side. From behind them, Bilbo could hear Belladonna and Bungo trying to calm their guests.

“What’s the matter with him,” Thorin said crouching beside where Gandalf knelt. Concern flickered across the dwarf’s face.

“Nothing.  Just an excitable little fellow," said Gandalf, restraining Bilbo’s flailing wrists least he do himself harm. "Gets funny queer fits, but he is one of the best.” The wizard rubbed soothing circles into his godson’s hands. “One of the best—as fierce as a dragon in a pinch.” The words were said with pride rather than the irony Thorin expected.

Bilbo contorted, straining to get the wizard to release him. He freed one of his hands, reached out, and snagged the closest dwarf to him. ῁῁Make him let go. Outside. I need outside,῁῁ he babbled not realizing he was not speaking Westron until he met Dwalin’s confused eyes. “Please,” Bilbo cried, tears gathering in his eyes. He pressed his face against the dwarf’s chest. “Outside. Please.” He pushed the words forth between the wild heaving of his lungs.

Dwalin just nodded and gathered Bilbo to him. “Let go,” he growled at Gandalf, who reluctantly released Bilbo’s hand. The dwarf turned towards the older hobbits, who had finally calmed the other dwarves enough to reach their son’s side. He nodded to Belladonna, who watched her son shudder in Dwalin’s arms. “He wants outside. Is there a place I can take him?” Belladonna gestured to the back door, her eyes sorrowful. “The garden. He’ll feel better once he’s there.” Dwalin nodded once more and stomped out towards the back door, cradling the hobbit’s body carefully.

Belladonna hesitated, exchanged a glance with Bungo, before she began soothingly redirecting the dwarves to the parlor. Bungo remained with Thorin, Balin, and Gandalf.

Belladonna returned a moment later, her narrowed eye’s flickering from Gandalf to Thorin. “If I thought it would do my boy any good I would ask that you do not hold his actions against him.”

“Mistress Baggins,” Balin began, “we would never—”

Thorin interrupted him, stepping towards Belladonna, “We have all seen battle-dreams before, my lady. The terror that follows them is unpleasant at best and can kill at worse. None of my Company would hold Mister Baggins responsible for something even the bravest warriors cannot control.”

They held each other’s gaze for a moment before Belladonna nodded in acquittance. “So would you still have my boy on your quest?”

Thorin’s brow rose in surprise. “We would take him, though I cannot guarantee his safety.”

“I’d be surprised if you tried to,” she snapped.

Thorin’s scowl returned. “Nor will I be responsible for his fate.”

Belladonna waved away his words. “Only he can decide his destiny.” She dismissed the king and turned to Gandalf. “And what do you have to say?” Her voice was brittle and Bungo stepped forward and wrapped his arms around his wife. Balin eyed them worriedly. It was the first time since their initial meeting that the hobbits looked small.

Gandalf ‘s gaze did not waver from Belladonna’s. “I can only offer him what I once offered you: a tale or two to tell of his own when he comes back.”

Belladonna leant her head against her husband’s shoulder. “Can you promise that he will come back?”

Gandalf swallowed harshly. “No. And if he does, he will not be the same.”

Belladonna closed her eyes and Bungo held her tighter. He looked from his guests to his wife and back. He knew how she hated to cry in front of company. “May we have a moment?" 

Gandalf and Balin inclined their heads and left for the parlor, expecting Thorin to follow a step behind. Neither noticed the dwarf king head for the smial’s back door instead. It was not until they were speaking with the other dwarves that either marked his absence.

 

Bilbo could not stand the anger that arose at Gandalf’s words. What did he know of it? He had not taken the Heart and heat from Adamanta’s breast. He did not know how evil a thing it was to steal the very life of another. Even now he could see her eyes fixed upon him. Within his chest the beat of one and a half heart’s drummed. Fury burned through him and he could feel the beginnings of his dragon scales start to form. No. Not now. The panic set in, coursing like blood. He couldn’t here. Not in Bag-End. Not near dragon-hating, blood-seeking dwarrows. He clung to the body that held him. ˟˟Safety,˟˟ his Heart cried. ˟˟Protector.˟˟ The flame’s draw was too much, overbearing. He needed air. He needed to feel the ground. He trusted the earth’s voice to sooth and comfort, and keep him in his hobbit form.

It was not until the gentle hands which held him laid him in the grass that air seemed to finally pour into his lungs and smother the flame. Bilbo shook fiercely as Dwalin called his name, sitting beside him. Unthinkingly he snatched the dwarf’s tunic and clung to it, burying his face into the fabric. He breathed in the reliable smell of dust and leather. Beneath him the steady thrum of the earth beat in time to his double hearts. In the end, Bilbo’s sense returned, he released Dwalin’s tunic, and he sat up, face tinged red with embarrassment.

“I’m sorry.” Bilbo’s voice was hoarse from his sobs. He could not meet his dwarf companion’s eyes.

He startled when a large hand pressed to his chin as Dwalin forced Bilbo to look up at him. “No apologies, laddie. I’ve seen battle-dreams before and you have naught to feel ashamed about.” The dwarf gave him a very firm look. “Understand?”

Bilbo returned Dwalin’s words with a trembling smile, and then pressed his face to the dwarf’s arm. The two sat in silence for a while beneath the stars, Dwalin content to let the hobbit regain his composure.

Though the quiet was companionable, Bilbo felt the need for words in the darkness, to assure himself he was not alone. Gazing up at the stars, he asked the first question that came to mind. “Do you ever feel, Dwalin, that the world’s too big and you’re only a small thing?”

The large dwarf frowned and took a moment to think on his reply. Neither noticed the back-door open or the shadow of a dwarf-king waiting in the doorway.

“Aye, laddie. I think everyone does sometimes. Probably why most of us joined the quest. We all want to prove that even small and few, we can make a difference.

Bilbo sniffled, nodded his head, and lay back down against the earth. The top of his head grazed Dwalin’s thigh.

The big dwarf looked at the lad baffled. He had no idea why this hobbit trusted him so completely. He had not thought such gentle creatures would see past his gruff appearance, but since he’d entered their home the hobbits had done nothing but welcome him. It was so different to how he was usually treated by those of other races. Even other dwarrows saw Dwalin first as a warrior rather than protector.

Bilbo sniffled again and burrowed closer, reminding the dwarf of how Fili and Kili would do the same when they were young. Hesitantly, Dwalin laid his hand of Bilbo’s curls and began to stroke them, careful not to let the locks catch on his knuckledusters. A familiar tune rose in his throat and he found himself humming the dwarven lullaby that used to sooth the princes to sleep. The hobbit sighed, relaxing further against earth and dwarf. Dwalin’s heart clenched as he watched the laddie’s breathing even.

At the smial’s back-door Thorin’s hand clenched around the doorframe. He could not wrest his eyes from where Dwalin’s hand continued to stroke the hobbit’s head. Wordlessly, the dwarf king turned and strode back into the house. He was obviously not needed in the garden.

 

“Where were you,” Balin questioned at Thorin’s returned.

The dwarf’s face darkened, “It does not matter.” His glanced to where several members of the Company had surrounded Gandalf and were berating him. He took a fierce satisfaction from the way Dori and the others had taken to yelling into the wizard’s ear.

Balin followed his king’s gaze. “It appears we have lost our burglar, if he was ever ours to start with. Probably for the best. The odds were always against us. After all, what are we? Merchants, miners, tinkers, toy-makers; hardly the stuff of legend.”

Thorin turned to his old friend with a slight smirk. “There are a few warriors amongst us.”

“Old warriors.”

“I will take each and every one of these dwarves over an army from the Iron Hills,” Thorin said fiercely. “For when I called upon them, they came. Loyalty. Honor. A willing heart. I can ask no more than that.”

“You don’t have to do this.” Balin shook his head pleadingly, “You have a choice. You’ve done honorably by our people. You have built a new life for us in the Blue Mountains, a life of peace and plenty. A life that is worth more than all the gold in Erebor.”

“From my grandfather to my father,” Thorin held up the key, “this has come to me. They dreamt of the day when the dwarves of Erebor would reclaim their homeland. There is no choice, Balin. Not for me.”

Balin nodded his head. “Then we are with you, laddie.” He clasped his king’s shoulder. “We will see it done.”

Dwalin entered the room at the end of their exchange. Balin clasped his brother’s shoulder as well. “Well, brother, how fairs our young Mister Baggins?”

Thorin’s scowl returned as Dwalin shrugged. “He is better. Went to talk to his father about arranging rooms.”

“Remarkable creatures,” Balin muttered. “Most would have thrown us out by now. We have not given a very good account of people.” Balin sighed at his leader’s furrowed brow. “I wonder what their tale is. The hobbit’s quite young to have such strong battle-dreams.”

“What do the horrors of the world care for age,” Thorin snapped. The Fundin brothers looked to him in surprise. Tense the dwarf king turned away and set about filling his pipe. Exchanging a look of bafflement, Dwalin and Balin made to do the same. 

When Bilbo and Bungo rejoined the group, they were greeted to the sight of the dwarves relaxing around the fire and smoking their pipes. Both hobbits remained silent as the dwarves began to hum and Thorin led them in song.

  

“Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away ere break of day

To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,

While hammers fell like ringing bells

In places deep, where dark things sleep,

In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For ancient king and elvish lord

There many a gloaming golden hoard

They shaped and wrought, and light they caught

To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung

The flowering stars, on crowns they hung

The dragon-fire, in twisted wire

They meshed the light of moon and sun.

Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away, ere break of day,

To claim our long-forgotten gold.

Goblets they carved there for themselves

And harps of gold; where no man delves

There lay they long, and many a song

Was sung unheard by men or elves.

The pines were roaring on the height,

The winds were moaning in the night.

The fire was red, it flaming spread;

The trees like torches blazed with light,

The bells were ringing in the dale

And men looked up with faces pale;

The dragon's ire more fierce than fire

Laid low their towers and houses frail.

The mountain smoked beneath the moon;

The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom.

They fled their hall to dying -fall

Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim

To dungeons deep and caverns dim

We must away, ere break of day,

To win our harps and gold from him!”

 

Sometime during the song Bungo had wandered over to Gandalf, so Bilbo was left alone in the doorway.  Thus no one was there to witness the longing that filled his eyes. As they sang Bilbo’s Heart welled with the dwarves’ feelings for their homeland. His Heart echoed with that love, a cold yet burning thing, fierce and jealous. All those dreams Bilbo had long suppressed woke and he wished to go and see the great mountains. To walk amid the pine trees, see the waterfalls, and explore the caves. He wanted to unfurl dragon wings and soar beyond the Hill and the Water. Let knife, tooth, and claw face whatever danger the world offered. He wanted to know if the earth’s voice sounded different beyond the Shire’s border. But most of all what Bilbo Baggins wanted, more than he had ever let himself dream of in the past twenty-five years, was to be brave and bold.

Bilbo’s breathe faltered. No, he could not want that. As the last hum died away Bilbo trembled and fought his Heart to stillness. He returned to being plain Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End, someone who did not want, who was content.

With half a mind to go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, Bilbo looked up to find himself facing Thorin’s gaze. The dwarf’s eyes were dark and Bilbo noticed that the tapers in the room had burned down. He flushed and was about to fetch a light when Thorin’s voice halted him.

“Where are you going?”

 “To fetch a candle that I might lead you to your rooms.” Bilbo looked back and Thorin stared into his green eyes that shined in the darkness. “There are not many hours before dawn. Would you not like to rest?”

It took a moment for the king to incline his head and the hobbit once again made to leave. Bilbo hesitated in the hall. “I don’t pretend to understand what your quest means to you and I can tell I’m certainly not what you expected. I think I’m right in believing that you think I am no good. I cannot blame you for that. But, please, give me at least the night to consider your offer.” He gave Thorin a beseeching look that made the dwarf king’s heart unsettled. “I will have an answer for you by morning.” Without delay Bilbo dashed away in search of a lamp and to prepare the baths.

Thorin was not sure what reply he would have given if the hobbit had stayed.

 

Besides Gandalf, Bungo watched the exchange with something close to amusement. He met the wizard’s gaze and some of his ire ebbed. It had been such a long day and the simplicity of this morning seemed so far away. “Belladonna’s gone to bed. She’s still quite mad,” he said taking a seat besides Gandalf. He tried to ignore the look of regret on his old friend’s face and sighed as his old bones sagged. “I cannot say that I am not angry with you also, wizard, but I understand you have more than one family of hobbits to think about. I’m sure you feel that Bilbo’s necessary for your quest, but you have treated my wife and son rather poorly. Such actions cannot be forgiven so readily.” Bungo wiped his hand over his face. “Give her time, Gandalf. Give her at least tonight.”

The wizard nodded solemnly. “I have some business to arrange anyway. Tonight, I will seek lodgings elsewhere.” His gaze fell on where Bilbo had stood beside the dwarf king. “I do beg your pardon and hers, Bungo. I have not handled this well. Not well at all.”

Bungo’s followed Gandalf’s gaze. “Give him time too, Gandalf.” The hobbit’s lips twitched into a small smile. “You know he has never stayed mad at you for long.”

The wizard inclined his head and set about departing. It was only after Gandalf left his side that a certain dwarf gathered his nerve and approached their hobbit host. Balin held his hands clasped before him, least he fiddle with his beard like some dwarfling. He faced the hobbit with as serene an expression as possible. “I have spoken with our leader and, though we meant to stay just the night, certain revelations have made it amendable that we can afford your son at most a week to put his affairs in order. That is if he wishes to join us. We also agree that our preliminary offer was less than satisfactory and are open to a redraft.”

Bungo rose from his seat and placed a friendly hand on Balin’s arm. The dwarf found himself facing a warm smile as the hobbit turned them both towards the study. “We best get started then. Come along, Mister Balin, I’m sure I can find us some ink and parchment. Perhaps a bit of brandy as well.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo rose early the next morning after a fitful night of dreams. Too many sorrows, terrors, and hopes lay near the surface of his thoughts. The singing of a certain dwarf lord had not helped since Thorin had been given the best guest room, located next to Bilbo’s own. Whatever peace Bilbo might have found in the gathering darkness before the new day abandoned him as his too sensitive ears heard the dwarf’s refrain.

Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away, ere break of day,

To claim our long-forgotten gold

Therefore, thoroughly tired but unwilling to be unproductive, Bilbo put on his dressing-gown and headed towards the kitchen.  Someone had to feed thirteen dwarves and three hobbits after all.  He had just started on rolling the dough for scones, humming Dwalin’s dwarfish tune beneath his breathe, when he turned around to find a scowling dwarf-lord sitting at the kitchen table. Bilbo blushed, realizing Thorin must have been there since he entered as the dwarf already had an empty cup of tea besides his elbow. 

“Have you made your decision yet, hobbit?” Bilbo jumped at the unexpected question. 

“I,” Bilbo began when he realized the dwarf’s eyes had drifted towards his chest. Bilbo looked down to find his dressing gown had fallen open, revealing the thin night shirt and sleeping trousers beneath. He hurriedly tightened the gown and refastened the belt, his ears reddening further. The dressing-gown already made him feel too exposed. Bilbo thought musingly that he would have rather faced the king wearing some of the dwarves’ ridiculous amour or his own dragon-scales. “I would rather wait until your company awakens if you don’t mind.” 

Bilbo’s words snapped Thorin’s gaze back to his face. The dwarf king’s scowl became a full glower. He rose from his chair. “As their leader you may inform me first, hobbit.” 

Bilbo returned Thorin’s scowl with a frown of his own. “And as my parent’s son, I think it only right that I inform everyone, including my mother and father, of my decision at the same time, Mister Dwarf.” Bilbo turned back to his cooking. “Now if you’d give me a few moments I should have the beginnings of breakfast prepared. Perhaps you might enjoy a smoke as I get everything ready.” Bilbo received no reply except silence, followed by the enraged stomping of bare dwarf feet, and the slamming of the back door. Besides a flinch for the door, Bilbo refused to regret his actions during their conversation. Certainly, Bilbo might have acted less than hospitable. But if that dwarf thought he could strut about and order the hobbit around in his own home, the Company’s leader deserved less than civilized behavior. Lost in his thoughts, Bilbo chopped the vegetables more violently than usual. Once finished with the preliminary preparations, Bilbo went to his room to change and then returned to the kitchen. He had no desire to have another embarrassing encounter with one of his other guests. With the newest batch of baking in the oven and several pans on the stove, Bilbo had taken to depositing some of the remaining food from dinner last night onto the table. Luckily the dwarves had never found the second larder and the Bagginses had no need of it last night or else breakfast would have been a scarcer affair. 

He was just setting out the remaining scones from last night when Dwalin entered the dining room. The large dwarf cricked his neck letting out a loud crack, before taking his seat.

Bilbo placed the scones before Dwalin who exchanged his good morning with a grunt of greeting. The dwarf gave the hobbit a rather soft smile at receiving the food before attacking the plate. Bilbo returned to filling the table and it wasn’t until his second return that Dwalin finally spoke to him. “Have you seen Thorin, Bilbo?” 

Surprised by Dwalin first time addressing him by his name, it took a moment for Bilbo to collect himself. He hoped nothing of his expression revealed his earlier encounter with the dwarf. “He went out to the garden for a bit.” 

Dwalin nodded his head and took another bite of scone. Bilbo went about his work.  A few moments later he welcomed Bofur as the next dwarf to enter the dining room. 

“And where’s our illustrious leader,” Bofur asked, plopping down besides a plate of toast and honey. 

Dwalin swallowed his latest bite. “Sulking outside.” Bilbo’s bright laugh could be heard from the kitchen and both dwarves paused to enjoy the sound. 

“Nothing unusual then,” Bofur said scrapping plum jam across his toast. Soon one after another of the dwarves stumbled into the dining room, lured by the smell of breakfast. 

 

Though she wanted nothing better than to loll about in the nice hobbit bed she had been given, Nori was too used to early mornings and hard sleeping conditions to stay abed. Besides she had a moody dwarf king to report to. Slipping from the room she shared with her sister and brother, Nori snuck by the kitchen where the young hobbit worked and out the backdoor. Thorin sat on an old stump puffing on his pipe and glowering at the hobbit garden. Nori sidled closer and gave a swift bow. Even barefoot and brooding, no one could mistake Thorin for anything other than the king he was. He even made his stump seem like a throne. 

Thorin released another wisp of smoke. >>What happened last night?<< 

Nori settled against a nearby tree, eyes constantly scanning about her. The garden was a much too open location for her liking, but she doubted any would overhear. They seemed one of the few ones up this morning. She shrugged. >>Nothing important.<< Thorin turned a dark look on her and Nori raised her hands in submission. >>Truly. The wizard just went on about how the hobbit acted when he was little. Then he upset the lad and next thing I knew he was having a fit in the hall. Like I said nothing much. Didn’t even mention us.<< 

Thorin’s attention remained fixed on Nori. >>What did he say that upset him? Did you note what could have triggered the battle-dream?<< 

Nori furrowed her brow in thought. She disliked Thorin’s interest with the hobbit’s fears. Finding weakness was something she was used to, but she thought their leader above using mental scars upon others, especially a possible companion. >>He mentioned something about being a Baggins and a Took, whatever that is. Said something about someone dead. Named Adamanta I think. Not much else happened.<< Nori plucked a leaf from a tree and weaved it between her knuckles. >>Hallway was much more interesting. Did you notice how he clung to Dwalin?<< Nori noted how Thorin stiffened at Dwalin’s name. Interesting, perhaps he was upset that the hobbit had already gained the bald-headed dwarrow’s approval. >>Never seen that dwarf so furious at the wizard, like a bear with her cub. And the words the hobbit spoke….<< She shook her head. >>Been a lot of places while I was thieving but never heard anything like that. I even understood some of Miss Belladonna’s cursing; kind of an odd mix of Westron and Rohirric.<< Thorin’s gaze had drifted off again looking east and Nori tossed away the leaf. “You need anything else, milord?” 

Thorin did not bother turning. “Keep an eye on the hobbits and let me know when Gandalf returns.” 

“Right-o,” Nori said and swiftly reentered the smial. She frowned. Thorin seemed overly concerned with the hobbit lad and she wondered if she had missed some threatening detail. She shrugged and followed the smell of eggs. Despite the allure of trying to understand the inner workings of the broody dwarf king’s mind, Nori found the appeal of breakfast much more intriguing. 

Nori settled herself between Dwalin and Dori, noticing how the youngest dwarves including Ori had not yet woken. Her brother flashed a glance full of suspicion at her before continuing his talk with the younger Mister Baggins. “And of course we’re distant relations.” 

Bilbo’s brow rose as he finished peeling an orange, which he handed to a grateful Bifur. “So you’re saying that most of you excluding Misters Bofur, Bombur, and Bifur are related. And the younger two, Mister Kili and Mister Fili, are your leader’s nephews and heirs.” 

Bofur snorted, “Aye. Though we ain’t Misters, lad. Just call us by our names.” 

Nori sniggered, “We only count if you reckon relations on the wrong side of the sheets.” She ducked Dori’s hand. 

Bilbo’s eyes flickered between one dwarf and another in confusion. “Only if you call me Bilbo,” he replied to Bofur before turning to Nori. “Do you mean dwarrow’s treat those born outside of wed-lock differently?” 

He earned many stares at his question and surprisingly enough it was Oin who replied. “Not many do besides those of noble blood. Most are just happy that another dwarfling’s been born. Is it not the same with your people, Mister Baggins?” 

Bilbo’s eyes widened with surprise. “Well, no. I mean it’s rare. Most hobbit’s start courting before coming of age and marry soon after. Even then courting is public and Hobbit fathers are also very fierce when it comes to protecting their children.” The dwarves around him nodded agreement remembering Bungo’s lecture from the night before. Bilbo’s cheeks colored as he continued. “Of course it happens from time to time but then the couple, if they want to, can get their families permission to marry early. If not the family is always happy to find a place for the newborn; depending on the family they sometimes give the babe to a relation or communally raise the child.” 

“I thought hobbits would be fussier about these things,” Gloin stated brashly. Around him a few others, including Dori, winced at his lack of tact. 

Bilbo only gave the dwarf a considering look. “Babes may be a common occurrence among hobbits, sir, but we believe each one born to be a cause for celebration. Besides it would be wrong to judge a child for the actions of its parents.” Bilbo left for the kitchen and the dwarf’s soon fell into smaller conversations, Dori trying to speak with Oin while Bofur teasingly tried to steal food from Bombur’s plate. 

Bilbo returned with a new plate of oven-warm scones and a platter of sausages. He placed the former besides Dwalin who pulled it close to his side and began sampling them with a groan. “If your mother wasn’t married, laddie, I might just wed her for her scones,” Dwalin drawled before taking another bite and spraying bits of pastry about. 

“Bungo probably wouldn’t begrudge you if you waited until after she was widowed,” Nori, swiping a biscuit out from under Dwalin’s nose. 

The plate of sausages dropped from Bilbo’s hands. Conversations and rough-housing stopped as all eyes turned to the hobbit. Bilbo stared at his fingers as though shocked that they had failed him. “Hobbits,” he said so softly many had to bend closer to hear, “especially those of my line, do not live long after their spouses’ passing.” He looked up at Nori with a sad quirk to his lips, his eyes meeting the dwarrowdam’s. “Our hearts are prone to grief.” Bilbo leant over the table and cleared up the spilled meat before leaving the room. 

Following the hobbit’s departure, Dori swiped the back of his sister’s head. 

“Poor taste, lass,” Dwalin grumbled. Nori bit her lip, her fingers fiddling with the silver. Around them conversations resumed. 

A light tap on her shoulder and a fresh platter of potatoes set before her had the dwarrowdam looking up at Bilbo. His return had not been initially noted by the Company and a few dwarves gave his stealthy arrival speculative glances. He gave Nori a small pat on the arm, similar to the ones he gave his small cousins after they had been chastised.  “Hobbits are also not known for holding grudges,” Bilbo stated and set a smaller plate of biscuits before the female. He moved to return the kitchen and Nori picked one up before warily biting into it. Beside her, Dori’s eyes widened and he gave the hobbit a grateful look. He could not think of when the lad had noticed that Nori was fond of blackcurrant biscuits. Bilbo returned the look with a wink. He disappeared into the kitchen with a rather devious smirk aimed at the dwarves. “And by the way,” he called, “Ma doesn’t bake the scones. I do.” 

Dwalin and Nori both choked on their food, which was not at all helped by the Company’s laughing. Only Dori was decent enough to come to their aid once the laughter had settled down. 

“Could be useful to be married to a stealthy baker,” Bofur said swiping his own scone. “And at least he’s more of a looker than you are.” Dwalin’s resulting chase of the miner threw the dwarves into chuckles all over again. 

 

Once the younger dwarves had woken and everyone had eaten except for Balin, who had not yet come down, the Company regrouped in the parlor. The Ur family members were some of the last there since they had stayed behind with Bilbo to do the dishes. Those first to arrive took whatever armchairs were available, others leant against walls or found cushions on which to sit. Kili and Fili had simply flopped down on the carpet where they sprawled like well fed pups. Ori looked longingly at their pile of contentment from her place beside her brother on the sofa. Thorin, well-fed after his smoking sulk, took the best seat available: Bungo’s chair. Bilbo, who had insisted Dwalin take his seat, leaned contentedly against a bookshelf, ignoring the dwarf king’s scowl. Attempting to not worry about the words previously exchanged, the hobbit instead found himself staring at the dwarf lads. 

“What’s wrong, Mister Boggins,” Fili finally asked, once he noticed how he and his brother held the hobbit’s attention. 

Bilbo flushed at being caught and found his words escaping his mouth with no thought. “Are you two really princes?” 

Fili and Kili sat up and blinked for a moment as the Company around them chuckled. Bilbo closed his eyes in embarrassment, missing the younger dwarves’ exchange of a mischievous glance. 

“How could you doubt us, Mister Boggins? Are we not handsome enough for you,” Kili fluttered his eyelashes. 

“Your skepticism wounds us,” Fili stated slumping backwards with his hand over his heart. 

The Company fell into further hoots of laughter and even Thorin gave a small smile at his nephews’ actions. Bilbo rolled his eyes, regretting his words. He slouched against the bookshelf, making himself smaller. “It’s just we have no royalty in the Shire, so I haven’t much to compare it to. I’ve never met a dwarven prince before.” 

Fili straightened at his words and Kili’s ears perked up. “No royalty. Then who rules,” the younger brother asked. 

Bilbo found himself the curiosity of twelve dwarves’ stares. “Well, we’ve had no royalty since the fall of Arnor and the Shire’s a pretty peaceful so it doesn’t need much. Governance mainly falls to the Thain, the Mayor, and the Master, though most matters of importance are put to a vote by the Families.” 

The dwarves broke out into various questions and sounds of confusion. Bilbo was soon overwhelmed. During the commotion, Belladonna, having made herself a small meal after rising, drifted into the room. Thorin made to rise from his seat when Dwalin stood. “Quiet!”  Several mouths snapped shut at the warrior’s voice. The gruff dwarf huffed and addressed Bilbo, “I’m sorry about that, laddie, but you mind explaining what you mean.” 

Bilbo blinked. “I don’t see why I couldn’t.” He scratched his chin in thought, deciding on how to start. “Shire government is separated between the Mayor of Michel Delving, the Thain, and the Master of Buckland. Now the Mayor is an elected position and he’s the Postmaster of the Messenger Service and the First Shirrif of the Watch. He also officiates over banquets for holidays and other special celebrations like naming a new Head of a Family.” Bilbo kept sneaking glances at his mother who nodded approval at what he said. Neither wanted to reveal too much of Hobbit society, though everything Bilbo had said was general knowledge. These dwarves didn’t need to know that the Mayor was also in charge of the yearly retelling of hobbit creation or leader of the mourning procession for those who left for a calling and did not return. “The Thain,” Bilbo continued, “is the master of the Shire-moot, the meeting of the Families to discuss important matters. Though both the Mayor and the Master of Buckland can also call a moot, the Thain is the one who proceeds over it. He is also the captain of the Shire-muster for the Hobbitry-in-arms.” 

“You have hobbit warriors.” Gloin interrupted. 

“Oh, no, of course not,” Bilbo was quick to refute. He exchanged a look with his mother. Hobbits had kept what knowledge they had of weapons, mainly of staff, bow, and knife, to themselves and they preferred to keep it that way. “It’s more of an emergency militia. Most weapons are rather blunt and considered decoration or kept as mathoms. Musters are exceedingly rare, why we haven’t had one since,” Bilbo halted and swallowed, adverting his eyes. “Not since the Fell Winter two and half decades ago.” Around him the dwarves nodded remembering how harsh that winter had been in Ered Luin. Only four sets of eyes remained on Bilbo. Belladonna eyed her son with worry and reluctant acceptance, Dwalin’s held concern, while Nori’s narrowed with interest. Thorin’s were as usual unreadable beneath his stoic expression. 

“And what of the Master,” Kili asked. 

Bilbo’s head rose and he blinked at the dwarf. “Er, oh yes, the Master. That would be the Master of Buckland. His title like the Thain’s is inherited. He holds authority over the inhabitants of Buckland and some of the farmers in the Marish. He’s also in charge of the Watch, though he’s more involved with the Bounders while the Mayor, as his second, leads the Shirrifs as First Shirrif.” The Master was also in charge of the Hedge that kept the dark things that dwelled in the Old Forrest back. Since the Brandybucks had the knack of sensing danger, the Master was also called the Watcher and was to be the first to blow the horn of Buckland should his knack alert him of any trouble. Neither of which were things Bilbo was going to share with his audience. “Finally the Families are those who can trace the lines back the furthest in the Shire. The Head of each Family are those who make up the council along with the Thain, the Mayor, and the Master to make important decisions.” Bilbo shrugged, “That’s really all there is to Shire governance." 

Thorin interjected, interested despite himself, “And which families are those, hobbit?” 

“Those, Mister Dwarf,” Belladonna said as she weaved her way between startled dwarves, “would include the Boffin, Bolger, Bracegirdle, Brandybuck, Chubb, Grubb, Hornblower, Proudfoot, Sackville, and Took lines.” Recognition lit up Nori’s and Thorin’s eyes at the word Took. Upon reaching her son, Belladonna turned to face her captive audience with a fierce grin. “And, of course, the Baggins.” She kissed her son’s cheek and he gave her small smile in return. “You forgot to mention that the Thain is also the one who approves of any adventuring outside of the Shire.” 

“That’s only been one of his more recent duties,” Bilbo informed the dwarves, including Thorin who was looked none too pleased. “And that only happened because some hobbits,” he refused to look at his mother who was certainly smirking, “refused to wait until the coming of age to go adventuring.” 

“That was hardly my fault. Gandalf should have asked better questions,” Belladonna sniffed. 

“Everyone else blamed him too,” Bilbo replied. The hobbits’ merriment dissipated at the mention of the wizard and many of the dwarves shuffled awkwardly, uncertain about how to comment on their missing companion. 

“But I thought your father said you were of age last night, Mister Boggins,” Fili said, dispelling the uncomfortable atmosphere. Besides him Kili nodded in agreement. 

Bilbo and his mother gave the dwarven youths a wry look. “The last name is Baggins, Mister Fili, and I’d prefer if you’d just call me Bilbo. I’m forty so I’ve been of age for the past seven years.” 

Instead of looking relieved the dwarves burst into another round of shouting and arguing. Fili and Kili stared at the hobbit flabbergasted. From his seat Thorin looked vaguely ill. 

“A child, practically a babe.” 

“Did he say he was portly?” 

“Only forty, Oin.” 

“My lad, Gimli is even older than that.” 

“By Mahal when I get a hold of that wizard.” 

Bilbo and Belladonna watched on with amusement. “I think,” her son told her, “there’s been some type of misunderstanding.” 

Belladonna surveyed the incensed dwarves. “Your Aunt Mirabella had the same issue when she went off with Gandalf to the Metal Hills or whatnot. Said everyone kept acting like she was a child, even after they learned her age. Of course half the time she was pretending to be a child so there is that. Oh look,” she gestured towards Ori. The shy dwarrowdam had stood up and was trying to gain the other’s attention. 

Bilbo seeing the dam’s distress marched over to the fireplace and threw one of the logs against the empty hearth, hitting the metal grate. The noise broke through the dwarves’ arguing.  They stared at the hobbit, who ignored them to favor Ori with a small smile. “You were trying to say something, Miss Ori.” 

“J-j-just Ori please, Mister Bilbo.” The little dam’s face went pink when she realized she had garnered the group’s attention. “I just wanted to say that Mister Balin and I did a bit of research when Gandalf said we had to go to the Shire and while most of it was nonsense about Hobbit’s having babies by growing them like cabbage and eating twelve meals a day it did say that—I mean….” Belladonna gave the female a reassuring smile, amazed that the girl could babble worse than her husband or son. The dwarrowdam seemed to take heart from the hobbit woman’s attitude and took a deep breath before continuing more firmly. “I mean to say Hobbits age more like Men, so they’d be younger than us when it came to being of age. The last book I found said it happened around their thirties.” 

Looking less infuriated the dwarves’ attention returned to the hobbits. Thorin rose from his seat. “Is this true?” 

Bilbo raised a brow. “Well I’ve never met a hobbit babe that was grown like a cabbage and only a glutton would eat twelve meals. Honestly, the standard seven should be enough for any descent fellow.” A few eyes widened at that news, but Bilbo continued. “However if you mean my age, then Ori is quite correct. Hobbits,” he emphasized the word, “come of age at thirty-three. As I said I have been considered an adult for the last seven years. If you must compare my age to that of a Man, I would be around twenty-seven. From what I know of dwarf aging from Gandalf, I would be around seventy of your own years.” 

A few grumbles were given here and there, but were quickly interrupted by Fili and Kili who flung themselves at Bilbo. A minute later the Baggins was floundering between the two dwarven males who were hugging the breath from his body. 

“That means you’re around our age, Bilbo,” Fili said gleefully. “I’m eighty and Kili’s seventy-seven.” 

“Even Ori’s seventy-three, so you get to be the baby of the Company,” Kili squealed squeezing even harder. 

“C-can’t breathe,” Bilbo gasped. Dwalin and Thorin were quick to peel the dwarf princes off the hobbit lad. Dwalin cuffed Fili while Thorin delivered a quick swat to Kili’s head. 

Belladonna let Bilbo lean against her and gave Thorin a smirk. “Our children might mature a bit faster than yours, as well.” 

Thorin pushed his nephew aside to loom over the hobbits. “Enough of this. What matters his age if he has still not given his pledge? I have waited long enough.” He pressed closer to Bilbo, who pushed his mother behind him. Behind Thorin the other dwarves stilled, even the princes seemed not to breathe. “Most of my Company is here and your mother is in attendance. I will have your answer now. What is your decision, Mister Baggins?” 

Behind Bilbo, Belladonna rested her hand gently on his arm. “Bungo and Mister Balin were up late last night and probably won’t rise for some time. It’s best that you let them know now.” She squeezed his arm and spoke softer. “Either way, I think your father already knows your decision, Bilbo.” She said nothing of her own knowledge which had leadened her heart. 

Her son nodded and looked up, returning the king’s glare with his own. Though Bilbo had spent the night restlessly pondering, his decision had been made much longer ago. Ever since he had heard the earth’s call his choice had been made. He had never shied from his duties before and he would not now. “I will go. Whether you will have me or not by journey’s end, I will go.” 

No one said anything as Thorin and the hobbit stared at one another. Within Bilbo’s breast, his Heart trembled with long buried yearning. Now he would see mountains. He would look upon valleys and forests, paths that his ancestors had once travelled. As Gandalf had said, the world was out there. And death, Bilbo warned his Heart. And pain. He looked away first. 

Belladonna strode out from behind Bilbo and clapped her hands, garnering her guests’ attention. “Fine, we can discuss plans once Bungo and Mister Balin are up. Now that that’s settled, I’m feeling a bit peckish. Anyone else up for second breakfast?” She turned about and headed towards the kitchen. Bilbo hurried to divert her least she started another fire. Both left a rather mute lot of dwarves in their wake, including one dwarf king. Thorin found himself missing the sight of green-blue eyes. 

“Seven meals and second breakfast,” Bombur, not known for his talkativeness, stated dreamily and followed after the hobbits. 

 

They had just finished cleaning up after the second repast when Bilbo’s day grew unexpectedly more difficult. Bungo and Balin had still not come down and Belladonna and Bilbo had finished cleaning, this time assisted by the two younger dwarves who refused to leave Bilbo’s side. From his seat, Thorin watched his sister-sons with amazement as they set about helping the hobbits dry and put away dishes without any coercion. Fili had just said something to Kili that made both hobbits chuckle when thunderous rapping was heard at the door. “Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins,” a female voice cried out in exasperation. 

Bilbo blanched and turned to his mother. Belladonna glanced at the clock. “I didn’t expect her until proper visiting hours. It’s not even elevenses, much less teatime.” Around them dwarves muddled about in confusion over whether or not to answer the door. 

“How’d she even find out? What am I saying, she always finds out. She’s going to kill me,” Bilbo stated bleakly, which did nothing to ease their dwarf guests. A few even went about looking for their weapons. 

“Oh hush. She’s not going to kill you. She’ll be after the wizard first.” Belladonna’s gaze darkened. “I might even help in that case.” That made most of the dwarrows pause in their search. 

The knocking continued. “Bilbo Baggins, I know you’re in there! If you don’t open this door now I’ll find a way to tear it down!” 

Belladonna looked skywards, imploringly. “If anyone could, it would be her. Best get the door, Bilbo.” 

Rushing past the puzzled dwarves, Bilbo reached the door and had it open before the parasol’s handle could rap against it once more. He gave his newest guest his widest smile. “Good morning, Lobelia.” 

The hobbit woman’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you good morning me, Bilbo.” She marched into the house and waited until Bilbo had closed the door, before rounding on him. “Where is he?” 

“Where’s who,” Bilbo asked backed against the door. Several of the dwarves and Belladonna had entered the hallway to watch the display. Dwalin and Thorin stood tensely by Bag-End’s mistress. 

“You know who. That meddlesome, long-limbed, bumbling wizard.” She thrust her parasol threateningly under Bilbo’s nose. “And don’t pretend you don’t know why I’m here. Do you know what that gossip Poppy Boffin told me this morning while I was taking my constitutional? ‘Oh, Miss Lobelia,’ she said,” Lobelia’s voice did a fair if a bit deranged imitation of Poppy’s whine, “‘did you hear what my Robin saw yesterday on his rounds? Why that grey-beard Gandalf was back and was harassing the Baggins. Made him try to shut him out of his smial. And did you hear there’s been some strange folk crossing the Shire? Well I’ve heard talk of no less then twelve Dwarves hereabouts in the past two days. Sounds like an adventure brewing.’” The parasol quivered in its owner’s hands as Lobelia said the last word with a snarl. “Now I thought to myself, Bilbo’s no fool. He wouldn’t be stupid enough to agree to that old meddler. He knows that he has,” she punctuated each word with a tap of the tip against Bilbo’s chest, “duties, obligations, and responsibilities. He certainly would have told his best friend if he planned to run off to parts unknown. And I better be right!” 

“Please, Lobelia,” Bilbo attempted to soothe her. “Can’t we talk about this in private?” 

Her eyes narrowed further. “You did,” she hissed. “Of course you did. You can never say no to anyone. I knew I should have come by yesterday.” Her voice rose, “Where is that blasted wizard? Come out here, Longshanks.” She whirled around with parasol held high revealing her very pregnant form to twelve startled dwarves and a rather amused Belladonna. Lobelia’s hand lowered as she blinked surprised at the group. “Why,” she asked faintly, “are their dwarves in you hallway?” 

 

Astonishingly enough it was Bomber and Dori along with Belladonna who had the most success in calming the upset mother-to-be. The two dwarves had escorted the displeased lass into the parlor, brushing pass Nori on their way in. The other dwarves had also retreated to the sitting room, where Lobelia was made to sit in Bilbo’s comfy armchair. Dori had just gotten her to rest her feet on one of the ottomans, when Belladonna came back with a tea service. Bombur quickly prepared and handed the pregnant hobbit a cup. 

Lobelia sipped it before addressing the two dwarves. “I like you. You two can live while I kill the wizard and the rest.” 

“No threatening my guests, Lobelia.” Belladonna took her own cup of tea and a seat across from the other hobbit female. “Bungo would disapprove. But if you want help with the wizard, I’ll be happy to assist.” 

“You’re not helping, Ma.” Bilbo crouched down by his friend’s seat and rested his hand on her empty one. “I know you won’t want to hear this but I am going, Lobelia. It’s all been rather sudden but I’ve given my word.” 

Lobelia sniffed and placed the tea down on an end table. “No.” 

“Lobelia—” 

“Don’t you dare ‘Lobelia’ me, Bilbo. You promised me on my wedding day that you would be godfather to my first babe. You stood as our witness and assured me and my husband that you would be honored. After I’ve spent years trying for a child and had to watch you agree to be godfather to that wretched Prim’s babe, I’m not letting you run off into the blue.” Bilbo fought not to roll his eyes. The animosity between Lobelia and Primula had long sense settled into an odd friendship where neither had anything nice to say about the other but were near-violent if anyone else insulted their friend. “Don’t give me that look either. You’re far too nice, Bilbo, and it’s going to get you killed. You can just tell Gandalf it’s all been a mistake. I don’t care if he’s your godfather. If you don’t send him packing I will.” 

Bofur’s head rose. “Gandalf’s your godfather?” 

>>He volunteered his own godson<< Dori said scandalized. 

>>Maybe it means something different to Hobbits<< Nori defended. 

Dwalin cracked his knuckles. >>I bet it doesn’t.<< 

Bilbo ignored them. “You can have Drogo stand as my proxy but I have to go. I gave my word and it wasn’t to Gandalf.” 

“Well who did you give it to,” she waved towards the dwarves. “This riff-raff?” 

The dwarves quieted. “That’s going too far, Lobelia,” Belladonna snapped. “You will not insult guests in my home.” 

Thorin strode over to the hobbits, towering over them. “He gave his word to me, Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thor. Your Mister Baggins swore to be our Company’s burglar and I hold him to his pledge.” 

Lobelia dismissed the imposing dwarf. “Burglar? You don’t even have clever hands,” she stated referring to the Bracegirdle knack. 

Bilbo’s mouth firmed. “Lobelia—” 

“No. You are not doing something as recklessly stupid as going off to steal from someone, especially when it’s not even your area of expertise. Next you’ll be telling me you’re facing a dragon.” 

The stony silence that met her statement made the hobbit pale. “Bilbo, no.” 

“Lobelia, it isn’t what you think.” 

“No,” she breathed. For once the hobbit lass looked lost. She turned pleading eyes on Thorin. “Please don’t take him. Or wait. Wait two months. I can make a journey in two months.” 

“Oh, Lobelia,” Belladonna said, rubbing at her temples. 

“Please,” the pregnant female would not take her eyes off Thorin. “I’d be a better burglar. Look,” she hurried to empty he pockets and revealed ten silver spoons. “I managed to swipe these off your companion when we brushed in the doorway.” She gestured to Nori, who cringed under Dwalin’s and Dori’s disapproval. “I can do better with even more time. Just give me two months. Don’t take him without me.” She fought to keep from crying. “Please don’t take him from me,” she begged. 

Thorin could not hold her gaze. He turned away and shook his head. A sob tore from Lobelia’s throat and Bilbo took both her hands in his and tugged them until she looked at him. 

῁῁I have to go. I’ve been called.῁῁ He said the words so softly that only Lobelia, Belladonna, and Thorin could hear. 

Lobelia slid from the chair and wrapped her arms around Bilbo, holding him close. Tears rolled down her face. ῁῁You can’t leave me῁῁ she whispered between hiccupping sobs. ῁῁You’re my dragon.῁῁ 

῁῁I swear I’ll do my best to come back to you,῁῁ he pulled back to meet her eyes. He brushed the tears from her cheeks and leaned their foreheads together. ῁῁My very best.῁῁ 

Neither said anything more, Lobelia’s crying eased by the sound of their shared breathing. Many of the dwarves had turned away to give the hobbits what privacy they could. Another knock sounded at the door and Belladonna went to answer it. A few moments later she returned with a round, panting hobbit male. His eyes fell to the embracing hobbits who had looked up at his arrival. 

“Otho.” A quivering smile appeared on Lobelia’s face at her husband’s arrival. Bilbo stood and both males helped her rise. Otho soon had her held tight against his side and gave Bilbo a reproachful, unhappy look. 

“You’re leaving.” There was no question in his tone. Bilbo merely nodded and Otho’s jaw clenched in anger. The relationship between the two had always been rather odd. While the elder Sackville-Bagginses had never liked Bilbo, Otho’s opinion of him had changed upon Bilbo’s introducing his cousin to Lobelia Bracegirdle. Half the time Bilbo never knew if Otho saw him as a friend or a rival for Lobelia’s attention. “You were going to tell us,” Otho questioned between gritted teeth. 

Bilbo swallowed. “Of course. You would have probably been one of the first I told.” 

The Sackville-Baggins nodded and pulled Bilbo into an unexpected hug. After a moment the startled hobbit returned the embrace. As quickly as he had grabbed Bilbo, Otho released him to step back and take his wife’s hand in his. The older hobbit male cleared his throat. His eyes fell on the surrounding dwarves and before addressing Bilbo in Hobbitish, **They’ll be calling a moot.** 

Bilbo replied in the same tongue, ignoring the lump in his throat. **I plan to see the Thain tomorrow. He probably won’t hold the meeting until the next day.** 

Otho closed his eyes in thought. **I’d planned to take Lobelia home to rest until afternoon. I’ll take care of the missives to the other Heads of the Families. Do you want to send the message to the Thain or shall I?** At his side Lobelia squeezed her husband’s hand, seeking to either reassure him or herself as those she loved dearest made their plans. 

**I will. Thank you, Otho.** 

“No need for thanks,” Otho replied slipping back into Westron. He turned to his wife. “I think its best we head home.” Lobelia gave a tired, resigned nod; all of her previous energy having fled. She pressed a kiss to Bilbo’s cheek and Otho and Bilbo exchanged arm clasps. 

“I’ll see you at the moot,” Otho stated. He inclined his head to the Baggins’ guest and mumbled a few apologies to Belladonna for the inconvenience of their visit. 

As the Head of the Sackville Family and his wife left, Belladonna followed to accompany them to the door. She paused by Dori, Dwalin, and Nori, where the former were berating the later. “Don’t be too harsh on her. I knew she had them and was just seeing how many she could lift without you others noticing. Though,” she gave Nori a rueful smile, “I had only counted eight. You’re quite skilled.”  Without further ado she followed her relations out of the smial, leaving the three dwarves baffled. 

A moment later a yawning Bungo walked into the quiet room. He greeted the dwarves more fondly than expected, saying good mornings and giving gentle arm pats. “The noise woke me. Was that Lobelia? Lovely girl. Well, at least lovely to Bilbo anyway.” The dwarves gaped at him. Bungo scooched by some of them to fetch himself a cup of tea. 

“Yes it was. She took the news of my leaving better than expected.” Bilbo slumped into his chair. 

Bofur coughed, “That was her taking it well?” 

Bilbo sighed and Bungo patted his son comfortingly on the back before sipping his tea. “Just wait until you tell the Thain, the Master, and the Mayor. Not to mention the Heads of the Families.” 

“Thank you, Da,” Bilbo replied sarcastically. “Like I don’t have enough to worry about with writing my will and naming a successor. And I still need to talk with Prim and Drogo.” 

Thorin scowled, “I understand you must discuss your plans with your Thain, but why must all these others be involved?” 

Bilbo looked at him as if he were dense. Something Thorin did not appreciate. “Because I’m going with you on an adventure.” The dwarves’ stares gave no comprehension. “Didn’t you hear what Lobelia said? I’m the Baggins.” Still not one dwarf seemed to understand. Bilbo’s shoulders drooped further and he rested his head in his hands. “And of course Gandalf didn’t tell you.” 

“It seems he made a point not to tell anyone much of anything,” Belladonna remarked returning with a plate of biscuits. She gave it to Bungo along with a kiss on his cheek. 

“What are you talking about,” Thorin demanded. 

Bilbo dropped his hands. “Right.” He stood up and gave the dwarves a formal bow. “Allow me to reintroduce myself. I am Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End and current Head of the Baggins Family.” 

It was during the silence that followed that statement that Balin finally walked into the parlor. 

 

After a few moments explaining that no Hobbits were practical and the Head of Family was whoever was best suited to the role and not the oldest Hobbit of the lineage, Bilbo left the arguing dwarves to his parents and locked himself in the study. First, he set about writing to the Thain requesting a Shire-moot so he could name his successor. After the missive was written, Bilbo, as politely as possible, yelled out the window until he got his gardener Hamfast’s attention. Once the good fellow had agreed to send his eldest, Hamson, to Tuckborough with the note, Bilbo settled in for an afternoon of writing. Lists of instructions and items to take care of filled his desk. When the knock came at the door for elevenses and later for luncheon, he ignored both. It was not until he had finished sealing the third and final copy of his will, which he stuffed into his jacket pocket, that Bilbo once again rejoined his parents and their guests around four o’clock. 

“Well if it isn’t the elusive Bilbo,” Kili joked as he entered the parlor. Several of the dwarves who had been engaged in various activities from a game of Fox and Geese to whittling looked up at his arrival. Bungo, who sat in the corner with Balin and Thorin renegotiating the contract once again, gave his son a concerned glance. Bilbo returned it with a reassuring smile.  

“Since when do you know what elusive means, little brother,” Fili said, tweaking his brother’s hair. 

Kili squawked and pulled his hair from his brother’s reach. “I’m not stupid.” 

“Just look it then.” The two began to wrestle about. 

Bilbo ignored them to take one of the ginger-carrot sandwiches and a gooseberry tartlet from the tray his mother had brought in. “We need shopping,” he asked after kissing her cheek. 

She gave him a pointed stare followed by a fond eye roll. “Only if we’re planning on feeding this lot.” Munching away, he nodded and headed for the door. 

“Enough you two.” Thorin stood and his nephews quickly jumped away from each other. His gaze fell on Bilbo. “And where are you off to, Mister Baggins?” 

Bilbo didn’t even glance back. He was already tired of the dwarf leader’s moods and they hadn’t even begun the journey. “To market. We need some more provisions and I have a cousin I need to talk to.” 

“You’re going out.” Bilbo found his way blocked by two fleet-footed, eager-eyed dwarves. Bilbo laughed at Kili’s and Fili’s expressions, for once looking similar in age to the dwarf lads. 

“Don’t even try that on me. My godson and his friends are better at it.” He shook head at finding even more dwarf guests surrounding him. “I suppose if anyone wanted to accompany me they could though I prefer you keep the number limited.” He gave them a wry look. “Thirteen dwarrows all at once might be a bit much for the Shire.” 

The dwarves had much arguing amongst themselves. It was agreed four might go along and after a few declined and Dori, surprisingly enough, produced a game of lots from his tunic, the final number included Fili, Kili, Bofur, and Dwalin. Together the four left with Bilbo, who hoped he was not going to inflict anything too dreadful on the other residents of Hobbiton. 

 

Having slipped away from Dwalin’s and Dori’s notice shortly after the fiasco with the hobbits, Nori had been alternating between spying on their gardener from her perch in a tree and sneaking into the smial to steal food for the last five hours. She had a job to do that did not include being lectured by her brother or the very fit guard who had arrested her a few times in her youth. At Thorin’s command, she had a hobbit to spy on. From her current position she had had a perfect vantage point to watch Bilbo scribble away for hours on different parchments. Nori yawned. Keeping an eye on the hobbit had become exceedingly dull with the only interesting bit being when he had yelled for the little gardener and sent him off with a message. Still, no one could exactly blame the dwarrowdam when after five uninteresting hours she had closed her eyes for a bit of a nap only to awaken to find him gone. Well Thorin could blame her since she was supposed to be his Spymaster but everyone else better keep their trap shut. What was even more disturbing was that she hadn’t woken until someone had gotten much too close to her. 

“I’ve had enough, young lady.” Belladonna stood at the foot of Nori’s tree with her arms crossed. Nori wasn’t sure to make of any of the hobbits but she definitely respected and was a bit in awe of the hobbit lady.  

“I mean it,” Belladonna continued. “No matter whatever profession you might have had you are not a thief but a guest in my house. So you will come down and eat at my table like one or I will come up there for you.” Nori knew better than to irritate the hobbit lady further. The female had managed to cow Gandalf, face Thorin, and gain Dwalin’s affection within less than a day. She slipped down from the tree. 

“Good.” Belladonna pushed the dwarrowdam ahead of her and into the smial. Instead of directing her to the dining room or the parlor where the others were partaking in afternoon tea, the Mistress Baggins herded her charge into the kitchen. Both seemed surprised to find a dejected Ori seated at the room’s small table. 

The little dwarrowdam jumped up at their entrance, scurrying to pick up her book. “I’m sorry. I’ll just join the others–” 

Belladonna placed a hand on her the girl’s shoulder and pressed her back into her chair. “No need to leave, dear. How about we leave the males to have tea by themselves.” The motherly hobbit pressed Nori into the seat adjacent her sister and went about gathering everything for tea. She placed a steaming cup of her own rosehip blend before both dams and a plate of Bungo’s honey cakes and cucumber sandwiches on the table. Taking her own seat, Belladonna watched contentedly as the girls ate. She blew on her tea as her chest gave a little pang. She had always wanted a daughter though circumstances had prevented her. 

“I owe you an apology,” Belladonna stated to Nori. Ori and her sister both stared at the hobbit female. Nori swallowed her bit of cake, confused. 

“I don’t think you do,” Nori replied. It probably should have been the other way around. She had been the one caught stealing, though she hadn’t planned on keeping the silverware. She had just been entertaining herself. Ori bit her lip worriedly. 

Belladonna gave the dams a small smile. “I could have explained to your brother and your Company before Lobelia said anything. My reasons for not making them aware of the situation were rather selfish. You see, Miss Nori, I’ve been assessing you for my own benefit.” 

The dams exchanged a worried look. Nori slid closer to her sister and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. Her other hand settled on one of her hidden knives. “And why would you do that?”

Setting down her cup, Belladonna lent further across the table. “Because you have all the skills one would expect of a burglar, yet your Company is hiring my son for the position. That tells me one of two things. Either you are more important than you seem or the position is considered so dangerous that your Company would rather risk the life of someone from a different race to do the deed. Possibly both are true,” she said settling back in her chair. “Perhaps it’s simply because you are a dam, though I do not think they would bring you or Miss Ori if that was the case. Maybe they do not wish to have anyone risk their kin more than necessary on this journey. The reason doesn’t really matter. What I care about is that, should my son’s life be considered of so little value, I would have as many as persons possible actively seek to keep him safe. I have watched you, Miss Nori, because I believe you to be one of the best suited for this task.” 

Both dams looked at the female in shock. Nori shook her head. “Mistress Baggins, you have the wrong dwarf,” she stated firmly. 

Belladonna poured another cup of tea. “I don’t think I have, Miss Nori. And please call me Belladonna.” She stirred her tea. “I’ve watched you watch us and I’ve seen you with your siblings. You don’t miss much and you understand others better than most. Just look at you with your sister,” she gestured to Ori, who flushed at the attention. Nori put herself closer to her sister causing Belladonna to smile. “Even now you seek to comfort her though she has not signaled she needs any. I’ve always been a very instinctive person and I have rarely regretted that.” She met the dwarrowdam’s eyes with her own, all the fierceness of her dragon heritage shining in their amber depths. “I would ask you watch over my son. Never would I expect that his life be of more importance than you kin. All I ask is that you treat him as having some import if only for your quest’s sake. If you would take my only child, I ask that you do not discount his worth.” 

Nori could not answer. These hobbits were mad and Bilbo Baggins obviously meant the world to his mother. Why else would someone take the word of a former thief to guard their more precious possession? How could this female simply sit there and request that Nori treat her son better than Orc fodder when the hobbit suspected her history? She could not expect the former thief to say yes. 

Ori surprised both of them by speaking up. “I-if you would take my word, Miss Belladonna, I would promise to watch out for Bilbo.” The dam flushed prettily but her voice firmed as she continued. “He has been kind to me and I am technically his elder. I am no warrior but I would not have the youngest of our Company think he has no importance.” 

Nori closed her eyes in frustration. Belladonna placed her own hand over Ori’s. “That’s very kind of you, my dear. It will ease my mind that Bilbo already has so good a friend to watch over him. My boy has always been one to take the weight of the world upon his own shoulders. He often forgets that we all need others to lighten the burden.” 

The hobbit lady rose and gave Nori a parting glance. “I won’t ask for your answer now, Miss Nori, nor would I hold Miss Ori to a pledge made in haste. Take your time to think on a hostess’s request but please let me know your decision before you leave.” With a final sad smile Belladonna left the kitchen. 

Nori thumped her head against the table and Ori watched her sister with concern. Hobbits must be completely insane if they thought trusting her a good plan, the elder dam thought. She had no idea how she would answer the hobbit’s request. After a moment, Nori’s mouth twitched into a smirk. At least one thing was certain. If Belladonna’s son proved to be made of half her mettle, the quest should prove to be much more exciting than already planned. 

 

Bilbo wasn’t sure what he found more surprising: how well his dwarven guests took to Hobbiton or how well the Hobbits took to the dwarves. Bofur did well enough with sharing the occasional saucy joke or funny story. Hobbits loved a good story after all. The lads gained an even larger welcome. Even those who had not spoken to him for years doted on Kili and Fili. While a dragon pretending to be a hobbit was not too upsetting, an Unfortunate who tended to change into a dragon had caused a few outbursts. Bilbo had never understood why it was his knack that caused the occasional shunning more than his dragon-blood, but it hardly mattered. Odd or not, Bilbo would not have given away his second form in exchange for the acceptance of ever Bracegirdle and Burrow in the Shire. Even Daisy Hayward, who had refused to talk to him since his first transformation, was eager to have the boys sample her meat pies. Possibly because the two had drawn quite a bit of attention from the local lasses. He had to bite down on a laugh as Clematis Rumble attempted to flirt with Fili whose eyes had not left a particularly savory pie. Astoundingly, Dwalin was most popular. Hobbit fauntlings flocked to the gruff, tattooed warrior with wide-eyed excitement. The dwarf warrior soon had a small hoard of faunts wrapped around his legs and following after him. Worried parents once informed he was a guest of the Baggins were at once reassured and made inquiries about how long the dwarves were staying and if the tall one would like to babysit. 

Eventually Bilbo extracted his guests from their hobbit admirers and managed to pay for all the needed purchases, refusing Dwalin’s insistence that he take some amount from the Company’s funds. Having laden his four dwarf companions with as much groceries as possible, Bilbo led the way back to Bag-End. Before climbing the Hill, he halted and turned to the dwarrows. 

“I have to make a quick stop. Would you be willing to go ahead?” 

Not wanting to leave their hobbit alone, Fili and Kili refused. Dwalin was quick to follow, not liking the idea of abandoning the lad with his part of the groceries. Bofur, as the final voice of reason, stated they all might go along if it was going to be such a short detour. 

Since he was unable to lose his dwarven escort, Drogo ended up opening his door to greet Bilbo and his four dwarves. Despite his initial shock, the hobbit was quick to welcome the group and their parcels into his smial. 

A small black-haired streak threw itself at Bilbo. “Bee-bow. Bee-bow.” The fauntling squealed as Bilbo unceremoniously dropped his packages and picked the boy up to spin around and around. Drogo watched them with a smile as an auburn haired female hobbit entered the room. 

“Bilbo, I just fed him so if he gets sick you’re cleaning it.” Bilbo immediately stopped and set the little hobbit boy down. He ruffled his curls before accepting an embrace from the hobbit female. 

Remembering his manners, Bilbo hurriedly pulled away and gestured to the dwarves. “Prim and Drogo, may I introduce my companions Fili and Kili,” the boys bowed, “Bofur,” the dwarf gave a wink, “and Dwalin.” The tall dwarf gave a deep nod. “They and their other companions are currently guests at Bag-End. My good dwarrows these are my cousins Drogo Baggins and Primula Baggins née Brandybuck.” The hobbit female and male stared at the dwarves with unfathomable look. Bilbo ignored the growing awkwardness to smile down at the faunt who had clung to his leg. “And this,” he said as he unwrap the boy from his leg to hold him against his side, “is their son Frodo who is also my godson.”

With barely a hint of shyness, the fauntling turned big blue eyes on the dwarrows. “Tall,” he announced and put his hand in his mouth. It was enough to send most of the gathering into laughter. Bilbo handed the little hobbit off to his mother and Fili and Kili eagerly bound forward to see the tiny hobbit better. As Primula led the others off to the parlor, Bilbo and Drogo slipped away from group. 

After making sure all the dwarves were seated and having left Frodo on the rug with Fili and Kili, who had been given clear instructions not to jostle the little one, Primula took a seat. Silently, she and the two older dwarves watched as the lads sought to teach the faunt how to build a stable arch with his mess of blocks. 

“You’re taking him away.” The hobbit lass turned away from where the youths entertained her babe. She met Dwalin’s eyes with her own clear, sorrowful ones. “Aren’t you?” 

Neither asked who she was talking about. Dwalin simply grunted and Bofur inclined his head. “Aye, lass. He’s agreed to come with us.” 

Primula looked down at her lap, folding her fingers together, before looking back to where the boys played by the rug. “I knew he would someday. Bilbo’s always seemed too big for the Shire. The world was bound to call him away.” A little bitter smile settled on her face. The dwarves watched her still silent. “He’s always been so restless. Always had to climb the tallest trees and wander off into the woods alone.” She glanced to the older dwarves. “Or speak with scary dwarves. Frodo’s just like him.” She closed her eyes and swallowed harshly. 

Dwalin felt even more torn then when he had watched the other hobbit lass cry earlier. This one seemed inclined to hold her grief close to her heart. The merriment in Bofur’s eyes dulled as he watched Primula Baggins open her eyes and fix them on her son. 

“I won’t ask,” she said softly, “for you to keep him safe. Just…please don’t let him take on too much. He’s always been such a fool about taking care of others and ignoring himself.” She smiled as Drogo and Bilbo returned. It was a heartbreaking thing that graced her face. “But he wouldn’t be Bilbo if he was any other way.” She rose and swept Frodo from the rug. 

The little family walked their guests to the door. Bilbo pressed a kiss to Frodo’s cheek. “I won’t see you for awhile, Froddie, but your da said he’d give you my birthday gift.” He licked dry lips. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” 

“You’d better,” Prim said drawing him down for a hug, letting Frodo be pressed between them. Bilbo’s arms lingering a moment longer than usual. He stepped away from them and met Drogo’s embrace. 

“I’ll see you at the moot,” he said, letting go of Bilbo’s shoulders. Bilbo had no words left and nodded in agreement. He picked up his parcels. With a last faltering smile, the hobbit gave his farewell and headed the group off to Bag-End, one will lighter. The hobbit family did not move from the doorstop as they watched Bilbo walk away. 

Dwalin let Bofur and the lads pass him. This is foolishness, Dwalin thought. How many warriors had he led into battle? How often had he told a guard’s family that their child/parent/sibling would not return? The lives of his king and princes were already on his shoulders. He should not let sentiment rule him now. But he found he could not ignore the hobbit family’s fearful gaze on Bilbo’s back. He turned to the hobbit lass whose eyes widened in surprise. “I, Dwalin son of Fundin, do swear by my axes and by stone that I will do my best to return your kinsman to you. May the Maker strike and reforge me if I forget my vow.” He inclined his head once more before the stunned couple. The dwarf strode away, pretending he did not hear the sobbed words that followed his departure. 

“Thank you, Dwalin, son of Fundin. Thank you.” 

He turned the corner to meet Bofur, who held his own mass of packages. The miner walked beside him, letting their younger companions continue well enough ahead. “You think that was wise,” the toymaker asked quietly, his tone holding no judgment. 

Dwalin’s shoulders tensed but he kept up his pace. “It was my choice. Thorin can be as unhappy as he wants.” 

Thinking on it a moment, Bofur nudged Dwalin’s shoulder with his own. The miner gave the other dwarf a brief chuckle. “He can only be unhappy if you tell him.” He gave a jaunty wink and strolled ahead whistling to himself. 

A moment later, Dwalin widened his stride to catch up with the merry dwarf. 

 

Upon their arrival to Bag-End, neither Bofur nor Dwalin blamed Bilbo for fleeing to his room after the parcels had all been put away. When Thorin made to follow the lad, Dwalin simply shook his head. When Bilbo did not appear for supper or dinner that night, the elder Bagginses made no comment and for once the younger dwarves kept their mouths shut. After all, Fili and Kili had noticed the tension at the other smial. They were not as dense to their surroundings as the others believed, just a bit tactless with the sudden freedom the Shire provided. Even after the meal was finished no one mentioned Bilbo’s absence.

It seemed only Thorin’s mind was consumed by thoughts of the hobbit. As he lay in bed that night he thought he could hear faint noise coming from the burglar’s room. The dwarf lord’s heart clenched. Troubled, he stayed awake longer than he expected trying to decide if the sound was more akin to prayers or tears.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t yet five in the morning when a certain grey clad wizard found himself standing outside a familiar green door. Though the business that had kept him away the previous day was finished, Gandalf could not manage to raise his hand and knock. The Istari had faced numerous perils, darker foes than many had seen in centuries, but the thought of seeing his dear friends and godson made him hesitate. He had never meant any of the hobbits harm but it seemed he had hurt them anyway. 

Gandalf startled as the door opened of its own accord and Bungo’s worn face peered up at him. The gentlehobbit held an unlit pipe in one hand and a pouch of Old Toby hung at his side. The two exchanged a blink of surprise before Bungo stepped out onto his stoop and closed the door. He gestured to the cozy bench besides the house and both took a seat. 

“You’re late,” Bungo stated as he set about stuffing his pipe. He waved impatiently at the wizard, who hastily drew his own pipe from his robes. 

“A wizard is never late, Bungo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means too. Unless he’s making plans based around Belladonna’s actions.” The joke was awkward but it produced a smile from both males. Bungo finished filling his friend’s pipe and Gandalf gratefully accepted it back. A small flame flickered from his fingers and he used it to light first Bungo’s pipe then his own. 

The two sat in companionable silence for some time, exchanging shapes made of smoke. Gandalf’s last exhale formed a solitary mountain. Bungo glanced at the wizard before he breathed out. His smoke produced a small dragon that coiled around the mountain’s peak. The little figure looked remarkably similar to Bilbo in his dragon form. 

Gandalf sighed and set his pipe aside. He watched as the figures slowly dissipated. “So Bilbo has agreed to go.” 

“Yes.” Bungo took a final puff from his pipe and released the smoke. A tree formed with little buds. “You know, Gandalf,” he said, putting his pipe away as he watched the smoke-tree, “though you went about it poorly, I think this adventure may be best for Bilbo.  A chance for change.” The little buds burst into bloom and the smoke faded away. 

The wizard remained silent and watched his companion closely. Bungo nestled back further against the bench, enjoying the stirrings of life that dawn brought to the country-side. “As a faunt, my health was so poor many of our healers said I should be lucky to live past seventy. Yet here I am and the knowledge of why weighs heavy on me.” He breathed in the scent of fresh grass. “I’m old Gandalf.” His words brought a little chill to the spring morning. “I know I don’t look it as much as I should. But I feel it in my heart. I feel thin, sort of stretched like butter scraped over too much bread. If not for Belladonna and Bilbo, I would have past one of these last two winters.” He looked up towards the pale sky, his eyes tracking the swirls of pink and gold. “My boy has a good heart, but he uses his knack too often. Any illness or hurt that he can draw to himself, he does. I cannot think of a single winter of the past five years where Bilbo has not taken on sickness so another may not.” Bungo turned to the wizard. “Can you imagine what it feels like, Gandalf, to watch your child sacrifice himself again and again so you do not fall ill?’ 

“Bilbo,” Gandalf replied solemnly, “has always been one of the most kindhearted creatures I’ve had the privilege to be acquainted with.” 

Bungo smiled a small, tight thing. “He’s had too many burdens for his years. My health has never been the best but I should have remained Head of the Family longer. He was too young to shoulder the responsibility so soon after his coming of age.” 

Gandalf snorted. “I remember hearing about it from your letters, Bungo, when he and Belladonna first suggested it to you. They were bound to get their way eventually. You’d not have been able to stop the two of them. Besides Bilbo has insisted on helping you do the work of managing everything for years. You giving him the title at thirty-five only made it official.” The wizard removed his hat and stretched his long legs out before him. 

The hobbit nodded, resigned. “True. True.” He closed his eyes. “Still I regret it. He takes too much upon himself. I would rather have him smile and laugh again. He doesn’t do either nearly enough. I would have him remember the faunt who followed his grandmother into the woods fondly and not blame him for a choice not his own.” 

“I hope this adventure will lead him to that, my friend.” 

“Yet, I fear, Gandalf.” Bungo’s shoulder tensed. “I fear what more heartbreak will do to him. He did not speak for a year after Adamanta’s death. We had no hope he would again until Belladonna took him to Rivendell.” Bungo rubbed at his eyes. “My son only has some peace about him after he returns from seeing the elves, yet they have not made a journey to Lord Elrond’s for these past five years. Not with Belladonna’s hip and Bilbo taking over the Family duties. Just one more sacrifice of Bilbo’s.” He shook his head. “Constantly I watch him teeter between what he allows himself to have and what he desires. Most of his age mates have married but Bilbo has no spouse or sweetheart. He forgoes his own needs to protect others but refuses to let them do the same. His body, his health, his time are happily given away but his Heart is kept to himself. I fear that if nothing presses him to venture out into the world, Bilbo will simply remain in the Shire and fade to a lonesome shadow of himself.” 

Gandalf watched a bird alight on one of the nearby trees. “I suspected but had hoped it had not become so bad. I thought by now he would have put Adamanta’s death to rest. I thought he would have regained his spirit of adventure.” The bird fluttered its wings and took flight. “I had thought he would simply come with me if I asked him to.” 

Bungo sighed. “I think, in his heart, Bilbo truly is still in love with the Shire: the woods, the fields…little rivers. But I think my son could love so much more if he but gave himself the chance.” The hobbit stood and stretched. His hand patted the wizard’s arm. “Enough grave thoughts for one morn. Come inside and I’ll make us some breakfast.” 

Without a word, the wizard rose as well and the two entered the smial.

*  * *

 Bilbo rose early but had no desire to leave his room. He was tired from another sleepless night and hungry from missing too many meals. Yet, there were guests to feed, things to pack, and a trip to Tuckborough to prepare for. So fatigued, he headed to the kitchen only to find his father already there with a plate prepared for him and his godfather sitting at the table. 

“Eat up, son,” Bungo said, placing a dish of apple muffins besides his son’s plate of eggs and toast. Gandalf barely moved from where he ate his own meal as though any sudden motion might scare his godson off. However, Bilbo knew better than to disobey his father. He had already skipped enough meals as it was. Hobbit metabolism being so fast meant that seven meals were a necessity rather than gluttonous behavior as Big Folk presumed. The more food hobbits ate the more energy they had and the quicker they could heal. 

Bilbo took his seat and began eating, refusing to look at Gandalf. It wasn’t anger that made him reluctant to turn to the wizard, but hurt. He wondered if his godfather had taken into consideration Bilbo’s wellbeing at all before assuring the dwarves of his godson’s agreement. He picked dishearteningly at his food. His father bustled about the kitchen, leaving the two to their awkward silence. 

“Bilbo, my dear lad,” Gandalf eventually said, placing the muffin he was fiddling with down. Remorse was evident in his eyes as he faced his godson. “I do beg your pardon. I have not acted as I ought to have and I never meant to cause you distress.” Tentatively he placed his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. The hobbit met the wizard’s eyes with his own uncertain gaze. “I should have asked you properly and listened more. I shall do better by you.” 

Bilbo clasped the hand on his shoulder with his own and closed his eyes. Gandalf was as everyone said a meddler. Bilbo could hardly hold one of his less successful attempts at interfering with another’s life against him. “Just ask next time, godfather.” Bilbo once again met Gandalf’s gaze, this time with a frail grin. “I might end up surprising you.” 

“You always do, Bilbo. You always do.” 

From his place at the stove Bungo smiled as a comfortable quiet filled the kitchen except for the sizzle of food and clanging of pans. It lasted quite peacefully until the first of the dwarves, Dori this time, entered the kitchen.

  

Bilbo watched over the horde that filled the dining room with quiet amusement. Quite a few of the dwarves gave Gandalf unfriendly glances. The wizard in turn was avoiding Belladonna. Nori also seemed to be evading his mother, which was difficult since Ori had taken to trailing the hobbit lady’s steps. Bofur was mediating some discussion between Bifur and Gloin, Fili and Kili had taken to fighting over the last of the sausages, and Balin sat with Bungo where they ironed out the final contract Bilbo was to sign. Only two of the dwarves distracted Bilbo from his observations. Dwalin kept glancing at Bilbo in a rather disconcerting way, as though to reassure himself of the hobbit’s presence. Even more unnerving was Thorin, who sat ignoring Balin and Bungo’s discussion. The dwarf lord’s unflinching gaze remained intensely focused on Bilbo. In return the hobbit did his best not to grow angry under the dwarf’s notice. Bilbo had no desire to be judged this morning. 

“Gandalf,” Kili called, having lost the war for the last piece of bacon. Many dwarven heads turned to the youth. “Is it true you’re Bilbo’s godfather?” 

The ferocity of the glares directed at Gandalf grew. “Ahem, well yes. Belladonna herself named me it on the day Bilbo was born.” The wizard’s eyes flickered to where Ori was helping the hobbit lady sit, the pain in her hip having flared. She looked up to meet his eyes and a certain understanding passed between the two. It was not only Bungo who had come to rethink how this adventure may affect Bilbo. 

“I could hardly name anyone else,” Belladonna sniffed from her seat. “We’d nearly gotten killed together on too many journeys for me to ask some Burrow or Boffins. Besides the look on your face was entirely worth it.” 

Gloin grunted. “You’ve been on many adventures, Mistress Baggins?” 

“Oh a few.” She smiled to herself, eyes looking off at someone unknown distance. “Made my father’s hair white and came back with quite a few tales and souvenirs.” Her hand fell to her hip and the smile faded. She looked at her son with a pang of guilt. “Though if this is how father felt,” she muttered, “whenever I ran off with you, I can only pity him.” Most of the dwarves missed her quiet words and those who didn’t pretended to. 

Fili, happily chewing on his bacon, asked attempting to change the atmosphere, “Is it like with our godfathers?” Thorin gave his nephew a look indicating he should censure his words. They had no reason to be sharing their culture with the hobbits. 

Bilbo replied to the dwarf’s words with interest, “What do you mean, Mister Fili?” 

Kili snorted at the formal address. “Don’t call him that, Bilbo, or his head will only get fatter.” 

Fili elbowed his brother back. “Not as fat as yours.” He smiled cheekily at Bilbo. “You can call me Fili and this idiot," he pointed to Kili, “by his name as well or numbskull if you prefer.” Kili flung himself at Fili only to be stopped by Dwalin who grabbed the lads by their necks and shook them like rats. 

“Don’t go upsetting the table.” He dropped both in their respective seats and turned to Bilbo. “You seemed close to the little one yesterday. The lads are just curious as to your role in his life I suppose.” 

Bilbo blinked. “You mean Frodo.” Fili and Kili nodded. Most of the dwarves also seemed curious, since their companions had told them something of the visit to the hobbit family the night before. “I am his godfather. It means….” Bilbo paused, uncertain of how to explain. It was a practice that took effect after the hobbits had migrated to the Vales of Anduin, after their near genocide. So many families had been destroyed or left with few survivors that it had seemed prudent that an unrelated member be also held responsible for the lives of newborn faunts. If the parents died, this third person would be depended upon to protect the child. “It is an old custom, but all faunts have a godparent of some type, either male or female. The godparent is to be a source of support to the faunt. He is to help guide him throughout his life and offer him advice. If the child’s parents die then he may come to raise the child.” Bilbo shrugged, not mentioning how godparents reinforced the teachings of the Valar. “Just the usual things.” 

“Somewhat similar to ours then,” Balin interjected. 

>>I suppose their half-parent would not be beholden to helping them choose their trades<< Oin said.

>>Nor sworn to defend them with their lives,<< Gloin replied. 

>>Probably why they all have them instead of just their royalty like ours.<< Other dwarves nodded at Bifur’s words once they had puzzled out the meaning of the old dialect. 

>>They would be useless as protectors.<< Thorin stood, ending the conversation. 

Bilbo bit his lip at their words. He need not let these dwarves know he could understand them quite well enough. 

Bungo noted his son’s irritation. “Come look at this, Bilbo. I think we’ve got the contract sorted and its best you sign it before going to seeing Isumbras.” Bilbo brushed past Thorin and took a seat besides his father. “You’ll be spending the night I suspect.” 

“I’ll have to for the moot. Not everyone will be there by today.” Bilbo pulled the contract towards him. Quite a bit had been altered offering stipulations towards both parties. His eyes had just scanned how all amendments made to the contract must be agreed to by both parties with a neutral third witness ‘of which the wizard would be an acceptable choice’ when Thorin interrupted him. 

“Who is this Isumbras?” 

Bilbo continued reading as Bungo explained. “Our Thain. Bilbo will have to set out in a bit for Tuckborough if he wants to get the moot out of the way. Once that’s settled it shouldn’t take more than a day or two before you can start off on your quest.” 

“Since he is one of your leaders,” Balin said, attempting to get Thorin’s attention, “it would be best that we send a delegation along. It never hurts to keep up good relations with the local government.” He gave Thorin a pointed look. 

“Fine. As the leader of the Company I should go and as my heir Fili should come along as well to learn something of diplomacy.” 

>>Aye. Wouldn’t want to have another leader who knows nothing of it,<< Dwalin muttered causing a few coughing fits. An uproar rose among the dwarves as they decided who would go. 

Ignoring their conversation in Khuzdul, Bilbo observed that most of the contract’s changes seemed to be compromises. One such being that any disputes would be resolved in whichever language either party preferred as long as a neutral third party acted as judge and a reliable translator was available.  A particular passage caught his eye: ‘Furthermore, the Company shall retain any and all Recovered Goods until such a time as a full and final reckoning can be made, from which the Total Profits can then be established. Then, and only then, will the Burglar’s fourteenth share be calculated and decided. Excepting in cases of Emergency, wherein Burglar may be granted part of his share as long as he is supported by either the Director of the Company or three Members of the Company, including a Senior Member of over hundred and fifty Years.’ Could prove helpful, Bilbo thought skipping ahead.   

His eyes fell to the part of the contract he knew his father most have argued most on: ‘Burglar shall notify and may assist in devising means and methods to circumvent any difficulties arising from any illegal or illicit occupation or guardianship of Company’s rightful home and property. Eviction or elimination of any undesirable guardian of Company’s property, goods or premises or holdings while preferable shall not, in Burglar’s case, take priority over the recovery of said property, goods, premises or holdings, should such a guardian be encountered. Burglar’s objective shall remain the recovery of a certain Item of Importance which will be disclosed by the Director of the Company. Should guardian be encountered and Burglar choose to assist in removal elimination shall take priority over eviction in any and all cases. Burglar's duties will be deemed fulfilled upon procuring and delivering Item of Importance to Director or on removal of guardian.’ It was an acceptable condition. Bilbo’s hand trembled slightly as he set quill to parchment and signed his name. He closed his eyes and released a breath. He was bound now as Burglar to the Company. Perhaps it will be enough, he thought. Perhaps this will be enough to keep the earth from crying. To keep death and war from following the steps of a certain dwarven king. The one and half hearts drummed in his chest and Bilbo shuddered. All he could do was imagine dragon flame against his skin and blood upon his hands. 

Bilbo startled as Balin reached over to pick up the contract. The conversation in the room had stopped once Bilbo had picked up the quill, though the hobbit had not noticed. Now all watched as Balin perused the document. He blew gently on the drying ink and proceeded to fold the parchment. “Everything appears to be in order. Welcome, Master Baggins, to the Company of Thorin Oakenshield.” 

A cheer rose from the gathering and Belladonna came to stand by her husband. The two elder hobbits entangled their fingers together and gave their son proud though sad smiles. 

“What draft was that,” Bofur asked gesturing to the contract. 

Balin raised an eyebrow. “Fifteen.” 

The miner laughed, “Come on, Nori, pay up.” 

The dwarrowdam wrinkled her nose bur threw him a pouch of gold. More pouches sailed about the room. 

Bilbo turned to Gandalf. “What’s this about.” 

The wizard gave a little cough. “Oh, they took wagers on how many times the contract would need to be corrected until you would sign. Most of them bet on lower numbers.” 

 “What did you think?” 

 “Hmmm.” Gandalf caught two pouches out of the air. “Bilbo, I would never underestimate your father’s propensity for legalities.” 

“And you did not fear I would not sign?” 

Gandalf gave the hobbit a serious look, though a twinkle of merriment gleamed in his eye. “You, my dear fellow, I never doubted for a second.” 

 

Shortly after the cleaning up of second breakfast, Bilbo was at the door shouldering a satchel he had packed the night before. He had just finished buttoning the brass buttons of his red jacket when a polite cough drew his attention. He turned to find what seemed to be the whole Company standing in the smial’s entrance. Bilbo focused on the dwarf closest to him. 

“Hello, Mister Balin. How can I help you?” Balin smiled benignly as behind him Thorin glared at being ignored. 

“We’ve decided on the party to accompany you.” 

“Oh.” Bilbo had hoped he could have slipped away before the dwarves came to an agreement but it seemed he wasn’t so lucky. “Who would that include?” 

Balin patted his arm. “Don’t worry, lad.” He opened the door and ushered the hobbit ahead of him. “It’s only half of us.” 

Bilbo found himself being pushed down the path with Gandalf and Balin in the lead. Balin hastened to explain the odd company that trailed a few steps behind. Thorin of course was going as royal leader and insisted Fili come along. It was best for everyone that Kili attend too since he would not part from his brother. Ori was to accompany them since she was the Company scribe and could record anything of important that occurred. Nori had then insisted on going since neither of Ori’s siblings would allow her to be on her own. Gloin had won the seventh spot by stating the he was sure to go mad if he was cooped up any longer. Besides Dwalin had resigned at Bungo’s mention of needing a taste tester for some new recipes. Balin of course was needed since he was the only member skilled in diplomacy. 

“Gandalf, you’re leading us to Bywater.” Bilbo said, once he resigned himself to the dwarven group. 

“Yes. To the Green Dragon Inn to be precise.” 

Bilbo rolled his eyes. “And why are we headed there?” 

“For out mounts, Master Burglar,” Thorin stated stepping to the fore. “Unless you planned to take all day walking there.” 

Before he could mention that he did mean to walk, thank you very much, Gandalf moved to stay in front of Thorin. “Better I lead, Thorin. I know my way.” Thorin shot Gandalf a scowl but did not comment. 

Bilbo bit back on a harsh reply and instead exchanged a smile with Fili and Kili who pressed the hobbit between them. 

The journey to Bywater while short was rather enjoyable and might have remained so if one did not take Bilbo’s Unfortunate state into account. They had stopped outside of the Green Dragon and Gandalf and Thorin had just entered when a shrill, unpleasant voice made the remainder of the group turn. 

“Bilbo Baggins, what is this nonsense about leaving the Shire?” Bilbo winced at the voice and actually huddled against Fili’s side for a moment. The dwarf exchanged a look with his brother and they crowded nearer to the hobbit as Bilbo straightened and turned around. 

“Hello, Aunt Camellia. Wonderful day isn’t it?” 

The elderly hobbit female hobbled towards him, her curly mass of hair in disarray. “I thought you had put that stupidity behind you once you became Head of the Family,” she said ignoring her nephew’s comment. “Never agreed with Bungo giving the title to you when Otho could have done a better job but at least it kept you from gallivanting off. Thought even a half-Took like you could understand that a Baggins does his duty.” She stopped before Bilbo and pressed a wrinkled finger against his chest. Behind Bilbo, Fili and Kili let out joint grunts of displeasure. “You owe it to us to stay, you Unfortunate brat.” Balin grabbed onto the dwarf lads’ hoods least they leap on the hobbit lady. Youthful recklessness would do no good here. He looked at Gloin, who also seemed displeased at this hobbit’s treatment of their Burglar, and inclined his head to the inn. Gloin hurried inside to fetch Gandalf and Thorin. 

Bilbo strived to remain calm. Despite how vile Camellia Sackville-Baggins could be she was still his aunt and he refused to be uncivil. Anyway he was familiar with Camellia’s behavior towards him. Though she was only a Baggins through marriage, the hobbit female detested the Unfortunate but hadn’t liked the idea of not benefiting from his existence or his knack. “Aunt, I’ve already proven before I don’t need to be in the Shire for it to keep working for the rest of the Bagginses. The Family will be fine. I've been called on and I have to go.” Bilbo tried to keep his words as vague as possible due to the dwarves present, though he did place special emphasis on the word called, hoping that it would be enough to silence his aunt. Camellia should have known better than to go on about such things in front of Outsiders. Already a few of the hobbits who had gathered around at the start of the argument were sending the dwarves looks of worry.

Bilbo’s words did nothing to calm his irate aunt. “I don’t care what you think you’ve proven,” she spat. “Called or not, you would see us all fall to ruin. Our fortune taken and our Family bereft. You’re the worst piece of luck to fall on the Baggins Family in centuries.” 

“Don’ talk to him—” Kili began, unhappy with the hobbit's disrespect to Bilbo. “While you—” Fili started, unwilling to watch one younger than him so publicly shamed for no reason. Both were silenced by Balin’s tug on their hoods. The elder dwarf was not certain what was happening but it was obviously a family quarrel and it was best they stay out of it. From the corner of his eye, he could see where Nori of a like mind had pressed Ori back against the inn wall. The little lass seemed to be straining against her sister to reach Bilbo’s side. 

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Aunt,” Bilbo replied. There was no use in trying to appeal to the woman’s scarce sense of logic. “But my business is my own. Do note that I have already chosen my successor least I not return.” He turned his back to her and attempted to give Fili and Kili a reassuring smile. Camellia’s next words made him still. 

“You dismiss your family so easily. What of your parents? With his health how long will your father live once you leave? Your mother,” the tone she used when talking of Belladonna made the dwarves stiffen with offense, “is sure to Waste after his passing. Her blood doesn’t last long after their spouses die after all.” Bilbo bit his tongue until he tasted blood. A look of triumph crossed Camellia’s face, sensing she had finally elicited some pain. She did not notice the hobbit male who had shoved his way past most of the onlookers. “You’ve always been so selfish. First Adamanta and now this.” A gasp rose from the crowd. Though the specifics were not understood by those outside the Thain’s line, everyone knew that Adamanta Took had given her life to save her grandson. It was in the poorest of taste to mention though and the Tooks were swift to take revenge on any who slighted Bilbo over it. “Never cared about whom you harm but what can one expect of a murderer. Will you be the cause of your parents’ deaths as well, Unfortunate?!” All the dwarves stilled at her words, including Thorin and Gloin who stood in the inn’s doorway, preventing Gandalf from exiting. 

The newcomer thrust himself between her and Bilbo and wrapped an arm around the younger male’s shoulder. “That is enough, Mistress Sackville-Baggins.” Camellia drew back a step at the sternness in his voice. Sputtering sounds left her mouth upon realizing who was addressing her. 

“You needn’t say anything more. I believe I’ve heard all the venom I can stand of you insulting my kin.” The hobbit pressed his unresponsive cousin closer to his side. “Go back to your smial, Mistress. I’m sure I’ll be having a talk with my father and your son about your conduct.” 

Though she took another step back, Camellia brought her head up high. “I’m not afraid of you or your father, Fortinbras Took. Much less my own son.” 

Fortinbras’s eyes narrowed. “Then you’re more of a fool than you act. I’m certain Otho will have no qualms about sharing your words with your daughter-in-law.” Panic settled over Camellia’s features. “Leave.” The crowd of hobbits had already begun to disperse and without an audience Camellia hurried to retreat. “And do not,” he said with a dark tone that made the fleeing female scamper away faster, “ever mention my grandmother again if you know what is best for you.” 

The hobbit made sure she had left before turning his attention to Bilbo. “You alright, cousin?” He removed his arm and raised Bilbo’s head. A small choked sound emerged from the younger male. At the noise Balin released his hold on the lads and the two bounded over to Bilbo, fluttering about indecisively over whether or not their hobbit needed a hug. In the end they didn’t care and wrapped their arms around him. When they would not move, Gandalf thumped both Thorin and Gloin with his staff and the dwarves stumbled forward. The wizard strode past them to his godson and placed a hand on his shoulder. 

Comfort washed over Bilbo and he grabbed onto the brothers’ jerkins drawing them nearer. Fortinbras watched in surprise that quelled some of his anger at Camellia. Bilbo hardly ever welcomed physical contact from near strangers but already his cousin seemed to be collecting himself. 

From her place Nori held on firmly to Ori. She didn’t condemn the hobbit for being called a murderer. She too had killed when necessary. But until she knew his reasons she would not have her sister near him. She exchanged a surprised glance with Thorin and understood the silent command. The dwarrowdam would be keeping a much closer eye on their hobbit. 

Bilbo drew away from Kili and Fili embarrassed. Camellia had said nothing he hadn’t been berating himself over since Nori’s comment the day before. It was one of the reasons he had not slept last night. Bilbo strove to compose himself. He would not let Camellia’s poisonous words unsettle him further. Fortinbras clasped his shoulder. “Don’t listen to the old biddy. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Next time we should ask Gandalf here to turn her into something unnatural.” He waggled his brows at the last word eliciting a snort from the wizard, giggles from the dwarf lads, and even a weak chuckle from Bilbo. Turning to the rest of the gathering, the middle-aged hobbit flashed them a smile. “So who’s this lot?” 

 

After the eventual introductions Fortinbras, who had been headed to Tuckborough anyway, insisted on joining the party. Since they had only brought one spare pony for their planned for Burglar, Fortinbras declined borrowing one of the not present dwarves’ mounts. 

“Bilbo and I will share. He’s not used to riding anyway,” he shrugged. Which was a bit of understatement since, while most creatures did not know Bilbo was a dragon, they could innately sense there was something unusual about the hobbit. Ponies and other domestic animals not bred in the Shire were not used to the scent of Tookish blood and tended to not react well. 

Thorin frowned. If the Burglar needed to ride with someone there was no reason it couldn’t be the dwarf lord. As quickly as it had come Thorin dismissed the thought and turned away. “Do what you please.” He nodded to Gloin. “Give him a pony.” 

 “No, no, no, no, that-that won’t be necessary, thank you, but I—I’m sure I can keep up on foot,” Bilbo insisted. He watched his cousin climb on the pony’s back and shuffled a bit further back He did not notice Fili and Kili approaching him on the back of their own mounts. “I-I-I’ve done my fair share of walking holidays, you know.  Do a really good pace if I do say so—” The last word ended on a yelp when Bilbo’s speech was abruptly halted. Fili and Kili, each grasping Bilbo by an arm, had swept him up and deposited him on the back of his pony. It took at least a mile after the pony eventually stopped trying to toss both hobbits for Bilbo to release his death grip on Fortinbras. 

The ride passed rather quickly after that with the exchange of conversation between Bilbo, Fortinbras, Gandalf, Fili and Kili at the head of the party. Everyone was studiously avoiding mentioning Camellia’s accusation of murderer. Many of the older dwarves found it too awkward to join the banter since some were too frank (Thorin and Gloin) and others were lost in their thoughts (Balin and Nori). Ori, who was refusing to speak to Nori, would have loved to join in the chatting but her sister wouldn't let her ride anywhere near the front. 

“And then,” Fili continued, recounting the dwarves first night at Bag-End, “Dwalin nearly dented the table and told us they hadn’t even expected us at all.” 

“Uncle’s face was priceless,” Kili agreed. Thorin, who rode near the middle of the group after Gandalf once again refused to let him lead, let out an exasperated sigh. If he expected his nephews to describe the Company in any type of respectable manner he was surely mistaken. Best he not let them talk to anyone of influence once they reached this Tuckborough. Telling Bilbo’s cousin at least shouldn’t do any harm. 

Fortinbras shook his head and gave a soft chuckle. “Well I can believe it of Gandalf. Something similar happened to our aunt.” He gave Gandalf a merry wink. “If you do not watch yourself wizard you’ll get yourself labeled a Disturber of the Peace again. Most consider you more trouble than your worth.” 

Gandalf sniffed, “If they’re still referring to the incident with dragon I was barely involved. All I did was give the Old Took a little nudge out the door.” Gandalf promptly closed his mouth quite quickly upon realizing what he had said. 

“What incident?” “What dragon?” Fili and Kili said pushing their mounts ahead of the wizard’s. 

Bilbo scowled fiercely at Gandalf and wished he was close enough to elbow the wizard. He settled for gripping his cousin’s arm instead. 

Gandalf cleared his throat. “Oh just a different story. Nothing worth mentioning.” 

“Was the Shire attacked?” Fili glanced between the other riders. 

“Did the dragon think you were bunnies and try to eat you?” 

Bilbo scoffed at Kili’s question. “What do you mean bunnies? We don’t look like bunnies.” 

“Pointy ears.”

“Big feet.”

“Live in holes in the ground.”

“Soft and cuddly.”

“Sounds like bunnies to us.” 

The two dwarves had ridden up on either side of Bilbo’s pony to pat soothingly at the hobbit. Bilbo swatted at their hands while attempting to keep his seat. “Get off me, you-you undereducated dwarves. Bunnies indeed.” He couldn’t quite hold back his laughter. Kili’s and Fili’s eyes lit up at seeing their hobbit cheered. 

Kili turned his attention to Fortinbras. “But was there a dragon?” 

“Nonsense, Old Took had to go on an adventure to meet his dragon” the male said, biting back a sly smile. “In his day there hadn’t been a dragon in these parts for a thousand years.” 

Much to Bilbo’s relief the dwarf lads were easily led back to the subject of their arrival and subsequent day at Bag-End, which reminded Kili of the previous day’s visitor. “You missed a hobbit who was looking for you, Gandalf?” 

“Hmm. Who?” 

Fili scratched his chin. “Don’t remember her name? Loretta?” 

“No,” Kili interjected, “it was Bobelia?” 

“That’s not even a name you nitwit.” 

“Sure it is. It’s a hobbit name.” 

Fili rolled his eyes. “It started with an L.” 

“Well it ended in ‘belia’?” 

Gandalf frowned. “Was it by any chance Lobelia?” 

“That was it.” Both dwarves nodded. “She was really upset,” Kili added. 

“Started crying,” Fili agreed. 

Bilbo winced and Fortinbras turned to Gandalf in disbelief. “You made Lobelia Sackville-Baggins cry?” 

“No it was Bilbo’s leaving that made her cry,” Kili added helpfully. Both hobbits and the wizard cringed. 

Fili, feeling it was better to change the subject again, asked, “What does Longshanks mean anyway?” 

Said question started Fortinbras and Bilbo, with a few helpful insights from Gandalf, off on a rather lengthy discussion of how insults worked across cultures. (“Size matters to hobbits since everyone looks down on us for ours.”) This then led into how of course some insults lost potency when being directed towards other races or were clearly nonfactual. (“Elves don’t actual shag trees. Wait…did you think they did? Could you imagine the splinters.”) It further deescalated into a lesson on speaking Hobbitish insults, which even Balin, Thorin, and Gloin seemed interested in. Ori took diligent notes as they rode and Nori worked to memorize each one and its explanation. 

“Of course *flat-footed* is a really terrible insult. Any insult to a hobbit’s feet is. Be prepared for a pop to the nose if you say it to anyone,” Fortinbras instructed Fili and Kili. Both bobbed their heads dutifully. Thorin raised his eyes skywards and hoped neither of his nephews ended the night in a blood feud over feet. 

Gandalf, evidently thinking the same, cleared his throat hastily. “We’re here.” 

The dwarves drew their attention forward as Fortinbras slid off his pony and assisted his cousin down. Thorin watched as the elder hobbit’s hand lingered on Bilbo’s shoulder, before he stepped before the group. “Welcome my good sirs to the Great Smials.” 

Beyond the wide cobblestone dug neatly into the hill were large hobbit-holes that easily dwarfed Bag-End. They were layered with the lowest one being most prominent and the two above being set a little further back into the hill. Small, carefully camouflaged gardens were spattered sporadically on little crests between the smials. Gandalf slipped off his horse and handed the reins to Gloin before he strode off to the hobbit-hole mumbling something about speaking to the Thain right away. Used to the peculiarity of the wizard, the hobbits led the rest of their companions up towards the hill, to where the ponies could be stabled around back. Once the mounts were housed Fortinbras directed them further on to the smial’s back door. 

Several faunts and tweens were found in the wide expanse behind the smials. A few of the older lads and lasses were having a friendly knife-throwing competition while the smaller faunts were being watched over by a flirting tween couple. A delighted shout rose up at the arrival of Bilbo and Fortinbras, though most of the faunts stayed where they were upon seeing the dwarves. Only one fauntling, young Rosemary Cotton-Took a grand admirer of her Cousin Bilbo’s stories, dashed ahead of her minders. It was just in her Tookish nature to be reckless enough to take the quickest path to the group, which meant running across the training field. 

Everything seemed to slow before Thorin’s eyes. A tween lad carelessly, impressing his friends, tossed his knife before looking. The hobbit girl was running. No one was close enough, much less the dwarves. Sunlight gleamed off the knife’s sharp edge. Balin drew in a gasp, certain they were about to witness a tragedy. It was only a moment, but a blur of red dashed past Thorin’s vision. The knife which had seemed to be flying straight, slightly curved. Then a certain Burglar, much faster than any could or should expect, leapt forward. Bilbo enveloped the fauntling within his arms, his red jacket fluttered, and the knife flashed past. Though many hobbits ran forward calling out to the two, Thorin could only hear roaring in his ears. His eyes followed the knife that had embedded itself to the left of its target, a few droplets of blood still speckling the hilt. His eyes flew back to Bilbo, but he could not see the Burglar or the girl past the group of hobbits that had surrounded them. 

Fortinbras bounded ahead, though Fili and Kili were close on his heels. The others followed sedately behind. Thorin weakly drew breath once they had made their way through the crowd to find Bilbo standing with the girl still in her arms. Fili and Kili had taken to searching the hobbit for wounds while the little girl sobbed against his chest. Ori seemed like she wanted to join them but Nori firmly held her back. Several of the hobbits had already begun to depart upon seeing that neither was seriously injured. 

“I’m fine. It’s just a graze.” Bilbo tried to pull away from the dwarven youths’ coddling. Thorin’s eyes fell on the slice on the Burglar’s arm: a shallow wound where the knife had cut through the red jacket. Bilbo bounced up and down and patted the bawling child’s back. “Your fine, Rosemary. I got you.” He turned to one of the leaving tweens. “Adelard, could you fetch her fathers.” The tween dipped his head in agreement before hurrying off towards the Great Smials. 

Gloin nodded at the hobbit in approval when the angry voice of Fortinbras Took shook the remains of the gathering. “Ferumbras, what the hell did you think you were doing.” 

The hobbit tween paled under his father’s gaze. A few years from his majority, the youth looked half his age when ashamed. “I didn’t see her, Da.” 

The hobbit’s ire was not so easily calmed. “You would have if you used your eyes! What fool throws a blade without looking.” Many of the dwarves found themselves in silent agreement. It was one of the first rules any dwarrow was taught about arms. Fortinbras vibrated with disapproval. “Your not to touch another knife until you remember that. I’ll be speaking with your mother.” Ferumbras tried to talk but his father refused him a word. “Don’t. Or we’ll be banning you from this year’s Tournament as well.” The tween’s mouth promptly shut. 

Bilbo walked over to father and son. Moving Rosemary to rest against his hip, he placed a hand on his cousin’s arm. “Don’t be so hard on him, Fort. It was Rosemary’s fault too. By her age we’re all taught better than to run through the field when others are practicing.” The elder hobbit visibly calmed from Bilbo’s touch and words. Rosemary, who had stopped crying, looked up at her cousin. Bilbo flashed her a smile. “There you are. Why don’t you give Fer a hug so he knows you’re alright and not upset him. Hmm, what do you say, Rosemary?” The faunt released her grip and dropped to the ground to cling to Ferumbras’s leg. The tween dropped to the ground and wrapped himself around the hobbit girl murmuring apologies into her hair. Mere moments later three other hobbits, two middle aged and one around Bilbo’s age, came running up. Rosemary’s fathers Isengar Took and Bill Cotton, having heard the tale from Adelard, tucked both children between them in a hug.  A conversation in Hobbitish began between the two families as Bilbo stepped away. 

He ushered the dwarves ahead of him. “Best to give them some privacy,” Bilbo said as he directed them back to the smial. 

Kili seized the hobbit’s arm and Fili bent to inspect injury. The two fussed over him as they walked and refused to let go no matter how much Bilbo shook his arm. 

“We need some bandages.”

“Hot water for infection. Don’t want him to lose the arm?”

“Can’t argue with results but that was reckless. Worse than Kili.”

“Absolutely.”

“Completely.”

“Scared the beard off my face.”

“You never had any beard on your face.” 

Balin bit his cheek at the distraction of the lads’ playful arguing and sought to exchange an amused glance with Thorin. However, the king’s eyes were fixed on the hobbit. Balin raised an eyebrow with suspicion as he watched Thorin watch their Burglar. 

Meanwhile Bilbo rolled his eyes. “It’s only a scratch.” 

The third hobbit, who had come along with Rosemary’s parents and had been following them, gave a short bark of laughter. He slipped ahead of the group and turned to face Bilbo, walking backwards. “Never a dull moment around you, eh, Bilbo?” 

“Paladin.” The irritated look on his face slid away to be replaced with a smile. “I thought you were off visiting Eglantine’s relations. Are you our guide now?” 

Paladin gave his favorite childhood playmate a saucy wink. “Someone has to keep this place together. Besides Eglantine’s father still hates me for getting her pregnant before we were of age. Anyway I heard a certain hobbit was making a visit and I couldn’t pass up the chance to see you again. You haven’t been by since the last Tournament.” 

“I’ve been busy.” Bilbo gave up trying to get Fili and Kili to let him go. 

“Looks like you’re going to get busier.” Paladin’s eyes flashed over the other dwarves before turning to open the Great Smial’s door. 

Except for being larger the smial was remarkably similar to Bag-End. Layered with comfortably rugs, wall hangings, and chairs, the hobbit-hole exuded a feeling of warmth and welcome. There was also a notable amount of pictures and old weapons hanging from the walls. Except for a brief stop to bandage Bilbo’s arm due to Fili’s and Kili’s fussing, the dwarves passed these along with other knickknacks as Paladin lead them through the confusing halls of the smial. He halted them at a large room filled with a variety of chairs and couches before slipping away to knock at a pale green door. A “come in” was given in reply and Paladin stuck his head inside the study. “Bilbo’s here to see you, Thain.” 

After some rustling, the door swung open and a very elderly hobbit came trotting out with Gandalf behind him. 

“I thought you said my son was accompanying you, Gandalf?” 

Paladin gave the Thain a wink. “Fort’s just outside, uncle. There was a bit of an incident.”

Thorin, upon realizing just who Fortinbras was, shot Gandalf a dark look. The wizard gave a little cough and averted his eyes. Paladin offered the Thain his arm and helped the hobbit hobble over to the group. The old hobbit’s eyes wandered over the gathering giving a polite nod until they fell on Bilbo. “Well I got your note and I believe I deserve an explanation. Haven’t you anything to say for yourself.” 

Bilbo stepped forward and gave the old hobbit a hug. “Hello to you too, Uncle Isumbras.” 

The Thain groaned. “Should have known better than to expect anything else from Belladonna’s son.” He returned the hug before releasing Bilbo and nodding to the dwarves. “Well aren’t you going to introduce me, nephew.” 

The look Thorin gave the wizard upon this revelation would have made a lesser being tremble. I’m going to kill Gandalf, the dwarf lord thought to himself as Balin stepped forward to introduce the group. 

 

After the exchange of pleasantries, Bilbo assisted his uncle back into the study for a private conversation. Paladin ended up leading the rest of the troop, including Gandalf, into a more private parlor. There a cheerful, middle-aged, hobbit matron provided food and drink. 

None of Thorin’s ire had calmed during the proceedings. “You said nothing of him being the Head of his Family or him being the Thain’s nephew. What other knowledge about the Burglar are you keeping from us?” 

“If you have any questions about Bilbo you could always ask him,” Gandalf replied taking another bread roll. 

“My cousin has a point, wizard,” Balin said refilling his plate. “You’ve not been very forthcoming. Not to the hobbits and not to us.” 

“What other purpose does this moot serve? Could the lad not simple write his will, name a successor, and be done with it,” Gloin asked after a belch. 

“Bilbo’s situation is a bit unique.” 

“And why is that, wizard,” Thorin growled. Fili and Kili stopped chewing at the anger in their uncle’s voice. Ori slid closer to the dwarf lads to hear better and proceeded to bring out a small journal and a snub of charcoal to take notes. 

“Well, while Bilbo is Head of his own Family he has very strong ties with many of the others. Mostly it’s through bonds of friendship or kinship. However, while each Family has their Head and a future successor, if either is detained from joining a moot it is common to choose one of the other Heads to caste the missing Head’s vote. It is something that is usual arranged before such a situation so that one Head can act as another’s proxy. While Bilbo does have to have the Families approve his successor, the moot is also needed so that he can inform those Heads he is proxy to of his departure.” 

Silence met that statement until Ori spoke up. “You said Heads.” 

“Excuse me,” Gandalf turned to the flushing dwarrowdam. 

The dam squirmed and Fili placed a hand on her arm in reassurance. Ori gave him a smile in gratitude before gathering her courage. “You said ‘the Heads he is proxy to’, implying more than one.” 

“Aye,” Gloin exclaimed, “the lass is right.” 

“Gandalf, just how important is Bilbo?” 

The wizard hemmed and hawed but Thorin’s piercing stare eventually made him relent. “I suppose you would have to first understand Bilbo’s family. Belladonna is the current Thain’s sister and granddaughter to the Old Took and my friend Gerontius. Gerontius’s mother was a Hornblower and the favorite daughter of a previous Head of the Family. Thus Bilbo is a distant relation and due to his business pursuits has assisted the Hornblowers with the expansion of their pipeweed interests. You’ve probably heard of it since Longbottom Leaf and Old Toby are two of their finest brands. Also on his mother side, Bilbo has a close connection with the Brandybucks. Belladonna’s sister Mirabella was married to the Master before he stepped down. His son, Rorimac is the current Master of Buckland and Bilbo’s cousin. Not only that but Gerontius’s wife was part of the Chubb Family and Bilbo has been something of a favorite of theirs since he reminds them of her.” Ori scribbled furiously to keep up with Gandalf’s list while Thorin, Balin, and Gloin looked faintly ill. “Meanwhile on Bungo’s side, Bilbo has of course inherited his own title. However, Bungo’s mother was Laura Grubb so he is also of relation to that Family as well. Through his friendship with Lobelia, Bilbo has also become quite close to her husband Otho, whom I believe you mentioned you’d met yesterday. Though I can’t say the Boffin, Bolger, or Bracegirdle Families like him much, Bilbo has gained a fair amount of respect for rising to his position at such a young age. And of course, no one can ever tell where the Proudfoots stand on such matters.” 

Fili and Kili looked up at Gandalf with something akin to awe. “So how many is he actually a proxy to,” Fili asked. 

Gandalf raised a brow. “I thought I made that clear. Bilbo is currently a proxy to the Brandybuck, Chubb, Grubb, Hornblower, Sackville, and Took Families; nearly half of the Shire-moot.” 

The group fell silent at the wizard’s revelation. Balin opened and closed his mouth repeatedly. Only Kili managed to get any words out. “Shouldn’t that make Bilbo’s a prince or something then?” 

That elicited a snort of laughter from the female hobbit who had returned with more food. She had watched the conversation with evident amusement. “A prince. Like any Hobbit would ever want to be royalty.” 

Gandalf stood in greeting. “Lalia Clayhanger, you look lovely as always.” 

The hobbit wrinkled her nose at him. “You’re a terrible flirt and we both know my last name’s been Took for a good long time, you daft wizard.” She gave the old man a quick hug. “Though I don’t mind you saying such things in front of my husband. Fort’s terrible at compliments. Fer’s just as bad as his da.” 

Thorin interrupted the twos banter with a fist to the table. “This is not the time for such trivial talk.” He pointed a finger at Gandalf in accusation. “I did not come to the Shire to steal its favorite son.” 

Lalia returned his outburst with a cool look. “I don’t know where you learned your manners, Master Dwarf, but it is considered bad form to damage others property.” Balin winced at his king’s behavior. 

“Bilbo signed your contract of his own will. I hardly count that as stealing him.” Thorin turned away at Gandalf’s words and the wizard went back to chatting with the hobbit woman. Gloin placed a hand on his shoulder in commiseration. 

No one noticed that both Nori and Paladin had not been present for a while. 

*  * *

Nori enjoyed her job sometimes. For example, navigating her way back through the smial’s hallways without being caught and locating the correct room from memory alone gave the dam a sense of pride. However being left to squash herself against a door in a rather open local was not something she particularly wanted to do. But the Company needed more information on their newly hired Burglar and the risk posed a challenge. If there was one thing Nori loved it was a challenge. 

“So you mean to go through with this.” The dam had to press her ear closer to the keyhole in order to hear the Thain. 

Meanwhile Bilbo’s voice rose quite clearly. “Yes.” 

“The other Heads won’t like it but if you’ve been called they’ll not refuse your going. No one would dispute a calling. It’s the company your keeping that will cause concern. I cannot say I like it much better. There are reasons why we journey alone, excepting for Gandalf.” Calling? What calling were they talking about? And how often must these hobbits journey for them to have restrictions on their companions? From what she’d seen it seemed most of the creatures were quite wary of leaving their homeland. 

“I have to. It’s linked with them. I heard it. Besides I’ve already given my word.” 

“That won’t do much if the Families believe it will risk our secrecy. They may insist that you travel alone or separate from these dwarves.” The dwarrowdam’s ears perked at the mention of secrets. That had the potential to be interesting. Though, knowing Nori’s luck hobbit secrets revolved around things like the best time to harvest mushrooms or plant tomatoes. 

“That’s why I have this.” 

“A contract?” Nori stiffened. Thorin would not be pleased if the hobbit was revealing their quest to others. Not that a whole herd of hobbits would be much threat against a dragon or, should they succeed in reclaiming Erebor, an army of dwarves. 

“It’s a copy of the original but it should do if my journey is called into question. I have already signed it and I would ask that you hold onto this if there are any arguments to my leaving. Though I’d prefer you do not share its contents.” 

“A burglar.” The Thain let out a laugh. “That would send the Bracegirdles into a fit. But what’s this about reclaiming property and a guardian.” 

Nori held her breath. “I cannot tell you, Uncle. It is part of my agreement.” The dam exhaled. She heard the scrape of a chair. “I will go. I must go.” 

“It isn’t just about the threat to our community, Bilbo. What about you? Not many Outsiders would accept….” The prick of a dagger’s tip against her throat had Nori miss whatever the Thain was saying. The fleshing knife she had taken out mere seconds ago, when she’d sensed his approach too late to slip away, hovered at her attacker’s side. 

“Didn’t anyone tell you eavesdropping is rude, Mistress Nori?” Paladin flashed the dam a wide smile that did not meet his eyes. Nori returned the false smile with one of her own.  

“My brother did his best,” she said. Both hobbit and dwarf moved away from the door, withdrawing their blades from each other. Nori kept her knife firmly in hand. 

“It would be best, Mistress, that you forget anything you heard and return to your companions. After all,” the dagger danced between Paladin’s fingers with obvious grace, “the smial is awfully big and no one would want a certain snooping dwarf to get lost. Why we might never find you or you might prick yourself on something sharp.” Paladin’s dagger disappeared up a shirt sleeve and he gave a good-natured chuckle as if welcoming her to share in the joke. 

It was hardly the first or likely the last time that Nori would be threatened. The dam smirked at the hobbit. What right did this creature have to be so smug with her when she had caught him sneaking up on her rather easily? “From what I’ve seen a hobbit might just as easily hurt himself on something sharp in these halls.” 

A voice from behind her made the dwarrowdam freeze. “True, but I tend to keep a careful eye on my cousins.” As quickly as she had stilled Nori spun and placed her back against the wall. Fortinbras Took watched her with a cool expression. The good natured hobbit seemed completely vanished, an unpredictable creature in his place. “I find that their less likely to come to harm when I watch over them.” 

“Except that time Bilbo broke his leg saving that robin’s nest,” Paladin piped up in that faux cheerful tone. 

“Yes. Or like with Rosemary this afternoon.” The elder hobbit’s tone became chilly. “But Bilbo’s always been an exception.” He walked closer to the dwarrowdam and though she saw no obvious weapon, Nori remained wary. A thief that did not anticipate all outcomes quickly became a dead thief. “Do you know what such incidents have ingrained into me, Mistress,” Fortinbras said, never taking his gaze off Nori. The dwarrowdam could barely breathe at the increasing threat of danger much less shake her head. “It has taught me that while I cannot protect Bilbo from himself I can,” he leant close enough for the dam to feel his breath upon her face, “most certainly remove any potential threats that come knocking at his door.” 

Fortinbras withdrew and turned to Paladin. “Would you be good enough to show Mistress Nori the way back. It’s best she doesn’t get lost again.” The younger hobbit nodded and gave the dam a bow waved her ahead. 

Nori slipped her knife away and sighed in relief as she headed for the smial’s hallway. “And, Mistress.” Fortinbras’s voice made her pause and she turned back to find the hobbit standing outside his father’s study, in the place she had been kneeling just moments before. “Please let your leader know that if he requires any assistance or has any concerns that I will be happy to address them.” 

Nori nodded before she rushed out the door, knowing it was nothing more than a retreat. These hobbits, at least these Tooks were not to be underestimated. A shudder rippled through her as Paladin led her through the smial. She would have never known Fortinbras was there if he had not spoken. Would never have felt his knife until it stabbed her in the back. 

 

Fortinbras slipped into his father’s study to the surprise of his uncle and cousin. “There you are, my boy,” Isumbras said, readying to stand. 

His son waved him to remain seated and turned his attention to Bilbo. ῁῁One of your guests was listening at the door. The star-haired female. What might she have heard?῁῁ 

The other hobbits stiffened. Bilbo hastened to think back on their conversation before he shook his head. ῁῁Nothing outside of what they already learned from Camellia. We mentioned the calling and why the Families might not let me go.῁῁ 

῁῁Are you sure?῁῁ 

Bilbo nodded. ῁῁With the fuss Camellia made they are already bound to be suspicious of me. Nothing that was said will make them question our race, just myself.῁῁ 

Fortinbras strode over to his cousin. ῁῁Must you go with them then? Uncertainty and distrust are not good companions for any journey much less a calling. Leave these dwarves and head out on your own. Do not rely upon those you cannot depend on to act honorably.῁῁ 

It was the Thain who answered. ῁῁Since when has other's honor mattered to Hobbits. We are practical people and do what must be done. A promise given should be upheld because it ensures future entrustments. A pledge given must be respected because it demonstrates our willingness to fulfill our purpose. Bilbo has given his word and signed their contract. If such things did not bind your cousin, Fort, I still doubt he would choose to abandon this Company. The earth has spoken and Bilbo has chosen to answer. Take pride in his choice though it may endanger him as well as us.῁῁ 

Bilbo grasped Fortinbras’s shoulder. ῁῁I have not made my decision lightly. My calling has to do with these dwarrows. I know the risk to our people, to our family. I will do my best so that my actions reflect only on me.῁῁ 

῁῁It is that which worries me,῁῁ Fortinbras grumbled. ῁῁At least say you have mastered your half-form. It would ease my mind to know you had some protection, outside of your dragon form.῁῁ 

Bilbo gave an apologetic grimace. ῁῁I can hold it for a short time. It does not feel natural to be poised between my forms. It is uneven but I can use it if I must.῁῁ The Baggins did not mention how it felt as though he was being torn in two. Earth vying against fire inside his Hearts. ῁῁Either way I will have my knives and can always take a bow or staff.῁῁ 

The elder cousin sighed. ῁῁It is better than nothing. I just hope you know what you’re doing, Bilbo.῁῁ 

“So do I,” Bilbo muttered to himself as his cousin and uncle led the way out of the study and back to the dwarves. 

*  * *

Ori’s attention had drifted to the doorway when Paladin returned with Nori. A feeling of despair settled in the little dam’s chest upon seeing her sister. Of course Nori couldn’t keep her fingers and nose out of where they didn’t belong. Hadn’t she already proved that at Bag-End with the silverware? The look of disappointment she cast the dam’s way would have made Dori proud. Ori watched Nori cringe under her glance before she turned back to her conversation with Balin, Gandalf, Lalia, Fili, and Kili. Admittedly it was more of her listening and laughing as Fili and Kili bantered while the others discussed but it was fun. Besides she felt a spirit of kinship with the other younger dwarrows. They too seemed to be in a position of adulthood which others would not recognize. Hadn’t Balin held them back like Nori had her? Weren’t they made to watch the person they were growing to like belittled and attacked before their eyes? Of course what Nori had done was worse. The older dam had known of Ori’s promise to Belladonna. How could her sister prevent Ori from upholding her vow? Her first promise made outside of her oaths to Thorin and those she made for her apprenticeship? Without a thought the other dam had rendered her word void. Nori had made Ori a liar. As she laughed at another one of Kili’s jokes, Ori strived to pretend she had not seen the fleeting look of hurt on her sister’s face. If Nori was not going to treat Ori like an adult, then Nori should not act like a misbehaving dwarfling. 

Contrary to Gloin’s unamusing comments, Thorin was not sulking. He was merely reflecting on how best to maim the wizard’s beard without getting cursed. Perhaps a little part of him was rethinking his behavior towards the hobbit, but it was hardly his fault that he knew nothing of Bilbo Baggins importance. It was entirely Gandalf’s fault. Still, you could have acted with a bit more decorum, intruded the voice of conscience. It always sounded like either Frerin or Dis depending on how guilty he felt. For now it was Frerin, which meant only slightly guilty. Probably. After all Gandalf should have warned them. The fact he didn’t only made his chose of the hobbit more suspicious. In fact Master Baggins’ agreement to their quest was extremely odd. The fellow seemed beloved by family and friend, held a position of honor and, if what the wizard said was true, some wealth. Not only this, but the creature seemed to already suffer battle-dreams from some not forgotten terror. Certainly facing a dragon would only provide him more. Yet Master Baggins seemed resigned to their quest. The arrival of said Burglar, Thain, and Thain’s heir did nothing to alleviate Thorin’s thoughts or mood. He still wanted to strangle the wizard and could not stop thinking about the hobbit. Perhaps it was just his instinct warning him. The Burglar needed to be watched to find out his motives. 

It was with such reasoning that Thorin, son of Thrain convinced himself that he was justified in continuously staring at Bilbo Baggins as the night progressed. Due to the missive Bilbo had sent the day prior a feast had been prepared to welcome the arriving Heads of the Family. It easily accommodated the additional presence of seven dwarves and Gandalf. Ori, Kili, and Fili reaped special attention from the Took matrons due to their friendliness with Lalia. Nori had not charmed their hosts at all but lingered beside her sister casting warning glances at the heirs. After dinner, once the drinking had begun, Balin and Gloin endeared themselves to the male Tooks with their drinking skills. Gloin had easily bested four other males but seemed to have met his match in Bill Cotton. The plump hobbit had finished his eighth pint and was still drinking to the cheers of his husband and daughter. Meanwhile, Balin was respectively drinking his fifth with no signs of being affected. Something that earned him worshipful looks from Adelard and a few other tweens. 

Thorin remained sitting alone in a corner watching the proceedings his eyes often drifting to Bilbo. The hobbit was being playfully leaned on by their earlier guide Paladin and another darker haired hobbit kept trying to steal the Burglar’s drink. The two seemed to have Bilbo falling over with laughter inbetween sips of his liqueur. 

The chair next to Thorin was scooted back and Fortinbras’s wife sat down. Thorin, who despite previous conduct had been versed in court training, attempted to recall her name. She was the Thain’s daughter-in-law so he should attempt to rectify his earlier behavior. No really, stone-head, Dis’s voice said sarcastically in his head. 

“Mistress Took, I would apologize for my earlier actions. It was disgraceful to both you as my hostess and my Company as their representative. I appreciate your discretion on not informing your husband’s father on my poor manner’s as well.” The last had definitely relieved Balin anyway when she hadn’t mentioned Thorin’s outburst. Temper tantrum, Dis’s and Frerin’s voices said in tandem. 

Lalia took a drink from one of the tankers she had set on the table and pushed the other towards the dwarf king. He glanced briefly at Nori, where she stood by the ale casks, and, after the dam nodded that the drink had not been tampered with, swallowed. He looked down at the drink in surprise as the ale was remarkably good. 

“It does you credit, Mister Thorin, to acknowledge your behavior.” The hobbit female’s smile seemed a bit hard. “But you forgot to acknowledge one of the people your conduct has wronged. While I may be the mistress of this household as future Thain’s wife, you are not my guests. You are Bilbo’s and thus your actions reflect on him.” She gestured to the Burglar. “Nothing was said because I had no desire to embarrass my husband’s favorite cousin. I’m sure you’ll think such an attitude coddles him, but people can’t help but dote on Bilbo regardless of Family.” She nodded to where her husband stood, leaning against the wall watching as Bilbo was pulled on top of a table by his two hobbit friends. “Why just look at his companions: Paladin on one side and Drogo Baggins on the other. I’m sure if Saradoc Brandybuck was here, he’d be up there with them.” Paladin began to clap his hands and around Bilbo’s table a few hobbits began to join in. “You see, Mister Thorin. I am fond of Bilbo but what stayed my tongue is my husband’s love of him. Though the Tooks are a plentiful clan, Fortinbras never had any siblings. It’s rather unusual to have only a single child in any family but it happens from time to time. Usually there’s a mass of cousins to ease the loneliness.” A few more hobbits had set aside their drinks and more joined in the clapping. Lalia’s voice next to Thorin pierced clearly through the noise. “But what Fort has always wanted more than anything was a brother. Someone who he could be dedicated to and love unconditionally. Someone who needed him as much as he needed them. At the age of twenty-three, when Fort’s Aunt Belladonna placed her newborn son in his arms, he finally found that someone. Bilbo is the closest thing to a younger brother my husband has. That doesn’t make him just Family, Mister Thorin. That makes him a part of my family.” 

By this point all of the hobbits, to the dwarves’ confusion, had turned towards the table Bilbo, Drogo, and Paladin were standing on. Each hobbit was either clapping his hands or stamping his feet. Drogo stepped forward and let out a clear, “Hey!” The noise reduced as all three hobbits began to dance on the table. It was an odd swirling jig that seemed to consist of swinging each other and their tankards of beer around without dropping them. It was Paladin who began the song with Bilbo and Drogo each starting a few moments after the previous singer, making the tune a round. 

Hey! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go
To heal my heart and drown my woe.
Rain may fall and wind may blow,
But there still be many miles to go,
Yet under a tall tree I will lie,
And let the clouds go sailing by.”

Just after Drogo had finished the final note and each dancer had managed to have their tankard exchanged with a fresh one while dancing, a cheer was quickly smothered as Paladin pushed Bilbo forward.  The hobbit caught his balance and gave a mock glare to his second cousin. Paladin returned it with a smirk and started the clapping again as Bilbo launched into the final lines. The clear tenor of his voice startled Thorin, who had been in mid-drink. He missed the look of amusement that flashed across Lalia’s face as his tankard hovered between his lips and the table.

"Sweet is the sound of the pouring rain,
And the stream that falls from hill to plain.
Better than rain or rippling brook..."

A pause was given as the assembly of Tooks jumped to their furry feet and roared along to the last line, “Is a mug of beer inside this Took.” 

Every hobbit chugged the remainder of their drink and cheered. The dancers were pulled from the table and a few more pints were drawn. However, the gathering seemed to be slowly dispersing with the ending of the song. 

“It’s the signal for the end of the festivities for those with work in the morning.” Lalia’s voice shook Thorin from his contemplation and hurriedly set his tanker down. The hobbit female stood and cracked her back. “Or for us that are too old to stay up with the tweens.” She gave the dwarf a considering look. “Please remember my words, Mister Thorin. I’d like you to consider what you would be willing to do for your nephews over there,” she nodded towards Fili and Kili, “and then I want you to remember the number of Tooks you saw gathered here tonight. Know that whatever you are willing to do for them anyone of those hobbits is willing to do the same for Bilbo.” Hers eyes met the dwarves. Her gaze did not falter nor did the amiable tone of her voice waver. “Know this as well. Every single one of those Tooks will have to get behind me because if you cause any harm to Bilbo, to my family member, I will make you regret ever hearing of the Shire.” A presence at her side made Lalia look up into the approving gaze of her husband’s eyes. Fortinbras encircled his wife’s waist with one arm and gave Thorin a nod which the dwarf returned. 

“Time for bed, love,” he said addressing his wife. Lalia gave a little hum and nestled into her husband side. 

“I quite agree. Goodnight, Mister Thorin.”

As he watched the couple walk away, the dwarf king could not speak. What exactly had he gotten himself into by agreeing to have Bilbo Baggins as his Burglar?

Chapter Text

After sleeping off a night of good ale and cheer, Bilbo thought he would feel more prepared for the coming meeting. Yet when Paladin came to his guest quarters at ten and informed him that the last stragglers had arrived, dread bloomed in his chest. The Shire-moot was to be held after elevenses and Bilbo felt he had both too much and too little time. He sat at his bed, idly picking at the light meal his friend had left along with the news. I’m not ready, the hobbit thought. His Hearts beat steady in his breast. ˟˟You are. We are.˟˟ Bilbo shivered and set aside his plate. He had duties to attend to, dwarrow guests he had not checked on yet, and a meeting where he would have to conduct himself as a proper Head of his Family. Now was not the time to doubt the path he had already chosen.

He discarded his sleepwear; the cream night shirt and trousers were left, neatly folded, on the bed. Dressed in only his small-clothes Bilbo headed towards the adjoining washroom. Though he had protested it, his uncle and cousin had insisted on giving him one of the best guest-rooms available. Quickly filling the tub, he watched the warm water flow from the tap. He had just turned off the faucet and removed the rest of his clothing when the full length mirror, adjacent the tub, caught his eye. Bilbo’s reflection stared back at him. He quickly averted his gaze from his mirrored counterpart’s and looked instead on the rest of the image. A red line graced the arm that had been cut the night before, now healed due to good food and rest. Within another day or two the faintest of scars probably wouldn’t even mark the place. The rest of his body had not been so lucky over time. Scars, a collection of thick and thin pale lines scattered his flesh, almost invisible if one was not close enough or the light was too dim. He had earned the assortment from years of Unfortunate accidents and patrols of the forest.

Only three stood out at a distance. Along his left side Bilbo traced the silver claw marks. Even now when he closed his eyes the wound made him shiver with the remembrance of unbearable cold and the heat of wolf blood dripping down the boar-spear’s length. Opposite the scar was a dark abrasion that twined over his hip and ended below his ribs. The blemish formed the shape of a claw-tipped hand. Only a few years old the mark had come from one of his most unsettling outings into the Old Forest. Bilbo still had nightmares of the time, unable to forget the sickening malice of the Barrow-Wight. The last mark was the one Bilbo could hardly look upon and the most prominent of the three. On his chest, over his heart lay a white starburst. A reminder of Adamanta’s sacrifice.

Turning away from the mirror, Bilbo hurried to complete his ablutions. Once scrubbed, he returned to the bedroom and began to unpack the satchel he had brought with him. Reverently he removed two packages carefully enfolded in oilcloth to keep them dry. It had originally held a larger third, but he had given that one to Drogo the night before. From the top one he unfurled a pair of dark maroon trousers and a wine red cravat. Inside the second package he withdrew a crisp white shirt and scarlet waistcoat subtly embroidered with small pale yellow leaves along the hem and collar. Red: the color of his Family line. The clothes had only one purpose—to be worn for a Shire-moot. Meticulously, Bilbo dressed himself. Then he fastidiously brushed his hair and the curls on his feet. Finished he returned the items to his pack and resolutely headed for the door. The day would not wait for him.

***

The dwarves had woken a fair bit earlier than most of the hobbits. Even Gloin, who had ended the night being dragged by three hobbits to their shared guest room after passing out under the table. Though to be fair the odd creatures had out drank most of the dwarrows the night before. Yet even the youngest ones had stumbled out by second breakfast. By then numerous Tooks were drifting through the dining hall about their business, none of them seeming worse for the ware despite the casks that had flowed the night before. Gloin shook his head. A dwarf out drunk by a hobbit. He hoped no one told little Gimli or his darling Lif about this. Though knowing his cousins, he was sure to never hear the end of it.

Unwilling to find another place to occupy themselves the dwarves remained at their table. Certainly by the time they left another meal was bound to be starting, thought Gloin resentfully. Little gluttons the lot of them, no wonder they could hold their ale. It did seem to be true, since a few hours after the last meal the hobbits were already eating another repast. A simple spread of bread, cold meats, and cheeses. 

Thorin and Balin, having returned from a brief meeting with the Thain that had consisted of an exchange of pleasantries and gratitude for their rooms, took their seats beside Gloin. Across from them Fili, Kili, Ori, and Nori straightened at the return of their leader. Thorin’s eyes passed over the group. “Still no Master Baggins.” His tone was not pleased.

Fili barely kept from rolling his eyes, something he was sure his brother had not been able to do. Their uncle acted like a bear with a thorn about the hobbit who had done nothing to earn his ire. In fact it was rather odd behavior. Dwarrows tended to be protective of their youngest members. It was one of the reasons that Fili and Kili tended to defend their younger cousin, Gimli. Though that did nothing to keep either of them from teasing little Gimilkins. Not only did Bilbo qualify as the youngest of their Company, and thus the one most in need of protection amongst them, he was also quite likeable. Bilbo may not be a dwarf but Fili had been the eldest of his younger kin for too long to ignore the responsibility it placed upon him. He would not contest his uncle but he could not follow his example in how he treated the hobbit.

“Probably still abed,” Kili commented, rubbing his eyes before stuffing another piece of meat into a roll. “I know I wish I was.” Thorin had woken both of the lads up with him shortly after dawn.

Paladin, who had been watching the dwarves rather obviously for the last couple of hours, slid into an empty seat besides Nori. The dwarrowdam tried to give him a wider berth which made the hobbit smile as he helped himself to the plate of grapes in the middle of the table. The other dwarves paused in their conversation, giving him wary looks. “Bilbo’s up. He’s not given to sleeping in late. Besides it’s about to start.” He popped a grape into his mouth.

“What is—” Ori began when around them the contented activity of several eating Tooks quieted.

At the entrance to the dining hall stood a small gathering of hobbits that were easily singled out among their brethren. Each wore clothing of a particular shade of color and stood with a quiet, restrained dignity. They were all staring at the dwarrows with unwavering gazes. For a moment Fili felt as though he were looking upon some watchful guardians from olden tales; those folks that faced the rising dark with calm, steadfast patience and did not falter as it strived to smother them. He blinked and the image faded back to a rather peculiar group of hobbits whose attention had turned from the dwarven guests to some figure obscured by the doorway. Some discussion was taking place though none of the dwarves could hear it from their table. The group of hobbits moved aside to let the hidden figure walk ahead. Perhaps Fili should have been more surprised when the Thain and Fortinbras came forth, both bedecked in shades of dark green. A figure followed after them in clad in reds and it took Fili a moment to recognize Bilbo. If the sharp breath that came from Thorin was any indication, he too had not recognized the Burglar at first.

Fili and Kili had both noted upon meeting him that the hobbit seemed rather grave for his age. It was easy to recognize one burdened by the weight of responsibility when one was familiar with that burden. Nor did Bilbo seem like one who had an easy time of setting aside the solemness such obligations caused.  It was one of the reasons they had played up their rather mischievous natures. Free from the usually restricting gaze of being one of Thorin’s heirs, the two had had every intention of being as merry as possible in the Shire and before reaching their quest’s destination. Upon meeting Bilbo Baggins, the brothers resolve had changed slightly. Kili had wanted to make their host laugh and Fili had agreed. If anyone could understand the slow suffocating weight of responsibility it would be Thorin’s eldest heir. Kili gave his brother that sad eyed expression that always upset Fili. Whatever progress they had made from the day before appeared forgotten. The Bilbo who now approached their table seemed more sedate than they had seen before. His every motion carefully planned and executed as though the risk of stumbling was all too easy.

Bilbo stopped before their table alongside his uncle and cousin, murmuring a greeting and inquired about their rest to which Balin responded. None of the dwarves missed how Bilbo’s lips kept pressing firmly together as though he was upset with some decision but his choice had been overruled. Even the smile he gave Paladin was strained. One could hardly mistake the hobbit before them for one who danced on tables.

Bilbo cleared his throat. “We plan to have the moot shortly but before we began my fellow Heads of the Families wished to meet you.”

“It is rather unusual to have dwarves in the Shire,” stated a hobbit matron bedecked in shades of brown. Her gaze slid seamlessly from Balin, Gloin, and Ori to catch on Kili, Fili, Thorin, and Nori. When her eyes met Nori’s the dam immediately relaxed her posture, attempting to seem as innocent as possible. They were something too knowing about that gaze. Something Nori had always been wary about when choosing a mark.

The Thain drew the female hobbit’s attention away with a quick interjection. “It’s even more unusual to find ones who want a hobbit companion but here we are. Bilbo would you like to do the honors or should I?”

“I will.” He stepped closer to Ori’s, Fili’s, and Kili’s side of the table almost unconsciously. The action itself betraying some protectiveness towards the younger dwarves to a certain grey clothed hobbit. Bilbo gestured first to Thorin who along with the other dwarves had risen from their seats. He gave the same introductions Balin had the day before. “May I introduce Thorin, son of Thrain and leader of the Company I shall be joining.” Thorin gave a nod. “His cousins, Balin son of Fundin and Gloin son of Groin. The sisters Ori and Nori, daughters of Kori. Finally, Thorin’s sister-sons’ Fili and Kili, sons of Vili.” He gestured to each dwarf in turn who all except Thorin gave small bows and quiet ‘at your services’.

Bilbo then gestured each of the Heads in turn. “May I present my fellow Heads. Gruffo Boffin.”

An aging male hobbit clad in an ivory waistcoat and cream colored trousers stepped forward. “Pleasure,” he said. The dwarves were unable to respond as their eyes had fallen to the wispy fuzz that graced the hobbits chin and cheeks.

“A beard,” Kili whispered almost reverently much to his kinsmen’s embarrassment and the amusement of the hobbits.

“Rudibert Bolger.” A very fat hobbit, who could have possible rivaled Bombur in girth, leaned forward and gave a polite nod. He was around Fortinbras’s age and dressed in shades of light blue.

“Bruno Bracegirdle.”

The brunette hobbit wearing wine colored breeches and a deep purple waistcoat gave the dwarves a scathing look, contradicting his greeting. “I believe,” a quiet anger seethed in his gaze as his eyes met Thorin’s, “you’ve met my sister.”

Thorin’s refused to look away as he remembered the crying hobbitess. Bilbo quickly intervened with another introduction. “Rorimac Brandybuck, Head of the Brandybuck Family and current Master of Buckland.”

Rorimac, a decade or so older than Fortinbras and dressed in shades of deep blue, placed his arm around Bilbo’s shoulder. “No need to be so formal, Bilbo. Just call me Rory.” He gave the dwarves a wide grin before smirking at Bilbo. “Wait until I tell mother about this.”

Bilbo, looking tense, shrugged his cousin’s arm from his shoulder and waved forth the next two hobbits: a male clad in grey and the brown wearing female. “Calder Chubb and Bryony Grubb.” The Chubb’s eyes darted over the dwarrow group, noting small details like the ink stains beneath Ori’s fingers and the way Fili’s hand hovered beside his left side. A subtle tell to the placement of one of his favorite knives. Nori’s brow rose in appreciation as she noted the hobbit silently cataloging information. He would make a great thief or an even better spy. The Grubb female simply smiled.

“Coral Hornblower and Everard Proudfoot.” A hobbit matron clad in shades of light green gave a little wave while the elderly hobbit besides her, dressed in orange, snorted.

Bilbo ignored both their behavior and pulled forward the last two hobbits. “Lastly Otho Sackville-Baggins, Head of the Sackville Family and my cousin and successor, Drogo Baggins.”

Drogo stumbled forward wearing the red clothes Bilbo had given him the night before. The hobbit smiled shyly and produced a faint blush when Ori boldly complemented his dancing.

Otho dressed in yellow gave the group an apologetic smile. “I don’t believe I introduced myself when last we met.”

Assurances of no offense were given before the groups separated, leaving the dwarves rather confused. They took their seats, certain they had missed something of importance during the introductions. Paladin, who hadn’t bothered to stand, had demolished the plate of grapes and moved on to a cold quince tart. The young Took laughed, drawing their attention. “Well, looks like you've got through the first part. Either you all should be on your way back to Bag-End tonight or you’ll be searching for were they’ve hidden Bilbo. At least they didn’t bring the Mayor or you’d be here until next week. Ol’ Will Whitfoot’s going to have a fit when he hears he missed this.” Paladin just laughed harder at the baffled stares of the dwarves.

>>Save me from mysterious hobbits,<< Thorin muttered.

>>Agreed,<< Nori replied, glaring at Paladin who winked back and took another bite of tart.

***

῁῁There’s no issue of Drogo being named your successor, though he’s young for it. But I don’t see why you must travel with them,῁῁ Bruno grumbled, continuing the argument. The group sat around a round table in the conservatory connected to the side of the Great Smial. No one was quite sure when or why it had been built, though it was rumored Isengrim Took II had planned it for his wife.

Bilbo rubbed his eyes in frustration before standing to stare out the glass walls out over Tuckborough.  ῁῁As I have already said I have to go with them. I’ve already agreed.῁῁ Drogo watched his cousin worriedly from his chair but dared not say anything. He had not been officially recognized by the moot yet and could not risk upsetting the assembly until a decision was officially made.

῁῁It’s one thing to agree to go off willy-nilly with a bunch of dwarves just for an adventure, but this is a calling. It’s an entirely different matter,῁῁ Everard stated tapping his foot. Coral surreptitiously drew her feet further under her chair, least the Proudfoot end up stamping her toes with his overly large foot.

῁῁Everard is right,῁῁ Gruffo stated. ῁῁Going on a calling with Outsiders can end up revealing us all. I don’t doubt your discreteness, but someone in your group is bound to notice if you undermine their journey in order to prevent disaster.῁῁

῁῁I wouldn’t put in beyond the older female to learn of your real aim,῁῁ Calder agreed. He shook his head. ῁῁She hides it well, but there is something unusual about her. There others’ purposes in their group are clear from their apparel and attitudes, but she was very careful around me and tried to hide her mannerisms. I would not rule out her being some type of spy.῁῁

῁῁I don’t care what she is,῁῁ Bilbo said frustrated. Even now his peers refused to listen to him as though he was some tween playing at his position. ῁῁I will go. I must.”

῁῁You keep saying that,῁῁ Fortinbras shouted and stood, surprising everyone. ῁῁But you won’t say anything more. If you just explained it, Bilbo, then we might understand why. ῁῁

The Thain opened his mouth to chastise his son for the outburst when Bryony rose. The hobbit woman walked around the table to place a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. ῁῁Callings are so private, we do not often share them.῁῁ She gave him a small smile and turned to the assembly. ῁῁Sometimes we Grubbs forget that others cannot know as we do. That being able to tell the innate importance of something is not a knack shared among the other Families.῁῁ She closed her eyes as if to remember clearer. ῁῁Three nights past I stood in my garden and felt the ground hum beneath my feet. Though it did not speak to me I knew whatever words it carried were of such importance that it made me crumple to my knees in awe. Not until my son came to my aid was I able to stand.῁῁ She opened her eyes and they fell on Bruno. ῁῁I knew whoever heard its call was needed to complete a great task, one I would not wish upon any hobbit lad or lass.῁῁ Her eyes drifted back to Bilbo, ῁῁Was it not three nights ago a wizard and thirteen dwarves came to Bag-End’s door?῁῁

Quiet followed her words until Coral, being a most sensible hobbit, spoke. ῁῁What was it you heard, Bilbo?῁῁

Bryony guided the young hobbit back to his seat before taking her own. Bilbo took a deep breath. ῁῁I had every intention of telling Gandalf and his companions no when they came to my smial. Then the leader arrived and the earth…῁῁ Bilbo shivered. ῁῁I have never heard it scream. It cried so loud, I thought I could not bear it.῁῁

῁῁What were its words,῁῁ Isumbras asked gently.

Death and war follow this one† Bilbo said. The assembly’s attention fell solely on Bilbo. ῁῁So you see I have to go. It is not a place the earth sends me to but a person. Where Thorin Oakenshield walks unrest will follow. Having witnessed his charming manners I cannot say I am surprised.῁῁ Bilbo looked up from the table searching his peers’ faces. ῁῁The earth has called and Gandalf the Grey has brought with him her charge. How can I not go?῁῁

῁῁It may ruin us all,῁῁ Gruffo warned.

῁῁If the true question is whether or not Bilbo’s going would risk our discovery, perhaps it’s time for us to ask whether now is the time we should be revealed,῁῁ Rorimac stated.

A shout of outrage rang at his words. ῁῁How can you say that,῁῁ Coral cried, her usual calmness forgotten. ῁῁Do we not loose enough of us as it is? Are those who do not return forgotten by you?῁῁

῁῁I have not forgotten your brother, Coral. Esmun was my friend. But the world is changing and we must change with it.῁῁ He turned to the assembly. ῁῁Did no one listen during the last moot? Did Bilbo almost dying mean nothing to you? Dark things have come forth. The Old Forest has grown stranger. No more Barrow-Wights have come up from the Barrow-Downs but that one had is enough. What more proof do we need for us to know that evil is growing? The darkness is the East is like a knife against my heart. Constantly my knack draws my attention to it. I fear the day its warning pierces me because that evil has drawn too near. How long before even our refuge in the kindly west is destroyed? Will we decide then that we should have made ourselves known? When the Shire falls would we not regret that we did not face this evil by trying to unite Middle Earth against its growing threat?῁῁ Rorimac brought his fist down upon the table, an uncouth thing but one could hardly fault the impassioned hobbit.

Rudibert stood and spoke, something that he rarely did outside of a vote at any Shire-moot. ῁῁Us Bolgers have long known two things: how many meals we must eat to grow pleasantly round and how much we should give of ourselves.῁῁ No one dared interrupt the normally silent hobbit. ῁῁Our knack requires the sharing of our energies to heal others. Long have the Heads of my Family debated what that means. If a hobbit is near death due to injury and we do not have the reserves should we still attempt to save his life? Should healing another risk our own health, must we try?  Because we can also draw out the energies of another, should we do so in order to heal our own injuries? There has been but one answer that has ever soothed our minds: first do no harm, and if harm be done let the Valar judge us and cast us from Eru’s light if we are found wanting.῁῁ His eyes fell on Bilbo bright with sympathy. ῁῁If a wound festers in Arda and we must give of ourselves to cure it are we not duty bound to try? Is that not our purpose?῁῁  The group considered the round hobbits words in silence.

῁῁So,῁῁ Isumbras said looking around the gathering, ῁῁it seems another matter is being poised and I would call a vote for it. First, though, do we all agree that young Drogo is a fit successor for the Baggins’s Head?῁῁

A chorus of ayes rose from the group. Drogo relaxed slightly in his seat and Bilbo nudged his shoulder in comfort. It was not a responsibility he would willingly shove on his cousin but he trusted no one better than Drogo with the duties the title entailed.

Isumbras nodded. ῁῁Then as Thain and leader of the Shire-moot I instate Drogo Baggins as the next to inherit the title of the Baggins. Now, I would have each say his piece in regards to the question of Bilbo’s journey. Should Bilbo find himself in a position where he might willingly reveal us for Arda’s safety and nothing less, do we the Heads of the eleven Families that survived the Massacre above the Anduin agree to grant him that power? If we can shape the fortunes of Middle Earth for the better, do we agree to risk the safety of us and all future generations of hobbits? ῁῁ He cast his gaze over the assembly. ῁῁What say you?῁῁

It was Bilbo that broke the strained air. ῁῁I do not ask for this. Whatever danger comes, whatever sacrifices it means I would take alone. I do not want this.῁῁ His voice cracked.

῁῁No, Bilbo. ῁῁ Fortinbras stared at his cousin, his almost-brother with weary eyes. ῁῁This is a possibility you may face and as such it something we all must decide. The weight of the world is not yours alone. You are not alone.῁῁

Bilbo closed his eyes. His body hummed with tension. ῁῁If I am to be given such power then I cannot be asked to grant it. I withdraw my right to vote and leave it to my successor.῁῁ He turned to Drogo. ῁῁I am sorry,῁῁ he whispered.

Drogo squeezed his cousin’s arm before addressing the assembly. Panic shown in the hobbit’s eyes but his voice held firm. ῁῁I have only been recently instated and my opinion might not mean much to most, but when I named Bilbo godfather to my son I knew I placed Frodo’s life in the most capable hands I knew. I could not then and I cannot now think of a better protector. He already holds responsibility for one of our future generation and though it is cruel, though it is something he should not be burdened with, I would place the rest on his shoulders.῁῁ He gave a sad smile and held firmly onto his cousin’s arm. ῁῁Bilbo has led me in and out of more scrapes in my life than anyone I else. How can I not have faith in him? I vote yes.῁῁

Gruffo spoke next, the old hobbit resting his chin on his hands. ῁῁Bilbo’s knack is bound to make him more of a target to the dangers of the world. If there is a chance that he may find himself in a position to reveal us to the guardians of Middle Earth, he is more likely than most to stumble upon it. Though it is the Boffin's knack to obscure and hide that which we do not want others to see, I would not like to test it by trying to hide the whole Shire.῁῁ The old hobbit huffed, the air making his wispy beard flutter. ῁῁I did not lie before. Whatever affects his Unfortunateness may have, I trust in Bilbo’s ability to be discreet. I could expect nothing less of Adamanta Chubb’s grandson. I only ask that our vote be unanimous, but for what is worth I too say yes.῁῁

Isumbras nodded. ῁῁I second that the vote be unanimous. ῁῁ His eyes fell on Rudibert, who merely nodded his agreement. The Thain turned to Bruno. ῁῁What says the Bracegirdle?῁῁

Bruno’s lips twisted as though he tasted something sour. ῁῁For a long time the Bracegirdles have scorned the Baggins’ Unfortunates. Long have we thought our clever hands of far more worth than their fortunes when it came with such a curse.῁῁ Many of the hobbits present grew visibly upset at his words but Bruno continued. ῁῁I too believed the same.῁῁ His gaze met Bilbo’s. ῁῁Then the most foolish of Hobbits threw himself in front of a mad dog for my sister. You didn’t even know you were a dragon for pity’s sake. This may only be my second Shire-moot since my father’s death, but I am a Bracegirdle. And despite our many faults, this Bracegirdle is not one who is afraid to admit his wrongs. Nor will I turn away from the purpose the Valar charged us with. If Bilbo is the decider and this is what we must choose in order to protect Arda, then I also vote yes.῁῁

῁῁I brought up the matter, of course my vote is yes,῁῁ Rorimac stated bluntly.

῁῁Adamanta was my adopted aunt and I loved her as such. Her passing has left a pain that time has not removed, only blunted.῁῁ Bilbo flinched at the harshness in Calder’s voice. ῁῁Most do not know why she died outside of the Thain’s line, but Chubbs do not forget any knowledge we discover. I know why your grandmother died, Bilbo, and I want you to know this: I do not blame you.῁῁ Bilbo looked up at those words. ῁῁I believe her sacrifice was worth it to save a life like yours; one who so devotes himself to others. We Chubbs remember the stories of old: the coming of Angmar’s army and the one who died to protect our secrets. We remember why red is the color of your Family and that it was a Baggins’ sacrifice that kept the Dark Lord from knowing of us. I would trust such a Baggins again. I say yes.῁῁

Bryony pressed her hands against the table and let out a small shiver. ῁῁Since you were a faunt you have shown with importance in my sight. Now you blaze so brightly I can barely stand to look upon you, Bilbo. I say yes.῁῁

All eyes fell on Coral. The Hornblower inhaled deeply before slowly releasing her breath. ῁῁The last time a Head left for a calling, he never returned and I became the leader of my Family. For five years I have waited for word of my brother. At least a sending from his knack, but there has been naught. Yet this is not about Esmun or so says this assembly. This is about all Hobbits. Every traveler who has not returned. Every called who comes back broken or maimed in mind and spirit. The world is changed, you’ve said,῁῁ she nodded to Rorimac, ῁῁and therefore we must. Well let the other races follow our example. I will not say forsake our duty. I do not say let the fate of Middle Earth rest only on the shoulders of those we have had to keep from warring on each other in their own blind pride. But I do say this to you, Bilbo, as your friend and peer. If the time comes and you must reveal us do not forget those who still wander: Esmun, Hildifons, and the rest. If we are to know their heroes of Middle Earth, let the other races know ours as well. I say aye.῁῁

Everard merely crossed his arms and scowled. ῁῁Do what you like but be it on your head.῁῁ It would have carried a bit more bite if the others were not familiar with how he acted when he truly opposed a decision.

Feeling the Took’s vote was as good as cast, attention turned to Otho. The hobbit had not spoken the entire moot and no one was sure where his mind lay. ῁῁It seems my knack fails me. Despite my cunning words I do not know what to say.῁῁ The fingers of his right hand lightly drummed against the table. ῁῁I do not believe I have more at stake than anyone else here. We all have families: siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren. Just because my wife carries our unborn child, I do not find myself more qualified to choose for all generations that follow. To carry that power is a burden I would not abide.῁῁ The drumming ceased and Otho’s hand curled into a fist. ῁῁Bilbo Baggins is a fool—a good, honest fool who will allow the demands of others to tear him apart. To place so much trust in one soul is a hard thing to ask. But if that one is him? If the question I must ask is how strong my faith in Bilbo is, then I have only one answer to give the moot. I agree.῁῁

The Thain inclined his head to the Sackville. The old hobbit rubbed his hands together before starring at his nephew. ῁῁Many have already stated their faith in Bilbo, so I will forgo doing the same. Instead I would draw your attention to history. Once we let the other Free Peoples face darkness alone. No hobbit was among the forces of the Last Alliance and we felt justified in our absence. We were charged with keeping the Free Peoples from destroying each other, not standing with them against evil.῁῁ Isumbras shook his head. ῁῁We made the wrong choice that day and every hobbit that has not returned from a calling has paid the price. We who had long known the flaws of the other races did not see our own. It was not the strength of Man, Elf, or Dwarf that failed on the day Isildur took up his Bane and kept it. It was that of Hobbits; for we would not have left the choice to one alone. A hobbit understands that his actions affect all, not only himself.῁῁ The Thain rose. ῁῁Which is why I announce now that the Took decision should not be mine. I am old and will not see the consequences of such a choice. If this vote is to be decided, it will be by those who must live with the outcome. I resign all my titles and positions. ῁῁ Fortinbras stared at his father, though he seemed more confused than surprised by the announcement. Isumbras clasped his son’s shoulder. ῁῁May my heir lead with the Valar’s blessing and keep Eru’s flame alight. Witnessed?῁῁

The startled assembly returned the cry. ῁῁Witnessed.῁῁

῁῁I will strive to guide as my forefathers before me.῁῁ Fortinbras stood and assisted his father back into his seat. ῁῁I have little else to add. Bilbo, my heart-brother, I would take this task from you if I could. ῁῁ If you would let me, the words remained unspoken between the two. Bilbo’s gaze did not waver and it was Fortinbras who bowed his head resigned. ῁῁Then I too vote yes. Does any wish to change his vote?῁῁ Silence met the statement. ῁῁Then the decision is unanimous. To you, Bilbo Baggins, we give the power to let Arda know of our true purpose. May your choice be wise.῁῁

After the vote, the gathering soon dispersed, most to their rooms to change either to stay the night or journey home. As Rorimac passed Bilbo, where he had been detained by Fort and Isumbras, the older male patted his cousins back. “Your Company plans to take the East Road I assume?”

“Yes,” Bilbo replied.

“Good. Good.” Rorimac withdrew his hand and chucked Bilbo in the arm. “Bring them by Brandy Hall. We’ll treat you to a grand parting feast.”

“It may delay us even more.”

Rorimac gave his cousin a stern look. “Bilbo, do not pretend with me that you do not plan on patrolling the Old Forest one last time. I will not have you doing so on the sly with thirteen dwarves to catch you at it. Besides I’m sure they’ll agree if I personally invite them.” He gave a fierce grin. “After all I am the Master of Buckland.”

“Fine.” Bilbo sighed. “I will take you to them.”

Isumbras stopped his younger nephew. “It would be better, Rory, if you go by yourself. There are some things Fort and I must discuss with Bilbo.”

The Brandybuck gave his uncle a nod and Bilbo a worried parting glance before he headed off to find the dwarves.

Together father and son led Bilbo through the winding halls of the Great Smial until they came far back to a large suite of rooms. Here Fortinbras opened the door ushering Bilbo and his father inside. Bilbo stumbled a few steps in before stilling and scanned the room’s old furniture and obvious disuse. He inhaled sharply. “Isn’t this—?”

“Yes,” Isumbras interrupted, moving aside a chair so he could sit. “This is my father’s, your grandfather’s old room. He never did let anyone change anything. It all ended up shabbier and shabbier over the years, just like him.” The old hobbit chuckled.

Bilbo could not bring himself to even smile at the joke. “Why am I here?”

Isumbras waved to his son and Fort disappeared behind one of the room’s cabinets. He returned a moment later carrying a small chest and a large package. Both were set on the dusty table besides the older hobbit. “There are things we would give you.”

Isumbras picked up he parcel and handed it to Fort. Bilbo’s cousin placed it before him with a slight smile. “I meant these for my next birthday.” He watched as Bilbo unfolded the parchment to reveal a reddish-brown calfskin case, which opened to display fourteen throwing knives. On the hilt of each was the Green Tongue symbol reserved for the names of the Valar. A different name graced each handle. Fortinbras’s smile widened as Bilbo careful removed one of the blades and tested its perfect balance in his hand.

“They’re wonderful.”

“Well I couldn’t let you keep using Uncle Bungo’s old ones for every Tournament.” Fort shrugged, clearly pleased. “They’re dwarf-made but hobbit designed and I had Gorbulas Brandybuck do the symbols.” A cousin of Rory’s, Gorbulas was one of the few hobbit smiths the Shire could boast of.  Replacing the blade and setting the case aside, Bilbo drew out the items that lay beneath it. Comfortably cured pieces of leather armor met his perusal. The unadorned material had gone through a special process that Hobbits had started refining since their migration into the Vales of Anduin. Though light enough to be worn beneath clothing, the inside of the leather was easily able to bend with the wearer’s movements but the outside was tough and hopefully thick enough to stop an arrow if need be. Bilbo placed the under-jerkin, vambraces, and greaves aside.

“We started to gather it once we received your message. It should all fit. It’s not as good as dragon scale but—”

Bilbo interrupted his cousin. “It means much.” Bilbo swallowed harshly. “Thank you, Fort.”

His cousin nodded mutely and began rewrapping the items. A cough from Isumbras drew their attention to the older hobbit. “I wish I could say these would be as welcomed.” The chest was opened and a small pouch was removed. “They should have been given to you long ago, but the Old Took wasn’t certain you would accept them.” He slid the small bag across the table. “It is a part of your inheritance from Adamanta. She wanted you to have it.” His eyes fell to Bilbo’s chest but he said nothing more.

Bilbo flinched. There had been too much talk of Adamanta today. He already wanted to leave, to hide in his borrowed room or Bag-End, where he could stifle the pain and longing in his Hearts. Yes, Adamanta’s death was his fault, but no one understood that his greater sin was the taking of her Heart. That as she died he felt all the pain giving one’s Heart entailed. Her grief and sorrow, her regret and love had engulfed him along with her physical agony. How could he not blame himself? How could they not?

Isumbras narrowed his eyes at his nephew. “I believe you’re old enough to know that refusing her gifts will not change anything.”

His uncle was right. Wordlessly, Bilbo took up the pouch and emptied the contents into his hand. Four rings, heavy bands each inlaid with a single gem, tumbled into his palm. Layers of grime and years of neglect revealed no more, their surfaces so dulled he could not even tell what type of jewel each bore. Bilbo raised a questioning brow at his uncle as he replaced the jewelry in their bag.

“Those are the last remains of Arradeth’s hoard; the rest she either gave away or had added to the Took accounts as her dowry.” He watched as Bilbo gently sat the pouch upon the rest of his parting gifts. “My mother never said much about them except that she meant to give them to you. Something to do with dragon business.” Isumbras gave the last words a crooked smile. “There is one last thing I have for you.” The smile faded as the old hobbit stood and made his way to Bilbo’s side. His nephew eyed him warily and he could not blame the lad. Isumbras had never wanted to be the one to give the boy more pain. Long-dulled resentment simmered at his father and brother. They had left this task to him and while Isumbras knew it must be done, might even help his nephew, he did not relish doing it.

“From my father to my brother to me this has passed along with the title of Thain. In turn each of us has waited for a time you would be ready for it, but it seems that life can no longer afford us anymore delay.” Fort watched his father confused as the old hobbit set about removing his weskit and braces. “No one in the family knew of it, not even the Thain’s successor until the day he receives the title.” He dropped the waistcoat on the table. Then he proceeded to unbutton his shirt. “I believe my father tried to tell you once, but thought it too much for you to bear at the time. Isengrim also tried to explain it to me, but I did not truly understand until I took its burden from him.” He pulled the shirt open and Bilbo’s sharp inhale was the only sound in the room. The starburst scar on his uncle’s chest, made the one over his own Heart ache. Bilbo could not speak but pulled back as though struck. Too little air seized in his lungs.

Fortinbras, who had privy to his cousin’s scar a few times over the years, glanced between Bilbo and his father. “How?”

Isumbras shook his head though his eyes did not stray from Bilbo’s stricken face. “It seems dragon Hearts are very odd things. When Adamanta gave hers to Bilbo it did not extinguish itself rekindling his flame. Even now it shares his breast besides his own Heart. As long as one half lived so did the other. Your grandfather,” he said to Fortinbras, “was the longest lived hobbit in our records. Did you think that was coincidence? Even we with dragon-blood have never lived until his age. He lived ten years past his wife’s death, instead of succumbing to the Wasting. This,” he pressed his hand to the scar, “is the reason why.”

Fortinbras’s eyes flicked to Bilbo. The younger hobbit seemed to have curled in upon himself as he worked to draw steady breaths. Isumbras held tightly to Fort’s shoulder, preventing the hobbit from going to his cousin. “I do not tell you this to harm you, Bilbo, but to explain. My mother’s Heart may have kept my father from succumbing to the Wasting but that does not mean he did not endure it.” Clutching his chest, Isumbras inhaled deeply. “It is a painful feeling.”

Understanding bloomed on Bilbo’s and Fortinbras’s faces. Just the year before, Isumbras’s wife had died from a bought of pneumonia. Bilbo met his uncle’s kindly eyes. “While we might not have Hearts like you do, Isengrim and my father found that one of dragon-blood could remove a Heart from its bearer if given express permission. Isengrim took it from Gerontius the night before he died. My brother gave it to me upon his retirement. If I've born only half the agony you felt when my mother gave you her half, then you are a much stronger hobbit than me, Bilbo.” Bilbo blinked back tears, but Isumbras shook his head and merely continued. “It is a weighty thing I mean to give you, but it is yours, my nephew. It has always been yours.” The hobbit hooked his fingers and forced them into his scar.

“What are you doing,” Bilbo whispered in dread.

Isumbras braced himself against his son’s side as, with a gasping shudder, he pulled the half a Heart from his chest. His legs buckled and Fortinbras grabbed his father least he fall. Pressing his fingers against the wound which had already begun to heal leaving not even blood as a reminder of its opening, Isumbras held the Heart out to Bilbo. The younger hobbit stared at his uncle in disbelief.

“No,” Bilbo breathed. “You cannot ask this of me.”

“It is yours and no others,” his uncle said. Despite his weakness, his voice remained firm. “Either take it or let it die.”

˟˟No.˟˟

A whimper rose from Bilbo’s lips. His gaze flickered from where the Heart beat in his uncle’s hand to his cousin’s eyes. Fortinbras said nothing but he stood straighter, holding his father to his side. His eyes did not leave Bilbo’s. He needed no words to make his offer clearer. I will take it, his eyes said. If you cannot bear it then give it to me, my heart-brother. I can carry its weight. Bilbo averted his gaze.

˟˟Ours.˟˟ He shuddered at the cry. ˟˟Our burden. Our self. Ours to hold and keep and give.˟˟ A dragon’s possessiveness surged within his breast.

“I will take it.” He undid his waistcoats and threw it to the side. His shirt was swiftly unbuttoned. The memory of pain almost made him falter. ˟˟Ours,˟˟ his heart reminded. ˟˟Mine,˟˟ Bilbo whispered back. He swallowed harshly before he dug the nails of his fingers into either side of the scar

“May it heal more than harm,” Isumbras murmured as he help press the Heart into Bilbo’s chest. Agony seared through the hobbit. Bilbo bit his lip until it bled to keep from screaming. Besides his father, Fortinbras cringed in sympathy. Slowly, inch by inch the Heart settled into his cousin’s chest. For a moment Bilbo was not certain it would fit. Who was meant to carry the burden of two Hearts, even dragon ones?

˟˟Whole,˟˟ his second Heart shouted as the two pieces at last aligned. His body bowed as his pain peaked upon their reuniting.

Bilbo cried out and collapsed to his knees. Emotions and memories permeated him. Deep loneliness as a solitary white dragon flew through the skies, not even the joy of flight easing her isolation. Bellyaching laughter as an impertinent hobbit fearlessly offered her a handkerchief. The pain of tearing a Heart asunder. Gerontius’s breathlessness as he starred into Adamanta’s eyes during their wedding. The joy of holding his first child. The echoing pain of feeling Adamanta’s Heart being torn from her and gifted to another.  Sorrow welling as he stared down at the empty eyes of a heart-broken faunt. Bilbo could hardly recognize himself in his grandfather’s view. Despair. Hope. Fear. The resolve to protect a grandchild until he was ready. Fainter were the lingering recollections of Isengrim and Isumbras. Duty. Pain. Laughter. Patience. The long ache of Wasting while the Heart made him endure. It seemed to roll over him in wave after wave, until Bilbo was nothing. Only the remains of Arradeth–Adamanta, Gerontius, Isengrim, and Isumbras sounded. ˟˟Enough,˟˟ the word broke from his own lips though he did not know it. ˟˟Enough.˟˟  

Bilbo was not sure how long it took for him to come back to himself but when he did he found his uncle and cousin crouched on either side of him.

“He felt her die too and he never told me.” Bilbo did not understand why his vision seemed so cloudy until he pressed his hand to wet cheeks. “He didn’t blame me,” he gasped, rocking. He barely felt Fort’s hands resting on his back, running up and down in soothing motions. “I always thought he must have resented me. Hated me. I took her away and he-he….” Bilbo’s hand reached out and clasped frantically around Isumbras. “He didn’t,” he said like a lost child. Fort’s heart clenched at the sound.

His uncle pressed Bilbo's hand between his palms and guided it back against Bilbo’s chest were the starburst had settled. “He didn’t,” Isumbras said firmly. “You know that.”

Bilbo did. He felt it flooding through him. The certainty of his grandfather’s, his grandmother’s, his uncles’ love. The love that had guarded and taken pain for him. He thought he might drown within it; simply let the warm waters of it submerge him. A choking sob rose in his throat and he flung his arms around his uncle’s and cousin’s necks. The two held the crying lad close tucked between them as for the first time in twenty-four years Bilbo allowed his Hearts to share their grief.

***

>>Why is he watching us like that,<< Kili asked, avoiding looking at Paladin. The dwarves had eventually bored of their table and had taken to walking around the field behind the back of the Smial. After the incident yesterday no one seemed to be using it for practice so they thought they might as well occupy the area as they awaited the Burglar’s return. Paladin had agreed they were welcome to the place and had since proceeded to follow the group about.

>>It’s because of Nori,<< Ori replied with a sigh, her tone heavy with a lifetime’s worth of experience. >>Whenever people start acting like that its always because of Nori.<<

Her sister gave her a sour look. Ori had still refused to speak to Nori and the elder dwarrowdam was not taking her rebuke well. The three of them along with Fili were lying underneath the shade of one of the trees that marked the edge of the field as they watched Thorin, Balin, and Gloin speak with one of the hobbits.

Rorimac, Bilbo’s cousin and Master of Buckland, Fili’s memory helpfully supplied. By all rights he should have been with that group rather than on the ground seated between his brother and Ori, but the prince didn’t mind. Balin was there to keep everyone in line and Gloin was doing an excellent job as the silent muscle. Besides while he loved his uncle, anymore blundering Thorin did should be safely observed at a distance. The heir flopped back in the grass, closing his eyes as sunlight filtered down on him between the tree’s branches. He could understand his uncle’s resentment of the Shire-folk, but it seemed unfair. It was hardly their fault that the Hobbits had lived in peace and plenty for decades while Durin’s folk had been left to wander and beg. They were hardly like the Elves who had turned away from their suffering or the Men that had tried to exploit them. You couldn’t blame a pony for having four legs so why be upset that hobbits were soft folk who knew little of the world’s hardships. Fili wrinkled his nose. His opinion on that had been constantly contradicted of late. Miss Belladonna herself was an adventurer and even Bungo seemed fearsome when challenged. Just remembering him reading the contract made Fili feel sick with shame. Lobelia and the other Baggins family had been much more like what he had expected but even they surprised him. As for the Tooks, they seemed a merry bunch but appearances could be deceiving. He remembered how the other Hobbits had treated Bilbo on their shopping outing. Most had been rather respectful but he couldn’t help but recall how the female selling the meat pies had shunned their friend. From then on he had noticed how Bilbo’s presence constantly elicited some reaction ranging from respect to fear of scorn. Did it have something to with the comment on being a murderer? He had ignored it before as the lying embellishment of that horrid hobbit woman, but could it be true? Fili frowned.

A shadow passed over his face. “Are you alright?” He opened his eyes to find Ori staring down at him, the sunlight glinting off her ginger braids. It reminded him of the early days of their acquaintanceship when Balin would teach Kili and him in his study while Ori, having recently begun her apprenticeship, would sit nearest to the fire tutoring Gimli. For a moment Fili was speechless ignoring the crease of concern on the dam's brow hallowed by the light's passage. It was all he could do to restrain himself from brushing one of those strands with the back of his hand. He could feel his cheeks coloring.

“Fine,” he eventually managed, sitting up. The movement had the little dwarrowdam drawing away. Fili wasn’t sure if he should be upset or relieved. A quick glance at Nori soothed any lingering fears. The elder dam had fixed her concentration on the meeting and missed the exchange. At least he wouldn’t have to fear the other Ri siblings killing him in his sleep tonight, having suspected his inappropriate thoughts.

“Are you sure, brother?” Fili could hear the smirk in Kili’s voice. The younger Durin heir was doing his best to suppress a gleeful smile. It was just Kili’s fault that at least with Fili the other dwarf could hardly hide his emotions. Fili jumped up and grabbed his brother’s arm. “A word, brother,” he said as he dragged the other dwarf away, already mentally sifting through years of blackmail material. Too bad most of it also involved himself.

Ori blinked in surprise at the princes swift depart. Nori barely gave them a quick suspicious look before turning her attention back to Thorin’s conversation. The dam’s skin itched from where she felt Paladin’s gaze flicker from the princes and back to her. Damn. There was no way she was going to be able to sneak away and find out what was going on with their Burglar.

Thorin finished up his business with Rorimac a few moments later and returned to the dams at the same time as the princes. Fili stood about sedately, torn between wanting to laugh or strangle his brother, as Kili blathered about how perfectly healthy his brother was earning confused looks from all.

Fili eventual halted his brother’s prattle. “What took you so long, uncle?”

Thorin grunted. “More hobbit nonsense,” he said before he marched off by himself to one of the practice targets.

Sensing a perfect opportunity to speak alone with her king, Nori rolled her eyes. “I’ll go try to reason with his broody majesty.”

“Luck with that,” Gloin snorted.

Balin nodded in agreement. “Go ahead, lass.” Nori strolled away as the older dwarf informed the youngsters about Rorimac’s invitation. She found Thorin standing before the target Bilbo and the little hobbit girl had been by the day before, the blade still embedded in it. He was idly tracing the whorls in the wood, though his eyes had not strayed from the blade.

Nori was careful to be louder than normal least she startle her leader. Ever mindful of Paladin’s attention, though she was sure the hobbit had remained near the others, she chose to speak in Khuzdul. >>What about the hobbit’s offer has you so upset?<<

He did not turn to her but his hand stilled. >>Practicing your lip reading?<<

The dam shrugged. >>It’s not precise but it will do. You all said the word hospitality enough times it was easy to pick up.<<

Thorin sighed. >>If I did not know better, I would think the wizard was conspiring against us. It feels as though we will never leave this accursed place.<<

>>I’d hardly call it that.<< Nori plucked the dagger from the wood and rubbed the hilt. Thorin watched as a few brown flakes fluttered to the ground. A small breeze swept them away, removing the final remains of Bilbo’s blood. Nori followed his gaze. >>He is not what I expected. None of them are. << The dam tossed the blade between her fingers and sighed. >>I was caught yesterday.<<

Thorin’s brow rose. >>I know. I assume you did the usual lost maid bit.<<

Nori grimaced and her hand grasped the blade more firmly. >>No. I was caught at the door.<< Thorin looked at her stunned. The king’s expression made the dam feel even worse about the damage such a thing would do to her reputation.  She had not been caught once during her time as his Spymaster. >>The one watching us now found me.<< She dared not use his name least the hobbit overhear. >>I barely heard him. The one that traveled with us here, the Burglar’s cousin, I never even sensed. If they meant me dead, I would be.<<

Thorin’s eyes glanced to the hobbit and Nori stiffened. If the little blighter hadn’t suspected what they were talking about before, he surely would now. >>Did they hear anything important? Did you learn anything?<<

Nori balanced the dagger on her finger. It was of good make though she could not tell by whom. It was certainly not Dwarven. >>Nothing much. Just the usual opposition our hobbit keeps hearing about going off with us.<< Nori fought to keep from rolling her eye as Thorin stiffened. >>I don’t think it has anything to do with us being dwarrows, your grumpiness. It seemed to be a rule they had. They only journey with Gandalf. Had something to be a ‘calling’. Not sure what that was about. They were also worried about Hobbit secrets getting out.<<

Thorin snorted. As if he cared about Hobbit secrets. >>Anything else?<<

>>He gave their Thain a copy of our contract but refused to disclose the specifics. That was all I heard before I was caught.<<

>>Then what?<<

Nori spun the danger on her finger pad. >>Oh, just the usual exchange of threats until the cousin interrupted. He did have a message for you though. The Thain’s son said that if you needed anything he’d be happy to assist you with your concerns.<< She handed him the dagger. >>I doubt they know what I am, besides a nosy dwarf, but I’d be careful around them. They are very protective of our Mister Baggins.<<

>>Indeed. I seemed to have a similar conversation with the Thain’s daughter-in-law.<< Thorin eyed the dagger in surprise. >>This is of good make.<< He handed it back to the dam.

Yes. It was. Odd that such a well made weapon should miss or suddenly falter in its path. Nori threw the knife up in the air, caught it, and tossed it to the approaching Paladin. The hobbit easily grabbed the hilt and slipped it onto his belt with a wink.

>>These Tooks are quite different from what I know of hobbits.<< She gave Thorin a pointed look. >>It would be interesting to find out if our Burglar is half as unusual.<<

She fell silent as Paladin ambled up. “Hello. I was just coming to see if you were at all interested in a bit of an early luncheon before you get ready to head out.”

Thorin gave the hobbit an unamused glare. “Is your cousin finished with his business then?”

Paladin hummed noncommittally. “Well uncle Isumbras and Fortinbras are over in the hall; at least according to Adelard they are.” He waved in his hand to where the younger hobbit was talking with the other dwarves. “I’m sure Bilbo will show up before your done eating. It’s been a bit of a day. First the moot, then Fort just being made Thain and everything.”

The dwarves blinked at him. “Did we miss the ceremony?”

Paladin gave them a bemused smile. “Wasn’t anything to miss. Previous Thain just says he’s done and names the next one.” At their continual confusion Paladin chuckled. “We tend not to do a lot of hoopla about these things.”

Thorin shook his head. >>Crazy hobbits.<< The rest of their group had come to meet them. “Where would he most likely be?” Paladin pointed off to the woods past the smial’s practice yard. A small trail of stepping stones led off in to it. Thorin grunted his thanks and made to follow the trail.

“And where are you going,” Gloin hollered after him.

“To find our Burglar,” he said without turning around.

“Just don’t get lost like last time,” Kili grumbled. It took all of Thorin’s dignity to ignore his companions’ snickers and not turn around and throttle his nephew. By Mahal the boy was getting more and more like Dis every day.

***

Rosemary loved her fathers but they had been too clingy since yesterday. So she did what any self respecting Took faunt would do and escaped from underneath their noses as soon as possible. Anyway everybody was going on about how Bilbo was leaving and the girl wasn’t going to let him go without a proper goodbye. Rosemary had overheard more than one conversation saying how unlikely it was for him to come back. She knew better than to ask questions because it only made people tell her off for eavesdropping. She’d never dropped an eave in her life. It wasn’t her fault everyone forgot she was there if she was quiet. Well it didn’t matter. She was nearly ten now, which meant she was old enough to be making her own decisions. This was why Rosemary was currently running through the woods, with a pocketful of herbs, laughing, and chasing a bunny.

Meanwhile, Thorin Oakenshield was not lost. He may have been looking for the trail for the past ten minutes but that didn’t mean he was lost. He had simply misplaced the very visible path when he was distracted. Don’t you mean brooding, Frerin’s voice mocked. He sought to ignore his internal commentary. If he listened too closely to his subconscious at times he thought he could make out Dis’s laughter. In fact he was sure he could hear female laughter. Following the sound, he soon came to said path where a Hobbit child was crouched trying to temp a rabbit out with a spring of mint. A twig snapped beneath his boot startling both bunny and girl. The little animal fled and Thorin was sure the child was going to do the same. Instead she stared up at the tall dwarf with wide eyes.

“Hello,” she said, crushing the mint in her hand.

“Hello,” he replied slowly sinking to a knee. The child looked familiar but she could have been anyone of the numerous faunts he had seen running about last night. It was another thing that made him irrationally angry at these hobbits. Why should they have such ease, such numerous children while his own people suffered? When each birth was a struggle? He strived to keep the anger from his words. “What are you doing out here?”

She scrunched her nose. “You’re not very polite. You’re supposed to introduce yourself. Like this.” She did a little bob. “Nice to meet you, I’m Rosemary. Now you try it but with your name.” When he didn’t respond she made little waving motions, dropping her mint sprig. “Well go on.”

Thorin stood to tower over the little girl, his anger forgotten. He swallowed a chuckle at Rosemary’s unimpressed expression and gave the fierce little thing a small bow. “I am Thorin, at your service.”

Rosemary gave him a curious look. “What does that mean? ‘At your service’?”

“It is the polite thing a dwarf says when he introduces himself. It means that he offers you his good will if you do the same in turn.”

Rosemary chewed her lip before nodding. She gave a bow in reply. “At your service then, Mister Thorin.”

Thorin bit back a smile. “What are you doing out here, Miss Rosemary?”

The faunt fidgeted with her pockets. “I’m looking for Cousin Bilbo. I have to tell him thank you and goodbye. You’re one of his dwarves right? Are you looking for him too?”

“I am,” he agreed readily. “Looking for him. Not his dwarf. I mean we will be companions but…do you know where cousin is,” he added hastily. Thank Mahal he left his nephews behind or he’d not be hearing the end of it.

Rosemary giggled and grabbed his hand with hers. “You’re funny. He’s probably visiting grandma. I’ll show you.” She pulled him after her without waiting for a reply. The two walked for some time as Rosemary chattered on about everything from the flowers beside the path to if birds knew direction by memory or used the sun like she did. Eventually the girl tired and it only took her one politely asked question and pleading eyes to persuade Thorin to carry her.

“This,” she said in a near whisper towards the end of their journey, “is sage for wisdom. Then mint for virtue. Thyme’s for courage and basil’s for good wishes. Chamomile so he’s patient and lavender for devotion. Lastly there’s rosemary just like me.”

Thorin, who had learned early in their conversation that the best answers he could give were little nods and grunts of agreement, couldn’t help but ask. “And what’s rosemary for, Rosemary?”

The little girl giggled. “It means remembrance so he’ll remember me when he’s away.” She gave him a proud smile at her cleverness.

Thorin couldn’t help but return it. They were just approaching a curve in the path when Rosemary called a halt. The faunt jumped down from Thorin’s arms and pressed a finger to her lips. “Quiet,” she hissed. “We have to be sneaky and make sure Bilbo’s almost done.”

The dwarf lord was quickly getting tired of following his Burglar’s timetable. “And why is that,” he said sterner than he meant to be.

Rosemary, who had quite come to like the tall dwarf, gave him the best quelling look a nine year old faunt could produce. “Cause he might be talking to her.” She pulled Thorin around the bend and then down behind a bush. “My daddy says you shouldn’t interrupt when people are talking to the dead.”

Thorin’s throat went dry. From his vantage point he could see Bilbo, who had changed back into his travelling clothes, kneeling before two graves. The hobbit had each hand fisted in the grass that covered each mound and it was clear to even Thorin from the Burglar’s untidy appearance that he was distraught. “I thought you said he was speaking with your grandmother.”

Rosemary cocked her head at Thorin. “He is. That’s Grandpa Gerontius and that’s Grandma Adamanta.” She pointed to one grave and then the other.

Adamanta. It was the name the hobbit woman yesterday had yelled before calling the Burglar a murderer. It was the same name Nori had reported to him; the one that had seemed to trigger the Baggins’ battle-dream. Unease coiled in his stomach. “How did she die?”

The little girl worried her lip. “You can’t tell anyone I told you,” she whispered. “It’s just…we don’t talk about it. It makes Bilbo sad if you talk about it. I don’t like when he’s sad.”

Thorin nodded his agreement and the girl continued hesitantly. “A long time ago there was this bad winter and Bilbo did something he shouldn’t have.” The Fell Winter. Thorin remembered how haunted the hobbit had seemed when it was mentioned. “We weren’t supposed to go out. Not until Gandalf or the Rangers came but Bilbo did. He got hurt and Grandma saved him. But-but she died. No one says why. Daddy said I’m supposed to wait until I’m older.” She looked up at Thorin slightly disappointed. “Bilbo wouldn’t hurt anyone. He helps people.”

He wasn’t sure why it took him until then to recognize her, but Thorin at once knew this child was the one Bilbo had protected the day before. For a long moment the two remained motionless as he stared into the pale-haired child’s dark eyes. Movement from beyond their bush caught his attention. In an instant Rosemary shot out from behind the covering and towards Bilbo, who was brushing dirt from his trousers.

“Bilbo, Bilbo. Look what I got you.” The hobbit swung the child up in his arms and took the little posy from her hands. A quiet conversation commenced between the two.

Thorin was just trying to figure out how to stand up from behind the bush without Bilbo noticing, when the conversation drew much nearer.

“I got them from the kitchens,” Rosemary admitted chagrined. Bilbo’s laughter bubbled up and Thorin tried not to focus on how pleasing the sound was. He pressed a hand to his fluttering stomach. Eating as often as the hobbits was obviously giving him indigestion.

“You shouldn’t be out by yourself, Rosemary.”

“I’m not. I have a friend with me.” Thorin closed his eyes uselessly hoping she wouldn’t reveal him. He should have known better. “I brought one of your dwarves with me. You can come out now, Mister Thorin. Bilbo’s done.”

With as much majesty as one could expect from a king who had been hiding behind a brambleberry bush, Thorin stood. Willing himself not to flush, the dwarf lord gave a little nod. “Greetings, Master Baggins.” He tried to ignore the drying tear trails that marked the Burglar’s face. “I believe it’s near time for our departure. We’ve stayed here long enough.” Thorin turned about without another word and started heading down the path.

Gathering up Rosemary a rather shocked Bilbo followed after. Rosemary stared at Thorin’s back bewildered. “He’s as moody as Auntie Donnamira but I still like him. He’s probably my favorite of your dwarves. The others are too noisy.”

Her words had Thorin turning about so suddenly that Bilbo nearly walked into him. The dwarf lord was tired of everyone expecting the hobbit to be in charge of their group. Master Baggins was their burglar and nothing more. “I’m not his dwarf, Rosemary,” Thorin snapped. “If anything as leader of the Company he’s my hobbit.” Both hobbits gaped at him as though he were some strange creature. Embarrassment flushed Thorin's face and he quickly turned around and all but fled down the path.

At moment later Bilbo trailed behind him. “I don’t understand,” Rosemary said quietly. She clung tighter to Bilbo’s neck. “He was so nice. I thought he liked me.”

Bilbo walked on and noticed Thorin’s flinch at her words. The dwarf had sharp enough hearing even if his mind seemed addled. “Oh I’m sure he still likes you, Rosemary. I bet he’s just shy.” A small bit of pleasure curled in Bilbo’s stomach as Thorin’s shoulders stiffened. For the rest of the walk to the smial neither spoke though halfway down the trail the dwarf king ended up with a wiggling fauntling in his arms again.

 

“Are you sure, you cannot stay the night,” Lalia asked. Fortinbras and Bilbo had just added the second satchel carrying his parting gifts in them onto the pony’s back.

Bilbo shook his head. “We plan to leave once all my business was tended to. The last of the supplies should have been gathered so we’ll depart tomorrow.”

“Oh.” The hobbitess looked to her husband. Fortinbras merely shrugged and Lalia bit back whatever comment was on her tongue. The pony had somewhat settled and at least this time did not buck and twist whenever Bilbo touched her. It took only a few attempts for him to get up into his seat. The rest of the dwarves were already waiting with Gandalf, who once again had rejoined the group.

Lalia took Bilbo’s hand in her own. “Be safe. Swift be your travels and swifter your return.”

Bilbo squeezed her hand in reply. “Watch over this lot. With Fort in charge they’ll be even more in need of your good sense.” Lalia’s laughter was interrupted by a blur of pale hair that darted towards the ponies.

Only Paladin’s quickness allowed him to catch Rosemary before she disappeared under Thorin’s pony. “Why you—”

Rosemary quickly interrupted the other Took by thrusting a little posy underneath Thorin’s nose. “Take it.” The dwarf lord’s fingers fumbled as he took the mixture of flowers. “It’s rosemary and white heather. Heather’s for protection so you have to be safe on your journey.”

He stared at the little bundle. “Rosemary for remembrance,” he muttered.

The faunt smiled. “Yes. So you won’t forget me.” She cocked her head. “How do polite dwarves say goodbye, Mister Thorin?”

The dwarf lord ignored his stunned companions and the hobbits’ interested gazes. “I—” he swallowed. “We say ‘May the forge light your path home’ or ‘until next we meet.’”

“May the forge light your path until next we meet,” Rosemary repeated dutifully as her father Isengar plucked her from Paladin’s grasp. “I’ll see you when you bring Bilbo back.”  The Tooks nearest them tensed at the certainty in her words. Thorin found he could not respond. The hobbit father gave the dwarf a courteous nod and stepped back into the crowd. Rosemary’s parting words lingered after she had disappeared from sight.

“We’ll make sure he doesn’t lose his seat along the way,” Fili said and Kili grinned besides him.

Bilbo eyed his pony nervously. “I already feel reassured.” The casual banter eased those around them.

Fortinbras grasped Bilbo’s arm. “Remember, Bilbo, not even a Took can conquer death.” The family motto weighted heavily between.

“Doesn’t mean the fool won’t try,” Bilbo replied with the usual response.

“Well you know what they say,” Paladin patted Bilbo’s knee and gave him his best grin. “No fool like a fool of a Took.” Both hobbits released Bilbo and stepped back. “Be safe, Bilbo.” The smile faded. “I’d hate to have to find a new drinking partner.”

Thorin kicked his pony and the group began to head out. Bilbo gave one final parting wave to the Tooks who watched him leave. At the smial’s door Isumbras leant against young Adelard and returned his nephews gesture. “My love be with you and the Family,” Bilbo called out as he followed Nori’s pony, Fili and Kili following him on either side.

“We’ll sing for you tomorrow,” Lalia yelled after him. “I promise.”

The return trip to Bag-End was rather quiet after that. Even Kili’s endless questioning seemed arrested by the Tooks send-off. Thorin’s questioning of where Gandalf had gone off to was the only real conversation that took place and even that was swiftly ended by the wizard’s vague answers. It was around teatime that the group finally trudged their way back to the smial, having left the mounts back at the Inn.

“I hope your father made those lovely teacakes, Bilbo,” Gandalf had just said when the smial door was opened by an unfamiliar hobbit matron. Her ash brown curls neatly pulled back in a bun, the hobbitess scanned the group before nodding. “Good, you’re all here. Come along then.” The hobbit waved all inside much to the consternation of Thorin and the amusement of Gandalf.

“My dear Bell,” the wizard began when the hobbit woman interrupted.

“No. None of your sly talk today, Mister Gandalf. I’ve had my faunts running back and forth helping Mister Bilbo’s guests get all their parcels gathered between today and yester. So you’re going come in and take tea with me and mine since Miss Belladonna and Mister Bungo invited us. Now get in the parlor while I fetch some more seedcake and blackberry tarts.” The female stamped off towards the kitchen with the air of a mother who expected to be obeyed.

Whatever resistance Thorin might have had ended with the words ‘blackberry tarts’ and he led the way towards the parlor. Therefore it was Gandalf’s back Bilbo bumped into when the dwarf king came to an abrupt halt.

“What is this,” the dwarf lord exclaimed. Bilbo had to peer around both Gandalf and Thorin to see what the commotion was about. The press of the complaining dwarves behind him eventually had both move out of the doorway only for the other dwarrows to be stunned silent.

It seemed the parlor and dwarves had been overrun with hobbits since their departure. Bilbo’s eyes darted around the room, counting those of each race. Hamfast Gamgee sat on the settee between Bungo and Oin discussing medicinal herbs and where to best gather them. Beyond him his eldest son Hamson and his brother Halfred were being entertained by Bofur and Bifur. The two hobbits hardly seemed to mind the colorful jokes or grunts as the dwarves managed to build a little bird with fluttering wings out of few odds and ends supplied by Bungo. Dori had taken over supervision of the faunts Daisy and May. He sat on the floor, the most undignified his sisters had ever seen him, demonstrating how to make a five strand braid with his own hair. Bombur meanwhile was fluffing pillows for Belladonna who had the normally quiet dwarf chattering away at her. But the one that drew everyone’s attention was Dwalin who sat in Belladonna’s rocking chair, little Samwise on his lap and baby Marigold in his arms. The warrior glared at his gawking companions as he continued to bounce Sam up and down on his leg. His hard stare fell on Thorin. “Quiet or you’ll wake her.”

By the time Bell had returned and tea resumed most of the group had gotten over their shock and found places to sit. Bilbo was the last; he had been too engrossed with watching the Gamgee youngsters flutter their eyes, babble their admiration, and (in Marigold’s case) sneeze their way into the dwarves’ affections. When he did finally take a seat, he had barely settled on the floor only to be swapped by Gamgee children. From the frowns on several of the dwarves’ faces it was readily apparent they resented him for pillaging their hobbit audiences. Bilbo could hardly help it as he had often been asked to watch over the Gamgee children as a tween. Thorin at least was relieved. It seemed that if a hobbit invasion ever came to Ered Luin so long as it was led by the civilized Gamgee faunts and their parents the Blue Mountains would be easily conquered. It also wouldn’t hurt if the other dwarrows were not as friendly with his—their Burglar.

Much to Thorin’s disappointment the hostilities did not last. Bilbo had just licked away the last hint of raspberry jam from his lips when Samwise settled in his lap. This soon led to the recital of Sam’s favorite story-song. He soon had an audience of dwarf listeners as well as hobbit ones. He chanted on while the little hobbit clapped his hands.

“Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone;
For many a year he had gnawed it near,
For meat was hard to come by.
Done by! Gum by!
In a cave in the hills he dwelt alone,
And meat was hard to come by….”

By the time he had finished about how the hero Tom had lamed his leg and Troll was still gnawing on his uncle’s bone (Thorin was not sure what the moral of the tale was supposed to be), the faunt looked quiet tired. Bilbo, carrying the lad, refused another one and stood, much to the protests of the surrounding Gamgee children, Fili, Kili, Ori, and (strangely enough) Gloin.

Bell cooed over her little boy. “Look who’s all tuckered out. Oh Mister Bilbo, if you don’t mind could he rest in your room awhile.” Bilbo had barely opened her mouth when she continued, steering him down the hall. “And would you mind staying with him. Only he gets upset if no one’s nearby when he wakes. Probably comes of having all the siblings. Oh bless you dear.”

A few moments later the Gamgee matriarch returned. She turned to Belladonna with a questioning gaze which made the other hobbit mother sigh. “I suppose you might as well. Lobelia’s already had her say and I’m sure Fortinbras or Lalia had a few words as well.”

“Right.” Bell gave her children a pointed look and the Gamgees detangled themselves from the dwarves and scurried to their mother’s side. Hamfast gave Bungo and Oin an apologetic smile as he abandoned their company for his wife’s. Once her clan was gathered around her, except for Marigold who she let stay in Dwalin’s arms, the female turned to the dwarves and Gandalf. “I will say this only once. Mister Bilbo is one of the best hobbits I know. So if I hear one word of him being mistreated, not the whole distance of Arda will keep me from finding you. We love him and we would be quite unhappy if anything were to happen to him.” She addressed her children, “Wouldn’t we?

The resulting sad, worried, and downright furious faces of four hobbit children greeted the dwarves. Bell Gamgee met each dwarf’s gaze with her own. “Do I make myself clear?” Underneath such scrutiny the dwarves found themselves helplessly nodding. “Good.” She pushed Daisy and May forward. “Go ahead and play a bit more; we’ll leave in a quarter hour.

The Misses Gamgee then strode past the Baggins’ guests, cheerfully patted Dwalin on the shoulder, and resumed her seat by and conversation with Belladonna. Thorin’s eyes tracked the female with grudging respect. Thank Mahal that the Hobbits had no use for the Blue Mountains. The dwarrows wouldn’t even last a day.

Within his bedroom and ignorant of the conversation going on in the parlor, Bilbo halted in his quiet packing and slipped the pouch with Adamanta’s jewelry into his dresser drawer. After all he’d have no need of rings on his adventure.

 

Supper that night was a rather subdued affair. The Bagginses had once again labored to produce a generous spread, Bungo having finally allowing Bombur into the kitchen to help. The dwarves, while usually very cheerful about such meals, could not help but find themselves casting surreptitious glances to the little family. It seemed none of the hobbits had any appetite. There had been a brief meeting between the dwarves earlier discussing the events on both locations. Thorin was quick to silence any questions on Bilbo’s status as a murderer, stating only that he had investigated the matter to some degree and it seemed a family accident. Nori had given him a suspicious look but no one else questioned his authority on the subject. Meanwhile Bofur, who had been left in charge of getting supplies, ascertained that all had been gathered. The Burglar, after his own private chat with his family in some unrecognizable language Nori had not been able to decipher, had assured them that he was also prepared. Thus plans had been made for tomorrow’s departure and the smial had fallen into a rather uncomfortable silence. When the hosts excused themselves for the night rather early none of the dwarves mentioned the oddity. Nor did they comment when they stumbled on all three hobbits tucked away not in their beds but in nest of blankets and cushions on the floor of the sitting room. They merely tiptoed out and avoided the room. If Dwalin snuck in to put an extra blanket on them, the others knew better than to say anything. The same if Thorin stared for a bit too long at where Bilbo lay nestled between his mother and father.

The dwarves gradually retired as well. Soon Thorin was alone in the smial’s dining room once more tracing the route they planned to take. Though he and Balin had long decided on their course from the map Bungo had lent them, the dwarf lord could not help but notice how quicker their journey would be if they avoided Buckland. Thorin, once again cursing Balin’s insistence that they accept the Master’s offer, was soon brought out of his brooding by a small cough at the dining room entry. He looked up to meet the gaze of Mistress Baggins.

“May I have a word, Mister Oakenshield,” Belladonna said, stepping into the room. She was dressed in a long nightgown a pair of sleep trousers peeking out from underneath. Neither was aware that Nori skulked in the hallway.

Thorin nodded and made to stand but the hobbit signaled him to remain seated. “It shouldn’t take much time. I merely wanted to talk about Bilbo.”  Thorin frowned and Belladonna sighed. “I’m sure you’ve had enough talk about my son these past few days, but I do not come here to threaten you. Not tonight. I do not wish to argue. I only hope to make you understand.”  Belladonna began to lifting up the hem of nightgown, much to the dwarf’s surprise and embarrassment.

It was not the first time someone had sought to seek Thorin’s favor this way though he had not expected it of the female hobbit. Rather have the son, than the mother, Dis’s voice cackled in his head.

Belladonna paused at the look on Thorin’s face and snapped, “I’m not propositioning you, you idiot.”

Thorin felt his face flush as the hobbit rolled her eyes and shucked her nightgown above her right hip.  His embarrassment was quickly forgotten. The dwarf lord inhaled sharply as the movement revealed an old twisted scar that crossed partially over the female’s stomach, down her hip, only to disappear beneath her trousers. Such a blow would have easily killed a veteran dwarf warrior much less a hobbit.

Belladonna’s free hand traced the angry rust colored mark which had never quite faded. “I know how dangerous adventures are and that it is rare to come away unscathed.” Her hand trembled on the long-healed wound as she met Thorin’s eyes. “This came from a journey I took to the South with a friend before Bilbo was twelve.” She shook her head. “The details do not matter but it is sufficient to say the injury nearly took my life. Only through the greatest of luck did I survive it. But while I kept my life, the wound guaranteed I would never have another child.”

She released her nightgown and the fabric slid back down, covering the scar. “I’ve always been rather frank with my son, Mister Oakenshield. When I was able to return home, Bungo and I sat him down and explained why he would never have a brother or sister. About how his fool Took mother had assured he would be an only child with her actions.” A cynical smile twisted her mouth. “Do you know what my lad told me? He pressed his hand to my side and said that he wished he could have come and kept me safe. My Bilbo has always thought he should protect those he cares for ever at the expense of himself.” Thorin held utterly still as a tear trailed down Belladonna’s face. “If I did not love him for being son, my only child, I would love him just for who he is. Be careful with my boy, Mister Thorin. Bilbo’s too kind and the world is not.”

“I understand,” Thorin could give no other reply. He had already told her he would make no promises.

“That is all I would have of you. That you try to understand.” Belladonna left him to consider her words.

It was on her way back to the dining room and their little nest that a soft voice arose from the shadows. “About your earlier request, I’ll keep an eye on him. Though I can’t promise he won’t be hurt.”

The hobbit gave a sad chuckle as she turned to Nori. “I expect he will be whether or not I had an army watching over him.” The hobbit swallowed at met the dam’s gaze. Nori felt as though her very spirit were being assessed. “I know I do not ask an easy thing of you but I do appreciate your efforts. Thank you, Miss Nori.” The dwarrowdam watched the other female warily, an expected warmth filling her at Belladonna’s words. It seemed the hobbit had not found her wanting. Nori gave the female a parting nod before she slipped back into the hall.

Belladonna spared the spot the dam had stood one last look before continuing on into the sitting room. The dawn was not so far away and she would spend what time she could with her boys.

***

It was just pass nine when one wizard, thirteen dwarves, and a hobbit set about packing their final items onto their mounts outside the Green Dragon Inn. While a night on the floor had done nothing for either Belladonna’s hip or Bungo’s old bones, the elderly Bagginses had insisted on joining the troop on their journey to Bywater. Now both walked among the dwarves saying their farewells. Most they spoke amiably with but a few were singled out by each hobbit. Bungo clasped Balin’s shoulder and gave him the last of the brandy they had shared the dwarf’s first night in the smial. He then pressed a small book of hobbit herb lore into Oin’s hands. After a moment of rudimentary hand signs, which Bifur and he had worked out in their past day and half together, the elder Mister Baggins presented the dwarf with a pouch of dried fruit. Meanwhile, Belladonna cupped Fili’s and Kili’s cheeks while saying her goodbyes, before hugging Ori, Dori, and (a rather surprised) Nori. Bombur was given a kiss on the cheek and the apple crumble recipe he had coveted. To Gloin a purse of pipeweed was gifted. Bofur earned himself a last dirty joke from the hobbit matron and a shared laugh. Both Belladonna and Bungo came together to wrap Dwalin in a fierce hug, something the slightly flustered dwarf returned with a gentle embrace. Thorin received an appraising look from the couple and wishes for a safe journey which he returned with a nod.

A small crowd had gathered around those saying their goodbyes and the dwarves recognized quite a few faces. Amongst them Nori noted Lobelia and Otho Sackville-Baggins while Bofur spied the little family of Drogo, Primula, and Frodo. A bit behind them stood the Gamgees.

The dwarves quickly mounted but Belladonna’s hand on Gandalf’s cloak stopped the wizard. He knelt before the elderly couple.

“I—” Belladonna could not find the words and instead threw her arms about the wizard’s shoulders.

Bungo gently smiled at the two before joining in their hug. “Take care of yourself.” Bungo released him and drew Belladonna to his side. “When you return with Bilbo we’ll sit down and have a nice cup of tea. You’re welcome anytime.”

Gandalf smiled back. “Then I shan’t bother knocking.” He rose and placed a worn hand on Belladonna’s shoulder. “I will keep an eye on him. Two eyes—as often as I can spare them.”

She nodded and the two hobbits stepped back as Gandalf mounted his horse. Bilbo made to follow when a cry halted him.

“Mister Bilbo.” Hamfast Gamgee pushed his way through the crowd until he was at Bilbo’s side. He pushed a letter at the other hobbit and muttered, “If you happen to run into your Lord Elrond will you give him that? It just says a bit about the last flower he sent me and how to best tend it and whatnot.”

Bilbo gently tucked the envelope away and gave the gardener a smile. “Of course, Hamfast.”

After a moment of shuffling the hobbit pulled his employer into a brief strong hug. “Don’t you worry about Mister Bungo and Miss Belladonna, me and the misses will look after them.”

“Thank you.” Bilbo swung up onto his fidgety pony. The dwarves had already started forward and Bilbo gave a final wave to the crowd before heading off after them.

A low hum arose from the hobbits behind them and those they passed stopped as though rooted to the ground and began to join in. Soon lyrics were added to the tune though the dwarves did not understand all of what was said for the song was in Hobbitish.

** Farewell, farewell to you who are called,

our lonely traveling one.

The earth has given you her word;

the road winds ever on.

Remember all life has taught to you,

from seedling to the tree.

Though duty draws you forth from us

still hear our parting plea:

may your Dancer feet never stumble,

your hands serve always to heal;

let the Valar bless your journey child,

may peace be yours to deal.

O, and should you not return to home,

unlike rivers to the sea,

know our love leaves with you now

and shall eternally.**

“What are they doing,” Kili asked.

Gandalf replied, when Bilbo did not speak. “It is a gift, Kili. A parting song for our Burglar.”

The dwarf twirled the rune stone his mother had given him in his hands. He could not tell if the song sounded more like a dirge or a prayer.

“What do they say,” Fili asked at his side.

“That he be safe and come back, my good dwarf.”

Kili clenched the stone between his fingers until it dug into his palm. He knew he was considered the reckless one but his mother had believed his promise. He looked to where Bilbo rode with his shoulders rigid and face hidden. Perhaps the hope the hobbits’ sang with was what she had felt at his and Fili’s leaving. He slid the stone back into his jacket. Would it be too reckless of him to promise the hobbit a return as well? To at least try to make sure Bilbo came home?

** Farewell, farewell to you who are called,

my lonely traveling one.

The earth has given you her word;

the road winds ever on.

O, and should you not return to home,

unlike rivers to the sea,

know my love travels with you now... **

Thorin peered back at the Baggins couple, Belladonna openly crying in her husband’s arms. He had not been their when Kili and Fili had left, too busy at the time travelling and planning. Too cowardly, his conscience whispered. Was that what Dis had looked like when Fili and Kili had left? Was it worse for his sister because she had two to loose and this hobbit woman only one? You can’t compare these things Thorin, Frerin’s voice warned.

He turned away. It did not matter. He would do right by his Company but if he had to weigh the Burglar’s life against the quest’s or his nephews’ survival he knew which he would choose.

** Yet strive to come back to me.

Yet strive to come home to me. **

If any of the dwarves saw a few tears fall from Bilbo’s eyes before he set his head resolutely forward no one mentioned it.

Chapter Text

An hour or so after taking their leave from the Inn, several conversations had sprung up among the dwarrows, most spoken in Khuzdul.  Bombur, one of those few not speaking, noticed that this left the hobbit and Gandalf mostly to their own devices which neither seemed to mind. Their departure from Bywater had left most of the Company unsure about how to approach their Burglar, though Fili, Kili, and Dwalin never drifted too far from his side.

At the rear of the procession, Bombur watched wistfully as the soft rolling hills of the Shire fell away to the smoother track of the east bound road. There was something sad about leaving this humble land and Bag-End; something that caused a faint ache in the dwarf’s chest. That feeling was not nearly as painful as the sorrow that had appeared on Bilbo’s face, which the hobbit had quickly hid away, but it still tugged at the dwarf’s heart. Home-sickness. They hadn’t even left the Shire’s borders, yet Bombur worried that their hobbit companion was beginning to suffer that longing. After all Ered Luin was not so far away, yet Bombur often yearned to see his wife Mirra and their little ones. Only his need to provide those he loved with a proper home and his desire to protect Bofur and Bifur had led the dwarf to swear himself to Thorin’s cause. There was no question that Bifur would go and Bofur was bound to follow their cousin. Bombur could not stay behind even though he was hardly considered qualified for the quest.

People tended to misjudge Bombur. They thought quiet meant shy or stupid, they thought fat meant slow, and they thought one who was always eating had nothing to say. None of which was quite true. While he was a bit shy given enough time (and ale), Bombur could rival Bofur with his love of chatter. It was certainly not his wealth that had won him his wife. Meanwhile, a healthy appetite was nothing to be judged on when there were worse vices. As for being slow, the dwarf was surprisingly fleet footed when needed. And despite appearances Bombur was not stupid.  He knew there was something odd about Bilbo joining them, but figured the hobbit’s reasons were his own. It wasn’t like Mister Baggins was the only one who did not belong in their party. Bofur and Bombur did not fit in here. No royal blood ran in the family of Ur. Hailing from the Blue Mountains, Erebor was not their original home. Bombur hadn’t even been born when it fell to the dragon and Bofur was only three. And neither were warriors in any form with only the tools of their trades (his butcher knife and iron ladle and Bofur’s trusty mattock) for weapons. Bofur and he were nothing but simple dwarrows from simple stock. Yet when Thorin called they had known Bifur was certain to answer. Wherever Bifur went Bofur and Bombur were sure to follow. It had been that way ever since their father’s and uncle’s deaths at the Battle of Azanulbizar, when Bifur returned heart weary and agreed to raise his younger cousins. Years before the axe to the head or his rise in status, Bifur had worked his hands worn to support Bifur and Bofur while their mother turned to grief. Neither could abandon him now.

Bombur’s gaze singled out where his cousin rode. The battle-scarred dwarf was entertaining Kili and Fili in Iglishmêk with a story about Bofur, a frog, a bottle of wine, and an Elven trader. The boys were soon howling and Kili kept requesting more details with the confident manner of one long practiced in the Dwarven sign language. Bombur hid a smile in his beard. Yes, there had been no question of Bifur coming, not once the princes had agreed to go as well.

His attention turned back to the hobbit. He wondered if anything of that same passion was what had stirred their Mister Baggins to join their quest? Why else would he join them when he seemed to have all he needed?  Bombur produced a fistful of nuts from his pocket and gnawed them in contemplation as he watched the hobbit. Perhaps he could make some effort to talk to the fellow on their next meal stop. If Mister Baggins was anything like his kind, cheerful parents then it would be time well spent, Bombur thought.

The day continued on quite pleasantly and the group made good time. However that did little to appease Thorin’s frustration that they would still have to detour their journey to visit even more of the Burglar’s relations. It would add another full day to their stay in the Shire, something that had already become too lengthy. Resolute the dwarf lord refused to call a halt for lunch and so the traveling party continued on.

A few hours past luncheon, Bilbo was hungry, stiff, and disheartened. Dressed in traveling garb of a green weskit and red jacket (which he had mended of its dagger cut), the hobbit was finding that hours in a Dwarven saddle were something he was not at all fond of. Though most of his travels had been spent on foot he occasionally rode, but it had been quite some time. Bilbo would have been happy never to become so familiar with saddle aches again. The lack of proper meals was no less discouraging but the hobbit had expected it. Dwarves did not need to consume as much and Bilbo would have to resign himself on getting by on less. It would affect his energy and his recovery from wounds but as long as he was careful it should not be an issue. The disheartenment came from the feeling of distance that settled between him and the dwarrows. He had only known the group for three, nearing four days now, and had spent less than that with half of them. It was much too soon to expect anything like a bond of companionship to form. What friendliness they had offered earlier was most likely due to curiosity and whatever dwarrows considered politeness, nothing more. It was better that way as well, Bilbo admitted to himself. He could not reveal secrets to those he did not trust. Could not feel guilt if he was not betraying any friendships, even if they were only lies of omission. Could not lose his Hearts if he did not let any too near. Far better they ignore him or speak within their own tongue as though afraid he would overhear. An ironic smile twisted his mouth. Not that that would matter as listening to their speech only helped him recall the language he had not conversed in since he last practiced with Lord Elrond in Rivendell.

Bilbo closed his eyes and let his mind wander above the harsh syllables of Khuzdul and focused on the passing sounds of nature. Nori’s argument with Dori, Gloin’s speech to Dwalin about his son, and Ori’s questioning of Oin about his travels as a healer drifted away. The earth hummed contentedly around him. Above a robin flew past calling out for a mate. Bilbo’s lips twitched as the fellow sung of his bright plumage and keen eyes. If Bilbo was alone, he might have advised it of better boasts. As it was he contented himself with listening.

He could remember the first time Adamanta had pulled him aside to explain why he understood bird-speech. How it was something some of her children and grandchildren had inherited. A gift from when dragons first took form, she had said. We and the Eagles where granted it when we both chose shapes of flight that we might understand our fellow winged kindred. It was to teach us humility and kindness. The ability flows within our blood so we could not loose or forget it. I was once told that in the days before our kind fell to Melkor’s lies, if any of the Free People tasted of our blood and lived, they too would understand the Tongue of Birds. It is no wonder that it has flowed from my blood into yours. The memory of her smiling as she showed him how to answer a lark’s introduction brought with it a fierce ache. Yet the hollow, gasping pain of years had eased. He pressed a hand to his chest and stared ahead as the solid beat of two Hearts drummed beneath his hand. It felt like a finally healing wound, something that still pained him but had stopped bleeding.

A hand laid upon his shoulder startled Bilbo from his thoughts and looked up to find Dwalin’s concerned eyes on him. “Are you alright, laddie?”

Bilbo nodded back mutely, then winced as the movement had him shift on his mount. Beneath him his pony snorted but did not attempt to buck him as she had tried two days prior.

Fili pulled up alongside them, leaving Kili to Bifur’s storytelling. He and Dwalin exchanged a frown. “Are you certain, Bilbo?”

Bilbo felt himself redden, silently hating his fair skin as more Dwarven attention was turned on him. “Just not used to such long rides,” he admitted. “Give me a couple of days and I’ll get over it.”

The golden-haired dwarf searched inside his jerkin until he found what he was looking for. He produced a little container which he pressed into the hobbit’s hand. Bilbo looked at him confused.

Fili smiled, “I remember the first time I had to ride longer than a day. Nearly couldn’t stand and Oin had to make me that. I never go anywhere without it now. Helps with the soreness.”

“I can’t take your—”

Fili interrupted him with a wave his hand. “Take it. I can always get more from Oin if I need it. Kili always filches mine anyway. At least I know you’ll appreciate it.”

Bilbo returned the smile. “My thanks.” A shadow fell over the hobbit as Gandalf drew back to join them.

The wizard gave Fili an approving nod before his eyes turned to Bilbo with a searching gaze. His godson appeared rather tired, his eyes bright. Concern swirled in his stomach. There was something different about Bilbo; something had changed within the hobbit. Gandalf placed a hand on Bilbo’s brow, garnering curious looks from the other dwarrows and confusion from Bilbo. No fever rose from his godson’s skin, but beneath that the hobbit’s spirit burned bright, far brighter than it had before visiting Tuckborough. What had he missed these past few days? He withdrew his hand with a small grunt. “I think it best we take a short rest,” he said with a questioning gaze directed at Bilbo.

“Why,” Kili asked slipping his mount besides his brother’s. “Is Bilbo sick?” He shot Fili a worried glance as though his brother would tell him how to fix it.

“He is not, Master Kili, but we have been riding for five hours and are nearing Frogmorton. I for one would like a break.” He pitched his voice so it would carry to the beginning of the line and Thorin. Gandalf needn’t have worried for at the mention of Bilbo being ill, the dwarf lord’s attention immediately settled on the hobbit.

“A waste of time,” Thorin said.

Gandalf disapproval was clear. “The distance will not change due to your temper, Thorin. Nor is the road likely to disappear if you allow us and the ponies some rest.” The wizard pressed his horse forward and raised his voice louder drawing the rest of the Company’s attention. “Now it is nearly teatime and Frogmorton has quite a nice inn, The Floating Log, where we might take a small repast before continuing on.”

Eager gazes turned to Thorin who sighed. “We will take a break here. No inns.” This produced some grumblings but overall most were happy with the situation.

Ori, having left her pony with Dori, made her way over to where Bilbo was being helped off his mount by Dwalin. The hobbit gave her an embarrassed smile as his legs shook from so many hours spent on his mount.

Ori returned it with a sympathetic smile. “I feel the same way. I don’t even want to look at my pony,” she whispered mock conspiratorially.

It was poor timing that had Thorin stomp past just after her words. “Twenty minutes only.” He cast a look of irritation towards Bilbo. It only became sharper as he noted where Dwalin’s hand rested on the Burglar’s shoulder. “I suppose some consideration must be taken for our weaker members but I’ll not take all day. There’s no point in having such persons along if they prove so delicate and useless.”

Ori flinched. Fili frowned at his uncle and reached to offer the little dam comfort, but swiftly withdrew when Dori appeared at his sister’s side. The older Ri was obviously upset at his sister’s hurt, but hesitated at reprimanding Thorin. One did not scold one’s king after all.

Bilbo felt no such compunctions. “I’ve heard the difference between a good leader and a great one is that one will anticipate his followers needs and the other will do what he must to meet them. I see no crime in a few minutes respite.”

“I’ll not make allowances for weakness.” Thorin glared at the Burglar.

Part of the Bilbo knew that Thorin hadn’t meant Ori any harm and that the bite of his words was meant for the hobbit. That did little to subdue Bilbo’s ire. The dwarf lord should have known better than to be so broad with his statements.  “Then you are not a realist, Mister Thorin. All beings show weakness in some way. I’d rather mine be of the body rather than something as witless as foolish pride.” The hobbit turned away and marched off towards the woods (a rather odd sight since he moved quite stiffly) leaving the fuming dwarf king behind.

>>Very wise. Always smart to estrange the one person our success rests on,<< Dwalin muttered to Thorin.

>>Shut it,<< Thorin growled back and turned to his companions.

The rest of the Company suddenly sprang to attend ‘errands’ and pretended to have missed the exchange. Only the Ri siblings, now joined by Nori, tracked the hobbit’s path as he made himself comfortable against a tree, some distance away from the group.

Gandalf swiftly dismounted and hastened after Bilbo. He had some questions for his godson.

 

Thorin watched the discussion between the wizard and hobbit with no little frustration from where he sat crouched nearby their mounts. What could they not speak about in the Company’s presence? What secrets were the two keeping? He twirled Rosemary’s posy in his hands. Their fourteenth member was not what he had expected. A lord, practically a prince, with more connections and wealth than the Shire land seemed to warrant. For what reasons could such a being choose to join them? Bilbo Baggins had been unwavering in his answer since that first morning. Was he simply bored of his quiet life? Did the lure of gold or glory draw him forth? Perhaps greed was a weakness of the hobbit’s he could exploit. He tried not to think of the fauntling and her utmost devotion to her cousin. Nor of the murderer accusation and the hobbit’s body bent tearfully over two graves. He gave a sigh as he stroked a piece of heather. No. Greed was probably not something he could manipulate the Burglar with.

>>Ori could press those for you. She’s done it a few times with feathers and the like.<<

He looked up to find Nori watching him. >>Shouldn’t you be finding out what they're talking about?<< He inclined his head towards Gandalf and Mister Baggins.

She settled down by him, letting his larger frame block her from the sight of the other dwarrows who had given their king some privacy. >>They’re speaking some Elvish rot. Outside a few curse words I couldn’t tell you anything of what they say.<< Nori said the words harsher than she meant them to sound but as Thorin did not say anything it seemed he had not deemed her reaction odd. The dam preferred it that way. She had no desire to relate her unusual reasons for her distaste of anything Elvish including their language.

>>Of course he speaks Elvish. Just how many tongues do these hobbit know?<< Thorin grumped.

She shrugged. >>I don’t know about other hobbits, but he at least knows a bit.<< Nori traced her tongue over her teeth. She would not call her and Thorin friends, though their relationship was a partnership of sorts. King and Spymaster, noble and thief. She had proven herself to him when she first warned of an assassination attempt on his heirs lives and had since been gifted his trust. That did not mean she could say whatever she wished though Thorin seemed to enjoy her frankness. This was a personal matter though and she wasn’t sure if it wise to handle it so. She bit back a smirk. Wise people didn’t become thieves or spies. >>I wanted to speak of something else.<<

Thorin said nothing raised a single brow.

Nori licked her lips. >>I would caution you on how you reprimand the hobbit.<<

Thorin glowered thunderously at her. >>I’m not afraid of the Burglar or his opinions.<<

Nori’s fingers twitched. And she plucked a few strands of grass to weave together. She couldn’t stand her fingers being idle too long. >>I wasn’t saying you were. Your words,<< she hesitated. >>What you said might have been misconstrued by others. Like a certain dam who already thinks you don’t want her on this quest.<< Her grass strands quickly formed a five strand plait, providing Thorin time to consider her words.

The king was silent for a moment. >>Ori,<< he finally stated and then sighed. >>I do not doubt her courage but she is so young. Not even a full master in her Craft.<<

Nori began unraveling her grass plait. >>True, but cases have been made for scribes and warriors to journey before their mastery. Besides the old rules were abandoned for some time after the dragon’s coming. One didn’t have to wait for a mastery to quest or marry. Nor to join wars.<<

Thorin frowned. >>Those were different times.<< Desperate times. Terrible times. The words remained unsaid.

>>Yes,<< Nori replied, >>and you’ve worked hard so we can rise above them. We lost much with Erebor, but you and Lady Dis have always insisted that we not reduce ourselves to merely a people of warriors and blacksmiths. You have kept the guilds, especially those of the gentler Crafts, from being forgotten. Do not make my sister feel lesser because her skills are not with arms.<<

Thorin rubbed at his temple. He had not even considered the little dam’s presence when he had said his words. >>That was not my intent.<<

>>I know. Ori being here is a good thing for you. She will give a good account of our quest and her joining lends more credence for your nephews to come along.<< The dam did not mention that Dori and her would not have come along without their younger sister. It was an unspoken truth that Thorin could not be picky in refusing any volunteers. >>Just don’t let your annoyance with the hobbit cause you to alienate anyone else.<< Her weaving now worked loose, Nori flicked away the blades of grass. >>You’re words do more to upset the Company than him.<<

He turned his glower back to the wizard and Burglar. >>It did not seem that way earlier.<<

Nori snorted and stood, brushing away loose bits of grass. >>His words weren’t because of what you said to him but because of Ori. Be careful or you’ll end up winning him more admirers.<< She inclined her head towards where Dwalin sat.

Thorin’s frown deepened. >>And are you one, Nori?<<

The dam bared her teeth in a fierce grin. >> I’ll decide once I know why he’s here. Few people are truly what they seem. I’d rather forgo getting bit for not knowing a snake’s a snake until I feel it’s fangs.<<

In silence King and Spymaster watched the pair.

 

Gandalf knelt before Bilbo as he listened to the last of the hobbit’s explanation. He shook his head. ::I had not thought to wonder what had became of the other half,:: the wizard said, pressing his hand against Bilbo’s chest. ::All these long years, passed down until it should come to you.::

Bilbo placed his hand over his godfather’s. ::I thought it perished with grandfather. I did not—had not….:: Bilbo fell silent.

Gandalf enfolded his godson within his arms. ::You’ve been missing a part of yourself for years, Bilbo. There is no shame in taken comfort that you are now beginning to mend.::

The hobbit clung tightly to Gandalf’s cloak. When he finally pulled away Bilbo brushed moisture from his eyes.

“We best get back to the party. Our time must be nearly up.”

“Agreed,” the wizard said and stood.

Bilbo had just mounted when he turned to Gandalf on his horse. “You never told me where you went yesterday?”

“If you must know I went to see a hobbit about some paint.” The wizard grunted.

“Paint?” Bilbo raised a brow questioningly.

“Yes. If you recall I made your mother a promise about her door.”

The Company rode out accompanied by the sound of their hobbit companion’s laughter.

The group continued on well into the evening without another rest period. Thorin insisted that they should take advantage of the light and no one contradicted him. Gandalf did attempt to persuade the stubborn dwarf king that they might stop in Whitfurrows for the night, since it was the last large community east-bound of Buckland. Thorin refused to be moved. So several miles from the last decent inn west of the Brandywine the dwarf-lord called a halt.

“Make camp,” he stated swinging down from his pony. The dwarrows eyed the earth besides the track with no little skepticism.

“Is there nowhere we might spend the night,” Dori groused as he kicked a stone out of the way.

“We’ll soon be used to sleeping on the road again. No need to rush it along,” Oin commiserated.

“We are still some miles from the Brandywine Bridge and Buckland. Until then, my good dwarves, there is nowhere else.” Gandalf attempted not to look smug as the dwarrows complained.

Thorin’s gaze silenced the lot. “A few nights in hobbit beds has made you soft.”

Bilbo hopped down from the back of his pony who hardly seemed bothered by the hobbit anymore. He patted her nose gratefully and resolved to find out her name some time soon. The hobbit then crouched and pressed his palm against the pliant earth, enjoying the brief flicker of awareness and welcome. “How far are we from the Bridge, Gandalf?” His comment drew both the wizard and dwarf king’s attention.

“No more than hour or so more.”

Bilbo nodded and rose. “Right.” He grabbed his pony’s reigns and headed down the track.

“And where do you think you’re going,” Thorin called after him.

The hobbit twisted his head to find the dwarves watching him with keen interest. “While I have no problem sleeping on the ground, Master Dwarf, I’d rather not do it right by the road. I think we’re near enough to a friend’s that I might be able to request the use of a field at least.” Master Baggins carried on down the path.

A moment later Gandalf chuckled at the baffled expressions of the dwarves and followed after his godson.

“You agree with him,” Thorin asked the departing wizard.

“I have found that it is best not to argue with hobbits when it comes to sensible plans, Thorin. They tend to be more practical than the rest of us.”

***

Aldus Underhill, his wife Linnaea, and their children Peony and Wilf were quite willing to not only allow Bilbo and the dwarves use of their field, but were kind enough to stable their ponies as well. They had even offered the Baggins use of their guest room, which he had declined. The night passed and by morning Bilbo thanked the couple during breakfast (which Aldus and Linnaea had insisted on providing). Thorin offered payment but the hobbits fixedly refused. Bilbo did not even try and instead spent his free moments entertaining the children who requested games and stories. And if by the time the party had headed out again, Bilbo’s money-pouch was a little lighter from sneaking coins into Peony’s and Wilf’s pockets, it seemed no one was the wiser.

The day passed similarly to the one before with fewer conversations and more focus on reaching Buckleberry and Brandy Hall. The only other noticeable difference was the landscape, the soft rolling hills now had a tinge more wilderness to it, and their leader’s temper. Thorin seemed to have at last resigned himself to the additional day the trip would add to their journey. As such he acted less like a bear with a thorn in his paw and his mood was marginally better.

Ori rode up to the dwarf lord, eyes adverted. “I did as you asked, Mister Thorin.” Her hands traced the bag where her book resided, now holding the remains of Rosemary’s posy.

“Thank you, Ori.” The dwarrowdam made to fall back when Thorin signaled her to wait. “I meant no discourtesy, yesterday. My words were unfair and I would like you to know I do appreciate your coming. Balin speaks highly of your skill and I have been assured they you will do our quest justice.”

The lass blushed and stammered a thank you before quickly falling back in the line.

“That was kind of you, uncle,” Kili said trotting up to Thorin’s side.

The dwarf lord snorted. “My words yesterday were hasty and I did not mean her any harm. Now your brother can finally stop glaring at me.” It was nice that at least one heir did not openly oppose him but he was tired of seeing Frerin’s ‘you’re being stupid’ frown appearing on his elder nephew’s face.

They looked back to where Fili rode with Bilbo, Ori joining their little group. The Burglar’s eyes flashed from the elated dam to meet Thorin’s gaze before looking away. Did the dwarf king imagine the hint of approval?

“He does seem quite smitten,” Kili remarked.

It took Thorin a moment to gather his wits and turn his attention back to his nephew and Ori. “He could do much worse than one of the House of Ri. They have only a tentative relation to our line yet they still chose to ride with us. It is not something I will soon forget.”

“Do you not feel Bilbo might deserve some of your kind words?”

Kili always spoke his mind even when his opinion was not one desired in an heir. You and I never questioned father or grandfather, Frerin’s voice warned. Look where that brought us. Indeed. “Every dwarf here has proven himself or had another to vouch for his character. Should the Burglar prove useful he shall receive the same courtesy as the rest. It is not wise to trust in strangers, even those recommended by a wizard.”

His nephew fell back towards the party, his uncertainty at Thorin’s words clear on his face. The dwarf lord turned back to the road. It was time that Kili came to understand that a leader’s decisions were not always easy or popular and that fair faces often hid foul hearts.

Bilbo sneezed loudly.

“You alright, Bilbo,” Ori asked.

The hobbit waved her away. “Just a reaction to all this horse hair.” His searched through his pockets until he produced a handkerchief. He shook it open and paused. Bilbo’s finger stroked over an elegant red B with a dark green one overlapping its bottom embroidered on the cloth’s corner. Though the stitches were both fine, even without the different colored thread Bilbo could tell which of his parents had embroidered each letter.  It was silly but the hobbit could not bear to soil the cloth. Ori peered at the delicate handkerchief before their eyes met. The dam gave him an understanding nod as Bilbo tucked it away. He searched about for a different one. It seemed just his luck to have forgotten any others. “Oh bother.” It drifted farther than he meant it to.

“What’s the matter,” Gandalf asked riding up.

“Nothing of importance, I only forgot my handkerchiefs,” Bilbo replied.

“I suppose you want to turn around and get them,” Gloin grumbled.

Bilbo gave the red bearded dwarf a bewildered expression. “That would be a bit extreme. I think I’ll survive without.” He was being childish. It was a waste not to use the one already in his pocket.

“A runny nose is nothing to sneeze at,” Bofur said and tore a pocket from his jacket. “Here, use this.” He tossed the rag to Bilbo who caught it easily.

It seemed his mother had laundered the dwarves clothing while he was away. While the material was nowhere near quality linen, it was at least cleanish. Many of the dwarves chuckled, expecting him to refuse the rag. Bilbo looked over Bofur’s coat. It was well-worn and well cared for. There was no reason for the dwarf to damage it just for Bilbo. The hobbit’s hand clenched around the pocket, unexpectedly moved by the simple act of generosity it was. “Thank you.”

Bofur was surprised by the hobbit’s sincerity. He flashed Bilbo a humorous smile. “Wasn’t anything.”

Bilbo simply shook his head and the dwarves continued on. It was some time before the hobbit stopped smiling down at the offering and finally used the rag. His actions escaped few of the dwarves’ attention, especially Thorin’s.

 

They had long since crossed the Brandywine Bridge and were well on the road south when Thorin allowed them to stop for midday. Rather than a few moments respite with the wizard, Bilbo took some minutes to himself, letting the sunshine and bird-song lull him. He didn’t notice the speculative looks of several dwarrows. When Bombur interrupted his solitude to sit down and offered him a handful of nuts the hobbit bemusedly exchanged them with some the berries from his pack.  If a few of the dwarves sat nearer to him than they had before, that also missed Bilbo’s notice.

It was past dinner by the time the troop finally made its way into Buckleberry. Gandalf hurried to the head of the line, least Thorin be the first at the door.

“Well, laddie,” Balin said as Bilbo made his way to the fore of the group. “Anything we should know before addressing your relations?”

Bilbo startled at the question. How did one go about describing Brandybucks, especially Took related Brandybucks? “Just don’t…” insult, argue, rile in anyway. Bilbo coughed uncertain how to end his sentence.

“Politeness always works wonders,” Gandalf interjected.

Bilbo tried hard not to think of his coming of age when he last saw Auntie Mirabella talk to the wizard. Their exchange had been agonizingly civil, Gandalf suppressing amusement and Mirabella muttering on about dwarves, adventures, and bumbling wizards.

“You might want to avoid my aunt, but everything else should be fine.” Bilbo hoped.

“Why your aunt,” Kili asked. Fili had remained back talking with Dwalin though both dwarves listened to the hobbit with interest.

“Um—” Bilbo gave his godfather a pleading glance. Mirabella had never shared all the details of her journey. Though a general account was recorded by all the called who returned, Bilbo had no specific details on his aunt’s adventure. Of course, any Hobbit who was interested could always visit the Mathom-house were the recordings of callings were kept written in Green Tongue. During the Mayor’s annual telling of Hobbit creation, Bilbo would visit Michel Delving and the Mathom-house to read such records. However, most of these accounts were kept rather brief. Mirabella’s had simply noted that she soothed tensions between Men and Dwarves in the Iron Hill area and assisted with foiling a ring of forgers. What that had to do with her aversion to dwarrows, he did not know.

“She’s a little shy of dwarves,” Gandalf helpfully intervened. Bilbo nearly choked at his words. Shy was not a word often used to describe his aunt. “Had a bit of a bad experience with some once up North.” Gandalf coughed and turned to Bilbo. “I would think the High Hay and the Forest would be a better warning.”

Bilbo nodded and shifted back to the road. “We’re far enough away in Buckleberry but stay away from the large Hedge to the east and the Old Forest beyond it. They are not friendly places.”

“What do you mean,” Kili asked but Bilbo shook his head and refused to say more.

Though it was drifting into late evening quite a few residents seemed to be wandering about in the fading light. More than one hobbit stopped to watch the procession ride by. Kili at first thought it was due to the race of their group. Hadn’t one of Bilbo’s acquaintances mentioned it was unusual to have dwarves in the Shire? Perhaps these hobbits were just nervous. The dwarf lad gave his friendliest smile causing more than one young female or male to blush. However, as they drew nearer to Brandy Hall, the hobbits’ fixation on their group had not dimmed. It was not until a few of the younger ones dashed up near the ponies to touch Bilbo’s clothes and mount that Kili realized who held their attention. Their Mister Baggins shooed the miscreants away but it did little to deter the fauntlings. Meanwhile male and female hobbits alike halted to give polite nods to their group, their eyes lingering on Bilbo with something akin to reverence.

“Fili.” Kili nudged his brother.

The other dwarf nodded. “Worse than it was Hobbiton,” Fili muttered in agreement. Bilbo Baggins seemed to gain more importance the longer they knew him. Doubt edged the elder prince’s thoughts. He liked Bilbo and felt inclined to protect him as his elder, but Fili wondered if he could trust the hobbit. Mystery clung to the Baggins and Fili wasn’t sure what consequences its revelation would bring.

Up ahead Brandy Hill and Brandy Hall came into view. The many tunneled home of the Brandybucks was dug deep into the slopes of the Hill. With its three large doors, numerous windows, and several side doors, the Hall easily put the smaller smials of Buckleberry to shame. Even the Great Smials of Tuckborough were diminished by the vast size of Brandy Hall. A few of the dwarves slowed upon seeing it, but the Company continued on regardless. They had only dismounted before two hobbits separated from the Hill’s shadow and waved to the group. Bilbo and Gandalf hurried ahead.

Thorin followed to find Bilbo clasping hands with one of the males before the other swooped forward to hug the Burglar.

“Haven’t seen you for a while, lad,” the elder of the two hobbits said as he took Bilbo’s reigns. The other, perhaps a few years their Burglar’s junior, clung to Mister Baggins.

Bilbo tried to pry himself out of the second hobbits hold. “It’s good to see you, Saradas. Merimac, let me go.”

Saradas flicked the back of his nephew’s neck. Merimac yelped and released his second-cousin, rubbing at his abused appendage. “Don’t act like your brother,” Saradas warned. “We’ve enough foolishness going on without having a second Saradoc.” The hobbit turned to Gandalf with a raised brow. “Thought you’d have enough sense to wait until she’d died before coming around here with dwarves in tow. Then again I thought Rory would have sent ahead instead of—never mind. Greetings. ” A round of introductions was attempted but Saradas shook his head and gave the group a friendly smile. “Might as well wait on that until after we get you lot inside. Looks like you all could do with a rest and a meal.”

Once all the mounts had been taken to the stable, Saradas insisted the group go ahead with Merimac. 

“Are you certain, Mister Saradas,” Balin asked politely. Thorin watched on in silence as these new relations to their Burglar finished settling the last of the ponies into their paddock.

“Of course. Merimac can take you right to Rory’s part of the Hall. It might be best you see him before meeting the rest of the family.” Saradas exchanged a look with her nephew. Merimac gave a wan smile in reply before the younger hobbit led the group off.

Saradas stopped Bilbo before he could follow them.

Thorin held back when he noted the Burglar was not with them, allowing his Company to continue forward. He shook his head at Nori’s and Dwalin’s questioning gazes. Alone the dwarf king waited outside, listening to the conversation within.

“I’m sure Seredic will be happy to see you.”

The Burglar’s voice faltered. “The nightmares—”

Someone cleared his throat. “Better since that Elven healer visited. I’m sure we have you to thank for that by the way. Don’t bother denying it.” Thorin’s hand clenched. So their Burglar had some type of dealings with the nearby Elves. That would explain his knowledge of Elvish.

“I- I’ve found their mind healers to be very helpful. They are rather knowledgeable about night terrors.”

“And did she visit you, Bilbo? Who helped you with your dreams? Don’t think we haven’t noticed how you’ve avoided Brandy Hall even on your patrols. Three years becomes rather noticeable.”

“What’s one more nightmare? I’m fine. Truly, Saradas, I was more worried about how the children would react to my presence. I didn’t want upset them.”

“You saved them, Bilbo. No one here would have stood a chance against a Wight, but you brought them back. You’re a hero to them.”

“I—”

“Did you not see the faunts when you came running up. All Seredic, Larkspur, and Aaric have said since the incident is how fortunate they were that you came for them. Many of the Bucklanders have started calling you Luckbearer.” A chuckle. “Though a few of the younger ones have turned it into Luckwearer.”

The Burglar gave a strained laugh. “I suppose that explains why they kept touching my clothes.” A pause. “I don’t know if I should see them.”

“Just don’t avoid them. They’ve not seen you in three years, which admittedly is mostly our fault. The idea of losing them has made us keep the three securely here in Brandy Hall. Still they think you’re angry or upset with them. You almost died and they think you blame them.”

“You must know I would never—”

“These things aren’t ruled by logic. No matter what any of us has said, seeing you in person will do more to help them heal then all the security Buckland can provide. Sometimes Larkspur wakes up thinking they’ve gotten you killed. I think seeing you will do them more good than harm.”

“Saradas—“

“No, I’ve said my bit, Bilbo. Best go check on your dwarves. Mother was in a fine mood and I doubt Rory’s done anything but made a bigger mess.”

A noise from the path startled Thorin and the dwarf looked up to find Merimac eyeing him warily. How long the hobbit had been there he wasn’t sure but he had almost certainly been for some time. There was flicker of something dangerous in the Brandybuck’s gaze before it quickly repressed itself, not disappearing just withdrawing. The male knocked against the wall, causing Bilbo and Saradas to look up. “Sorry to interrupt. I sent Gandalf ahead with your troop but you might want to hurry up, Bilbo. Grandmother’s in a state and father might need you.”

Bilbo joined his second cousin and only flinched slightly at encountering Thorin as well. How much had the dwarf heard? Why did it seem he could not have a single conversation without one of the Company eavesdropping?  Bilbo pushed aside his panic. He already knew his companions were suspicious of him; this would change nothing. Better instead to focus on fixing whatever Rory had done. Bilbo strived to ignore Thorin’s eyes on him as the both followed after Merimac.

 

“What have you done, Rory,” Bilbo asked. He and the rest of his companions had been left in the sitting room of Rorimac’s suit of rooms. The Hall being so vast usually provided each Brandybuck family with an apartment of rooms. Those that required more privacy or could not fit in the main Hall had individual smials spread out around Buckleberry and throughout Buckland. Bilbo had taken Rory and Merimac aside while the dwarves were being treated to snacks delivered by Saradas.

“You know how it always seemed a bit of laugh that mother’s a tad unsettled by dwarves.” Rory winced as something shattered somewhere in the suite’s corridors and the noise set a dog baying. “I might have underestimated her reaction.”

“Might have,” Merimac snorted.

Rorimac frowned at him. “I didn’t raise you to talk back to your elders.”

“No because you were too busy trying to keep Saradoc from lighting the Hall on fire.”

Bilbo could feel a headache forming. “I know you thought it would be funny but Auntie should’ve gotten over her upset after a few hours.” He glanced at the dwarves before lowering his voice. “You did have a Hornblower send ahead? Or at least a Proudfoot runner?”

“He didn’t. He told her over elevenses today, shortly after he arrived home.” Rory looked rather embarrassed at Merimac’s exasperated expression.

“I wanted to wait until I told her and father about the moot. I didn’t think she disliked dwarves this much.”

Another crash rang out so loud it silenced the dwarves’ conversations. “I didn’t either,” Bilbo muttered.

“She’ll calm down in time for supper. She can’t act poorly in front of guests. I did promise you a feast after all.” Rory gave his cousin a grin.

Bilbo returned it with a dubious stare. “Has anyone let her know that we’re here?”

Rory paled and glanced to Saradas. His brother gave Rory an annoyed look. “Wouldn’t think you were the older one,” the hobbit muttered.

Saradas just slipped from the room when a series of thumps and laughter emerged from the hall. A gaggle of hobbit children fell through the door herded by a rather harried hobbit female and an overly-amused hobbit male.

“Clean hands now, you little monsters. I’ll not have you appearing like uncouth goblins when our guests arrive.” She and the children fell quiet upon seeing the dwarves.

“Too late.” The male at her side nearly bent over laughing, careful not to jostle the babe in his arms. His laughter seemed to break whatever trance had kept the little ones quiet. Soon three hobbit girls and a hobbit boy were eagerly crawling about the room, pulling and prodding at various dwarves. The hobbit female let out a screech of frustration, poked her husband in annoyance, and started pulling faunts off dwarves.

“You don’t pull people’s beards, Pervinca. Pearl, hold onto your sister. I don’t care which one. Get back here, Pimpernel.  Meriadoc Brandybuck, you can’t sit on people without an introduction. Or without permission. Just don’t sit on people.”

Bilbo and Merimac abandoned Rorimac to assist her with wrangling children. Upon seeing Bilbo most of the children abandoned their victims, except Meriadoc. The lad cried anytime someone tried to pry him off of Dwalin’s lap.

The Burglar smiled as faunts surrounded him. Thorin strived not to find the sight of his—their hobbit being pulled down by three hobbit girls endearing. From the soft look in Gloin’s and Dori’s eyes he felt he was one of the few. Merimac finally succeeded in removing the little hobbit boy from Dwalin. The hobbit female blew a stray bit of hair from her face and hauled her amused husband over by his arm.

“Hello,” Bilbo said to the group with a shy smile.

The hobbit female rolled her eyes. “Get over here, Bilbo.” Esmeralda Brandybuck née Took threw her arms around Bilbo. Saradoc handed little Peregrin off to his brother Merimac before embracing Bilbo as well.

“I suppose if Pearl, Pimpernel, Pervinca, and Peregrin are here I’ll most likely be running into Eglantine,” Bilbo said from between his cousins’ arms.

“Yes you will,” a voice said from the open door. A female with reddish-brown hair stood in the doorway. The hobbit came forth and plucked her youngest child from Merimac’s arms. She placed a kiss on Bilbo’s cheek. She turned to Rory with a raised brow at the gathering of dwarves. “Mirabella says supper’s ready.” Esmeralda swept the fauntlings away with Merimac’s help, leaving Eglantine and Saradoc to lead the others to the food.

The beginning of supper was an awkward affair where introductions were given between the Company and the Brandybuck Head’s main family. At last everyone was directed to their places in the dining hall with Thorin, Fili, and Kili seated at Rorimac’s family table. The three dwarrows along with Bilbo did their best to ignore the table’s whispered conversation though it seemed the Brandybucks hardly cared whether or not they were overheard. Gandalf merely sat back with eyes twinkling.           

Mirabella Brandybuck née Took leant over her stew, white hair pulled in a bun to better allow her to glare at her eldest son. “I can’t believe you invited dwarves into my smial, Rorimac Brandybuck?”

“It’s technically everyone’s smial, grandmother,” Saradoc pointed out. “The Hall is rather large you know.”

Rorimac buried his face in his hands. Merimac patted his father’s shoulder comfortingly while giving his brother his best ‘are you mad’ expression. It was a look Saradoc often received though he had little idea why. “No wonder I’m considered the smart one. With our luck you’ll end up getting killed by grandmother and I’ll have to inherit.  O Valar, I’m going to spend all my life having to protect you until either I’m dead or grandmother is.”

Menegilda looked pleadingly to the sky at her sons’ antics. “Enough. All of you,” she added when her husband opened his mouth. Rorimac quickly closed it. “Mirabella, there’s no reason to be so upset. Yes, Rory should have given you more time to prepare.” The look she cast her husband kept his mouth firmly shut. “It’s rather atrocious behavior for a hobbit his age. However, when Gorbadoc stepped down he left the title and Hall to be run by Rory. Unless he has something to say about it, I think it’s perfectly allowable for Rory to invite Bilbo and his companions to stay the night.”

Old Gorbadoc gave his daughter-in-law a benign smile before shrugging. The hobbit was so old he walked with a stoop but they did nothing to detract from the old axe handle he used as a walking staff. Gorbadoc had said little since the conversation had began, pointedly letting his wife and son know he refused to take sides in their argument.

“Did he have to come as well,” she waved towards Gandalf who hid his smile behind a cup of wine. “Why is it every time I run into dwarves, it’s because of your company?”

“My dear Mirabella, I would think several decades too long to hold a grudge just because of one dwarf.”

Bilbo’s aunt narrowed her eyes at the wizard. “It was hardly one dwarf that formed my opinion. And even if I could ignore the awful ones who were assisting in that vile business of counterfeiting and slave-treading, then that one dwarf would be enough reason. Grabby hands and innuendos. Nearly couldn’t look at red hair for a year.”

Kili’s interest peaked. Forgery and slavery were both things detested by the Dwarven race. One made a mockery of Craft and their other of life, both held sacred by Mahal’s people. Though both his uncle and brother sent him warning looks to remain silent, Kili’s reckless curiosity got the best of him. “Where did you encounter these dwarves?”

The Brandybuck family members held their collected breathe as Mirabella turned her full focus onto the young dwarf. Kili did his best not quell in his seat. “The Iron Hills.” The hobbit woman said it like a soft curse.

Thorin closed his eyes. There were plenty of red-haired dwarrows in the Iron Hills. It probably wasn’t….

“That was also where I had the misfortune to meet the most caddish, disreputable, seducer of a dwarf ever to roam Arda. Your companion over there looks remarkably similar to him.”  She gestured to Gloin. Thorin found himself silently pleading that she wasn’t referring to who he thought she was.

Gandalf bit back a smirk. “Dain Ironfoot hardly warrants such condemnation.”

Mirabella hissed. “Don’t say that shameless flirt’s name. You’ll put me off my dinner.” Merimac and Saradoc looked almost as interested as Fili and Kili at this news. It was more of his mother’s adventure than either had heard before.

Thorin barely held back a sigh of defeat. Good old Dain, causing political upheaval even when he wasn’t present. It could be worse, Frerin’s voice echoed in his thoughts. At least they didn’t know they were related.

“You know cousin Dain,” Kili looked surprise. Only the fact that he would look undignified kept Thorin from smashing his forehead into the table repetitively. However he did lose the battle of suppressing his grunt of disgust at Kili’s diplomacy. Thorin’s eyes swept over the Burglar seated across from him whose shoulders were shaking suspiciously with what seemed repressed laughter.

Mirabella did not seem at all pleased with this new discovery. “You’re cousin,” she said flatly.

Kili nodded as he heaved some more salted pork on his plate. “He is something of a shameless flirt, but he’s only serious about Sefa or she wouldn’t put up with him. The flirting is just harmless Durin charm. It tends to run in the family.” He beamed at Mirabella, causing Gorbadoc to frown and Saradoc to choke on his fish. Merimac kindly pounded his brother’s back and watched on in horrified amusement. Fili looked between his brother and the hobbit matron, attempting to figure out when he should intervene.

The irritation on Mirabella’s face was slowly replaced by a light flush. “Don’t you try any nonsense on me,” she scolded half-heartedly. “I don’t believe I met this Sefa you mentioned.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Gandalf intruded. “She is Dain’s wife and mother to his son, Thorin Stonehelm. They had not met until after your departure. Quite enamored with each other the pair of them. Much can change in several decades.” The wizard gave the Brandybuck matriarch a rather pointed look.

“Indeed,” Mirabella said quietly. “I am glad to hear he’s settled. Is all else well there?”

Gandalf’s gaze gentled. “He saw that all involved were punished as well. There have not been such dealings in the Iron Hills since. Thorin here can verify it.”

The dwarf king inclined his head. He had heard something of the incident they described. A trade agreement between the Iron Hills and a settlement of Men in the North had been threatened by forgeries being supplemented for actual Dwarven works. It was later discovered that a contingent of Men and Dwarrows were working together to replace the real supplies with the copies only to sale the real goods off to an undiscovered third party. The proceeds where then used to finance an even more abhorrent practice: slavery. Dain had never given the specifics of how the plot had been revealed but had spoken of Tharkûn’s intercession. It seemed Mister Baggins was not the first hobbit Gandalf had taken off on Dwarrow business. “My cousin ensured that all involved were tried for their crimes.” Thorin did not mention that Dwarven justice included either death or exile for such practices. To mock the gifts of Mahal, life and craft, caused one’s existence to be forfeit. “It will not happen again.”

“Good,” Mirabella said her tone fierce. Her sons gave her a worried glance but she ignored their attention. Her focus remained on Thorin before sweeping to Kili and then back to her plate. “Let us put aside past experiences. After all if Dain’s cousins prove to have such manners perhaps I should have invited more dwarves to my table over the years. Tell me good sirs how do you find the Shire?”

Most of supper past in simple conversation, Mirabella becoming more and more charmed by Kili’s prattle and Fili’s thoughtful though sparse comments.

Bilbo left the dwarrows and Brandybucks to their conversations and let his eyes wander around the room. Dwarrows sat interspersed alongside hobbits at various tables. More than one family had been willing to share their spot upon hearing that the dwarves were Bilbo’s companions. Saradas had included Nori, Dori, Ori, and Dwalin at his table since it usually only sat him and his son Seredic. Bilbo tried to glance past it quickly but his eyes met Seredic’s and he could not look away. The hobbit tween would now be in his mid twenties. Yet his eyes were so much older. Bilbo’s Hearts ached in sympathy. How often did Seredic wake from a nightmare of luminous, cold eyes or to the memory of an icy, iron grip? Bilbo’s right side flared in phantom pain.

He jerked her gaze away only for it to fall on the family Ur sitting with Barric Brandybuck, his wife Garnet, and little Aaric. Garnet’s arms were wrapped around her child, still young enough to fit comfortable in her lap. The fauntling’s eyes tracked Bilbo.

“In the black wind the stars shall die/ and still be cold here let them lie….” The tune that had woke him more nights than he wished to count rose in his mind.

Bilbo shivered and looked away from the child only to find his gaze once more trapped. This time by young Larkspur who had the last of the dwarves seated at her table. Bilbo wondered how much of that was due to Saradas’s scheming or the faunts’ families’ insistence. The girl child (she must be nearly fourteen, fifteen) attempted to rise at his attention but was hastily restrained by her mother. Relief and worry warred on her face. Bilbo attempted the faintest of smiles though he felt he failed miserably. Whatever she saw on his face must have comforted her for Larkspur soon settled and gave him a little nod in reply.

Bilbo shut his eyes and turned away. The end of the Wight’s rhyme flowed through his mind like marrow in his bones. “Till the Dark Lord lifts his hand/over dead sea and withered land.”

“Bilbo?” Merimac’s hand on his arm jolted Bilbo from his recollections. He opened his eyes to find the table staring at him various degrees of concern. Thorin’s and his gaze caught for a second before Bilbo turned away only to catch Gandalf’s attention.

“It’s nothing.” Bilbo tried to force a smile and failed for a second time. “I’m fine.”

“You’ve gone pale,” Saradoc said taking Bilbo’s chilled hand in his own. “And you were muttering something about sea and land. It made my knack flare and the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

Bilbo paled further. He had not realized he had spoken the words out loud. “Sorry—”

“Where did you learn that tune,” Gandalf interrupted. Fili and Kili turned to him in surprise; the wizard’s words were gruff, almost angry.

“I can’t—” Bilbo hunched at the pain in his side. It’s only in your head, he reminded himself. It’s not real.

“Where, Bilbo?”

Rory glanced between his cousin and the wizard. “I know I’ve heard him say it before,” the Master of Buckland answered for his cousin.

Gorbadoc spoke up. “It’s what he told us the Wight said.”

Gandalf turned on the old hobbit, standing up. “What Wight,” the wizard nearly bellowed.

It was at this time that Barric, a little too far gone into his wine, rose and lifted his glass. Those whose attention hadn’t been drawn to the Master of Buckland’s table fell on the inebriated hobbit. “A toast to the Baggins,” he cried, ignoring Garnet’s insistent tug that he sit back down. The hobbit female lost her grip on little Aaric in the resulting struggle. “Luckbearer and Wight slayer. May the hair on his toes never fall out!” A cheer came from some of the younger hobbits in the room as the elder ones looked on in alarm. Saradas and Larkspur’s father hastened from their seats while arguments broke out between the chastising elder hobbits and the brash tweens and youths.  Barric continued on ignorant to the chaos he had caused and swaying slightly. “Since he would not let us praise his deed last time, let us show our gratitude to him now. To the most fortunate of Unfortunates. No calling shall keep him from returning. Let his mind be swift, his aim accurate, and his cla—”

Larkspur’s father clamped one hand on the drunken hobbit’s shoulder and Saradas another over Barric’s mouth. “You’ve had enough, my friend. I’d not like to be you in the morning,” Saradas said as Garnet rose to tug her husband by his ear. Barric gave a little yelp. The Brandybuck’s wife, originally of Hornblower stock, only pinched the abused ear harder clearly unamused.

During the commotion Larkspur had slipped free from her mother and Seredic, no longer under his father’s supervision, had also abandoned his table. The three children had run up to the head table and pulled Bilbo from his seat. The dining hall fell quiet as a howl rose up from the distressed Aaric who threw his arms over Bilbo’s neck. Larkspur clawed at Bilbo’s clothes trying to see the long-healed wound beneath. Meanwhile Seredic knelt before the elder hobbit, hiding his weeping face in Bilbo’s hands. His stance that of a petitioner seeking forgiveness.

“I’m so sorry. It was all my fault,” Seredic whispered. Bilbo tugged the lad and Larkspur into his arms so that three faunts were crushed against his chest.

“Not your fault. Forgive me I should have come back sooner. Don’t cry,” Bilbo said, pushing down his own tears. He rocked back and forth. “Shush, it’s alright.”  He fell to murmuring soothing sounds in Green Tongue, half phrases of shared guilt and comfort. Bilbo pressed kisses to the younger ones faces, the four clinging to each other desperately.

The children’s parents gathered around the group and Rorimac rose. “I believe that concludes the festivities. I thank you all for coming to greet our guests and seeing Bilbo off but it seems there’s been enough excitement tonight.”

The other Brandybucks dispersed. Eventually Larkspur and Aaric, having exhausted themselves, were pried from Bilbo and led away by their concerned mothers accompanied by Mirabella and Gorbadoc. Only Bilbo, Rory, his sons, Saradas, Seredic, Gandalf, and the dwarves stayed behind in the hall. Seredic remained in Bilbo’s embrace until the lad’s sobs quieted. Bilbo murmured to him in Westron, Green Tongue, and Hobbitish consoling words about the Wight’s enthrallment and Seredic being good enough not to abandon the younger faunts once they had returned.

Eventually Saradas gathered his son to him. With a grateful look to Bilbo, he took the lad away. As the door closed behind them, a moment of silence held the remaining people in the hall still until the dwarf king turned on his hosts.

“What farce is this,” Thorin said.

Rorimac turned to the Dwarven guests with careful restraint. “A private matter that should have been kept that way. We’ve rooms prepared for you and your Company, Mister Thorin. Merimac and Saradoc may show you the way.”

“I will not be dismissed until I have answers.” Thorin twisted to face Gandalf. “What kind of creature have you saddled us with?”

Bilbo flinched at his words and the faces of the Brandybucks present darkened. Merimac held onto Saradoc’s arm as his brother looked as though he was going to leap upon the dwarf lord.

Gandalf towered over the dwarf. “Not everything is for your knowing, Thorin Oakenshield.”

“You ask much trust, Tharkûn, and give little in turn.”

“Do not—”

“Enough.” At his voice they group fell silent and turned to Bilbo. “If you have questions, Master Dwarf, you may ask them of me.”

“Bilbo,” Rory cautioned.

**They are to be my companions, Rory. They deserve some truth,** the younger hobbit replied tiredly.

“What is this Wight business,” Thorin asked.

“I would like to know that as well,” Gandalf said.

The other dwarves remained quiet though Balin looked frustrated with Thorin’s lack of tact. Kili’s attention flickered back and forth between his uncle and their hobbit while Fili’s gaze was fixed on Bilbo. Dwalin and Nori watched the three including the wizard with cautious eyes; Dwalin worried about Thorin’s reaction to Bilbo’s tale, Nori was more concerned over what revelations it would bring about the Company’s fourteenth member.

Bilbo sighed, rubbing at his temples. “Three years ago there was incident by the Hedge. One of the Wights had come up from the Barrow-Downs. It managed to ensnare three of our faunts and lead them into the Old Forest.” It had started with Seredic, who had first felt the disturbance along the High Hey. By the time the young Bucklander had realized the severity of the danger, he had already become ensorcelled by the Wight’s power. Bilbo did not tell of how the youth had no will of his own and had ended up luring Larkspur and Aaric along with him. That the lad was the one who led the others through the secret brick tunnel that led out into the Old Forest. No, Bilbo would not reveal that part of the tale to the Dwarrows or Gandalf. Not that or the look of horror and guilt upon the lad’s face when he had finally broken free of the Wight’s spell. It was hardly their business. “Wights enjoy death. I did nothing that others had not considered.”

“You went after it,” Kili breathed. Fili nudged his brother to silence.

Bilbo’s lip twisted into a wry grimace. “It’s not anything as dramatic as you believe. Barric has always been given to exaggeration, especially when in his cups. Wight slayer.” The hobbit scoffed. “It would take powerful magic to kill such a thing; all I did was seek help.

“Tom,” Gandalf asked.

“Tom,” Bilbo agreed and wiped a hand over his eyes. Of course, it hadn’t been that simple. Bilbo had not at first thought to call for Tom’s aid, too concerned that the Wight would drag the children back to its Barrow. His hast had been for the best since instead the haunt had planned their death within in the Old Forest itself. Unusual behavior for a Wight, something Tom Bombadil had been quite upset with. Bilbo had never questioned him though. He had been too busy dying to do that. Besides would rarely get a straight answer from the Old Forest’s inhabitant.

“Who is this Tom,” Thorin asked.

Gandalf waved his concerns aside. “Tom is Tom and a better ally you could not find. Nor a worse enemy. I suppose he banished the spirit.”

Bilbo nodded. “He helped me return them to the Hedge and called for assistance.”

“You weren’t in any state to do it,” Saradoc muttered beneath his breathe. Merimac shoved his brother but the damage was already done.

Gandalf turned on his godson with furious eyes. “Were you injured?”  At Bilbo’s glance away his godfather’s anger built. “A Barrow-Wight invades the Old Forest and you did not think to tell me! You are wounded by something so foul and say nothing!”  Dwarves shied away as darkness gathered about the wizard.

Bilbo refused to be cowed. “Am I to tell you every time I gain a scratch? You are not my keeper, Gandalf. What would telling you of it have changed? Nothing! I did what needed to be done to the best of my abilities.”

Gandalf’s eyes held more concern than fury though it did nothing to ease the sound of creaking beams at the wizard’s power. “The evil in such wounds festers if not tended.”

“Nothing fire and water could not cleanse,” Bilbo replied quietly. He could still remember the feel of Goldberry’s hands after Tom had taken him home for his wife to tend. No hobbit medicine, Tom had insisted at the time would cure the injury. River-daughter’s water had bathed the wound and dragon fire had seared it close. It was the only time Bilbo had been able to balance his hobbit and dragon forms long enough to breathe fire in his half-form.

Something of that remembered pain must have shown on the hobbit’s face. The darkness dispersed and Gandalf looked the same old, tired man. “Oh, Bilbo,” he said wearily.

Godfather and godson were left alone as Rorimac insisted the hour was late. To most of the dwarrows’ relief the group was ushered off to their own suite of rooms and hobbit beds. Thorin cast only one last glance over his shoulder to see the wizard and hobbit quietly continuing their conversation.

***

Bilbo’s room was in a separate suite than those of the dwarrows and thus sneaking out of it and Brandy Hall took him relatively little time. The ride from Buckleberry to the Hedge near Crickhollow was swift if one borrowed a well rested pony and traveled across the shortcuts. Though he was weary from a day of riding, Brandybuck arguments, and recollecting old memories, Bilbo made the journey with utmost haste. He had only until midnight before he would have to be heading back. There was little time to waste.

Tying off the pony’s reigns and locating the hidden tunnel was but a few moments work. Finding the fortitude to enter it and cross into the Old Forest took longer. It was not Bilbo’s first return since the Barrow-Wight incident, but the memories stirred this night did not make it easier to enter. Every visit was a brief struggle but tonight was the worse since his first return after his injury. The usual dark and damp of the tunnel reached as though it might smother him. Impulsively Bilbo found himself running down the earthen corridor as though to outrun those shadows. He quickly came to the far end with its gate of thick iron bars and removed the copy of the key Rory had entrusted to him. He shut it with less gentleness than usual and its clang reverberated down the passageway. The sound was oddly reassuring like the press of the cold iron against his palms; they fixed him firmly in the present rather than the past.

Emerging from the other side of the tunnel actually eased the burden.  Across the wide hollow loomed the Old Forest. The bare strip of land between the gate and the High Hey was where the trees had long ago attacked the Hedge. There long-ago Hobbits with the earth’s assistance had coaxed the trees back and then salted the ground least the woods again attempt to breach their defense.

Oddly Bilbo’s shoulders relaxed as he gazed across the barren area at the Forest. The trees were familiar. Not friendly but comforting none the less. The queerness of the forest with its aware trees and shifting paths did not unsettle him as it should. He had walked these woods since the age of eight, nothing to fear as he trailed behind his grandmother. The dragon hidden beneath her hobbit facade was more dangerous than anything they were bound to face. If he stared long enough at the treetops Bilbo imagined that he could see the tip of a broad white wing peeking over the leaves. Long before the Wight the forest had held little to fear beyond the memories of Arradeth’s wide wings and Adamanta’s brown hands. A dull ache throbbed in his chest before the hobbit squared his shoulders and entered the forest unmindful of the shadow that followed him.

Nori worried as she entered the line of trees. Sneaking out of the Company’s suite of rooms and following the hobbit had been child’s play. Stealing a mount not familiar to her was harder. Riding after someone, while not knowing your destination and trying not to be noticed, was somewhat awful. The shear ease with which she had lock-picked the gate had given her some composure. But the trees were the worst. Even if Bilbo's earlier warning had not already put her off following the hobbit into the forest, the Hedge would be enough. People of any race only built defenses for one of two reasons: to keep something in or to keep something out. Nori did not doubt which the Hedge was suppose to do.

These hobbits were coming to upset her expectations immensely. Where the Tooks were fierce wild things, Brandybucks were proving to be worse. The Tooks had acted like friendly wolves mistaken for hounds. These Bucklanders reminded her more of the large cats of Far Harad.  There was no mistaking them for anything other than predators even when all they did was laze about or eat. The way the Company had been so easily dismissed after that disaster of a supper only proved her point. The fact they lived so close to something they so obviously feared reinforced her opinion. While the Shire was peaceful, if perhaps a bit boringly so, Buckland was attesting to be something much more wild.

The dam walked further into the forest every sense strained. There was something wretched about this place; an unfamiliar discord that echoed beneath these branches that had never been present in the woods when her mother would take her out to dance beneath starlight. That had never been present in Nori's own solo forest wandering. The air pressed heavily against her.  This woods filled her with apprehension, like the she was being observed though except for a few night birds she was no one. Nori felt the itch of danger scratch against her skin. This forest did not welcome strangers. The trees rustled though no wind blew and the dam swore she could hear whispers among the brushing of leaves. She hurried after the hobbit, wary of her step. Though there was no undergrowth it seemed that every few steps broken branches and roots attempted to trip her. She had a job to do. Thorin wanted information on their mysterious Master Baggins’s activities and if in doing it she was able to keep her promise to Belladonna it was no skin off her nose. The dam had only promised to look after the hobbit woman’s son not to protect him when he went into places no sane being would go. Like a dragon’s lair, Nori’s conscience sarcastically reminded. She ignored it like she was used to doing and pushed aside the niggling worm of guilt. If her conscience sounded less like Dori she might have heeded its words more.

Nori peered into the darkness of the trees attempting to determine Bilbo’s path from broken grass blades and the faint tread of feet. The roots that tangled her feet and attempted to trip her did not make it easier. Abominable woods. Nori bent to let her fingers trace over larger rocks along the way.

The warmth radiating from the scattered stone beneath her hands was her best indicator of where the hobbit had gone. Stone sense was common enough among Dwarfkind but its affect and strength varied greatly. Mainly it manifested in the untrained as just the comforting ability to locate ones way beneath the earth. In those who developed it, it mostly demonstrated in the skill of being able to judge the potential value or age of raw gems or metals. Other times it matured in to the ability of locating and shaping of materials. In unusual cases stone sense took the form of resonation, where a dwarf was attuned to their stone surroundings. Some described it akin to a type of sight using the stone’s awareness. Kori’s strong stone sense had been something inherited by all her children with varying results. Dori had inherited it in his ability to know the quality of any gem placed before him. He would have made a fine jeweler like their mother if he hadn’t chosen his own Crafts of wiredrawing and tailoring. Ori’s stone sense was more inclined to being able to feel the structure of stone-ways. The youngest Ri sister was exceptional at being able to map out underground tunnels through her sense alone. Nori, for being the only Ri child born above the stone and not below it, was extremely sensitive to the stone. It spoke to her; not in language but in breath and touch and sound. The first time she had been brought inside a mountain and touched stone halls it had nearly overwhelmed her. If the feeling had not been limited to her hands it might have driven her mad. But years of effort and focus had let the dam control the ability. Possibly one of the reasons why she was so talented in thieving as a youth. So when she let her fingers brush the stone she could sense which had been most recently touched, the faint brush of flesh lingering phantom warmth against the rock.

A branch dropped besides her and narrowly missed striking her head. She turned but found nothing but the sight of numerous trees of every shape and size. Had there been so many around her before? Nori shivered. Never one to only like stone halls the dam found she had no desire to linger in this place. Hastily she moved to crouch from one patch of stone to another easily tracing Bilbo’s course. In such a way was Nori quickly able to follow after the oblivious hobbit.

Bilbo had passed far enough into the Forest that he could no longer feel anything but the trees firm attention upon him. The Forest’s anger was palpable; what was usually a restrained watchfulness in the daylight roamed freely at night. Its hostility lingered in the air like a fine mist slowly swallowing any unwary traveler who trespassed into it. That spite was enough to even keep hobbits from its borders, though the Forest reacted differently to them. It did not wish to drive them away or mislead them like others. The Forest longed to keep them. Something about a hobbit’s presence, perhaps a result of their kinship with the earth, soothed the errant malice of the forest. It wanted them to linger, letting them become lost among its shifting paths: a gentle form of entrapment. Less knowledgeable or cautious hobbits could find themselves unwilling guests of the trees. When the Oldbucks had first come to Buckland and sown the High Hey it had been primarily grown to keep the forest from advancing. It was not built so much out of fear of the Forest’s ill-will but fear of its affection. For the earth’s love had been twisted in these primordial branches until the adoration shared between earth and Hobbits had been perverted into a pitiable obsession with the Little Folk. Not a form of fondness but a way to alleviate the trees’ rage. The earth’s love was fierce but it was meant to be a shared love, one that endlessly gave. Yet the Old Forest’s was a jealous thing; all too easily turned to violence.

He trod further into the mass of trees trailing down one of the paths that would lead fastest to the valley of the Withywindle. Of course all the paths led down to the valley. It was one of the Forest’s most subtle and treacherous safeguards. But as Bilbo intended to reach the river anyway it mattered little. Taking the direct route he eventually came out of the gloom of foreboding trees to a wide space of grass and reeds which bordered a lazily dark stream that wound through the Dingle. Ancient willows bordered the little river, their tresses bright with the healthy leaves of spring. Bilbo ambled on down to the water’s edge, avoiding one particular huge and hoary willow that squatted sullenly on the riverbank.

Nori, having caught up with her quarry, slide into the shadows alongside a cluster of chestnut trees at the edge of the dale. Above the tall grass and reeds she watched as Bilbo shuffled on down the bank for a while before taking a seat at the little river’s edge.  The dam raised a questioning brow. What was the hobbit doing? Hadn’t he warned that the Forest was dangerous?  Couldn’t he feel its malice?

Bilbo dipped his feet into the Withywindle’s waters. His eyes roved around the Dingle before he sang, his voice soaring above the reeds’ rustling and the willow-boughs’ creaking.

Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow,

By fire, sun and moon, hearken now and hear me!

Come, Tom Bombadil, for my need is near me!

Nori startled at the poem. She thought the hobbit madder than ever. No sane person would wander such woods as these only to spout nonsense. As Bilbo’s words faded a sudden deep silence cast itself over the clearing, leaving Nori to listen only to the sound of her heat beat. Even the water had seemed to still at the hobbit’s words and no leaf moved, the Forest’s humid breeze having faltered. Softly as if from a great way away an answering voice rose, gaining strength as it came nearer.

Suddenly from a thicket of trees across the way a refrain of song burst from the Forest along with a strange man. He was too large to be a hobbit, around the size of a tall dwarf but still short enough not to be a Man. Perhaps one might have thought him a dwarf for his long brown beard but he had nothing of their proportion or bulk. An old battered hat with a swan’s feather stuck in its band rested on his head and, as his song had stated, he was attired in blue jacket and yellow boots. Nori hunched closer to the ground as the man bound forward, his walk an odd hopping dance of a thing. As though his step was in tune with some music only he could hear.

Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,

Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.

None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:

His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.”

For a moment the stranger’s gaze fell to Nori’s hiding spot. The dwarrowdam froze, huddled to the ground but as quickly as they had fallen upon her his eyes drifted away. He charged with his odd step down to the riverside to stand beside Bilbo.

“A fine meeting this and what need have you friend Ranor! Unless the fishes be nibbling away your toes!” The jolly voice bellowed forth from the man and the whole clearing seemed to listen to his words.

Bilbo smiled at Tom, though his Hearts ached at the sound of his dragon name. It had been his grandmother’s idea that if she should take on a new name for her hobbit self then her grandson with have one for his dragon form. Bilbo is no name for a Fire Drake, Arradeth had laughed little plumes of smoke. Rarely had he heard it since Adamanta’s passing and never in the Shire, for those few who knew it in the Shire did not speak it. However, it was the name Adamanta had used to first introduce Bilbo to Tom and though it seemed useless the hobbit continued to try and correct him. “Call me Bilbo please, Tom.”

“Eh, what,” Tom said sliding down to sit besides the hobbit. His bright blue eyes glinted merrily in the starlight. “Don’t you know your name yet? Or are you of many names? No matter. Tom remembers who you are, even when you wandered alone, yourself, and nameless.”

Bilbo remembered that day, the first time he had spoken to Tom without Adamanta present, only their second or third meeting since their introduction. At the age of fifteen and still unwilling to speak, Belladonna had taken her family to visit the Brandybucks, hoping for advice from her sister. So near the Old Forest, Bilbo could not resist the temptation of wandering its ever shifting past despite its dangers. To become lost to memories of being held beneath Arradeth’s white wings. He had wanted to be lost to everything. Tom had found him then, wandering in his dragon form, and taken the foolish faunt to his home. There he had met Goldberry, staying the night, before Tom had dragged him back to the Hedge and the Brandybucks.  It had been that act of recklessness that had prompted Belladonna’s decision to take Bilbo to Rivendell and Elrond.

Tom watched him with those ancient mirthful eyes. “Mark my words friend. You’ll have as many names as Tom by the end of days.” He clasped the hobbits back before letting out a laugh. “Enough solemn thoughts! What are you a-calling Tom for?”

The hobbit took a deep breath and quietly gave a brief recount of his tale beginning with Gandalf’s visit and ending with his signing of the contract. He held back little as Tom was one of the few beings in Arda who knew the true purpose of hobbits. As far as anyone knew no one had ever told the strange man it was simply a knowledge he had always possessed.

After the stranger had settled besides Mister Baggins, Nori slowly and stealthily slipped on down into the vale to better hear them. It was not difficult as she kept to the higher patches of reeds. From there the dam dodged between the drooping willows. A few yards from the hobbit she came to rest against a particular large one, its sprawling branches heavy with grey and green leaves. Its knotted and twisted trunk offered a perfect hiding space, the wide fissures among its roots presenting further places to conceal oneself. She arrived just at the end of Bilbo's tale.

“If it were not a calling I would not go, but as it is I must. I know it’s much to ask but would you keep an eye out, Tom? I don’t expect you to do anything like my patrols. Just send word if you notice anything odd…well odder than usual. I do not like leaving them unwary if another Wight were to appear.” Bilbo’s words were much easier to hear at her new vantage point and Nori's ears perked at the word 'calling'. Had not the Thain used that same word.

The stranger—Tom gave a warm smile. “Your Brandybucks will know before I will I suspect.”

Bilbo watched as his feet caused more ripples to float out into the sluggish stream. “They didn’t last time.”

Some of the humor fell from Tom’s face. “Yes, but I’ve remedied that. No help will any Wight gain from this forest again. Reminded Old Man Willow tales of Elder Days, ones he should not be forgetting. He knows no word of honor comes from the Downs or their Dark Lord. Never would they raise the fathers of the fathers of trees to the lords they were in long times gone.” Nori quickly hid as he turned her way. Tom gave the willow a reproachful look. “If more wisdom and less pride and malice grew in his rotten heart, he would have known better.”

Nori’s brow rose in confusion at their talk. Were they talking about trees as though they had thoughts?  Perhaps she had heard wrong. For some reason she felt so tired. The dam smothered a long yawn.

A laugh roared from Tom, his mood already lightening. “Fear not young Ranor-Bilbo. Tom is Eldest and fastest. I will keep the watch.”

Ranor? Was that another title of the hobbits, Nori wondered to herself. The dam felt so drowsy. With each passing moment Nori’s lids seemed to grow heavier and an odd lethargy stole across her body, rising from where her booted feet rested on the earth up her body to cloud her thoughts and sight. Something’s not right, the dam tried to say. Her tongue felt thick and slow within her mouth. Nori was used to feeling sheer exhaustion from days without sleep (first as a thief on a heist and later on due to her missions for Thorin). This utter need for slumber, after days of good rest in hobbit beds, was uncanny. Her head swam as the urge to sleep overwhelmed Nori.

“Thank you.” Bilbo’s voice. “I-I would also ask for some advice?”

Nori could barely keep her eyes open and though she tried to focus on Bilbo’s conversation with the stranger, a gentle fluttering song seemed to drown out the pair. It was a half whispered thing, sounding faintly of the creaking willow boughs, and promised of long cool rest.

“I’ve been struggling with my half-form? I’ve not held it for long since the night at your house.” The phantom smell of burnt flesh filled Bilbo’s nose at recalled searing his own flesh.

 “Nothing hinders you but what you choose to be hindered by,” Tom stated enigmatically. He knocked two fingers against Bilbo’s chest above his starburst scar. Bilbo’s Hearts gave a double beet back in response. Tom’s grin widened. “Seems you’ve two whole ones now.” He laughed. “All things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Do not fear. That is my only answer.”

Bilbo recalled the words Goldberry had once given him when he asked who Tom was. “He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.” Perhaps they had not been two separate explanations but one. Tom was master of himself and had no fear. Did Tom mean to be his own master Bilbo needed to have no fear as well. No that couldn’t be right. Bilbo knew fear could not simply vanish as though it had never been. He would have to overcome it. Defeat it.

“Dragon hearts are not brave things, Bilbo. They are fierce and bold, but not brave. It takes fear and wisdom to defeat that fear to be brave.”

“Mine will be.”

Bilbo flinched at the evoked words of years ago. He turned to Tom when a chilling scream scattered his thoughts.

Nori could not hear past the droning song. She tried to raise her hand as though she might swat the noise away like irritating flies. Her arm would not move. Why wouldn’t her hand move?

A sharp spark of fear drove through the soft song of water and sleep. Despite the muddled state of her brain, Nori realized that she had allowed her body to lean into one of the enormous willow’s large cracks. She tried to tug away but could not. Horror filled the dam, banishing most of the fog from her thoughts. Her right arm up to her elbow was embedded in the wood of the tree as if the willow were slowly consuming her. Not her hands, Mahal please. Not her hands. A flash of memory: her father’s hands showing her how to string a loom.

Nori fought widely. She hadn’t lost her hands to thieving and she wouldn’t lose them now to a tree. Beneath her feet the earth gave way, firm ground turning to swallowing mud. A cry broke from the dam. She palmed one of her fleshing knives into her left palm. Desperately she cut and slashed at the willow’s bark, attempting to work free her arm even as her leg sunk with the mud down into another crack. The willow-boughs quaked as the tree swayed. The soft song grew stronger with an undercurrent of naked hatred beneath the tune. The knife bit into the bark but would not come free, sinking further and further into the wood. Nori released it least her fingers follow.

A sob broke from Nori. She bit the inside of her cheek until it bled. The crack had already pulled her arm in up to the shoulder and one of her legs was uselessly pinned between a gnarled root. She was trapped. Memories of cells and hiding in cracks and crevices of stone skimmed across her closed eyelids. The fear of those cramped spaces tore out her chest, her throat. They had been necessary at times but she could not imagine anything else worse than being captured and crushed. She hated it. The dam thrashed futilely. Not docilely would she go to such a death.

The hands that clamped on Nori’s free shoulder caused the dam to flail an arm wildly.

“It’s just me, Miss Nori. Stop moving and we’ll get you free.” Bilbo was careful not to pin her down or come too close her thrashing limbs. He kept her voice low, hoping to soothe the frightened dwarf.

Tom had no such compunctions. “Stop your puffing like a bellows. It’s naught worse than Old grey Willow-man. You’re a strong one to avoid his songs for he’s a mighty singer, but I know the tune for him.” The strange man bent down to the crack. “Old Man Willow! I’ll freeze your marrow cold, if you don’t behave yourself. I’ll sing your roots off! I’ll sing a wind to blow leaf and branch away! You are a fair singer but my songs are the stronger.” He leant forward and began singing to the tree in a low voice so she could not catch the words. A bubble of hysterical laughter caught in Nori’s throat. Her salvation left in the hands of an odd man and his music.

Tom pulled away and broke off one of the willow’s hanging branches and hewed it against the tree’s side. “Enough trouble you have caused. You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!” Tom then seized Nori’s trapped arm and together he and Bilbo pulled her from the widening crack. The dam slipped loose easily and once she was fully freed, her face pressed into Bilbo’s neck, Tom gave the tree one last thump with his willow switch. The crack shut with the snick of a lock and the willow shuddered from root to leaf. It stilled and silence fell over the dingle except for Nori’s harsh breathing.

A hand pulled the dam’s face from Bilbo’s shoulder and she looked up to meet her peculiar savior’s face. Nori stared transfixed at Tom’s bright blue eyes and red face, happily furrowed with the lines of a hundred laughter wrinkles. Even in only starlight those eyes gleamed like the sky of a warm summer’s day. Nori’s terror ebbed away beneath that endless gaze. All the wisdom of the world was held in those knowing depths. For a moment the face seemed to change. His features became harder, squarer, his height taller, and his beard shorter. Then the dam blinked and he was once again an odd man with a red face and blue eyes.

“Who are you?”

Tom gave her a broad smile. “With all your spying, don’t you know my name yet? I’m Tom Bombadil.” He cocked his head at her. “I’ve not seen a dwarf in many a year.”

“You should get your fill now. I need to be getting back and I’ll be taking her with me,” Bilbo said as he hauled himself up.

Tom rose as well and together the pair offered Nori their hands. The dam hesitantly took them and was pulled to her feet. Nori was quick to let go of Tom’s but did not drop the hobbit’s hand. Bilbo made no mention of it but gave her fingers a brief squeeze of comfort. At Tom’s insistence he led the way out of the dingle and through the forest. Bilbo and Nori followed after. No tree loomed over them and the unease the dwarf had felt before had quieted, still present but muffled to near silence.

“I owe you my life, Mister Baggins,” Nori finally said as they trailed behind the laughing and singing Tom.

Bilbo wrinkled his nose. “You owe me nothing. I’d prefer a bit less of the spying, but I doubt I’d be able to hold you to it.” He sighed. “You might as well call me Bilbo, Miss Nori. We did just fight an evil tree together. Though Tom did do most of the work.”

Nori’s mouth fell open at the hobbit’s candor. Bilbo chuckled at the sight. The dam gives a little laugh of her own as relief courses through her. She was sure that tonight would become the fuel of new nightmares but she couldn’t help laughing about it. Of all the ways Nori has pictured herself dying, had almost died (and there has been many, far too many times), death by hungry evil tree has never been one of them. She let herself continue snickering. The horror in her heart had been briefly dispelled by her odd rescuers and she would not wish it back. Let it bother her some other time. Her eyes fell to Tom and her snickers quieted. She could not take her gaze from the blue jacketed figure.

“Who is he really?”

Bilbo glanced ahead at where Tom’s stood waiting for them. A flicker of amused exasperation crossed Bombadil’s face. The hobbit smothered a smile. “He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.” Nori glared at that answer and this time Bilbo did not hide his smile. “Tom is Tom.” He shrugged a shoulder. “He simply is.”

The words sparked a memory from supper earlier. Had it only been that night? To Nori it seemed an age had passed. “He’s the one who defeated the Barrow-Wight.” The dam could only stare at Bilbo as he nodded. “What is he,” she whispered unthinkingly.

“Eldest, that’s what I am.” Nori startled at his voice, finding Tom and the edge of the forest before her. The gate and tunnel were but a few feet away. “Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-Wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”

The odd man pressed the fleshing knife he had retrieved into the dwarf's free hand. He gave Nori a secretive smile and bent his head next to hers. “Once your kind called me Forn.” The dam’s eyes widened as she stared at him. He gave her a jaunty wink before turning to Bilbo. “Take care of yourself and your friend, Bilbo.” At the hobbit’s nod, Tom grinned. “Back to the Hall I’ll be betting with not many hours before the dawn.” He placed a hand on Nori’s head. “A parting gift, strong lass. Sleep till the morning-light, rest on the pillow! Heed no nightly noise! Fear no grey willow!”

Tom slipped behind the two and pushed them forward. Hobbit and dwarf stumbled, releasing their held hands. A whisper of wind blew past Bilbo’s ear. “Farewell friend Ranor! Be bold, but wary! Keep your Hearts merry, and ride to meet your fortune!”

When both had finally caught their balance and turned around Tom Bombadil was gone with not even a crushed leaf or blade to mark his passage.

***

It must have past midnight when Dwalin woke with a desperate need to piss and a thirst for a glass of water. Thankfully the guest apartments the dwarrows had been given included a water closet and small kitchen. He shuffled his way past the loud snoring pair of Gloin and Oin. Poor Balin in the bed opposite them had stolen another two pillows in order to muffle the noise. Dwalin would have felt worse for his brother if it wasn’t his pillows the other dwarf had stolen.  The bald dwarf contemplated taking them back, remembered what it was like the last time he had woken Balin before he had had at least six hours of sleep, and thought better of it. Instead Dwalin exited the room in search of the water closet.

Once the first necessity was taken care of, Dwalin cut through the parlor to the kitchenette with no light but whatever streamed through the windows. His dwarf eyes hardly needed to adjust to the low light, they saw well even in the dimmest. Yet it was not until Nori shifted to pull her knees closer to her chest that Dwalin noticed her sitting on the parlor’s couch.

“What are you doing up, lass?” Dwalin circled around the edge of the couch to better see the dam’s face. It was evidently that she had freshly bathed. She was dressed in a blue sleep gown, something borrowed for he’d not seen anything that feminine on the dam outside of a disguise. Her hair, usually bound in its elaborate peaks lay damp and loose down her back. The dwarf clenched his hands to keep from reaching to stroke the long soft-looking locks. His grip became tighter when he looked at the lines around the dam’s mouth and how her right hand stroked her kneecap over the borrowed clothes. Few would have noticed it but Dwalin had spent the past couple of decades closely watching Nori. Even before she had taken on the role of Spymaster, becoming counterpart to his position as head of the Thorin’s Guard, he had observed the dam. For professional reasons. He knew those lines only appeared when something extremely displeasing or stressful had occurred to her. Her fingers rubbing at the knee she had injured long ago, the first time she had been arrested, further indicated that whatever it had been had terrified the lass.

“Shush,” she said quietly. She inclined her head to the chair opposite the couch, her arms reluctant let go of her knees. Dwalin pried his eyes from her pallid face. Bilbo Baggins slumbered in the armchair, curled like a child in its seat with his head lounging on one of the arms. Dwalin’s face softened and some of his anger ebbed at the sight. Dwalin turned his curious gaze back to the dam.

“He saved my life tonight.” Bilbo had done more than that for Nori. He had led her pony back down the road to Buckleberry and snuck both of them back into the Hall. From there the hobbit had gently herded her to the baths. Bilbo had waited patiently outside and helped procure clean night clothes. He had not stifled her, cautious about giving her as much distance as she needed, but he refused to leave her either. Bilbo had remained by Nori’s side even when she refused to return to her room to sleep, adamant that he too wished stay up a bit longer. The hobbit had not lasted for more than a quarter hour before sleep claimed him.

Nori shook her head in at Dwalin’s furrowed brow, avoiding his questioning stare. “Tomorrow.”

The bald headed dwarf grunted but accepted her decision. He sat down besides the dam, ignoring how Nori’s eyes flickered to him as his own gaze remained on Bilbo. “He’s a fierce little thing. He insists on coming despite Thorin acting like an idiot and his kins' disapproval. Would have been enough stop an older dwarf much less a hobbit.”

 “They love him,” Nori said, sliding a bit nearer the older dwarf. The material of the night gown was a bit cooler than she was used to and Dwalin emitted a comfortable contained heat. It was one of the first things she had noticed about him when he had arrested her at the age of twenty-eight. It had been her first arrest, only happening because one of her fellow thieves had injured her knee, scapegoating her so he could escape. Dwalin had still managed to catch the little bastard Nadr and handed him off to one of the other guards. It had been Dwalin who had carried her to the holding cell until Dori could bail her out. It had been his large warm hands that had tended her knee. Fists that had shook Nadr were gentle on her injury. Even now the memory brought a surge of warmth to her belly. If he was a different type of dwarf she would have done something about it already. “It doesn’t make sense why he would want to leave them.”

Dwalin gave the dam a considering look and leant a bit nearer to her. “Maybe it’s not about wanting to. He has a strong sense of duty. Maybe he feels he has to for his godfather.” The dwarf said the last word with no little contempt. He knew he should not judge; after all his own half-son had joined the Company. Yet he had neither encouraged Fili’s volunteering nor had he hindered it. The blonde prince was to make his own mind. It was what Dwalin and Thorin had taught him throughout the years, and he could not now try to change that. It was why the dwarf could not easily forgive the wizard’s manipulation of his own ward.

Nori’s lent her head upon her shoulder. Her hair brushed against Dwalin’s arm as soft as he suspected. “Perhaps duty,” she mumbled. The word niggled at something she had overheard. But it was difficult to think past the warmth coming from Dwalin, so different from the cold of earlier. She understood duty. Duty was stealing for food, protecting one’s family, one’s king. Something one had to do. “Called. Calling,” she sighed. Her eyes were beginning to close. The thought, something she knew hinted towards an important detail she had missed, faded away with the approach of sleep.

“Hush. You should go to bed, lass.” Were those fingers on her hair? Couldn’t be. Dori would scold it as inappropriate.

“Not tired,” she tried to say, but it came out a slurred string of consonants. She slumped further towards Dwalin. A huff of laughter and something warm encircled her. She pressed her face so the fine tresses of her beard slid against his cotton encased chest. The laugh was replaced by a sharp inhale of breath. Tom Bombadil’s words drifted through her hazy thoughts. “Sleep till the morning-light, rest on the pillow! Heed no nightly noise! Fear no grey willow!”

A smirk rose on Nori’s lips. Dwalin’s chest makes a fine pillow, was her last thought as the dam finally succumbed to sleep.

 

An hour or so later Thorin stumbled into the parlor in his blundering search for the restroom. At the sight of Dwalin and Nori curled together on the couch, the dwarf lord pinched the bridge of his nose. Mahal, hopefully it was just an innocent accident. He noticed Dwalin’s hand resting on the dam’s back nearly touching the ends of her hair and groaned in aggravation. If Dori saw this it was bound to end in accusations. At least it wasn’t actually in Nori’s hair. Knowing the fussy Ri sibling he’d insist on a wedding proposal if that occurred.

Thorin turned away from the two in disgust only for his eyes to fall on the Burglar slumbering in the armchair. The hobbit, already so young, looked frighteningly innocent in his sleep. Those honey-brown curls haloed the pale skin of his face so much fairer than the dwarf’s own dusky tone. Thorin was tempted to touch his cheek, to see if some of his coloring could mark that pale canvas.

Mahal. He stepped back and ran his hands down his face. Forty years. Even when compared to Dwarven years, he was still younger than Ori. A child. Such dramatics, Thorin, Dis’s voice scoffed. He flinched. A twitch of movement drew his attention back to the hobbit. The Burglar whimpered in his sleep a sound of fear that made Thorin shudder in sympathy. Instinctively, as he would have done for Fili or Kili, he let his fingers stroke against the hobbit’s neck in comfort. He made to pull away when the Burglar’s small sounds of distress quieted. The hobbit turned to burrow closer to Thorin’s hand with a small snuffling sound. The finger that wore his signet ring brushed briefly against the halfling’s cheek.

Thorin snatched it back as though burned and waited to see if the Burglar would wake. Bilbo shifted and gave a little whine before settling. Thorin sighed, relieved. His movement seemed to have not disturbed the halfling’s slumber. He stared down at his hand. His finger tingled. The dwarf had not even truly felt the hobbit’s cheek, his ring having taken the brunt of the contact with the halfling’s flesh. Thorin glared down at the jewelry irked, before shaking his head and turning away.

At the doorway he could not resist one last glance back. The hobbit had curled further in on himself. Was he cold? Thorin stared for a time before his bladder reminded him of his original reason for waking. He continued on down the hall attempting to locate the water closet. When he was done perhaps he could locate a linen room. There had to be some spare blankets somewhere. After all it was his duty as leader to attempt to ensure that none of the Company became ill. Even the Burglar.

Chapter Text

The ride out from Brandy Hall was less sorrowful than any of Bilbo’s other leave takings. But perhaps that was to be expected since Bucklanders were odd folk. They had long ago learned to set aside their worry about future troubles by accepting the limits their actions could have on the wider world. Yet they were quite unlike the many Hobbits who had taken to isolating themselves in the Shire, excepting those few who left in order to answer a calling and the rare adventurer. While only the Heads of the Families were left to truly consider Arda’s affairs, they did so sparingly and only when the world was not good enough to leave them alone. Bucklanders were an exception. Having to interact with the Marish farmers and wayfarers from Bree-land, Brandybucks had never quite accepted the rest of the Shire’s separation from the world and refused to rely only on the earth for news of unrest. As a result they better understood and accepted Arda’s perils. Still such folk found it pointless to grieve before it was grief’s time. Despite whatever apprehension they felt towards his leaving the Brandybucks did not plead with Bilbo to reconsider his journey with the dwarves. Nor did they ask for promises of his return. Brandybucks accepted the best and silently fortified themselves for the worst.

Bilbo’s relatives had been affectionate in their farewells, each motion wordlessly implying that none considered this a final parting. The only tension had occurred during the faunts’ farewells; the obvious reluctance of Larkspur, Aaric, and Seredic to allow Bilbo to leave choked the air. Thorin had watched mutely as the hobbit dragged his young kinsmen aside and quieted them with words that no one else was privy to. When he returned them back to the group, it was apparent that whatever had been said had eased the much more relaxed youths. The remainder of the parting was a bittersweet affair. Bilbo had accepted Menegilda’s and Eglantine’s kisses, had shook Gorbadoc’s and Saradas’s hands, and resigned himself to Merimac and Saradoc’s embraces. He had cuddled, tickled, and hugged Pervinca, Pimpernel, Pearl, and Merry. Had held little Pippin to his chest, hoping in his Hearts it was not the last time he would see his second cousins’ children. Esmeralda had pressed one of her favorite hunting knives into his palm, her face similar to how her brother Paladin’s had looked at their goodbye. Mirabella was last to express her farewell. His aunt had taken Bilbo’s hands into her own and bent over them. Her final words half-prayer: ῁῁Do not lose sight of the road home.῁῁ Her words lingered long after the road to Buckleberry had faded from view. 

It was a better send off than he had expected.

As they continued on the road that would take them from Buckland, Bilbo cast his mind to other thoughts. He could not help but wonder at his odd awakening that morning; he had no recollection of fetching a blanket the night before. What was even odder was that instead of Nori sitting across from him he was greeted by the sight of the lone figure of Dwalin snoring on the couch. When he had properly rubbed the tiredness from his eyes, he had offered the dwarf his thanks for the covering. Dwalin had simply shook his head and stated he had no idea where either the hobbit’s or his own blanket had come from. When Bilbo had eventually located Nori, who had been rather elusive that morning, the dam had also claimed ignorance to whom had brought the blankets. Bilbo had set aside the matter, though secretly he reveled in the bright feeling it brought. At least one of his companions had thought equally of him when they had seen to Dwalin’s comfort.

He looked down at his pony unhelpfully. She had been a gentle mount once she had grown accustomed to his strange scent. Luckily whatever allowed other creatures to recognize his oddness was not common among the races. Only the Elves seemed sensitive to Bilbo’s dragon nature and even they could not clearly determine it. Lord Elrond had of course known, but Bilbo had never been sure if that was because Belladonna might have told him or the elf’s perceptiveness. Bilbo was certain Glorfindel had known but he suspected returning from death gave one a different view of the world. Beyond them any who knew his lineage had been expressly told. He supposed it might be due to the shroud Eru Ilúvatar had granted his youngest race and if so he was extremely grateful. It was hard enough to earn the trust of animals that were governed by their instincts; it would be much worse if any of the Free People could tell and react with the same instinctive fear. Bilbo patted his mount in gratitude for her calm handling of the situation, reminding himself that he still did not know her name.

“Fili,” he called out to the dwarf prince who rode at his right.

The blond youth turned to him. “Yes, Bilbo?”

“What’s my pony’s name?”

The dwarf youth gave Bilbo a curious look. “She doesn’t have one. In fact I don’t think any of them do.” The dwarf shrugged. “We haven’t had them very long.”

The hobbit’s brow rose. “They don’t—why wouldn’t you name them?” Bilbo could not believe his ears. Even Daisy Hayward named the pigs she and her husband raised for their meat pies. How could you express gratitude to another creature for its sacrifice without giving it a name? Didn’t dwarrows understand the insult it was to withhold a name from another being?

“They’re just pack animals, not war steeds. Why would they need names?” Kili leaned past his brother to answer Bilbo.

“Yes but how do you distinguish them from each other?” How did they thank them?

“Well mine’s brown and Fili’s is grey,” Kili stated with a grin. His comment earned some Dwarven laughter as the conversation gained more attention. At Bilbo’s dejected face Kili hurried to comfort the hobbit. “They’ve got their own markings so it isn’t that hard to tell them apart. Don’t fret. We won’t get yours mixed up with ours.”

Bilbo shook his head. He had understood that there would be differences between hobbit and dwarf culture but he had not thought such a fundamental distinction would exist. “It’s not that, Kili. They carry you. They’re accompanying you on your way to Erebor. Don’t you feel they merit a name for that?”

Dori gave Bilbo a kind but patronizing smile. “It’s a very sweet thought, Mister Baggins, but we’ll have to sell them before Erebor.”

“No point in getting sentimental,” Gloin agreed.

“It’s just not something dwarrows do,” Fili admitted. The prince seemed to understand that the hobbit’s bother arose from some hobbit principle. “We only name important things or things we plan on keeping. To name a pack pony would be like naming one of my throwing daggers. I do not expect to keep it so giving it a name has little meaning. Is it different for hobbits?” The question turned the dwarrows attention back to their hobbit companion.

Bilbo wrinkled his nose before looking down at his pony’s back. “Yes and no. It’s difficult to explain. To hobbits names of course provide information on one’s heritage and position.  It’s probably why we are such sticklers for our family names,” Bilbo said ruefully. Other conversations faded as the hobbit continued. “But naming something is different. Names embody the existence of a thing. They remind us of the gratitude we owe the cow who provides milk, the coney killed for supper, the dog who guards the house. To present a personal name to another, person or beast, is a sign of affection. To call another by their name and be called by yours in turn is a type of recognition. An acknowledgement that you are both living, free beings, deserving of respect beyond face or form.” Thorin stared at the uncertain flush on the Burglar’s face as the hobbit looked up to find himself the focus of the Company’s interest. “Besides every creature deserves something of its own even if it’s only a name.”

Dwalin exchanged a look with his king. The hobbit idea of naming was a bit too generous but it did remind him of Dwarven secret names. Thorin rolled his eyes. Expect Hobbit’s to cheapen such an idea.

“Are you going to name her then?” Bilbo smiled at Ori’s shy question.

Bilbo stroked the pony’s mane. She was good creature and deserved a name. He certainly owed her at least that for not throwing him. In fact she was one of the best mount’s he had ridden in some time. If she would keep from bucking him he might even swear everlasting devotion to her. Bilbo smirked at the idea. “Myrtle,” he said rubbing the pony’s neck. “I think it just might suit her.”

“Why Myrtle,” Kili asked. A few of the others looked curious as well.

“Because of the meaning I must admit.” Bilbo received several confused looks. “In flower language it means ‘true love’ and as long as she keeps from throwing me I don’t think I could give her a greater sentiment.” His response produced laughs from Fili and Kili, who recalled the pony’s initial reaction to him, and a few bemused chuckles from the others.

Behind the group, Gandalf stared at his godson’s back. With how gentle the lad was, one often forgot the ferocity beneath. The wizard sighed as he remembered their private discussion from the night before, when Bilbo had given more of the details on his confrontation with the Wight and his wound. He had forced the hobbit to show him the scar, the burn of the dark creatures’ touch still prominent after three years. Gandalf closed his eyes. The blemish on his godson’s side had filled him with a raw ache. Bilbo should never have had to face such danger or pain. A pang of guilt tugged at Gandalf’s chest. Could he really make such claims when he had pulled the lad into such a dangerous adventure? The wizard could not even justify that taking Bilbo with him had been entirely for the hobbit’s own good. The Wise had to make plans within plans, so should all other strategies fail some hope would linger on. Gandalf had not lied when he told Bungo he hoped the adventure would help Bilbo heal. Nor had he lied when he said he wanted Bilbo there as a burglar not dragonslayer. Yet it had not passed the wizard’s notice that there was some advantage of having a dragon along when facing another dragon. Not that the wizard intended an actual confrontation between the two. He would be there to ensure that the dragon slept while his godson fetched Thorin’s prize.

Gandalf watched as Bilbo smiled at something Bofur said. For the first time since he had proposed Bilbo’s coming, the wizard regretted his choice. Bilbo would be good for the quest; he was certain its success hinged on the hobbit-dragon. Yet he worried that the journey would demand more from his godson than Gandalf was willing to permit. The wizard turned back to the road. He would simply have to be there to make sure that whatever hardships Bilbo faced, the hobbit would have the wizard by his side. He would just have to trust that his intentions and Bilbo’s own protections, including the Unfortunate knack, would be enough. Yet Gandalf could not ignore the foreboding of such thoughts. He was wise enough to know that the plans of good friends oftentimes went astray when on dangerous adventures over the Edge of the Wild.

***

When they had once again met up with the East Road, Thorin allowed them to rest the night at the Bridge Inn. The large wood structure stood just outside the border of Buckland as a first step into the wider world beyond the Shire and Bilbo was grateful for a moment’s pause before leaving the edge of his homeland. He had been away before but always with the near certainty of returning. This time there would be no such assurances.  His Dwarven companions must have understood something of his feelings for they let him easily slip away for the night.

Little did the hobbit know that their reasons for leaving him to his rest had little to do with the Baggins’s wellbeing and more to do with other concerns. Above the room Bilbo shared with Gandalf a private meeting was being held in the lodgings Thorin would be sharing with Balin and Dwalin. The dwarf lord, his head guard, and chief advisor sat in their shared quarters awaiting their fourth member. With their attention expectantly fixed on the door all three missed when Nori slid in through the second story window.

>>She’s late,<< Dwalin muttered, shoulders stiff. He had been in a disgruntled mood since waking that morning to find the dam long gone and a rather confused hobbit thanking him for things he had not done. Since then it seemed Nori had neither the time nor the inclination to come near him. Though, to be fair, Dwalin told himself, she has not spoken with Thorin either.

Such comforts rung hollow and did nothing to ease his mood. It was not made better when the dam decided to announce her arrival.

>>Is your eyesight going in your old age,<< Nori asked taking a seat by Balin. The older dwarf gave her a stern look when the dam crossed her legs on the mattress. She rolled her eyes but dropped her booted feet from the bed. Despite his grandfatherly appearance Balin was a son of Fundin and Nori knew better than to irk him.

Thorin lifted a hand to forestall Dwalin’s reply. >>You left last night. Following our Burglar I presume?<< Thorin took his seat on the adjacent bed leaving the bald headed dwarf to lean against the door.

Nori raised a brow and then rolled her eyes. >>I suppose you saw us this morning? Did you get an eyeful?<<

Thorin glowered as Dwalin looked at him in realization. >>So you were our mysterious blanket leaver. The hobbit’s been trying to find out who it was to thank them.<<

The dwarf lord turned away, willing away the faint warmth he felt in his cheeks. >>It matters not. Your report, Nori.<<

The dam sighed and steeled her nerve. She started her account of last night’s events with her departure and Bilbo’s ride. Nori told of the hidden gate though she did not reveal its location and spoke of the unsettling atmosphere of the forest. Thorin’s interest was certainly piqued at the mention of the mysterious Tom. The dam recounted what she could of his and Bilbo’s conversation. Strangely enough the spymaster felt guilty about recanting the hobbit’s discussion, little hollow pangs of betrayal ached in her chest. I owe him no loyalty, she told herself. But Nori could not forget Bilbo’s kindness of the night before. As a result she made no mention of the strange name Tom had called the hobbit. Since names seemed so important to the Burglar, the least she could do was not divulge one that she had no business knowing.

When it came to describing the willow’s attack, Nori fought to keep her voice, pretending as if she were Ori simply reciting one of her histories. She could not be shaken by fear if she pretended the tale had happened to another. Dwalin still noticed the tremble in the dwarrowdam’s hands. It was after mentioning Tom’s parting words that Thorin finally spoke.

>>Forn. Surely now you speak of dwarfling stories.<<

Nori dropped her gaze to the floor. Balin patted her shoulder. >>It is hard to believe, lass. No one has heard of Forn the Wanderer outside of ancient tales. Few believe such a figure ever existed.<<

Thorin turned to Dwalin for his opinion. The older dwarf shrugged. >>If that is what Nori says he told her then I believe her. The hobbit’s Tom may call himself Forn if he likes.<<

Nori did not meet the big dwarf’s gaze, staring instead at Thorin. >>Whoever, whatever he is, he is powerful. To banish a Wight, to control that tree…that would be strong magic.<<

The dwarf lord inclined his head in unvoiced apology. >>I do not doubt you, Nori. Your news of this forest troubles me. I have heard strange tells of it before but thought it merely superstitious gossip of the Bree-folk.<<

>>We’ve had no issue with it before. The East Road travels past it but not through it,<< Balin stated. >>We will give it as wide a berth as possible. What I find more concerning is your news of our Master Baggins.<<

Nori and Dwalin eyes narrowed with interest at the elder Fudinson’s words. Thorin turned to his advisor in surprise. >>And what is wrong with our Burglar?<<

>>Nothing obvious, but from what you have told me this is Nori’s third attempt to spy on the hobbit and we still have little more than the information Gandalf provided. And the wizard has not been very accommodating with giving any details,<< Balin added with a irritated twitch to his mouth. >>The more we learn about our Master Baggins the more questions we are left with. He is a prominent figure here, a blood relation of two of the rulers of this land; a member of their equivalent to our council of lords while being friend or relative to its other members. Half-child to a wizard and friend to one who claims he is Forn. The wizard’s choice, while well connected, makes little sense to me. This is practically an incident waiting to happen. We are faced with displeased relations at every turn. Yet no real endeavor has been made to force him to stay. We are missing something.<< His words tugged at some thought in Nori’s mind. She kept half an ear focused on the debate between Thorin and Balin as she attempted to trap the elusive thought. 

>>Do you think the Halfling is already a liability? I’ll not have him jeopardize the quest.<<

>>I think Bilbo will surprise us. Gandalf’s choice is puzzling but we do not have enough information to determine what kind of asset he will be. However, the longer he travels with us the more questionable our hobbit’s motives become.<<

>>He is no victim in this. The Burglar willingly signed the contract and is being fairly compensated. I do not care whether he comes for gold or because Gandalf called upon him, I—<<

Nori jumped to her feet startling her king silent. >>Called. Calling.<< She turned from one bewildered dwarf to another. Her eyes even met Dwalin’s for a brief moment before flickering away. >>He used that word again when he was speaking with For-Tom-the stranger. It was the same thing the Thain said and that hobbit woman who said he was a murderer.  It’s a calling, he’s been called. Whatever this >calling< business means, it seems he is duty bound to honor it. If we were to find out what it means, I’m sure we’ll understand why he has joined the Company.<<

Rubbing his beard in thought, Balin pondered her words. >>Possibly. Or it may simply refer to an oath or promise he has made. One the hobbit has been called upon to fulfill.<<

Dwalin’s gaze darkened. >>Could the wizard have some claim on him? Perhaps Bilbo owes him some favor and this is Gandalf’s way of collecting.<< The big dwarf cracked his bare knuckles, his knuckle-dusters safely stored away. If the wizard was forcing the hobbit to accompany them, magic or no magic, Dwalin would be exchanging more than words with him.

Thorin looked none too pleased with the idea and even Balin frowned in concern. >>It is possible. Gandalf certainly had enough confidence that Bilbo would agree to join us that he did not even give him a day’s notice before our arrival,<< the white haired dwarf admitted.

The dwarf king stood his voice harsh with fury. >>If he is here to repay some debt to the wizard than we have no need of him.<<  Thorin was uncertain if his anger was directed at Gandalf’s manipulations or at the Burglar for giving into such whims. He ignored the pang of disappointment he felt upon thinking that the hobbit had only joined them as a result of some leverage Gandalf held over him.

Dwalin stepped towards Thorin. >>What is your problem with the hobbit? You’ve done nothing but growl and glare since you’ve met him.<<

>>He weakens the Company. Already he causes contention,<< Thorin snarled back.

>>You’re the one looking for problems. He‘s done nothing to you. Yet you act like a bully around him.<<

>>Would you rather I trail after him like some besotted dwarfling as you do?<<

Balin moved between the two to separate them. >>Stop the both of you. While Master Baggins intentions for joining our quest may be suspect, he has done nothing to cause alarm. In fact he was gracious enough to share an obviously painful event with us. We ourselves have not shared much of our pasts with him. After a few weeks together we are sure to learn more about our Burglar. Camaraderie needs time to develop.<<

Unnoticed Nori slide over to the window as Thorin, Balin, and Dwalin bickered over Bilbo. The dam did not look back as she hooked one leg over the windowsill then the other. The spymaster had no time to listen to their guesses; she knew better than to put much importance in their words. Making decisions from assumptions often got less intelligent thieves killed. Nori would hold her opinion until after she had more information. In the meantime she would watch and listen.

Thorin stepped back from his friend, ire visibly cooling. >>I do not like his secrecy. Or that of his kin.<<

>>We do not tell him our secrets. Why should we expect them not to do the same,<< Dwalin grumbled

>>His secrets may affect the success of this quest.<<

Balin sighed. >>Do not dwell on it, Thorin. Did you not say all you required of your companions was loyalty, honor, and a willing heart? The hobbit has shown his willingness by swearing himself to our cause. He is loyal to his kin yet has not let their warnings sway him from his promise. There is honor in his word. So far he has done nothing to earn such distrust. Give him time to prove himself.<<

The dwarf king turned from his friends and marched to the door. >>The hobbit is weak and he will die. Gandalf’s choice was foolish, twice foolish if he’s indentured Master Baggins to our service.  This quest is no place for gentle folk.  The Burglar is just a burden we will end up burying.<< Thorin slammed the door behind him, ending the conversation.

 

Nori easily shimmied back through the window of the room she shared with her siblings. There had been easier ways of keeping her meeting secret but the surprise on Dwalin’s face when she had appeared behind him had been worth the route she chose. A small smile curled her lips as she recalled the feeling of his eyes on her. The memory of the previous night, the sensation of his solid frame holding hers, stirred a fire in her belly. She shook her head. There was no use in thinking of such things. Dwalin would not be interested in a quick romp and anything more would be laughable. Her smile soured to a derisive smirk. The noble line of Durin had not wanted to claim her ancestors as part of its lineage; they would not now claim a barely reformed thief.  Not when the same impure blood as her ancestor ran in her veins.

“What’s put that look on your face?” Nori turned from the window to find Ori sitting up in bed staring at her.

“Nothing important.” Nori slipped her boots from her feet and removed the tunic she had hastily donned after Dori had fallen asleep. The dwarrowdam shucked her trousers leaving her in underclothes and shirt, before plopping down besides her little sister. “I thought you were still too cross to speak with me.”

Ori bit her lip. The expression made the little dam look like Dori when he was trying to keep from reprimanding Nori. The elder sister suppressed a smile. It always annoyed Dori when she smiled when he made that face.

“It’s not that I don’t want to talk with you. But, Nori, I’m not a child. You can’t take my choices from me or make my decisions for me. You can’t keep me safe by making me break my word. I promised Miss Belladonna I’d watch over Bilbo.”

Nori turned away. How often had she told Dori the same thing? Ori wasn’t a child. “She said she would not hold you to that promise.”

Ori kicked at her sister, the blankets softening the blow. “I promised her again the morning before we left. I am his elder and it’s my duty to look after him as it would be with any other younger dwarrow.”

“But he’s not a dwarrow, Ori. There is no reason to hold on to that custom when his ways are not ours,” the older dwarrowdam huffed.

“He doesn’t see us that way.” The younger dam hesitated at her sister’s raised eyebrow. “I mean—it’s not that he doesn’t acknowledge that we are different from him. He understands that there are concepts that will differ between us. Like with his pony this afternoon.” Nori nodded in agreement. Ori took a deep breath, slowing the pace of her words as though considering each one. “But he also doesn’t deem us lesser than him because we’re of another race. It doesn’t seem to matter to him.” She recalled how Bilbo had become angry with Thorin on her behalf. How generally happy he was with Bofur’s handkerchief. How he indulged Kili’s questions and Fili’s concerns. “The care he takes with those around him, with his family and friends, is similar to the care he takes with us. He acts as though we are something he is meant to tend…as though we are something he is meant to protect simply because he can.” Ori’s jaw firmed as she looked into her sister’s eyes. Nori could not look away at the fierceness of the younger dam’s stare. “More than my gratitude to Miss Belladonna and Mister Bungo, I think I want to watch over Bilbo because he needs watching over. I would like to help take care of him as you and Dori took care of me.”

Nori swallowed harshly and closed her eyes. Not a child at all, the dam thought. Her younger sister would only stand so much interference before it damaged whatever kinship Nori had not already ruined. Did she really want another relationship like hers and Dori’s? Where one pushed and the other prodded until they could barely speak to one another because neither would listen? “Alright. I won’t get in your way.” She thought of the hobbit’s gentleness with helping her the night before. Ori’s estimate of the hobbit seemed quite accurate to the older dam. She recalled how Bilbo had thrown himself before the dagger that could have so easily harmed him. The halfling was brave but Nori had seen enough of life to know that bravery was just another word for recklessness. And reckless ones never lived long. “But you won’t do it alone. I gave Miss Belladonna my word as well. We’ll watch over Bilbo together.”

Ori gave her sister an appraising look. “Why change your mind? What happened?”

Nori stared at her hands. She had kept her family from knowing of her position since Thorin appointed her as his spymaster. Dori thought her a member of the network of spies and thieves rather than the leader and she intended to keep it that way. Her lies of omission while straining kept her family safe and that was enough. “I can’t tell you everything. I owe him. He….” She did not know how to finish her sentence. For one who was not often known for telling the complete truth, Nori found anything else to be less than what Bilbo deserved. “He saved me.” The dwarrowdam shook her head at Ori’s questioning gaze. “There is a debt there and I wish to repay it. That’s all I can say and it will have to do. Now bed. We have a long journey tomorrow and it’s best we don’t wake Dori. Remember last time.” The dams’ talk turned to shushed giggles as Nori imitated their brother’s slurred half-asleep speech patterns.

From where he lay pretending to sleep, Dori listened as his sisters finally settled for the night. In the dark he made a silent vow to himself to watch over the young Mister Baggins as well. He would be proud to protect anyone who protected and gained the respect of his family.

***

The next morning dawned early with the Company eager to finally leave the Shire. Thorin led the procession with Gandalf. Bilbo, eager to avoid both of their notice, fell back to the end of the troop besides the younger dwarrows.  Despite his need to continue on with the dwarves and his desire to once again go beyond the Shire’s borders, sadness and a bit of dread settled on Bilbo’s shoulders as they headed out on the road east.

It took about three days to reach Bree and the dwarves did their best to entertain themselves along the way. Bilbo’s naming of his pony had gained enough interest that he was unexpectedly requested by Kili, being the most curious about the hobbit’s flower language, to name his mount.

“You have to name him Bilbo,” Kili wheedled. “Look at him. He’s depressed.” Bilbo dubiously eyed the pony which merely snorted and continued onwards.

“I’m not sure why you want me to name him,” Bilbo said shaking his head at the dwarf’s eager expression. “If you want him to have a name then you give him one.”

“But it won’t be as good as one of yours. He needs a proper hobbity name.” Kili gave Bilbo one of his most charming smiles. Bilbo could not help returning it as Fili smirked at his brother’s antics. Even Ori hid a smile beneath her mittened hand. The dark haired prince’s good humor was hard to ignore. Being around the younger dwarrows reminded Bilbo of days spent with his cousins, although he had been the eldest amongst them whilst here he was the youngest.

“As your elder I demand you name my pony,” Kili said mock sternly. The comment took only a moment to send Bilbo, Fili, and Ori into a fit of giggles. Eventually Bilbo relented and Kili became the proud rider of Tansy. Upon Fili’s teasing of the name, the older prince’s mount was christened Pansy, much to the blonde’s chagrin. At Ori’s shy request her pony received the name of Juniper. By then more of the dwarves interest was caught as Bilbo gave explanations of each name. Surprisingly it was Nori who next requested one. Thorin and Dwalin noted the bright expression Bilbo gave the dam as her named her pony Fennel and explained how it meant strength. Neither missed Nori’s puzzled yet pleased expression.

Soon Kili was pointing out different mounts and Bilbo allowed himself to be pulled into the young dwarf’s playfulness. The younger dwarf prince was quite pleased with himself as the hobbit’s earlier melancholy was replaced with witty comments and a few smiles. Kili was quite accustomed to cheering dour spirits. It seemed the line of Durin was always haunted by some tragedy, some unhappiness. Kili had made it his life goal early on to not fall under the same cloud of doom and sorrow. If there was one thing he had learned from his half-parent and his half-parent’s family, it was that someone needed to remember laughter and cheer amongst the despairing.

“What about Dwalin’s,” Kili asked, after a delighted Dori learned that Nosegay’s name meant gallantry. The last of the Ri siblings had agreed to the game only after the Ur family and Balin had accepted names for their ponies, leaving only Dwalin, Gloin, Oin, and Thorin without.

Bilbo gave the prince a small mischievous smile as he announced Daisy. Fili’s laughter almost unseated the prince at Dwalin’s face when the hobbit explained it meant innocence. Oin seeing how the hobbit spirits had been raised stated he’d like a name as long as it wasn’t a flower one. Gloin agreed and both were settled with hobbit names. Oin stated Bungo suited his mount fine since it seemed the beast was as dependable as its namesake. Bilbo’s eyes misted at the comment but he agreed his father would be honored by the sentiment. Gloin’s pony in turn received the name Pongo after a relative of the hobbit.

“That leaves only uncle. Surely we can’t leave our leader with a nameless beast,” Fili teased

At the merriment in Bilbo’s eyes, the dwarf king bit back his planned reprimand. Did the hobbit’s eyes always sparkle like that when he was happy? Thorin turned back to the road his faint flush hidden beneath his beard. “Do as you like.”

“Mint, maybe for virtue.”

“Mint, mint, mint,” Fili repeated as if the name didn’t sound quite right.

“Minty,” Kili suggested with a smirk earning a scathing look from Thorin.

Beyond Kili’s attempts to keep Bilbo from dwelling on their departure, the following three days passed with little difficulty. Only twice had the hobbit grown grave. The first was when they had approached the section of the road bordering the Old Forest. At that point Bilbo had left his customary side among the youngest members of the Company to ride alongside Nori. They exchanged few words but there was a strange sense of comfort between the two and the stiffness of the dam’s shoulders eased as they passed by the dark eaves of the forest.  The other time the hobbit grew solemn was on the day before their arrival in Bree when the skirted past an area where large mounds could be seen in the distance. Ori had been the first to spy them and had turned questioningly to Gandalf about what they were.

“That was Tyrn Gorthad, once the capital of Cardolan after the splitting of Arnor,” Gandalf said his gaze distant.  He turned back to the little dam whose eyes widened at the wizard’s grave face. “It is now known as the Barrow Downs. It is an evil place where Wights infest the burial mounds of those long dead princes and kings.”

More than one pair of Dwarven eyes glanced towards Bilbo but the hobbit refused to look up from his road. For the rest of that day no matter how often Kili or Fili attempted to draw him into conversation Bilbo remained silent. During that night as the Company dispersed into their usual family units to set up their sleeping rolls, the hobbit took his customary place besides Gandalf. For once Bilbo was glad that he and Gandalf had been excused from the roster of keeping watch. The dwarves had explained it was due to them needing less sleep than a man or hobbit but Bilbo was certain that it had more to do with how well they trusted the two. It did not matter which was true at that moment as the Company’s fourteenth member curled up near his godfather. The night would be hard enough without jumping at every shadow.

Bilbo was soon proved right after the exhaustion of several days travel and hunger from his new diet finally forced the hobbit to drift off to sleep. Thorin, who had been keeping watch, stood at the first whimper. Dwalin and Nori were quick to follow at the following whine. When harsh breathing gave rise to choked screams and strangled strands of nonsense sounds spoken in some odd language several of the others woke. Oin, a healer first and foremost despite race, was one of the first to come forward after Dwalin accidentally kicked him awake in his haste to reach Bilbo. Gandalf quickly stepped between the healer and his ward, raising his hand to signal the rest to stop.

“No. Stay back,” the wizard ordered ignoring the looks of concern directed at the hobbit. Fili and Kili stood a few feet away, the younger prince clinging to his brother’s shoulder as they watched Bilbo flail about in the grip of night terrors. Both had never seen someone younger than they have such dreams. Besides them Dori pulled Ori to his chest, turning her from Bilbo’s distressed moans. He did not notice that the little dam’s free hand grasped Fili’s sleeve. The golden-haired prince covered her hand with his.  Nori’s mouth pressed into a bitter line as she silently observed Bilbo. She had seen the sight before with younger folk and it did nothing to cool her anger that she was powerless to help the hobbit. Her frustration matched that on Dwalin’s face. The bald headed warrior vibrated with the need for action and it seemed only Balin’s presence at his side kept the tattooed dwarrow grounded. Oin sagged besides his brother and Gloin watched the hobbit with pity, imaging his own lad in his place. The Ur family was the quietest huddled a little away from the rest. They had enough experience from Bifur’s violent moods and battle dreams to know to give the hobbit and wizard space.

Gandalf kept his hands off Bilbo as he murmured words a hand upraised over his thrashing godson. The hobbit’s body stilled but his uneven breaths grew more ragged. Gandalf allowed his hand to rest on Bilbo’s head. A quick intake of breath and the hobbit’s eyes flew open on a gasp. Nightmares of Larkspur’s decapitated head, Seredic’s bloodied hands, and the cold grasp of the Wight’s touch as he held the shredded remains of little Aaric dissipated though the images remained. The feel of his own fire searing his skin and the remembered acrid scent of burnt flesh had Bilbo quickly rolling over onto his side as he began to wretch. Gandalf’s cooled hand pressed against his godson’s cheek as he pulled him back from the mess of vomit.

Thorin’s hands curled into fists as he forced himself to remain at his sentry post. He looked over the rest of his companions and thought of how he felt after the dragon when his own dreams used to wake Dis and Frerin. A shred of sympathetic shame roused for the Burglar. “Back to your bedrolls,” Thorin barked.  Dwalin exchanged a nod of understanding with him as he quickly had the other dwarves return to their sleeping arrangements.

Bilbo kept his eyes closed as he heard the others shuffle. Even as his godfather pulled him to his chest after there was nothing less for his stomach to lose, he did not open them. Embarrassment stained his face. It was not the first time others had been privy to his nightmares, but the thought of the dwarves witnessing it filled him with humiliation. He had not felt this way since his first visit to Rivendell, when Lord Elrond had coaxed him to speak of his grief over Adamanta’s death. The elf lord had adamantly persuaded Bilbo into understanding that the battle dreams and nightmares were not signs of weakness but indicated the depths of Bilbo’s emotions. Yet years later and the hobbit once again felt like a silly fauntling afraid to sleep.

As he curled against Gandalf’s chest, Bilbo realized that it was not the dreams themselves but the Company who made him feel ashamed. Shivering in his godfather’s arms, for the first time the hobbit’s thoughts did not dwell on how the dwarrows didn’t trust him, but on how he did not trust them. Not even enough to believe they would not condemn him for his nightmares.

 

The remainder of the night was bitter, the hobbit never quite easing back into slumber. By morning Bilbo felt both relief and dread at rising for the day. Weary eyed he kept his head high but would not meet any of the Company’s gazes. Despite attempts by several of the dwarves to converse the hobbit remained quiet and after an hour or so they left him to himself.

Before midday Bree and Bree-land where visible and by the time luncheon had rolled away thirteen dwarves, one wizard, and a hobbit had entered the West-gate. From there Gandalf directed the group, who gained a few curious glances, to Bree’s largest inn. Bilbo glanced up at the swinging sign of The Prancing Pony and drew a sigh of relief as he finally dismounted from Myrtle.  After a four day journey with thirteen dwarves and no baths, the hobbit was feeling and smelling a bit ripe.

Once the ponies were stabled, Thorin turned to the Company and reiterated the orders he had given just an hour or so before. “This is the last large town we’ll be passing through for awhile so we'll replenish our supplies. No talking about our business here and do not use my name. Remember if anyone asks call me Thrak. I will arrange for the rooms and you may each have an hour before meeting in the common room to discuss plans.” Without further ado the dwarf lord strode off leaving the Company to follow at their leisure. Only Gandalf and Bilbo hurried after certain that if one or other was not present Thorin would neglect accommodations for them.

As they entered the inn, Bilbo immersed himself in The Prancing Pony’s sights and sounds. Bitter pipeweed, stale beer, sweat, dirt, and grilled meat were the most noticeable along with the drinking, laughter, and furtive conversations of the few people present. Thorin marched up to the counter, drawing the attention of quite a few, which Bilbo thought he should have expected. It had not escaped the hobbit’s notice that the dwarf king was rather attractive nor that he eluded an aura of authority. But the dwarf was a bully and no matter how pleasant looking the face Bilbo detested bullies. He had spent his life being feared and disdained by some of those not his family (and hobbits were one of the more tolerant races when it came to strangeness). He would certainly not abide someone who did not even know him, knew nothing of his dragon nature or his Unfortunate status, scorning him.

A youth at the bar scurried over at Thorin’s impatient glaring, moving deftly around despite his sturdy frame. He peered down at them with a friendly smile, the beginning whiskers of a first beard evident on his chubby cheeks. “Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?”

Thorin inclined his head. “Thrak at your service. My companions and I need four of your Man sized rooms with multiple beds if you have any.”

The young man’s brow lifted in curiosity but with all the professionalism of a future innkeeper descended from a long line of innkeepers he held back his questions. His gaze flickered to Gandalf before stilling and widening on Bilbo. “Well bless me. Is that you Master Underhill?”

Bilbo ignored Thorin’s piercing gaze as he smiled up at the man. He hadn’t heard that name since the last time he and his mother had passed through Bree on their return trip from Rivendell, nearly six years prior. Belladonna had always been cautious during her adventuring days not to give too many her actual name so the monikers of Mistress Underhill and her son Master Underhill had stuck. Bilbo returned the Man’s smile with one of his own. “Hello, Barliman. Is your father out today?”

The youth shook his head. “Nah, Da’s just come down with some spring hay-fever. Me and Betsy are running the place today. You wouldn’t be up to given a bit of a tale tonight would you? Just private like. Betsy’ll be thrilled to see you. She never did get around to thanking you for the wedding gift.”

Bilbo’s smile widened. He had always enjoyed entertaining the Butterbur children when he and his mother stopped at the inn. He had grown rather fond of Betsy, Barliman’s elder sister, and been quite pleased to hear of her engagement and subsequent marriage to Bob Staddle, a hobbit of some prominence in the neighboring town (of which he bore the same name) Staddle. “I’m glad to hear she liked it.”

A grunt from Thorin pointedly ended the conversation as embarrassedly Barliman hastened to finish the transaction with the dwarf. Having swept the coins off the counter and notated the stay of one Mister Thrak and company for one night, the man turned back to Gandalf and Bilbo. “And how may I assist you two, my good sirs?”

“One room shall suffice I do believe,” the wizard stated.

Bilbo was quick to remedy that. “A separate one for me, please. Something hobbit sized if you have it.” Privacy would be something rarely come by on the road and at least for this night the hobbit desired some space.

Thorin, who had retreated next to Gandalf’s side, narrowed his eyes at Bilbo. “The Company will not pay the expense of unnecessary luxuries.”

“I didn’t expect it to,” Bilbo said without even glancing in the dwarf’s direction. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble for the cook could we also get fifteen meals. My meal and board are to be separate as well.”

Barliman’s eyes swept from Bilbo to Thorin. “Odd to see a hobbit traveling with a dwarf. You’ve business together in these parts,” he asked curiously. When Thorin opened his mouth to no doubt insult or reprimand the lad (possibly both), Gandalf not-so-subtly thumped the dwarf lord’s back with his staff. Only a small grunt emerged from the dwarrow.

Bilbo was quick to shake his head, hoping the irritated leader would remain quiet. “I was headed this way and Mister Thrak’s group was kind enough to let me accompany them. They’ve been quite gracious in their treatment,” Bilbo insisted his eyes as wide and innocent as any well-versed Took child.

The man seemed to accept the fib and before long Gandalf, Thorin, and the hobbit each held the keys to their rooms. Although he was eager for that bath, Bilbo wasn’t foolish enough to think he wouldn’t get dirtier before day’s end. After a brief word with Barliman, arranging for water to be delivered to his room later that night, the hobbit set about placing his luggage inside his room. He paused momentarily to take stock of his satchel's contents. He’d kept Bungo’s old pair of throwing daggers, heavier ones than the set Fortinbras had given him, underneath his tunic. Esmeralda’s hunting knife was strapped to his hip, able to be reached in haste through the slit in his trouser pocket (a necessary sacrifice of good cloth in case a situation became dicey).  Inside his pack were the usual necessities that a few of his other companions probably also kept in their bags: packets of healing herbs wrapped in oilskin cloth to keep them dry, needle and thread for mending, a small hand-bound journal (the remains of Rosemary’s flowers snuggly held in its pages) and charcoal, a tinderbox and whetstone, and some spare clothes. The more unusual items were shoved towards the bottom hidden beneath his spare shirt and trousers: Fortinbras’s gifts of leathers and knives, and the tunic set of clothing his mother insisted he take. He fingers tangled on the fur that lined the clothes: a beautiful mix of white with strands of grey. When he closed his eyes he could picture the wolf, its feral eyes meeting his own as Belladonna’s spear punctured its open mouth, piercing into its brains. Bilbo snatched his hand back and quickly secured his items once more, leaving his bedroll secured by the satchel’s cover. The only thing he checked before he left the room was to make sure that both his money pouch (which he kept on his person all the better to keep it away from sticky-fingers) and his weapons were safely hidden.

His return to the main room was not notable. He was neither the first of the Company to arrive, nor the last. As the food was still being delivered and different dwarrows were taking part in various conversations, Bilbo took the first easily available seat. He scanned the room noticing that the inn’s tavern was lacking in other inhabitants, there still being many hours left in the working day. Those few present seemed to split between either ignoring the dwarves’ presences or furtively glancing in their direction. One particular pockmarked man caught Bilbo’s attention as her unabashedly stared at the hobbit. A chill traveled down Bilbo’s spine as they held each other’s gaze. It was only when the man’s rather burly companion jarred his shoulder that the fellow looked away. Bilbo shook his head and returned his attention to the table.

The last of the dwarrows had arrived with Gandalf when Betsy in her barmaid’s apron tromped out with the last of the food. No one noticed the hobbit woman following her with a plate of fresh bread even when she dropped it rather heavily on the table. She gained Thorin’s attention only as her eyes widened while she stared at their Burglar with familiarity.

“Bilbo?”

Thorin watched as their Halfling turned to the hobbit woman in surprise. “Salvia?”

 

Bilbo was thankful The Prancing Pony was quite large as it afforded him and his acquaintance some privacy. He could still feel the dwarrows’ attention focused on his back occasionally but it was better than having this conversation directly in front of his companions. Besides Salvia Hornblower was still nurturing a grudge against Gandalf and his clumsy feet if the glare she gave the wizard was any indication. As with most hobbit woman his godfather had angered, Bilbo found it best to remove her from kicking distance.

“I heard you moved up this way but I had no idea you were staying in Bree. I thought you might have preferred Staddle,” Bilbo said. The primarily hobbit-populated community that lay to the south-east of Bree-hill had the largest settlement of hobbits in the area known as Bree-land. While it was not uncommon for a hobbits to live and journey through Bree, the Little Folk preferred to live among their own as it made secret keeping all the more easier.

“I like it here. There’s never a dull moment in Bree and you hear the strangest news.” Salvia could hardly keep her interest at bay regarding Bilbo’s companions. Betsy had been kind enough to give the cook-assistant a break during the inn’s slow period in order for her to talk with Bilbo.  She glanced over his shoulders to meet the curious gazes of several dwarves who quickly looked away. “Where else would you find a hobbit traveling with dwarves? Why are you here with them, Bilbo?

Bilbo gave her his best placid smile, obviously declining to state anything about his business. “So you work here,” he said taking a drink from his flagon of beer.

Salvia sighed, blowing dark strands of hair from her face. The same age as Bilbo, she and he were not what one would consider friends. Too many of their initial interactions had been spent as youths when she, her father Esmun, and her aunt Coral would visit to discuss business ventures with Bilbo and Bungo (the latter having proposed arranging trade agreements with the Elves of Rivendell to help expand Hornblower business interests). Still during such dealings they had grown rather attached being the youngest present and at one point the families had hoped to make a match of the two. Such hopes were quickly dashed by Bilbo’s reluctance to settle and Salvia’s odd attraction for the taller races (something greatly hampered by her loathing of boots thanks to Gandalf’s dancing skills). Though the two had never grown to be anything, the least she could do, as a polite hobbitess, was accept the obvious change of subject. “I’ve been staying with Master Staddle and his wife. Betsy helped me get the position in the kitchens.”

Bilbo frowned in concern. “Are you happy here, Salvia?”

The hobbit lass rounded on him with a glare. “And why wouldn’t I be? Just because I’m,” she hesitated and dropped her voice, “from Hornblower money doesn’t mean I can’t work for my keep. I’m not afraid of hard work.”

“I wasn’t implying that. I just thought you might miss home.” He pushed his drink aside and met he gaze.

She was the first to break eye contact. “I couldn’t stay there Bilbo. Not when all they want to do is mourn him. Not when everyone acts like it’s acceptable to just presume he’s dead.” Her hands curled into fists at the tabletop. Bilbo could not help but pity her. In the cases of other families there was always some hope or uncertainty when one of the called did not return. It was not that way for the Hornblowers, whose knack allowed their called to Send some parting words or at least the feeling of goodbye. It was rare of them to have no warning that one of their own would never return. Which made Esmun’s case even stranger for there had been no indication he was in any danger, he had simply followed his calling and one day never returned a Sending. “I am sick of it,” Salvia spat. “If so many never return and we never know if they fulfilled their calling then what’s the point? Our sacrifice is neither noted nor needed.” She took a drink from Bilbo’s flagon in obvious irritation. “None of the other races act with as much blatant stupidity as ours.”

Bilbo was careful to keep his face passive. It was not the first time he had heard such words though it was infrequent. Salvia’s opinion was not unheard of but belonged to an ever shrinking minority in the Shire, usually those who had lost a loved one to a calling. It was an understandable pain, but did no one any good to voice it. To deny the duty giving to them by the Valar was the equivalent of denying their right to existence. Those who needed time to heal from such thoughts general left the Shire holdings until what heart wounds they had were mended. When Salvia had fled the Shire a year after Esmun had stopped replying to Sendings (a shame since Bilbo and her had started cultivating a friendship over their shared interest of other cultures) it had been the gossip of all Hobbiton for over a year about how the Hornblower heiress had up and disappeared, distraught over her missing father. “Let’s not argue about it, Salvia.”

Salvia shook her head. “I don’t understand why you still have faith in callings, Bilbo. Not after Belladonna almost died from her last one. At least you and I know better than to get mixed up in that business.” She was raising his drink to her lips when Bilbo twitched. The flagon dropped to the table with a small thunk. Salvia paled in realization. “You’re on a calling. That’s why you’re with them.” She gestured frustratingly to the dwarves.

Bilbo closed his eyes, attempting to keep his temper. “We have to go. It’s our purpose.”

“Yes,” she hissed, her feature’s twisted with bitterness. “And what other race bears such a responsibility? Is enough not enough.”

“Don’t,” he warned. “You’ll not persuade me.”

The hobbit female’s expression darkened. “You would do to your family what my father did to mine.”

Valar give me patience. “Let’s not compare heartaches, Salvia. There are no winners in such contests.” He closed his eyes and thought of Adamanta. “I am not your father. Let the dead remain at peace.”

“My father is not dead,” she shouted jumping to her feet. What little noise there was in the tavern quieted at her outburst, the attention of dwarves and men fixed on the quivering female. Salvia hardly noticed the scene she was making as she glared down at Bilbo. “Why should I mourn when there is no proof? Why should I act as though he’s another of the lost?” She shook her head. “I thought better of you, Bilbo. Almost half do not return and you’d take your chance and let your family count you as one of the wanderers?”

Bilbo stood in turn, attempting to calm her as his own ire rose. He kept her voice soft. “Salvia, it is a risk we were made to take and I have every resolve to return.”

“Is that supposed to be of some comfort? No one leaves planning to die, Bilbo,” she hissed back, her voice lowering to match his.

“True. But you cannot begrudge the called for dying either.” 

“But I can begrudge you. You have a choice,” she snapped. “As an Unfortunate and Family Head no one would judge you harshly for staying. You’re choosing to go. If you are going to be so cruel you might as well stay and at least leave them a body to bury. Even Adamanta gave you that courtesy.” Salvia blanched at her own lack of tact. Unfortunately her reason returned too late as she had already pushed the other hobbit too far.

 “Yes and how lucky I am. Is that what you want to hear, Salvia? That it is more rewarding to know that she died in my stead and not on a journey. How much easier it is to bury a loved one rather than to not know if they live? How being without any hope is the better option?” There was ice in Bilbo’s eyes and steel in his voice.

“Bilbo, I didn’t mean—”

“No. I’m sure you didn’t. You are not the only one who grieves, Salvia. Nor the only one who has lost. Try to remember that.” Without a further word, Bilbo strode from the table, past the dwarves, and out of the inn.

 

Thorin had watched with mild curiosity and great irritation as the hobbit lass had led the Burglar off for a private conversation. It seemed that wherever they went Master Baggins was bound to find someone he knew or was somehow related to. It was becoming infuriating.  The Halfling was meant to be listening to plans not flirting with some wench.

There was too little room to send Nori over to eavesdrop so the dwarf lord returned his attention to his current overseeing. When handing out the room keys Thorin had given orders to each dwarf to write up any items they needed to purchase, things that had either been neglected or not available at the Hobbiton market. He busied himself with dividing up tasks as Ori scrawled lists for each dwarf, compiling their individual notes into larger inventories.

Thorin looked up to find his fellow dwarrows ignoring him with their attentions riveted on Bilbo and his companion. Several had attempted to get a better view of the couple only for their gazes to quickly flint away when the hobbit woman returned their stares.

Thorin thumped the table and many including Balin turned back with slightly sheepish looks. “Do you think we could finish settling matters instead of staring at the hobbit?”

“Peace, Thorin,” Gandalf said taking a seat among them. The wizard had slipped away shortly after enduring another displeased hobbit’s ire. He had only cautioned the group to refer to Bilbo either by his given name or Mister Underhill within Bree, earning no few questioning looks, before he had made off to gossip with the innkeeper’s son. “Curiosity, when tempered, is good for a body.”

“Who is she, Gandalf?” The wizard turned to Ori, who was fighting a blush at her presumptive question.

However, Gloin was quick to add his own opinion on the matter. “Probably an old sweetheart by how quick he was to run off,” the dwarf chuckled.

“Can hardly blame him for wanting to speak with a pretty maid over us,” Balin conceded.

“Are you saying I’m not charming enough for you,” Bofur added, waggling his eyebrows. The dwarf earned a few laughs that were quickly silenced by Thorin.

“Enough. Ori, have you finished?” The little dam held back a flinch at Thorin’s glare and pushed the lists towards him. He quickly passed them around the table.

“We’ll get more done if we split up. Bofur and Bombur are in charge of food. Gloin and Oin will procure medicinal aids. Dori, I’d like you to look over our kits make sure nothings too worn. I’d rather we replace it now then have it fall apart on us on the road. Dwalin, you’ll be with me. Nori and Balin I want you to get as much information on the road’s condition as possible. Fili and Kili you’ll be getting the miscellaneous items.” He gave his sister-sons a firm glare. “Do not get distracted and come back immediately when you’re done.”

Kili opened his mouth to complain and Fili jabbed him the side to keep him quiet. “Of course, uncle,” the blonde prince said. Kili rolled his eyes but did not say a word.

“Good. Bifur and Ori should remain here and keep an eye on our belongings.”

Bifur grunted in acceptance. Ori was not so accommodating. “Do I have to stay?” She quelled a little under Dori’s and Thorin’s frowns, much more intimidated by the dwarf king then her brother, yet steeled herself to continue. “Only I want to see more of Bree for my account.”

“I’d rather two stay.”

Nori gave her sister a quick once over noting the resolve in Ori’s countenance. The little dam may be timid but like all Ris she had a spine of stone when hard pressed. “Balin can stay,” Nori suggested. “I work better alone and there’s a few places I’ll have to go where he can’t. He can get more information here than he would with me. Anyways people love opening up to the grandfatherly types over a mug of ale.”

Balin gave the thief a benevolent smile. “Well that’s kind of you to say, lass. Would you like to tell me a bit more?”

Nori smiled at him. “If you weren’t so busy handling nobs, you would have made a fine grifter.” Dori gave his sister a glare but the dwarrowdam just raised her tanker in salute. “So it’s settled. Ori can join one of the groups and Balin will stay behind.”

Dori sputtered. “It is certainly not settled. You can’t just go ordering people around and it’s safer if Ori stays here.”

Ever the peacekeeper Balin interceded. “Now, now I don’t mind staying behind. As Nori said I’ll do my work as fine here as I will out there. More travelers in here anyway to get news on the road’s conditions.”

“Ori can come with us,” Fili said. “I mean if you wanted to,” he added a bit too eagerly it seemed from the stares he earned from the elder Ri siblings. Ori only flushed a pretty pink.

Gandalf and Balin, with all the subtly of two elders patronizing their youngers, shared an amused look. This could be quite interesting, the wizard thought to himself as he stood and brushed away the last crumbs of his meal. “That sounds like a fine idea. I’ve my own things to be checking on. Do excuse me.” Then as easily as he had returned he slipped away.

Thorin was not pleased about everyone undermining him but allowed it to pass. “Fine. Ori may go with who she likes.”

“What about Bilbo,” Kili asked which once again drew the Company’s attention to the hobbits. A moment later the dwarrows’ conversation was abruptly ended by raised voices from the two.  Near the end of their argument, Bilbo’s voice had grown so cold Kili shivered from where he sat. The slam of the door left all silent for a moment. The hobbit lass paused as if uncertain whether or not to follow before fleeing back to the inn’s kitchens.

Everyone was still, confused by their hobbit’s unusual behavior. Bilbo had not acted that way when saddled with thirteen dwarrows he had not expected or when presented the initial insulting contract. It was worrying how his temper changed so drastically.

Dwalin spoke, concern evident in his voice. “Someone should fetch him. Bree can be a dangerous place.”

He began to stand as if to follow the Burglar, when Thorin shook his head. “Gloin, divvy up coin for expenses. I’ll fetch the halfling.”

Fili stood first, surprising the group. “It’s probably best if Kili or I went, uncle.”

Kili was quick to rise as well. “We’ll take him with us to do the shopping,” he said, snatching up the list Ori had written and Gloin's coin. The lads were quickly across the room.

“You coming, Ori,” Kili asked over his shoulder.

The dam rose, moving unexpectedly quick to slip out from besides her siblings.

Dori snapped after her. “Ori!”

The dam hesitated a moment before turning from her brother to her sister. The memory of their previous conversation was evident in her eyes. 

Nori bit back the impulse to tell her little sister to remain behind. By the time she was Ori’s age hadn’t she seen the inside of a good many jail cells and taken to traveling when her name became a little too well known? Nori hadn’t been there to protect Ori in her childhood what right did she have now just because she had been more or less available for the last thirty years? She had taught Ori to defend herself that would have to be enough. “Stay near the lads,” the dwarrowdam cautioned, producing a squawk of displeasure from Dori. Ori slipped out the door without further dithering.

“You just let her go alone with three unattached males. One of whom has been making doe eyes at her since we left Bag-End,” Dori screeched.

“The lads are harmless and Bilbo’s more likely to chaperone them then flirt with Ori. Either way our sister is either old enough to be here or she isn’t,” Nori snapped back at her brother before she stood. “Right then. I have a few questions I want answers to.”

“Like what?” Thorin, not at all pleased with his nephews, turned to her.

“The state of the roads for one and what an Unfortunate is and why Bilbo keeps being called one.”

***

Bilbo felt like a prize idiot as he stomped away from the inn’s door. He’d never keep anything quiet if he continued to air private grievances in front of the Company. But that logic did nothing to cool the anger Salvia’s words had raised in his blood. He could not tell who he was more disappointed in, himself for speaking so freely in public place or her for turning what could have been a friendly reunion into a chance to spread her small faction’s opposing view. Bilbo was no longer young enough to believe that all Hobbits had accepted their purpose without question, however he knew just as strongly that they was never any real possibility of defection. Even those called who did not believe in callings had never refused them. When one literally hears and breathes Arda’s tongue from the moment of birth, it is impossible not to love the earth. And no hobbit would let something that hurt the one they loved continue on when they had a chance to stop it.

Bilbo knew that if Salvia were called she would not deny her calling. Her words were puffs of air; breathes that were not meant to convince but to merely convey her pain by spreading it like discontented breezes.

The fury in him did not ease as he strolled past a woman offering beads and bracelets. Part of his irritation was no doubt due to missing his wings and dragon form. He had not shifted since a week before the Company’s arrival. His skin itched at the thought. Back home, at Bag-End, whenever the feeling had become too much Bilbo would take a few days away from his duties to visit Buckleberry and the Old Forest. Away from the civilization of the Shire he could stretch wings and coiled tail. Flying was not an option; something saved only for visits to Rivendell and even then he had to be careful and cautious. The dragon of the West was known to a few, but Bilbo has missed the freedom he felt when privately hunting with Elrohir and Elladan. The low glides as they stalked deer or Orc were all he had contented himself with for years, since he grew too large to be anything but noticeable when he would take to wider skies. Perhaps if he could master his half-form, find a way to balance himself between the dragon and hobbit he might be able to form the wings he loved while remaining his hobbit stature.

He dragged his thoughts away from such musings and back to the present. As naturally as possible he halted beside a clothe merchant’s open door, looking through the display the man has brought outside due to Bree’s uncharacteristically sunny weather (the region being only too well known for its rains). Here Bilbo pawed seemingly interested in the clothes even as the man who had been following him since he left The Prancing Pony stalked closer. He looked slightly familiar, and it took a moment to place the pockmarked face as the man who had stared at Bilbo earlier. Bilbo kept track of him from the corner of his eye as he wandered among the merchant’s wares.

The man was a gangly fellow, scar through his eyebrow and what looks like a nose that’s been broken twice before on his face; an easily recognizable fellow. He had most likely slipped out shortly after him and since a single hobbit may look like an easy mark. However, Bilbo was not convinced that the stranger was following him for something as simple as robbery. Beyond that the fellow’s interest of him at the inn had been a bit too keen, the street was too full for him it to not attract attention. Besides, while the Hobbits of the Shire seemed like rather hapless individuals, their Bree-folk cousins had had to prove themselves a time or two. Anyone with more than two thoughts in his head knew that the Hobbit community, no matter if they were Shirelings or not, stuck together. If the man threatened Bilbo every hobbit in the well stocked market street would come to his aid.

That knowledge should have relieved Bilbo, but even as he watched with half lidded eyes he saw the man signal another to his side. His broad, muscular companion from the inn Bilbo noted. The two took to either side of the shop, approaching the hobbit slowly to flank him in not knowing they had gained his attention.

Heat bubbled beneath Bilbo’s skin. He had not practiced his knack on another for some time and restraining himself from attracting every ill-lucked event of the Company has become rather tiring (no doubt a result of hating to see even strangers hurt and his recent lack of meals). He would be more than satisfied to use it on two ruffians hoping to mislay some hapless hobbit; especially if (as he suspected) their motives were more nefarious than they first appear.

“Bilbo.” The matter became moot as the younger dwarrows came into view, an exuberant Kili leading the charge. The two men seemed to hesitate before withdrawing into the crowd. Fili’s brow rose questioningly as he noticed Bilbo’s attention on the crowd, but the hobbit shook his head before greeting and agreeing to accompany the group on their errands. He had his own shopping to tend to. Besides, Bilbo had no desire to return the inn at the moment and Bree’s markets were a welcome distraction.  Even after he noted that the two men continued to follow them, Bilbo found he much preferred the overcrowded dirt roads with their dangers than dwelling on his embarrassing episode with Salvia.

It was not until they picked up half the list's contents with Bilbo carrying two new blankets when their curiosity finally got the better of the three dwarrows. Surprisingly it was not Kili who stated the question.

“Who was Adamanta,” Fili asked. They were looking through a tinker’s display of odds and ends, Kili laughing over the metalwork as Ori attempted to translate some ruins on a carved vase. They question caught the two other dwarrows’ attention, each setting aside the things they had been perusing.

Bilbo drew in a sharp breathe his eyes roving the street for a distraction rather than look at his companions. The tinker was far enough back to give them some semblance of privacy though he kept a wary eye on their group. It was the same look he had for everyone else at his cart and was one of the things Bilbo loved best about Bree. Bree-folk did not care about race (having both hobbits and Men as native denizens, while Dwarves and Elves were common enough travelers) and were suspicious of everyone. More than one odd wayfarer may take up residence in Bree, but the people here followed a very thorough mind your own business policy which Bilbo found refreshing from what he had heard and seen of other races so far. Certainly unlike nosy dwarrows who awaited answers to certain questions Bilbo rather not answer.

The hobbit released the breath he had been holding. “She was my grandmother on my mother’s side.”

“Wasn’t she the one that nasty hobbit lady said you killed.” At Bilbo’s flinch and Fili’s elbow at his lack of tact, Kili hurried to add, “Not that anyone believed her and uncle already cleared that up. Said he heard it was a family accident.” Behind Bilbo Fili was shaking his head emphatically hoping his brother would shut up as Ori stared at the younger prince in horror. Kili ignored the two. They would get nowhere with integrating Bilbo as part of the Company if everyone kept spying and speculating about him. Honesty, Kili firmly believed, was the best way to get Bilbo to rely on them. He had rarely journeyed from Ered Luin, but even from within the mountain he had learned it was best to have people you trusted at your back. The only way to do that was to extend trust first.

Bilbo attempted to squash his anger. Of course Thorin had been spying on things that were not his concern. Wondering exactly who the dwarf lord had been trying to coerce information from was a more disquieting thought, since only the Thain’s line knew anything specific about the affair. What matter if they thought him a killer? He may not have cut her throat but he had stolen Adamanta’s life all the same. “It wasn’t an accident. She died for me.”

Fili gave a sympathetic look and Ori placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Do you want to talk about it,” the dam asked.

A bitter smile twisted Bilbo’s mouth. “There’s nothing to talk about that your uncle probably hadn’t already found out from half the Shire. I was reckless and stupid and it resulted in the death of one I….” He let the sentence trail off as grief choked his words.

“When you were arguing with the hobbit girl you said she died in your stead,” Ori said quietly.

Bilbo nodded stiffly.

“There is a difference between sacrifice and murder,” Fili offered with kind eyes.

“I know that,” he snapped and turned away. Bilbo took a deep breath trying to regain his calm. “I know that,” he repeated quieter.

There was silence from the group as they finished their purchases and left the tinker’s stall.

“My father died before I was born and my mother shortly after. Dori and Nori are the only parents I have ever known,” Ori said abruptly drawing her companions’ eyes to her. She spoke hesitantly but without self-pity or embarrassment, only as though she were reciting a fact she had learned long ago. “Nori was always in trouble and had to go away for months at a time and Dori would work himself to exhaustion. Even as a child I knew what they did was to take care of me. When they would have to leave me with a neighbor, I would worry what it would feel like if one of them never returned. I know it is not the same but if my imaginings brought me half the pain that you have felt….” She shook head, unable to say anything more.

Grateful but unsure of how to respond, Bilbo squeezed the lass’s hand briefly. He gave her and the lads a half hearted quirk of his lips. “Let’s finish the shopping.”

They others seemed more than willing to have the conversation turn to inane topics and observations on the surrounding shops and stalls. If Bilbo was the only one who noticed the two figures who had been following them, then it was probably for the best.

***

Thorin stood outside of the Halfling’s door, plate of food (with the permission of Baliman and Betsy) in hand, uncertain about what to do. By all rights as Company leader, he should be able to just barge into the Burglar’s room, toss the plate at the hobbit, and return to his own meal. By Mahal, he was only up here because Bombur opened his mouth for once to say Bilbo hadn’t eaten lunch and he probably shouldn’t miss dinner too. Of course as the quest’s leader, it was Thorin’s job to ensure the Halfling remained healthy. It was not as if he was concerned beyond what one would find reasonable for any employer to his hired help. So what if the hobbit had returned distant and dull-eyed, stating that he would retire early.

He just needs a moment alone.” It was the only response Kili, Fili, and even usually meek Ori had given upon their return when questioned about the Burglar’s choice to seclude himself in his room. That was over an hour ago and the inn had steadily filled with a multitude of clientele, with more than a few suspicious looking sorts. Thorin should just be happy Balin (because he was the best at keeping Dwalin’s and Kili’s grubby hands away from the food) had promised to save Thorin a plate. However that solved nothing of his current dilemma with him standing in front of Master Baggins room with food and finding himself strangely hesitant to knock.

Meanwhile on the other side of the door the hobbit was blissfully ignorant of the dwarf lord’s problem. Bilbo’s bath was heavenly with day’s worth of grime and dust scoured finally away. He was completely content to soak and ignore today’s events, including his own foolish behavior. He just wanted to wallow in the water and forget the rumbling of his belly, his would-be assailants, and the uncomfortable atmosphere around the younger dwarrows. But like many things with Bilbo just as he was happy to dwell on his own solitude, his bad luck sprang. This no doubt was why someone knocked at the door just as he’d finished washing his hair. Bilbo bruised his shin on the bath’s edge as he fumbled for a towel. “Coming,” he called to the door, biting back a curse. Disregarding his used clothes which he had hand washed and left to hang over the edge of the bed, the hobbit donned the clean ones he had set aside. Far from completely dry, Bilbo hurriedly opened the door.

He blinked at Thorin and for a terrifying moment the hobbit wondered if his luck was truly so awful that it made disgruntled dwarf lords appear whenever he wanted a moment alone. Surely there was not a more useless knack and somewhere the Valar were laughing at him.

Thorin’s jaw clenched as he stared down at the burglar, his tongue reluctantly stuck behind closed teeth. He should surely feel some ire. After all, here was the hobbit merely tarrying away at bathing while the Company below worried over him. Some rebuke should have sprung from his lips. Alas the sight of a particular drop of water that meandered from Bilbo’s curls down his face to trail across his neck, had waylaid the dwarf’s thoughts on the matter.

After an awkward moment of silence, in which Thorin only stared at him, Bilbo cleared his throat. “Can I help you?”

At the sound of Bilbo’s voice, Thorin tore his gaze back to the hobbit’s eyes. He would not look further than those eyes he decided. Definitely not further than wet golden curls. And he most certainly would not bother staring at where the damp white shirt clung to the Burglar’s body as another drop—oh Mahal!

“Here.” Thorin pushed the plate into the hobbit’s empty hands. Bilbo looked down at the offering with widening eyes before he glanced back up the dwarf.

“Thank you.”

Thorin brushed aside the comment, his eyes focusing past the hobbit’s shoulder. Because if he did not look at the Burglar he could not stare at the Burglar. However, this caused him instead to peer into the hobbit’s room, where he could see the wooden tub. The wooden tub with still steaming water. The still steaming water where a naked Bilbo had been bath—

“We worried.” Thorin tore his gaze from the room to focus back on Bilbo’s shocked face. Realizing what he had said, Thorin continued on. “I mean the Company worried. You hadn’t eaten. Because you hadn’t eaten. Food.” Durin's beard, he sounded like an idiot. A small smile teased at the Burglar’s mouth as Thorin found himself unable to stop. “So here’s food.”

Bilbo’s eyes crinkled in merriment as he glanced down at the plate and up at the dwarf again. “Here’s food indeed.”

Thorin took a step back, feeling more the fool than ever. “Just eat it,” he snapped turning away. “We have no need for you fainting on the journey from acting like a child unhappy to take his meal.” The dwarf began to stomp off as Bilbo’s mouth fell open at the sudden reprimand. Before he could utter his indignation at the dwarf’s chastisement, Thorin turned back upon reaching the hallways end. “And you should not wander about without one of the Company!” With those final words the dwarf king rounded the corner leaving a clearly vexed Bilbo holding a plate a food and muttering about blasted dwarves.

 

Thorin was doing his own muttering as he returned to the inn’s main room and took his seat besides Balin, who had indeed saved a plate for his illustrious leader.

The white haired dwarf raised a brow at his companion’s murmurs. “So, how did it go?”

“Infuriating Halfling,” Thorin spat before cramming a forkful of potatoes into his mouth.

Balin sighed as he eye met his brother’s over the dwarf king’s head. “That well.”

Thorin chewed with single-minded fury. Knowing the hobbit, he was sure to contest and counter Thorin’s orders at every turn simply out of sure spite. While not in this matter, the dwarf thought to himself.

“Set a watch.” Thorin’s sudden words made more of their companions turn to him.

“What,” asked Dwalin waiting for Thorin to correct himself.

Thorin sat up straighter and met his companions wondering looks. “Set a watch.”

“We’re in an inn,” Gloin began, but Thorin was quick to interrupt him.

“I know we’re in an inn, but I don’t trust this place and I don’t trust our Burglar to not go running off into trouble during the night. At least one will keep watch down here throughout the night.” He glared at the group, and while most looked unhappy with the circumstances, all nodded acknowledging the dwarf-lord’s command. Content that at least among these dwarrows he could expect his orders obeyed, Thorin returned to mutilating his meal.

***

Though part of his evening had included multiple curses upon a certain dwarf-lord, Bilbo woke well rested before dawn with the intent of finding out exactly who had been following him the day before. Perhaps a fool’s errand, but it seemed easiest to wander off alone and see if his stalkers approached. After all, it seemed they had been rather eager to do so yesterday.

The inn was still rather dark, pre-dawn light struggling to filter through the shuttered windows as Bilbo made his way past empty tables and booths. A soft humming could be heard from the kitchen where a soft light was beginning to grow; no doubt Barliman or one of the kitchen staff busy lighting the fires. Bilbo could not help a small smile as he reached for the latch, content to continue about his task.

“What are you doing up so early?” Bilbo spun at the soft inquiry, only to find one of the room’s shadows detach from its darkened corner and walk into light, revealing a familiar dwarf and hat.

The hobbit sighed. Of course he could do nothing without some dwarf spying. “Taking a walk. And you, Bofur?”

Bofur fumbled a moment, unable to tell of Thorin’s order to watch for any strange happenings, including if Bilbo left at any point. The dwarf did not like assuming the worst about people and lying brought a rotten taste to his mouth. But between a dwarf’s loyalty to a being he had know for but a week or so and that to the Leader of his Company, his people, Bofur had no choice. “Could not sleep,” Bofur said with a shrug.

With a look of unease easily blinked away, Bilbo muttered, “Same. I’ll see you in a bit then.” The hobbit rushed out the door, without waiting for reply.

Drifting away from the inn, Bilbo wandered through the ill lit streets, patiently waiting for his tail to appear. With how closely he had been watched the day before it seemed it would only be a matter of time. Especially, since at so early an hour the inhabitants of Bree remained mostly asleep, only a few rough figures wandering the near empty roads. Leaving ample opportunity for a pair of ruffians to openly approach a lone hobbit.

Bilbo was not disappointed in his speculation. The pair must of set some watch on the inn for it took no more than a quarter hour of wandering the empty streets around The Prancing Pony for his two followers to appear.

He pretended not to notice as he scanned for a secluded place to confront his stalkers. He preferred to keep this meeting as discreet as possible. A narrow alley between two shuttered store fronts seemed ideal and Bilbo hastened across the dark cobbles. The pockmarked figure and his burlier friend kept a careful distance but followed steadily. Upon entering the alleyway, Bilbo slowed content in his plan. He would know what these strangers wanted.

His contentment was short lived. “Bilbo!”

He turned to find Salvia rushing to his side, entering the alley well ahead of the two men.
“What are you doing here?!” Why now of all times?

She stopped then slowly exhaled. “I was coming in early. I wanted to apologize to you about yesterday.”

“It’s fine. Just forget it.” His jaw tensed as his attempted to check on the men’s approach. His view blocked by her riot of dark curls.

Hurt passed over her features. “I know you’re mad at me but—” She caught the flicker of his eyes to something behind her. “Is something the matter?” She turned but Bilbo grabbed her shoulders, pulling her around. Though not quickly enough. “Why is that man following you?”

“It’s none of your-” he stopped. Did she say man? He pressed past her to see the large one of the pair still following him. Where had his gangly, pockmarked friend gone? Upon catching Bilbo watching him, the man hurried closer, blocking the center of the street in case the hobbit ran. “Salvia, you need to leave.”

“Oh don’t make the pretty lass leave.” Salvia snatched Bilbo’s arm as the pockmarked man, rounded the opposite corner of their alley, no doubt having circled around the shop and down the next street. “I’m sure she’ll be happy to chat with us as well,” he grinned.

Bilbo pushed Salvia nearer the alley’s wall as the man’s burly companion blocked the way the two hobbits had come. A moment of trepidation overcame Bilbo. The hobbitess behind him was quick to quell it.

Salvia tugged on Bilbo’s sleeve, bringing his ear near her mouth if as he watched the two men. ῁῁Are you armed? ῁῁

Bilbo’s shoulders relaxed at her question. More fool he, if he forgot the competence of his fellow hobbit. ῁῁Yes, you? ῁῁

He could hear the fierce smile hidden in her reply. ῁῁No, but not for long. ῁῁

“Now, no need for your whispering. Me and my friend just have a few questions for the little fellow,” the gangly one said with a snide smile, approaching them. His friend also stepped closer, drawing a sword and leaving it pointed to the ground at his side. In threat more than a ready stance. “No need for things to get unfriendly. We just want to know a bit about you and your dwarf friends.”

῁῁I’ve got the big one, the talkative fool’s all yours,῁῁ Salvia stated, stepping out from behind Bilbo so they were back to back.

“I’m afraid I don’t have much to share,” Bilbo said as hands slipped beneath his coat to finger his father’s throwing knives. “We were merely traveling the same way and they allowed me to accompany them.”

The burly man snorted and the fake smile slid off the other’s face. “Dwarves ain’t that kind. And I’m sure you must of heard something of their plans.” He withdrew a long knife from his side, letting some of the brightening light shine of its side. He gestured to his fellow man. “You see me and my friend have been waiting to meet with a dwarf troop like yours. We just need a bit of confirmation that this one’s the right one. We can do this nice like or not. Wouldn’t want to have to hurt you and the little lass.”

“If you lose to him, I mock you for the next decade,” Salvia murmured to him.

“Same with you and yours,” Bilbo replied. “I’m afraid,” he said louder to their assailants, palming his knives, “I’ve nothing to share.”

“Well then,” pockmark brought out a second long knife. Saliva crouched in preparation as both men moved closer and Bilbo readied a throw.

They stilled as the sound of metal hitting flesh and a cry rose from the sword bearing man as he stumbled into the alley wall, clutching his side. Bofur strode into the alley, mattock still raised with a cheerful smile alight on his face. “Back away from the hobbits, lads, and this doesn’t have to get messy.”

Bilbo rolled his eyes in frustration. Yet another dwarf interfering. “Can’t a person go for a walk alone?”

Salvia muffled a snort. However, whatever blow Bofur had dealt had apparently seemed worse than it actually was. The man rose from his pained crouch and turned on the dwarf sword ready. At the same time the pockmarked man lunged at Bilbo. The fight fell into a confused struggle in the dim alley. Bilbo avoided knife strokes as he flung one of his own into his opponent’s shoulder. Unable to focus on his companions, he worked swiftly to dispatch his assailant. A twist of warmth in his stomach, like the awareness of light passing across skin even when one could not see it, and his knack became a flickering reaching thing. Ducking under another one armed knife swing, Bilbo ran into the man’s stomach. Bilbo’s ill luck wrapped around the man and one unfortunate misstep, led into a stumbling backwards fall. Skull met wall and the man collapsed out cold. Bilbo reclaimed his knife and checked the other scuffle. Seeing Salvia had it well in hand, he set about securing the man with the fellow’s own belt.

Meanwhile, Bofur had been doing well, his opponent neither exceptionally skilled nor unhurt. Yet the alley’s narrowness limited the swings of his mattock, especially as he was attempting to keep the man from the hobbit lass from the night before. Something his attacker took advantage of to back Bofur close enough to the hobbit that the dwarf hesitated on a swing. The big man struck, downing the dwarf with a hilted blow to the head. Salvia, who had awaited her chance, dove into the man’s knees before he could bring the sword down again. Both fell over, sword falling from the man’s hand. A large hobbit foot hit first stomach, then face as Salvia scurried across the man’s body to reach his weapon. Her foot slid under the flat of the sword, flinging it upwards to catch it. Though too long for hobbit stature, she held the weapon with balance and skill. Swiftly she brought the sword’s flat side down firmly upon the large man’s head. He collapsed upon the alley ground and did not stir again.

Bofur, who had begun to rise, somewhat dizzily gave an appreciative whistle. Something he instantly regretted at the throbbing of his head.

“When did you take up swordplay? Last I knew you preferred the staff,” Bilbo asked as moved to secure the second downed man the same as the first. Once done he began to rifle through the unconscious men’s pockets.

“Can’t carry a walking-stick with me everywhere. It’s easier to just disarm them and take their weapons.” She dropped the sword to the ground and began shaking dust from her skirts. “I’m not giving up the stave anyway. It’s just as impractical to tote a sword around since they’re never the right size.” There was a dirty joke in there about handling swords, but Bofur for once held his tongue.  His head was ringing and it didn’t seem the brightest idea to upset hobbit females, even if they were unarmed.

A hand on his shoulder drew Bofur from his musings. Deep brown eyes peered down at him in concern. “Are you alright? That was a nasty hit.”

“Just my head, so nothing important.” His reply educed a snort of amusement from her.

“Still might have damaged something.” Small, callused hands brushed over his head.

“Nah,” he said tapping his skull. “Hard as stone.” Bofur tried not to focus on the feel of her hands in his hair. He fought down a blush, glad that no other dwarrows were around to watch the rather intimate act, though innocently meant.

Salvia smiled. Satisfied her patient wasn’t bleeding she let a thread of her Bolger knack, inherited from her mother’s side. Similar to Bilbo, Salvia was one of those odd hobbits that had inherited more than one knack; unlike Bilbo, she and the others like her tended to have one of their knacks weaker than the other, with neither being particularly strong. She was better at the Hornblower Sending, but the Bolger Healing didn’t require much finesse for tending to a bruise.  She stroked his hair one more time, before bending over him. A moment later the hobbitess plunked the familiar weight of Bofur’s hat back upon the dwarf’s head.

She straightened and grinned down at him from her superior height. “Good as before,” she said with a wink before returning to Bilbo’s side.

Bilbo hastily stuffed his findings into his coat at Salvia’s approach. “What have you gotten yourself into, Bilbo?”

Bilbo snorted and rose. “Besides a Calling and adventure with Gandalf the Grey?”

They stared at each other for a moment before Salvia nodded. “Yes, I suppose that would do it.” Bofur came up besides them and the lass turned her attention back to their unconscious attackers. “I best go report them.” She returned her gaze to Bilbo. “I suppose it would be better to keep you out of this. They seemed a bit too interested in you and I doubt you’d like any more attention.”

“Yes,” Bilbo agreed.

Salvia nodded. “It will be just as easy to have Barliman inform the guard for me. Let’s head back to the inn.” She strode from the alley and the others followed.

Bilbo held back with Bofur as Salvia walked ahead. A cursory glance of the dwarrow left him relieved that his companion was fine. “I suppose,” he whispered to the dwarf, “that you will have to report this to Thorin?”

The miner pursed his lips, eyes on his boots as they walked in quiet, dawn finally breeching the clouded skies. He huffed softly as some decision was made before looking back at Bilbo. “Nothing to report is there. Some ruffians messing with gentle-folk and getting what for. Seems a bit boring to make a rumor about it.”

Bilbo closed his eyes, thankful for the reprieve of suspicion. “Thank you, Bofur.”

The dwarf’s eyes remained kind but his words were as hard as rock. “Just as long as your secrets cause no harm to me or the Company. I’ll not have me and mine hurt.”

“Believe me, the last thing I want is any harm to befall this Company,” Bilbo promised before he hastened to catch up to Salvia’s side, the two falling into a hushed discussion. Between Bilbo’s sincerity and the hobbits surprising capableness during the alley fight, Bofur was left with nothing but his bafflement and speculation as he followed after his shorter escort.

 ***

It seemed to Bilbo that Bofur kept his word as the rest of the morning, from the other dwarves rising to their readying to ride out, occurred quickly without any of the Company harassing him. Something no doubt helped by his careful avoidance of a certain grumpy dwarf lord.

The most interesting thing that occurred upon their departure was Salvia’s send off. Having gained a reprieve from the kitchens, she ignored the speculative looks from the others of the Company.

“I wish to part with you on good terms,” Salvia started taking Bilbo’s hands in her own. “You were right, heart pains should not be compared as if they are some competition. I wish you the best and if you ever have need of me, please write.” She clenched his hands between hers. “We were almost friends once. I would like to be at least that once more.”

Bilbo freed his hands from hers, causing her to flinch back in hurt. Just as quickly he wrapped his arms around her, a hug she was quick to return. “We shall be. If you ever have need of it, know Bag-End is open to you.” He pulled away, wiping a tear from her cheek and leant his forehead against hers, a token of friendship and kinship.

After a moment, they parted and Salvia wiped a tear from Bilbo’s cheek as he had done for her. ῁῁Be well on your Calling, Bilbo.῁῁ She moved further away, regaining her composure. “Don’t forget to visit on your return. Perhaps I’ll accompany you the rest of the way. It might to be nice to see how the Shire has changed.”

He smiled back at her. “I’m sure my mother will have more than enough room, if you’d like to stay for awhile.” Salvia returned the smile before leaving.

Thorin, more belligerent than usual, called for the Company to hurry and once again thirteen dwarves, a wizard, and hobbit were all mounted and back on the road.

Of course the curiosity of some dwarves could not be silenced all that easily. “Was she an old sweetheart,” Kili asked. Fili attempted to swat his brother, but Kili was too quick. The other dwarves who had also been wondering turned their attention to Bilbo, Bofur seeming the most interested of the group.

Thorin became even more rigid in his saddle ahead. Bilbo, who had been waiting to fall back to speak with Gandalf as privately as possible, was honestly surprised by the assumption. “Um, no. Just a friend of sorts. She used to be the daughter of one of the Family Heads and we grew up together.”  Thorin relaxed while the rest lost interest. Sensing no new gossip of their Burglar’s life, the dwarrows were quick to fall into their own individual conversations and Bilbo finally had his chance to fall back to Gandalf at the back of the Company.

Gandalf turned a considering eye on Bilbo. “Salvia, seemed to be in a better mood this morning.”

“Yes, we sorted quite a bit of that earlier today,” the hobbit admitted, checking to see that no one was paying them much attention. “In fact this morning was why I wanted to speak with you. Do you know anything about this?” Bilbo pulled two shifts of paper from his jacket and handed them to the wizard. Gandalf took them with a puzzled frown, only to stiffen upon reading them. Bilbo could not help but share the sentiment. For upon the scrolls he had pocketed from his attackers were words penned in three languages. One was in the tongue of Black Speech, the second Rhûnic, and the third Westron. All three stated the same, reading of bounties for the heads of Thorin and his nephews.

Chapter Text

Dwalin had never been considered to be a dwarf of good temperament. During his decades as Captain of Thorin’s guards he had endured the pressures of protecting Durin’s line while helping oversee the enforcement of laws in Thorin’s Halls. Such duties allowed the dwarf to be little else but merciless to those who threatened his charges. So, when Gandalf laid the two scrolls of parchment on the table in the largest room the Last Inn could provide, to say Dwalin was displeased would be an understatement.

Dwalin was furious.

“How long have you had these, wizard,” Dwalin bellowed. Thorin’s usual grim expression became grimmer. Around them the Company jostled to get a better look at the papers. Balin and Nori took one of the scrolls and huddled over it together.

“I too would like to know why you have kept this from me,” Thorin stood, displacing the dwarves behind him.

“Why? What does it say,” Gloin yelled from the back of the group.

“Bounties for the heads of Thorin and the boys,” Dwalin replied, stomping forward so he was face to face with the wizard. The room fell silent. Behind Gandalf’s chair Bilbo silently watched over the proceedings, having expected the dwarves’ poor reaction.

“Peace, Master Dwarrows,” Gandalf said calmingly. “These came into possession only this morning and since we have been riding all day,” he threw a less than subtle look at Thorin, “this has been the first chance I have had to share them.” Gandalf gave no mention of Bilbo and the hobbit was thankful for it. Let the wizard take all the credit for having the papers and all the blame that came with them.

His words did little to calm the irate Dwalin. So in true wizard fashion when something could not be avoided he let it be deflected. “I would have found the matter more pressing if I had not already warned Thorin of a similar price on his head during our first meeting in Bree. The fact that it now extends to his nephews is unsettling but not unexpected.”

Dwalin’s ire turned on Thorin as did much of the Companions attention. Gandalf cleared his throat gently. “Unless, of course, the rest the Company has not been made aware of this.” Bilbo snorted, not at all convinced by Gandalf’s faux surprise.

>>You knew of this and did not tell me,<< Dwalin said to Thorin.

The dwarf lord’s face hardened. >>It is not for you to question my decisions.<< Truly it was neither the time nor the place, especially not in front of the wizard.

>>It is my duty to protect you and Fili and Kili. Something I cannot due if you do not tell me of threats. I’ll not see you dead due to your pride.<<

The momentary flash of Frerin’s face in his memories silenced Thorin’s intended reply. He took a breath before nodding to his friend. >>We will speak of this later.<< As the anger passed from Dwalin’s face, the king returned his attention to Gandalf. “How did you come upon these?”

 “The usual way,” the wizard hemmed. “Though truly what disturbs me is the missive’s length. That it is written in Black Speech is worrisome, but so was the last one. That it has also been recorded in Rhûnic and Westron is disquieting. That it instructs that you and your nephews are traveling in a large group even more so.” His eyes met Thorin’s “Who did you tell about your quest, beyond your kin?”

“No one.”

“Who did you tell,” Gandalf repeated, rising from his seat.

“No one, I swear. Why?”

Gandalf attention fell back to the papers. “Then there can only be one explanation.”

Thorin stared at the wizard, a sick feeling in his gut. “What in Durin’s name are you implying?”

Gandalf met his gaze unflinchingly. “If only dwarrows knew of your travel, then only a dwarrow could provide the information for these orders.”

A cry rose up from the Company and Thorin’s jaw clenched in rage.

“No self respecting dwarrow would have anything to do with this,” Dori cried out and many echoed his sentiment.

Bilbo ignored their shouting as an argument broke out between the dwarves and wizard. Instead he went to stand before Nori and Balin who still were analyzing the second scroll.

“The wizard’s right. There are too many details of our group,” Nori muttered to Dwalin.

“Aye, lass. Yet Black Speech and Rhûnic are not common among our kind. You’re better travelled then most; can you make anything of it,” the white haired dwarf replied.

Nori shook her head. “I know a bit of the language from some time East but none of the writing and nothing of Black Speech besides a few of the more common Orcish insults. Looks similar to some of the tree-shagger script but a bit angular; wouldn’t be able to tell if that’s common or not.”

“It’s not,” Bilbo interrupted, causing both dwarves to startle. “The Rhûnic has inaccuracies. The grammar’s wrong and some of the symbols are too angular where they should be round. The Black Speech uses Tengwar same as Elven scripts.” He pointed to particular passages, careful to not touch the page. “Here, here, and here the lettering is square or a hard line where it should curve. Whoever wrote this was unfamiliar with those, while the Westron has few if any mistakes.”

Bilbo had noticed the hush that occurred at his explanation. He looked up to find he once again had the dwarrows’ attention.

Gandalf’s gaze was considering. “I did not know you read Rhûnic.”

Bilbo shrugged uneasily. “A fellow scholar had some texts in it and was eager to share his knowledge.” It was one of many things Bilbo had been grateful to Lord Elrond for during his stays at Rivendell. Not only had the Elf-Lord been eager to help heal his heart wounds, he had been unbearable kind in building and expanding on the knowledge Arradeth had left her grandson least it be lost.

“Hmm,” Gandalf responded before once again addressing the Company at large, drawing their attention away from his godson. “Regardless, it seems we should be even more cautious. For the road may have many more perils than expected. Best to start with a good sleep. I will leave you to your planning. Come along, Bilbo,” the wizard called over his shoulder as he deserted the room, leaving the dwarrows to their growing discussion.

 

It was not until sometime later that Dwalin, Balin, Nori, and Thorin were able to meet without their companions. The rest had been ordered off to bed after discussions had turned to quarrels and arguments over hypothetical situations grew more and more outlandish. Unsurprisingly it was Fili and Kili who had been the most reluctant to leave.

“It is to do with us, Uncle,” Fili had pled. Kili, quiet for once, stood as silent support behind his brother. “We are not dwarrowlings that would hide behind others.” Yet Thorin had remained, had had to remain, unmoved. There was no need for Fili and Kili to participate in this meeting of speculations. Let them be carefree or at least less burdened for now. Surely there journey would weary them soon enough.

Nothing good ever happened to us from being left out of decisions, Frerin’s voice gently reminded. Tread carefully, brother. Thorin shook away the half-remembered voice. Sometimes he felt as though all the loss of his people haunted him, driving him to slow madness. Why else would it be that his conscience chose Frerin’s voice to coax him to better choices?

>>I owe you an apology,<< he addressed the room at large, facing the three he had chosen as his most trusted advisors. >>I had not considered the warning the wizard gave to be of any urgency. It is well know how the Orcs of Kazad-dûm would seek my head or that of my kin. Still, my silence has led us to this. I know how much more difficult this will make your work and for that I beg your pardon.<<

Balin sighed in resignation. >>We worry, cousin. Yet no harm has been done and we have time to prepare.<< When Dwalin only stood glowering at his friend and leader, Balin elbowed him.

>>Don’t do it again,<< the bald dwarf grunted.

Nori was not nearly as forgiving. >>I can’t work without information. I might miss something. I might have already missed something.<< She itched from her fellow dwarrows’ eyes fixing on her, filling her with a need to move, to run or steal. >>I’ve heard the usual grumblings in the Blue Mountains and from the Council. Accusations of madness and power against your line: claims of wanting to make yourself king of the Blue Mountain if the quest fails.<< Thorin and Dwalin grew angry at her words, vibrating with low growls, though Balin only sighed. None of what the dam stated was new to them. Nori waved aside their responses. >>The usual idiotic rumors. But what if it was more than that? Some idle chatter might have been glossed over. Some rumor ignored. If what Bilbo says about the writing is true, it could have easily been penned by anyone. Even a dwarrow. If this conspiracy stems from our Halls our—your kin may be in danger.<< Nori was quick to correct herself. All her kin still alive were part of the Company and her ancestor Sori had never truly been recognized as part of Durin’s line, though her descendents still claimed that noble blood. >>I left Dis my best, but if this comes from our own halls that may not be enough.<<

>>You would agree with the wizard that this is from our own people,<< Thorin barked.

Nori met her king’s gaze unflinchingly. >>All of us know dwarrows who would turn on their kin. If this is actually a scheme to oust you and your heirs from the Blue Mountains, I am certain I could find quite a few on the Council capable of this.<<

>>Lack-honor filth,<< Dwalin growled.

Balin nodded in agreement. >>Do we have any way to confirm this?<<

Nori shook her head. >>Not from here. We’ve no way of contacting Thorin’s Halls without weeks of waiting. And I can’t think of anyone I’d trust with the message. Can you?<<

Thorin spoke, >>None but one of the Company and the delay would be long.<<

>>Then, my second will just have to keep an ear open.<< The dam tapped one of the discarded scrolls where it lay on the table. >>I doubt anything will happen soon.<<

Thorin opened his mouth to retort but Balin quickly interceded. >>I agree.<< He clasped Thorin’s shoulder. >>Whoever penned these went to the trouble of making it seem as though it came from the hands of Men. It is not a direct attack but the spread of word between mercenaries. It is unlikely whoever made these will reveal themselves after so much work to remain undetected. Until they have had some word of us they are likely to remain in the Shadows.<<

Thorin turned to Dwalin, eyebrow raised. The large dwarrow merely shrugged. >>I trust Nori’s judgment and the Bilbo has yet to be false. Between the two and Balin’s wisdom, I believe Dis is safe enough.<<

The dwarf lord frowned. >>Then we continue on.<<  He snatched both missives and stuffed them away. >>We must be more vigilant. Even here. I will take first watch, I suggest the rest of you turn in. I will wake the next in a half hour’s time.<< Thorin waited just long enough for the others to acknowledge his command, before he swept from the room his anger and fear leaving only weariness.

>>I’ll relieve him or else he take more than his turn,<< Balin said, standing up and cracking his back. >>I’m to bed then. I’ll see you in the morning.<< Waving the elder Fundinson departed.

Nori who had managed to fidget across the room, quickly headed for the door.

>>Please wait, lass.<< The dam stilled at Dwalin’s soft tone, her feet betraying her as she wanted to leave but found she could not.

>>What,<< Nori asked, refusing to turn towards the other dwarrow.

>>Did I hurt you?<<

She did turn at that in surprise. >>What? No.<<

Dwalin stepped cautiously towards her, his face more open then she had seen it before. >>Then why have you been avoiding me? We might not be friends but I know you, lass. You don’t run from a fight but you’ve been running from me since I woke to find you gone. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve hurt someone without meaning to.<< He stared down at his hands. He killed quite a few with them, hurt just as many whether they were Orc or Man or Dwarrow. Durin’s line was well known for their fierce temperament and little of that had been diluted in Fundin’s younger son. >>I would make right whatever I did.<<

It was not often Nori was stirred to feel guilt. Such would have ended her thieving long ago. >>You did nothing wrong, Dwalin. It was best I left. You know how that situation would look to the others of the Company.<<

Dwalin’s eyes widened. >>There’s was nothing improper about it. For Mahal’s sake, Bilbo was right there.<<

>>That wouldn’t matter. There is little that is secret among companions and your name would be gossiped about with mine. Better you avoid that dishonor and me avoid Dori’s scolding.<<

 He moved closer as she once again turned towards the door. She had looked pain at the mere thought of the speculation of a relationship between them. And though it pained the part of him who had long watched her, first as an enemy then an almost-friend and then as something he was not brave enough to say, he could not help but voice his admiration. >>You are my comrade, my shield-mate in keeping Thorin’s stupid self alive. A brave dam who chose to accompany her kin and king to face a monster when other’s cowered. I would find no dishonor in such rumors.<<

Nori scoffed. >>I am a thief of spoiled stock and you would have been a Lord of Erebor in another time. Don’t pretty it up. For nobs blood will always out.<< She gave him a bitter shark-grin. >>There is nothing but dishonor there for you, Fundinson, and it’s best that you and I remember that.<<

***

The Lone-lands were rather amply named Dori found as the Company traveled through them on their seventh day after setting out from the inn and leaving the last of Bree-Land behind. Chatter and songs were told to keep up the spirit. Yet the farther they went the less travelers they passed and quieter they all grew. It was a rather tedious march and all the days started to run together. He rubbed as his aching back and the dwarrow found himself missing the hobbit lands quite often. The Company’s days there had been engaging and the hospitality and beds quite fine. The silver-haired Ri sighed. No doubt he’d be missing comfortable beds for some time.

Dori’s gaze swept around the Company and a small smile rose at finding his sisters riding next to the hobbit. After their night back in Buckleberry and Nori’s defense of Ori in Bree, the two had been much closer of late. The disagreement they had obviously had back in Hobbiton had been set aside. He was glad. Ori was good for Nori, always reminding their thieving sister that her place was besides the other Ris. Nori and he had had too many disagreements. Too many years of arguments and resentments for the mere notion of her elder brother to call her back from her days sneaking and spying, whether it was in Ered Luin or more distance lands that Dori could not follow. Nori helped Ori to be more outgoing, a mixed blessing. Nori was not the best role model despite Ori’s admiration of her and the more Ori followed after Nori the further she travelled from the protection of Dori’s arms. He could not help it. Dori knew his love was like softest of the wraps he sewed, easy to be both embraced and smothered by it.

The heirs rode up to the small group, joining in the chatter. There too was a mixed blessing. Lady Dis’s sons were pleasant enough, jovial spirits who treated the dams with as much respect as any other dwarrow. The younger was talkative, affectionate and made room for Ori in whatever conversation they were part of. The elder was more concerning.

It had not been unusual for Ori to spend time with Kili and Fili before the quest. Apprenticed to Balin and tutor to Gloin’s son, Ori had interacted more often with nobility then either of her siblings. Unsurprising as Nori was a well-known thief of dubious reputation and Dori was their bastard elder brother. What noble blood they had was not enough to raise them above their station as common dwarrow, but was enough to distinguish him as bastard-born. The nobs as Nori called them would proudly wear his wares, for his skill was not subpar, but few would speak to him as an equal. The same stroke of bastard had befallen neither sister since his parents had been allowed to wed before Nori’s birth, yet their defense of Dori often casted them under the same scandalous light. Nori had never cared and had made herself even more disreputable, but Dori only wanted the best for his youngest sibling. When Balin son of Fundin had walked into his tailor shop to request Ori as his apprentice, Dori had cried. At least one of Kori’s children would rise to greater heights. Yet when he watched Thorin’s eldest heir stare at his sister with moon-calf eyes, Dori wanted nothing more than to hide her from Fili’s sight. Nori had inherited most of the strangeness of Kori’s and Sibor’s blood, leaving Ori and he to feel little of that peculiar heritage of their ancestor’s father’s people.  But the eldest Ri could not forget that it was a son of Durin who had never claimed his ancestor Sibor or their daughter Sori. Durin III’s second son had refused them both for the blood in their veins. Dori expected none of Durin’s other heirs to differ from that decision.

Yet watching Fili inquiry about Ori’s opinion on their current subject (the worse food they had ever eaten) and how the lad effortless included both Nori and the little hobbit, Dori wondered if his judgment might be a bit too hasty.

 

A week and a half out from Bree-Land and Bilbo found he had grown quite fond of most of his companions. It was still not unusual for him to remain besides Gandalf and sleep by the old wizard’s side when everyone else had fallen back to their small familial units. Yet some change had certainly taken place. The younger dwarrows earlier attention to him had grown into a rather friendly companionship. The telling of Adamanta’s death, even without grave details, had acted as a bridge of trust with his younger companions and it was not uncommon for Ori, Fili, or Kili (since the brothers were hardly one without the other) to ride by his side during the bright May days. Nori too had become a rather common riding partner, sometimes joining her sister and other times by herself. This led to Dori and the family Ur frequently being dragged over to Bilbo’s side as well. The cousins Ur were often found in the company of the Durin heirs, though they did not seem to interact with many of the others. However, their affection for the young dwarrow lads was obvious. Kili, particularly, spent an unusually amount of time with them. Dori mainly watched Bilbo, in a considering rather than hostile manner. Many of the others continued to ignore him and, since their last talk, Thorin had taken to avoiding Bilbo, something the hobbit was quite content with. Dwalin was the only other dwarrow who, while not as frequently by his side, took to greeting and glancing over his shoulder at the burglar fashion similar to the attention he gave the two princes and his king.

So despite his reservations about the quest and his companions, as the days passed Bilbo soon found himself relaxing somewhat in the dwarrows’ company.

Careful, he told himself as they stopped for the midday meal and Fili dragged him over to sit between the brothers and Bifur. You’re here for a reason, he reminded himself as Bombur added a bit extra to Bilbo’s bowl. Don’t lose yourself, he chastised even as he laughed as Kili translated a story Bifur re-laid to them through his sign language about Bofur’s childhood antics, even as the hated dwarf grew flustered and tried to interrupt. Have you forgotten what you could lose, his mind cried out as he shared common hobbit knowledge with the Ri siblings, noting the eagerness in Ori’s eyes reflected in those of her siblings; all three sharing a love of knowledge, for personal gain or pleasure, that even the most scholarly of hobbits would not be as enthusiastic.

Remember how they spoke of the dragon. If they only knew, they would hate you. Remember the fire dying in Arradeth’s eyes. If you let this continue, they will break you. Fool. Fool. Fool.

˟˟Ours? Mine?˟˟ Bilbo woke with a start at the words that echoed in his heart, sweat drying on his forehead with the sound of several dwarves snoring around him. Dawn was a mere thought peeking above the horizon. The stillness should have eased him back to sleep for a few more precious minutes as he done many times before. Now, nearly a month on the road, the sight had become commonplace. Yet this morning there was no peace to be had as the Drakish words burned in his chest. ˟˟No,˟˟ he whispered back and shook himself free from his bedroll. The movement gained the attention of Gloin, who had taken up the last watch besides the fire.

“Where are you going,” Gloin asked gruffly. Oin, who was dozing besides him and also suppose to be on watch, startled awake.

“Huh. You’re going away,” the elder brother asked. Bilbo shook his head quickly, hoping to not wake any of the others.

“Just wanted a bit of a walk. I won’t go far,” he added as the narrowing of the dwarrows eyes. They were camped in one of the sparse wooded parts along the Eastern Road and Bilbo wanted nothing more than to wander through the trees away from the dwarves for a moment or two. “I’ll stay within shouting distance of the camp.” He turned to Oin. “Maybe there are some plants I can gather for you?” At the dwarrow’s raised brow, he added, “It never hurts to have more healing herbs.”

“That’s a kind offer, Master Hobbit, but I don’t know if you know which ones I’d need.”

“My father gave you his book did he not,” Bilbo asked.

Oin nodded. “Yes. An excellent read. Very knowledgeable and as a good as even dwarf text on the matter.”

Bilbo smiled slightly. “My father would appreciate the compliment. He wrote it after all,” he told the surprised dwarrrow. “Da taught me everything I know of herblore.”

“In that case there are few plants I’d like you to keep an eye out for.” Oin began to list out half dozen plants or so, Bilbo nodding.

Gloin, who watched the exchange silently, moved forward. “I don’t think Thorin would want—”

“Oh, let the lad go, brother,” Oin interrupted and waved Bilbo away. The hobbit was only too eager to go.

 The woods were wonderful, the song of newly waking birds and the breeze through branches easing much of Bilbo’s tension. The search for plants and vegetation gave him something else to focus on besides the greedy yearning of his Hearts. He needed to gain some perspective and distance. The hobbit reached up to pluck hawthorn leaves from low hanging branches. No need to be unpleasant but best not to let himself be at ease with them. That path only led to heartache. 

Birdsong and the earth’s hum caused Bilbo sigh, allowing the contentedness around him hush his worries. He’d had many friendships in the Shire and had never risked his Hearts. He would not allow the fondness for these Outsiders cause him anxiety. He had enough to worry about between Calling and dragon it was best not to borrow trouble.

Bilbo had already gathered quite a bit, having found winterweed and early blooming comfrey along which he stuffed alongside the hawthorn leaves in his pockets, when the thrum of soft footsteps echoed up from the earth beneath his feet. So attuned to the earth’s song the hobbit turned to the approaching dwarrow, not quite surprised to find Nori staring back at him. They hadn’t spoken of their last meeting amongst trees but Bilbo could see a memory of it flash in the dam’s eyes. The hobbit turned back to his task. Crouching down he spotted some wild strawberries and carefully freed the berries from their leaves. Another set of hands slid besides his, gentle in their extraction of the little fruits. Bilbo glanced up in surprise and was greeted with a sly smile. Nori popped one of the berries into her mouth and pressed the rest of their bounty into Bilbo’s hands before standing. The smile slipped away as easily as the dam.

“Are you well?”

The question sincerely surprised the hobbit. His companions had kept a meticulous eye on him so far: whether in suspicion like Gloin, concern like the younger dwarrows, or baleful distrust like Thorin. Yet none had actually inquired. Not even Gandalf, though the wizard had never been one to coddle when lessons were to be learned and changes to be made. “I am.”

“Truly?” Nori let her eyes skim over him. “You’ve lost weight. You forage often enough but your thinner.” The dam turned aside as though discomforted by her concern. She would have worried if any of the Company was in a similar state, Nori told herself. Yet her mind drifted back to Mistress Baggins’s plea and Bilbo’s face as he tore at a tree for her.

“Ah.” Bilbo cleared his throat embarrassed. “Bound to happen when one cuts down from seven meals to three. No need to worry. I expected to be tightening my belt sometime on this journey.”

The dam continued to eye him. Dwarrows were made of a different build, naturally stouter than the races and while Nori was considered of a lean frame among her kin, even she seemed to have more meat on her than the hobbit. Difficult as it was to tell past his odd traveling clothes of long jacket and waistcoat. “If you speak with Thorin,” she began. Thorin may mock the hobbit for such a weakness but he was decent lord and leader. He would not let any of the Company go hungry.

“I’d rather not.” The silent truce of ignoring each other was the only thing that allowed the hobbit and dwarf lord to act amiably around one another. Even now the dwarf’s words caused Bilbo’s cheeks to flush and teeth to clench. A child over meals indeed. Speaking about his need for more meals would only lead to further ridicule. Better to keep the faint ache of hunger that he had grown accustomed to.

Nori did not look happy with his decision but merely nodded. A loud clatter was heard back towards the road as the sound of a large stew pot being banged along with the grumbled shouts of several dwarrows drifted on the wind. Hobbit and dwarrodam exchanged a look. It appeared the Company’s leader was awake and in a foul mood. Such awakenings only occurred when Thorin was in one of his peaks of ire.

“Well his royal surliness is up. I suppose we should make our way back.” Together thief and burglar strode back to the path.

 

The days grew a bit more bearable after his talk with Nori. Bilbo oftentimes paused during a break to find nuts or an apple in his belongings that had not previously occupied such places. Such little foodstuffs appeared with alarming frequency. Bilbo was certain it was a conspiracy among some of his companions, though he was uncertain whether it was Nori or Bombur who had alerted some of the Company.  Though he never caught anyone outright, more than once he noticed how Fili smirked and Kili smiled on seeing him snack on one of the mysteriously appearing provisions.

Meanwhile Bilbo’s Hearts remained silent and while the hobbit’s fondness for his group of companions continued to increase, he remained vigilant in reminding himself of the line he must not cross.

Ironically enough as the journey became more bearable it some ways, it worsened in others. The road which had been in a somewhat descent state since Bree fell into greater and greater decline, slowing their progress as some spots remained in great disrepair. Not only that but whatever unspoken stalemate that had existed between Bilbo and the dwarf lord had suddenly ceased upon the hobbit and dam’s return. Thorin’s face had immediately paled then reddened on seeing the two together. The others of the Company were suprised and even Dwalin flinched at seeing Bilbo’s dirt-brushed clothes. Whatever ill or lewd thoughts the others had were quickly dispelled by Bilbo’s march over to Oin to share his medicinal bounty; the elderly half-deaf dwarf praised the hobbit loudly.

Still Thorin had acted aggrieved since that outing and it seemed that each day the dwarf made sure to voice some complaint about the hobbit. That he spoke them most often in Khuzdul only irritated the hobbit more. Often Bilbo had to bite his tongue least he voice he own opinions in the dwarrows’ language. This continued to be a pattern for the following several days and while Bilbo did his best to ignore it, Thorin’s disparaging comments were surely having an effect on the Company. A clear division was starting to take place.

Fili and Kili were torn. Their loyalty to Thorin was unquestionable. As both uncle and leader their love and admiration was evident in how his every chastisement caused regret and how elation followed his every praise. Yet they were also Dis’s sons and never would their mother have allowed her brother to so disparage another member of the Company. Fili, who had begun his association with Bilbo as one watching over a younger, felt the beginnings of true friendship to grow between him and their Burglar. Bilbo was a fellow soul weighted down by responsibilities quite heavy for one so young. Fili could not help but relate. Watching the hobbit struggle to keep his vow, to come despite disapproval and the heartache it kept wrenching from his past, only caused the elder prince to like their burglar more. Bilbo was honorable in a way that Fili had had little opportunity to observe in the other races. As the days passed and Bilbo freely shared his culture and thoughts if not the secrets of his past, Fili could only feel grateful to be gifted the hobbit’s frank opinion. Could his uncle not be grateful for it as well?

Kili had seen the same grief that so often drove his kin mirrored in Bilbo’s small frame. Yet the hobbit’s appearance was deceptive as Bilbo had proven time and again in their short acquaintanceship his courage and kindness. Had he not welcomed them into his home with almost no knowledge of their coming? Had he not thrown himself in the way of blade for the little hobbit lass or faced a Wight for other hobbit children? Had he not faced scorn and derision from his own aunt? How could Thorin continue to act so callous when all the hobbit so far had done was good?

Similar to the heirs, many of the rest of their Company were also torn. The families of Ur and Ri both considered the hobbit as a positive addition to their group. While most of their interaction with Bilbo had been due to Kili’s and Fili’s insistence, the Urs found they quite liked the hobbit lad. He was attentive to Bifur, always directing his questions to the dwarf and patiently waiting for translation instead of talking around or above him as many another dwarrow had been prone to do. When they had stopped by what bodies of water they could find for a quick wash, Bofur had more than once spotted Bilbo with his make-shift handkerchief carefully cleaning the scrap. Bombur had certainly taken an interest in making sure the hobbit was well fed after observing his gradual slimmer state and Bilbo always took a moment to help the large dwarrow fix meals. Something that grew wearisome when cooking everyday for a group of fifteen. Indeed Bilbo seemed a good soul, though none of them spoke up during Thorin’s snappish comments. A comforting hand could be extended easily enough, but in the end Bilbo was a hobbit and Thorin was their lord who had seen them through much toil.

The Ris were in a similar situation. While what blood shared between them and Durin’s line was thin, the family was solemnly sworn to Thorin as their king. Dori, the only one born before the coming of the dragon, remembered trailing after his mother and father as they followed unerringly after Thror and Thrain. He could do no less with Thorin. Ori’s forming friendship with Bilbo was strained by her own loyalties. She had sworn herself to Thorin’s quest and service, but her promise to Belladonna lay heavy on her. Would she still remain silent if the dwarf lord was maligning any of the other Company members? Surely it was not her place to question her king? Nori kept her own council. There were few if any moments for privacy in so large a group and to rebuke Thorin for his treatment of Bilbo in so public a place would only lead the stubborn dwarrow to worse insults. Best to bide her time for an instant of privacy to attempt to sway the dwarf lord’s opinion. She was her king’s thief after all, but she still owed the hobbit a life debt.

Even those who travelled unerringly by Thorin’s side had become wearied of the dwarrow’s behavior. Balin glanced over often with disapproval. Dwalin had barked about moaning and groaning dwarrow’s a time or two as well, since he and Thorin had already had argued over the hobbit’s presence. The two Fundinsons' reactions were the most successful at stilling the king’s criticisms. Oin had little opinion one way or the other. Though he did seem to mishear many of Thorin’s comments, often going on random tangents about what he thought had been said. Gloin had long suspected his brother’s hearing was not as poor as he indicated. Meanwhile the younger son of Groin thought the hobbit seemed a good lad, but much too young. He would not let Gimli come on such a journey, much less someone even fewer in years than Ori by both hobbit and dwarrow standards. Yet, while the hobbit may not have been what any of them expected when Gandalf how proposed a fourteenth member to the Company, he was not a bad sort. Still it would have been kinder to leave the poor lad back in his little burrow. Gloin could hardly blame Thorin for his thoughts, though perhaps the dwarf lord could have been a bit less vocal about them.

Things continued on in the same frame of mind. It was on the fifth day since Nori’s and his foraging in the woods that Thorin finally pushed Bilbo past his edge of restraint. They had come to another difficult bit of path, a part where the road had partially eroded and the ponies’ footing was treacherous. They continued in single file but at Gandalf’s insistence strode before their mounts, guiding the nervous creatures through. It went on for several yards and had slowed their progress for the day. At such developments, Thorin’s foul mood once again reared its ugly head. When Bilbo, for all his care to avoid bad pits in the ground unlucky slipped and was hastily saved by Dori’s strong grip, Thorin’s ire once again directed itself at its familiar target.

>>The road was not nearly this poor when I journeyed through Dunland. Ill luck it is. No doubt from a ill luck bringer,<< Thorin spat as they made their way through the final march. >>Fourteenth member for luck indeed. No wonder his kin call him Unfortunate. He has been nothing but misfortune since he joined us.<<

>>Peace, Thorin. Such talk does no good,<< Balin reproached.

>>You took the Old South Road to Dunland, stone-head,<< Dwalin grumbled. >>Course the road would be in a different condition.<<

Whatever patience Bilbo had snapped, regardless of the defense the two dwarrow offered. He had had nothing but spying, recriminations, and defamations of his character such the quest had started. Having reached firm ground, he stomped around the others to Gandalf’s side.

::I have had enough. Of all the bad tempered, stubborn fools you force this one on me,:: Bilbo stated to the wizard, letting his voice carry.

::Now, Bilbo,:: Gandalf began.

::Do not Bilbo me. I have endured their suspicion and spying. I have endured being ignored and belittled. But I will not listen to that dwarf talk of things he does not know. You appointed me this task due to my heritage as hobbit and dragon. He has no right to speak about Unfortunates.:: Bilbo released a shuddery breath. ::If he does not find some civility to still his tongue I cannot guarantee my own actions will remain polite.::

Gandalf sighed. He had overheard some of Thorin’s grumblings but had been quick to dismiss them. After all Bilbo had dealt with judgmental, argumentative people for years. Surely his godson would just as easily dismiss the dwarf king’s baiting attitude. It was quite unexpected that he had not. Gandalf glanced back to find the rest of the Company, having made it through the pass, staring at him and Bilbo. While most looked curious or concerned at the hobbit’s outburst a few had sour faces at hearing the Elven tongue. Thorin in particular looked as though he had bitten into spoiled fruit.  A face very similar to his godson’s expression while speaking of the dwarf lord. Yes, it quite appeared that Thorin had somehow wormed his way into ruffling Bilbo’s scales and vice versa.

The wizard nodded. ::I will have words with him.::

However, it seemed too late for that intervention. “What secrets are you uttering,” Thorin strode forward. “What matters do you speak of in the Elvish swill that cannot be spoken in common tongue before me and my people?”

“You’re one to talk,” Bilbo replied. He may have had to look up but in no way was he cowed by Thorin’s looming bulk. “I’ve heard nothing but your dwarfish mutterings for these past few days. I dealt with it as I have with your spying and your distain. Well no more. My matters are my own. I may speak with who I wish in whatever tongue I wish without your permission, Master Oakenshield. I may keep any secrets I wish to keep without your sneaking. Nowhere in my contract does it list me as your servant or your subject so if you have nothing more to say on my actually task, I see no reason to continue this talk.” Bilbo turned to gather up his pony’s tack as the Company watched on speechless.

Thorin did not have the same issue. “Do not turn your back on me, Burglar. I may hold no sovereignty over you, but on signing you agreed to follow my leadership. As leader of this Company you will respect me.”

Bilbo threw the dwarf lord a cold glance, his greenish eyes burning ochre in the morning light. “True, I agreed to follow you, but not unquestioningly. My opinions are not something you can stifle with your contract. As for respect, I will show you all the same respect you have given me. None at all.” With that final retort the hobbit stomped off, moving unerringly down the road.

Gandalf snorted at the angry bewildered dwarf. The wizard’s gaze passed over all the Company before returning to Thorin. “Well you’ve only yourself to blame. Bilbo has been rather patient with your nonsense until now.”

“My nonsense! You are the one who chose the Halfling!”

“Yes and you offered him your contract freely,” Gandalf reminded sternly. “I believe it says more of my godson’s character than it does of yours that he continues to honor his contract despite your behavior. It is your nature to be suspicious, Thorin, but do not forget it is not on you alone that this quest success rest on. Do your best not to lose our burglar before we even reach the mountain.” Gandalf tracked off after Bilbo. A moment or two passed before the Company and its leader followed.

 

Thorin had much time to dwell on the words he had spoken to the hobbit during the following days. The Company at large avoided approaching their king unless necessity demanded it. Even his more staunch followers, the sons of Groin and of Fundin, left the dwarf lord to himself as much as possible. His only consolation was that the Company members were as equally conscious of Bilbo, who had lingered by the wizard’s side rather than by any of the dwarrows. The hobbit did not slack in his duties but what camaraderie that had grown between him and his companions had dissipated. Speech between him and the others was stilted or awkward at best.

It was not Thorin’s fault. Truly, Dis’s voice mocked. He could not help but grind his teeth at the thought of her haughty all-knowing tone. Youngest of her siblings, she had always smugly believed herself the most right. Was it not you who ordered Nori to spy on him and his kin? Or who’s not had a civil word to give him? Or who spoke contemptuously of him in our language? Oh yes, not to blame at all.

The worm of guilt in his mind was quickly squashed. The halfling could not be trusted. Too much was unknown about him. Too much left quiet only to shock the dwarf lord time and again.

Would you have all the members of your Company lay bare all there is to their histories? Frerin’s kinder tone still bit at Thorin’s conscience. Just because they swore themselves to you earlier on does not mean you deserve all their secrets. Do not demand of the hobbit less than you would ask of the others of the Company? Or less than you yourself would give?

As the first day passed to the second and on to the third, Thorin’s mind was plagued by Bilbo. So his silences grew longer and grimmer. By the time the bandits who resided along the hilly stretch of the Eastern Road attacked it was almost a relief.

They had stopped for lunch breaking into smaller groups as dry food was passed around.

It was Bifur who spotted the first of the sneaking men, arrow peeking from the foliage.

>>Enemies. Get down,<< he cried, pushing Bofur down. His eyes were drawn to his dark-haired half-son so he was one of the few to witness the hobbit’s actions. Bilbo, who had been facing away from the Urs, grabbed the princes and pulled both down to Bifur’s surprise. How had he known? There was no time to dwell on it as several arrows flew through the air.

Those nearest hastened to follow Bombur’s example and searched for cover as Dwalin dragged Thorin away from an arrow’s path. Bilbo, having risen, released the throwing knives from their sheaths just as the first of the bandits ran out in the ensuing chaos. Fili’s twin blades rose to meet the man’s sword as more men swarmed the dwarven Company. Kili guarded his brother’s back sword in hand.

“Ori. Kili. The archers,” Thorin yelled from his fight interweaving his blade’s strokes between Balin guarding his back with his own sword and Dwalin his flank with both battle axes whirling. The youngest dwarrows hastened to obey. Ori’s slingshot whipped through the air and yelps and cries rose with every rock slung. Kili freed his bow from his back and where his shafts hit only silence followed. His targets fell to never rise again.

There could not be more than a dozen of the Men and it soon became apparent to their attackers that even if they were not outnumbered they were certainly out skilled. Those who tried to retreat found themselves blocked off by Thorin, Dwalin, Balin, and Fili. When they turned to seek another escape or easier prey many steered clear of the mattock, spear, and ladle waving Urs. The children of Kori were an equally fearsome sight: Dori with Sword in one hand and bolas in the other and Nori wielding pole-club and knives with expertise.  Oin and Gloin were not to be out done: staff and axe working in perfect tandem. No if any chance of escape was to be had it was best to attack the old grey-beard, or the sole slingshot wielding dwarf, or even better the child-like Halfling.

Gandalf was quick in dispatching those who thought him an easy target. Bilbo weaved and ducked beneath and behind men and dwarrows, quick to jab or distract with knives and knack. Ori’s siblings struggled to down their own opponents and guard their youngest sister’s side. Perhaps then it was no surprise that when choosing between the fierce old man and the darting hobbit, the last man made a mad rush forward at the occupied dam.

“Ori!” Bilbo ran, too far away, and strained to reach with his knack even as his first knife flew. The blade dug deep into the shoulder of the bandit’s sword arm. Sword fell. Ori turned in surprise, digging for another rock. Even as the man palmed the dagger from his belt with his good arm Bilbo’s knack hit causing man to fumble and maid to stumble accidentally out of the way. There was no chance to aim for another mercy hit. Knack twined around the man as he landed on his bad shoulder, the blade sinking into the hilt even as Bilbo’s second knife landed. Steel met flesh. On reaching Ori, Bilbo pulled the dam to her feet and pushed her behind him placing himself between her and the bandit. Yet the man did not rise.

Around them the last of the Company’s skirmish was coming to a close. The final bandit ran through on Thorin’s sword as Dwalin’s axe sunk into the man’s head. Bilbo gagged at the sight and turned to face Ori who burrowed her head into the hobbit’s shoulder. They rested a second or two like that before strong arms wrapped about both youths. Dori and Nori clung to the two. Soft words of praise and prayers falling from the eldest Ri’s lips. Nori patted at any limb she could reach as if not believing them all safe. Others of the Company exchanged reassuring touches with their relations even as Thorin called out for them to check if any of their attackers were alive.

Bilbo squirmed his way free of the enthusiastic sibling hug. He left Ori to her siblings’ affections and made his way over the bandit he had downed. Gloin already stood by the man, prodding at the bandit with his axe. A kinder means of checking than others implemented, especially Dwalin who strode about kicking the bodies of their downed enemies. Bilbo flinched at each thwack the action produced. At no reaction from his poking the red bearded dwarf stooped and forced the man onto his back. A large stain of blood soaked the earth beneath him, his blood soaking the knife hilt embedded in his arm. The man could have been not much older than a youth, perhaps not even that when one ignored the first vestiges of beard. His face not unpleasant with many scars and one might have even found him attractive. At least in life. For it was most certain he was dead, the hobbit’s second blade having guaranteed the kill. Bilbo starred on in horror where the knife emerged from the man’s eye. Milky discharge mixed with blood ran down his face.

There was no way it flew that hard; it must have embedded deeper when he landed on it. From the fall I caused. It was Bilbo’s last thoughts before he shoved unseeingly past Gloin and lurched off into the brush to vomit.

After several moments of heaving even after his body had no more to give Bilbo finally staggered a few steps away from the mess he had left. Dazed, he tripped and fell to the ground. Bilbo made no move to rise. He had no strength left. He had killed before but always fell things. Always beings twisted and wrought by the Enemy or animals unable to be reasoned with. Not one of Hobbitkind’s charges. Oh Valar. Oh Earth. If he only knew this was where his adventure would lead. But you did know. It was promised to you since the beginning. †Death and war follow this one,† he murmured.

†Oh child. Poor child.† The soothing love of the earth song wrapped over him and Bilbo wept.

 

At some point he must have drifted off to sleep, for when Bilbo opened his eyes he found that the sun had moved some way past midday and there was a wizard watching him.

“What time is it,” the hobbit croaked.

The wizard glanced skywards. “Half past two or so. You’ve not been asleep long.” He looked back to his godson. “The others were concerned but I encouraged them to be about their business. Most of them are bathing in the nearby stream and the rest are guarding our belongings. You’ve not delayed anything. There was no need to wake you as long as we’re downwind of the smoke.”

“Smoke?”

“Yes. They’ve burned the bodies rather than bury so many. It takes less time and should leave little for the animals to desecrate.” Gandalf wrinkled his nose at thought, before reaching into his robes. “I retrieved these for you.”

Bilbo starred down at his father’s knives in trepidation. Gandalf had had the decency to clean them but he could not look upon the blades without remembering the bandit’s marred face. His unease only made him stomach role with shame. He knew the knives were weapons and weapons were meant for killing. Bilbo was not naïve. He had read the histories in the Mathom-house. Death was not unknown to the Called. Killing was not reserved in those tales for only orcs and wolves.

Gandalf raised Bilbo’s chin gently with his other hand. “It takes great courage to face an enemy. It takes greater courage to take another’s life and find no shame in feeling pity for it. I would have spared you from such deeds if I could.” A great grief dwelled in his godfather’s eyes.

“I know.” Bilbo took the knives, returning them to their sheaths, and slipped his arms around the wizard. Gandalf embraced his godson just as fiercely, thankful and sorrowful. Harsh was the task Olorin had been set and harsher still for those he loved where often charged to uphold it as well.

“I know.”

In time the two eventually parted and Gandalf directed Bilbo to the stream. Unlike his companions, the hobbit’s indirectness in the skirmish had allowed little of the gore to amass on his clothes and body. Not to say Bilbo was at all clean, especially after his being sick and sleeping in the dirt, but he was much cleaner than the dwarrows. Many of the Company had shucked their clothes to waddle into midst of the river (dwarrows he found were not at all opposed when it came to public bathing or even the sharing of such baths with members of the opposite sex). Bilbo took himself off farther down the stream for his own private ministrations. While such actions had original gained a few raised eyes, it had become commonplace on the journey most attributing it to some odd hobbit modesty. Truthfully Bilbo would not have cared so much, but it was another opportunity for intimacy he thought best avoided. Bilbo did not share his scars easily.

He carefully folded his discarded coat and weskit, removed the underlying leathers Fort had gifted him along with his other clothes until he was down to his smalls. His skin felt hot, anger and fear and guilt a fever on his skin. He quelled it in the stream’s shallows, rinsing himself clean beneath the water.

“You alright, lad?” Bilbo startled, ducking further into the water as he looked up to find Gloin and Dwalin staring down at him.

“Fine,” Bilbo cleared his throat. “Did you not want to join the others?”

The two grandsons of Farin exchanged a look. “This seems as a good a place to bath. And,” Gloin nudged Dwalin when the other dwarrow merely grunted, “we wanted to check that you were well.”

Bilbo shifted lower into the water unsure of what to say.

Gloin did not seem to mind the hobbit’s silence as he continued, “Dwarrow have a fierce love for battle. We know many of the more soft races do not. This was not the first combat for many of us, except little Ori. Even Fili and Kili have some experience from working as guards for merchant caravans. You being gentle-folk we wanted to make sure that you’d not be too distraught.”

A cocktail of gratitude and resentment swirled in Bilbo’s belly. Gloin had never seemed fond of him and he did appreciate the dwarrow searching him out. Yet here he was once again being singled out as weak.

Dwalin grunted. “Like you’re one to talk. This one,” he gestured to Gloin, “got sick on my boots in his first skirmish. Did the same when his little Gimli took his first guard rotation.” Gloin’s face grew red enough to match his beard. Yet the slight smile that grew one Bilbo’s face was well worth it to the bald headed dwarrow.

“It was just from the smell of Orcish blood,” his cousin contracted. “Regardless, the wild isn’t the kindest to you soft folk. I hope this hasn’t put you off.”

Dwalin watched as Bilbo’s small smirk slipped away and felt the desire to hit Gloin upside his head. They had never been very close but kin was kin and sometimes kin was exceptionally stupid. He’d hoped the father would know better than to batter the pride of one nearly his son’s age.

Bilbo ducked his curls once more rinsing the last of the muck from his hair. He pulled his coat close using it to cover in part his nakedness, leaving his back bare. The wrapped around scar of the Wight and wolf claws glimmered silver on his sides in the sun’s light. Bilbo knelt to gather his belongings into his arms

“I will do my best not to let such violence dissuade me. Though it seems foolish to assume gentle-folk would know little of violence. I would think the world and the wild would have little care for what gentle-folk expect.” He rose and turned to face Gloin’s gaping. Dwalin met Bilbo’s eyes without flinching. A warrior always met a fellow warrior’s eyes. Bilbo strode away to find another place to change with coat still pressed against his chest, shielding his starburst heart-scar from sight. He had shown enough of himself before prying eyes.

***

Supper that night was a subdued affair, once all had bathed and a new campsite found. They rode out sedately the next day, most still wary and weary from the evening before. Yet, it was hard to keep fierce dwarrow spirits from being boisterous for long. Soon the usual flow of conversation rose. Something eased in Bilbo’s chest at the sound of laughter, as Bofur joked with the younger dwarrows. Even Balin and Dwalin joined in the noise, the brothers humming a dwarven victory song that the others soon took up. While the man’s face was not forgotten, the harshness of the memory dimmed with the rising merriment. It seemed the world would have been a much darker place if the dwarrows had perished in the men’s stead. Though it was not a fair thought, Bilbo could not hold back the gratification he felt that such an event had not come to pass. As Kili and Fili rode at his side, the former answering Bofur’s jape and the latter praising a blushing Ori’s skill, a bit of the grimness that had fallen over Bilbo released its hold.

Later that night Bilbo could not sleep. Camped near the edge of a cliff with Gloin’s snores echoing in his ears the hobbit wandered from his bed roll snuggled tightly with the Ur family one side and the Ri on the other. He stared down at the sleeping dwarrows uncertain of when they had curled closer to him the night before he stretched and abandoned them for the ponies. Kili and Fili watched with gentle amusement as the hobbit, who had so feared mounting his own pony, willingly made his way over to the herd. Gandalf too gave a small smile from his place in the shadows. Bilbo had gained a thorough appreciation of the animals who more or less had grown accustomed to his strange scent. Gently her patted Mrytle and produced one of his carefully horded rations, an apple, for her to munch on.

“It’s our little secret Mrytle. You must tell no one,” he whispered fondly. The apple was another one of the mysterious foodstuffs he had found in his pack. And though the guilt of taking more rations then his due should have made Bilbo think twice of sharing the fruit, the hobbit could only smile as the pony accepted the treat.  Bilbo had already taken to limiting his portions during meals and increasing his early morning foraging. None of the dwarrows who sat early morning watch (most often Oin and Gloin or one of the Urs) had said anything about his causal wanderings. However Bilbo had noticed he always had Nori shadowing him. She would never leave with him or return by his side as she had done the first day. Yet it was not uncommon for the dwarrowdam to say nothing as she had sat down by him and helped him strip tubers or find other edibles.

A scream shrieked through the night air and Bilbo turned, his hand falling to his hidden knife. He fell back towards the princes, eyes straining to see beyond the glow of the fire. He knew that sound, heard it often enough in his dreams.

“Is that...” Bilbo breathed.

“Orcs,” Kili was quick to interrupt. Thorin jerked awake at his nephew’s voice, just as another shrill scream sounded.

Bilbo tried to breathe through the panic settling over him. Oh how he hated that sound. It reminded him of the snow-cold and the cries of those first families who had not realized winter had betrayed them by freezing the Brandywine and allowing foul things free reign over the Shire. “Orcs,” he repeated with a shiver.

Fili and Kili traded twin smirks of amusement at the hobbit’s anxiousness. The sound was far enough off that they were relatively safe. If any true danger lurked nearby they would already be rousing the rest of the Company.

“Throat-cutters.” A bit of teasing would not hurt the dwarf prince felt. “There’ll be dozens of them out there. The lowlands are crawling with them.”

Kili was quick to join in. “They strike in the wee small hours, when everyone’s asleep. Quick and quiet; no screams, just lots of blood.”

Bilbo turned to them in fright. Though the princelings clear amusement at the hobbit’s fear swiftly swept aside his panic replacing it with anger. The smirks on their faces quickly disappeared as Bilbo turned on them. “They don’t you know. Strike quietly. The only Orcs I’ve ever met preferred to hear their victims scream.” A distant look crept into Bilbo’s eyes, as though he was seeing something the rest could not. “Bonny Noakes’s shrieking could be heard clear from Bywater.” His breathing grew ragged.

“Bilbo.” Gandalf’s call broke the memory’s spell. The hobbit’s knees wobbled but he remained upright. Both heirs rose but Thorin reached him first. Bilbo ignored them and hung his head between his knees trying to steady his breaths.

Thorin withdrew the hand that had been reaching out to the hobbit and rounded on his nephews. “You think that’s funny? You think a night raid by orcs is a joke?”

Fili and Kili avoided their uncle’s gaze. “We didn’t mean anything by it,” Kili insisted. Fili could not speak past his shame. It was him who had started the teasing. He who had seen and been old enough to understand his uncle’s and half-parent’s battle-dreams that he ignored what his words could awaken in another who suffered the same affliction.

“No you didn’t,” Thorin spat. “You know nothing of the world.” He strode off to glare out over the valley.

“We’re sorry, Bilbo,” Kili began to their burglar.

The hobbit, having regained his breath, waved his words away. Bilbo overreacted at their talk and rightly knew it. How often had he and his cousin’s tried to scare each other with talk of wolves or other fell things before that dreadful winter? “Be more considerate of your words. It seems I’m not the one you’ve offended.”

“Don’t mind him, laddie,” Balin said walking up, woken by the argument. “Thorin has more cause than most to hate orcs.”

“Why,” Bilbo questioned, taking a seat besides the dwarf princes. He knocked his shoulder against Fili’s until the dwarrow met his eyes. Bilbo’s lips quirked into a wry smile. Fili relaxed at the sight, accepting the small sign of forgiveness. Their attention however was quickly ensnared by Balin’s tale.

Bilbo’s Hearts welled with sympathy at the elderly dwarrow’s story. He could only imagine the madness of desperation that drove King Thror to his attempt at Moria’s reclamation. The idea of thousands of orcs and dwarrows in battle would have sounded grand in any song. Yet when told from Balin’s lips it was only a tale of folley. The description of Azog made him shudder, his mind conjuring images of the giant Gundabad Orc. At the devastation the foul figure must have left in his wake, murdering one king and dispatching his heir. Yet Balin’s tone and story rallied at his recollection of Thorin’s great battle, his defeat of the Defiler, and overpowering of the enemy. Oakenshield, not a name as Bilbo had thought, but an epithet for a mighty deed.

“Our forces rallied,” Balin continued, “and drove the orcs back. Our enemy had been defeated. But there was no feast, no song that night for our dead were beyond the count of grief. We few had survived.  Yet so much lost: Thror, Thrain, and Frerin.”

“Frerin,” Bilbo asked. Around them the other dwarrows had woken throughout the tale. All listened on, familiar with the story except the hobbit. Even Gandalf’s head bent in commiserating bereavement.

“Thrain’s younger son and Thorin’s brother. His body and Fundin’s, my father’s, were found side by side at the Mirrormere.” Balin’s head fell with grief before rising again with fervid light. “Yet even in despair our prince stood firmly amongst us that day. And I thought to myself then, there is one who I could follow. There is one I could call King.”

Thorin turned back from the cliffside to the entire awakened Company staring at him in awe. At the moment there was no mistaking the majesty he bore. Bilbo had caught glimpses of it. Of the nobility that inspired twelve to follow him on a quest of futility, fraught with peril only to end with a dragon. Yet, more importantly the hobbit watched as that respect was reciprocated as Thorin bowed his head in acknowledgement of his Company. Bilbo could not help but wonder how it would be to feel such devotion and have it shown to him in turn. An impossibility with how Thorin acted towards him. No. Such thoughts were best ignored.

“But the pale orc? What happened to him,” Bilbo inquired as Thorin made his way through the other dwarrows and back to the fire.

“He slunk back into the hole whence he came. That filth died of his wounds long ago,” Thorin said vehemently. Yet seeing the look Gandalf and Balin exchanged, Bilbo was not so sure. After all even hobbits had a saying that you should not count the weed gone until you held it by the roots.

***

The next day the good June weather took a nasty turn, changing from bright sun to dreary rain. The Company rode their ponies through muddy forest in the downpour cold, wet, and miserable. Bilbo was perhaps the most miserable.  He had meant to replace his old cloak in Bree but alley fights and quarrels with Salvia had driven the thought from his head. So it was just his luck that of all the Company, only Bilbo was completely soaked.

Dwalin watched on in sympathy. Bilbo had not had an easy time of the journey lately. Though he had shown the same strength of spirit as any dwarrow, the hobbit’s kind nature had been taxed since their departure of Bree. Between Thorin’s actions and Gloin’s remarks he could not fault the hobbit for separating himself from the rest of the Company. Stubborn as rock his kin. Yet Bilbo had stood by them, done his best to keep not only to the word of his contact but the spirit it was written in. He had extended much trust without any expected in return. The younger dwarrows had attempted to forge a friendship between them and the hobbit, yet Dwalin saw how the elder dwarrows actions spurned such overtures. The Ris and Urs had been friendly but neither family truly represented Durin’s blood or had any open authority. Fili and Kili deferred to Thorin, all were ignorant of Nori’s true position as Spymaster, and the Urs while well loved were still not blood-kin. Their actions would not be given the entire weight of the Company.

If Thorin weren’t being an idiot none of this would be a problem. The hobbit was part of the Company since pen had met contract and thus should be afforded the same courtesies. Yet the dwarf lord had undermined that association since the beginning. Kin was kin and sometimes kin was exceptionally stupid. It seemed it was up to Dwalin to fix it.

“Bilbo.” The soaked hobbit squinted at the big dwarrow through the rain before a face full of green fabric fell on his head. Bilbo pulled the cloak off his face. It was an oversized, weather-stained dark green thing, yet well kept. “It’s my spare,” Dwalin retorted to Bilbo’s raised eyebrow.

The hobbit glanced down at the hood and back. “Thank you for the loan.”

“Keep it.” Dwarrows turned to stare at the words. The gifting of one’s personal effects to another, dwarrow or Outsider, had clear meaning. While Bofur’s pocket had been a meager thing, to gift another with a belonging in good condition was to make a statement often symbolic of the item given. To see Dwalin the rough, brutish, fearsome guard of Ered Luin offer to shelter and protect so gentle a creature as the hobbit was a sight to behold.

>>Dwalin, what are you doing,<< Thorin snapped.

>>What should have been done from the beginning,<< the guard responded, ignoring his king’s displeasure.

>>He doesn’t even understand what it means.<<

>>Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done,<< Dwalin grunted back. >>And it doesn’t mean I won’t stand by it.<< Thorin’s face was as red as the time he had walked in on Dis attempting to seduce an eager Vili, well before the twos marriage. Well if his friend was already that upset in for a ounce of ore in for a pound. >>It is no less than the word I’ve already given his kin. I swore to bring him back ere we even left Bag-End. To give my promise to protect him always only reinforces my vow.<<

Thorin fell to swearing, thankfully covering Bilbo’s surprise at the words. Only Bifur caught the widening of the hobbit’s eyes. Suspicion formed in the eldest Ur’s mind.

Dwalin, well versed in ignoring Thorin’s swearing, turned back to the hobbit. “Take it, lad. You aren’t getting any dryer.”

Bilbo hesitated a moment. This would make him beholden to the dwarf, yet it seemed Dwalin had already foresworn himself. Surely there could be little harm it taking the dwarrow’s offer. ˟˟Let us have this.˟˟ His Hearts sighed as the cloak fell over Bilbo’s shoulders.

“Thank you.” The bright smile the hobbit gave was brilliant enough to even silence Thorin’s profanities.

The rain once again gained everyone’s attention as it began to poor harder. Dori was the first to complain.  “Here, Mr. Gandalf, can’t you do something about this deluge?”

Gandalf was not amused. “It is raining, Master Dwarf, and it will continue to rain until the rain is done. If you wish to change the weather of the world, you should find yourself another wizard.” Gandalf’s gaze fell to his godson. A surge of warmth arose at seeing how happy the hobbit was to receive such a gift even if he was a bit comical looking under such a large hood.

Kili spoke up as Bilbo continued to smile quite silly down at his cloak. “Are there any?”

“What?”

Bofur inquired with interest as he shook water from his pipe, “Other wizards?”

 “There are five of us. The greatest of our order is Saruman, the White. Then there are the two Blue Wizards; you know, I’ve quite forgotten their names.” Alatar and Pallando never had chosen names before heading out into the deep south and east. It had been centuries since he had seen or heard of either of his brethren. Sadly he had no idea if either of Orome’s followers lived.

Bilbo, who had pried his eyes from his gift, noticed the darkening of his godfather’s gaze. Quick to dispel it he sought to continue the conversation. After all the Valar had not privileged hobbits with much knowledge of the Istari besides what the Grubb’s or Chubb’s knacks had intuited from Gandalf. “And who is the fifth?”

Gandalf shook the melancholy from his shoulders. “Well, that would be Radagast, the Brown.”

Dori asked, still sour about the rain, “Is he a great Wizard or is he...more like you?”

Gandalf squinted at him in offence.  “I think he’s a very great wizard, in his own way. He’s a gentle soul who prefers the company of animals to others. He keeps a watchful eye over the vast forest lands to the East, and a good thing too, for always Evil will look to find a foothold in this world.”

“So just like you then,” Bilbo said softly as he pulled Dwalin’s cloak firmer around himself. His arm brushed against his godfather’s and for the first time in many days, Bilbo felt satisfied with Gandalf by his side and Dwalin’s hood sheltering him.

Chapter Text

Thorin’s Hall

Gimli son of Gloin was driving all of Ered Luin insane. The fierce red-haired dwarf had harassed and bothered his past instructors for the last fortnight. It was rumored that Old Master Geirr had woken no less than thrice in the last week from nightmares of running from the young dwarrow’s persistent questions. The poor fellow paled whenever he spotted red hair (which admittedly was quite often). Meanwhile if Gimli was not found stalking the jewel crafting Masters, he was busy at work in the crafting rooms. His hands were never idle between examining texts, drafting plans, and shaping unrefined gems. It was only at the intervention of his group mates dragging him off for meals or a spar and the occasional exhausted sleep that Gimli had any rest from his work. Some thought the dwarrow’s determination would wane in time. Yet a fortnight passed into a month since his father’s departure and Gimli’s fervor only grew.

>>You know it’s a festival today and no one else is here,<< Reka grumbled from her workstation, a bit bitter she had been elected for Gimli watch today. Typically the Halls were closed on such days but Old Master Geirr was so terrified of Gimli’s fixation, the dwarrow had granted Gloin’s son special dispensation to use them during the festival.

>>I don’t have time for festivals,<< the younger dwarrow replied.

The older dam huffed in frustration. >>You make no sense,<< Reka complained, tired from the last month of this behavior.

>>What,<< Gimli muttered as he cut another facet into a small crystal’s side.

The dwarrowdam sighed, a lock of dark hair drifting past her face. Five years into her journeymanship and thus five years his senior, she was one of Gimli’s self appointed keepers and had dragged him many a time from his desk. >>You insist upon speeding your way into a Mastery but you won’t ask your best resource for her mentorship.<<

Finally having caught his attention, Gimli set down his crystal and turned to her. >>What are you going on about? I have gone to every Master in this hall, combed through stacks of past writings, and you think I haven’t done enough?<<

Reka rolled her eyes. >>Mahal weeps. Not all Masters reside in the hall, only those old-beards who’ve nothing better to do than teach or criticize. Can you really not think of anyone else?<<  Gimli looked at her blankly and the dwarrowdam banged her forehead against her own desk with a hollow thunk. >>Durin’s beard, you cannot be this thick.<< Thunk. >>Honestly, can you not think of anyone who famously gained their Gem-Crafting Mastery at an early age despite the Masters’ wishes?<< Thunk. >>Who so outclassed the Heads of the Guild they had no choice but to recognize her talent?<< Thunk. >>Someone you can actually talk to because of your relation, while a poor dwarrow like me must content myself with being just another of her admirers?<<

Gimli’s eyes widened in realization. >>Lady Dis.<<

Reka leapt up irritation. >>Yes of course the Lady Dis. You dim-witted, stone-dead—<<

Gimli interrupted her with a half hug. >>Reka I could kiss you,<< he called out before rushing out the door.

>>I’d rather kiss your cousin, you short-beard.<< Her words followed after him.

The young dwarrow ignored the insult as he hurried on. Why had he not thought of this before? Every dwarrow knew of Dis and her struggle to Mastery at age sixty-two following her public courtship and marriage by sixty-three. When he made his decision to speed his journeymanship along he should have sought his aunt’s help.

He was so busy in berating himself the young dwarrow missed his turn. The Craft Halls, while much smaller than those Erebor had boasted, were still a complex warren of rooms and corridors. Even with stone-sense to guide one’s self, it was too easy to confuse one path with another. This was not usually an issue when the Halls were bustling with Masters, Journeymen, and Apprentices.  Yet in their absence it was too easy get lost in the Craft Halls’ labyrinth. Which was why instead of heading back to Thorin’s residence, Gimli found himself ducked down outside the Forger’s foundries overhearing a rather private conversation. After all it’s not every day a dwarrow stumbled across a plot for regicide.

>>It is too open here.<< The voice echoed slightly, a whisper carried by empty rooms into the silent hall. Gimli was sure the speaker was familiar but he couldn’t be certain.

A second voice rose, a snarling tenor. >>You worry too much. The Craftsrooms are abandoned today and excuses could be made if we are found here. We would draw more suspicion elsewhere.<<

>>And what excuses would you give if someone hears us speaking of Thorin and his heirs.<<

>>Heirs,<< the second voice spat derisively. >>Heir to what? One can hardly claim himself King of this or King of that when one has no kingdom. Besides the support for Thorin and his line diminishes with each hour of his quest.<< Rage burned in Gimli’s core at the speaker’s condescension. >>First his departure to look for Thrain and now his journey to a dragon-infested mountain. He can only lead his people while he is here. Dis may keep his council spot filled but her voice will have no power once another of her lineage proves unfit.<< A cutting laugh. >>Whispers of it already infect Thorin’s Halls. Madness. Yes a King of lunacy. He bears his sire’s and grandsire’s sickness. That will be all that will be remembered of the famed Oakenshield when he does not return.<< Angry retorts on his tongue, Gimli bit his cheek to keep his mouth shut. There was no doubt that if he was discovered it would end badly.

>>Oh yes and what if he survives the dragon? Retrieves the Arkenstone? Retakes Erebor?<<

A scoff. >>Please. Survive a dragon? And retake Erebor? You speak dwarrowling tales. No it will not happen.<<

>>And if the dragon is dead? All he need do is reach out and the Arkenstone is his. The seven clans will answer his call, will recognize his claim.<<

>>The Arkenstone is nothing.<< The second voice sneered at the first one’s gasp. >>It is a pretty gem but paltry in meaning. A replacement for Durin’s Axe among Durin’s Folk and the other clans. Thrain I claimed it as a new symbol gifted by Mahal and, upon his father’s death and their abandonment of the Grey Mountains, Thror used is once again as his symbol as leader of the First among the Fathers. But the stone will never equal Durin’s Axe and that the clans swore any loyalty upon it makes them fools.<< Fabric rustled and the soft soles of boots approached the forge’s entrance. >>Besides the Seven Clans can only honor Thorin’s claim if he returns. Even if he makes it to the mountain, the dragon is dead or defeated, and he regains the stone, Oakenshield will not make it back. Why else do you think I had you send out those missives? The bounties we have placed on the Durins’ heads along with the one the orcs have will bring forth all the assassins and sale-swords we could desire. No Thorin’s Company will not return.<<

The boots approached closer and Gimli fled.

***

Dis stood at her office’s window, looking out over the crowded streets with a wistful gaze. The evening noise of buskers and merchants, entertainers and merry watchers drifted up to her room from the festival below. How Thorin and the boys would love to see their people so content. Fili would no doubt be among the musicians and Kili attempting to talk the entertainers into sharing their tricks. And Thorin would have stood at her side, satisfied to watch on from a distance. The dam closed her eyes. But Thorin hadn’t been satisfied had he. Not enough had been done to make them a place here. Her brother had grown tired of the constant struggles with the Council and their antagonism towards the refuges of Durin’s Folk. The Council mostly comprised of those Firebeard and Broadbeam lords of long fallen Tumunzahar and Gabilgathol who had retained some wealth, joining the Longbeards in Khazad-Dum, then later to the Grey Mountains and Iron Hills. When Erebor had fallen, most of said lords did not remain with Thror but had instead abandoned Durin’s line as leaders, seeking refuge with their kin in the Iron Hills. While Durin’s line bargained and sold what wealth they had on them when fleeing their homeland, those lords took their funds that remained with their kin in Nain’s lands and fled. Dain’s father, Lord Nain had only to readily welcome their coins to his coiffures. Even now Dis daughter of Alis remembered her mother selling her necklaces and jewels until all she kept were her marriage and family beads.  They had been desperately in need of those funds during those first years. Alis’s and the other Longbeards sold all they could in the face of the Firebeard and Broadbeam lords’ desertion and still it was not enough. More than one hungry dwarrowlings death could be placed at those lords’ boots.

How Dis hated them. Even good-natured Frerin had been unable to stand their company. And Thorin, who felt so keenly, never forgave and never forgot. Yet when Thorin had set about reestablishing the mines of the Blue Mountains they had flocked like hungry vultures to their side and Durin’s line had needed the money and the laborers enough to be unable to refuse them. In exchange for their wealth they demanded positions on the Council and though Thorin led the restoration of the Blue Mountains, his and her power was limited in Thorin’s Halls. Not all who were on the Council consisted of only these dwarrows. There had been a few loyal lords of Broadbeam, Firebeard, and Longbeard stock who had stayed and others who had worked to raise funds among their kin, yet even their support was fragile, based on smaller wealth and more hesitant speakers.

Yes Dis could understand why her brother had left to gain better resources, a better home, but she still hated that he had left, hated that he left her alone.

A knock at the door before the guard yelled, >>My Lady Dis, Lady Lif is here.<< 

She called out an acknowledgement before turning away from the window to welcome the other dam. Of course Thorin had not left her truly alone. Only nearly.

>>Wouldn’t you rather be out there than wallowing in here?<< Lif was ever vibrant even in pregnancy. The dam strode forward to grab Dis’s hands, an always ready smile spreading across her face. Dis ached a little on seeing it. Lif’s smile mimicked Vili’s, the siblings having shared many of the same features though his hair had been gold while Lif’s was a rich copper. >>Just because Thorin is not here to hold his monopoly on surliness does not mean you need take his place. Come out and join the festivities. Perhaps the two of us might succeed in pulling Gimli away from his studies.<<

Dis rolled her eyes. >>I am not anything like Thorin.<<

>>Of course,<< Lif said, her smiling growing wider.

>>I’m not.<< Dis pulled her hands free. >>I’ve just been thinking.<<

>>Indeed and what thoughts cause such a dour look.<<

>>The Council.<<

Lif’s scrunched her nose in distaste. >>Yes that would be enough to cause melancholy thoughts.<<

>>They press for more control over the Halls in Thorin’s absence. Lord Nar cries for higher levies to be placed on items we trade. Skali keeps trying to negotiate a new trade agreement with Mithlond. Lord Karkr agrees with him, much to everyone’s surprise. But of course he also agrees with Lord Nar that we should raise our fees. Lord Karkr would like nothing better than to gouge an elf lord for all he was worth.<<

>>And Thorin wouldn’t,<< Lif questioned.

Dis snorted. >>True. It might be the first time that Thorin would side with Lord Nar on anything. I’m more surprised at Skali for proposing it than anything. Relations with Mithlond have been failing for some time, yet none have pushed for an alliance. Even Thorin acts like if we ignore the elves they will cease to be. Still Skali was rather insistent at this morning’s meeting.<<

Lif looked away. >>Father’s worried. There was another collapse in the reopened mines last week. He keeps pushing for more funding to reopen the older passages and more laborers. A new trade agreement could bring in more wealth for both.<<

>>But with elves,<< Dis said incredulous.

Lif bit back a sigh. >>I’ve had this fight with you and Thorin and Gloin too many times. I would not judge every dwarf by Lord Nar’s greed or Thorin’s obstinacy. Why should I judge all elves by the actions of one?<<

>>That elf,<< Dis spat, >>lost me and my family my home. Vili and you may have had the Iron Hills but my childhood was not so pleasant. Forgive me if I wish to judge that elf king harshly.<<

Lif grabbed the angry dam, pulling her sister-in-law into a hug. >>I don’t mean it that way, heart-sister. Stand me before that deserter Thranduil Thranduil and I would let him feel my axe. Better yet I would hand you your swords to cut him down to height.<< Lif leant back to looking up to meet Dis’s eyes. >>But remember that not all dwarfs are of the same ilk, nor can all elves be.<<

Vili’s wife closed her eyes and nodded.

>>My Lady Dis,<< the knock sounded again as the two dam’s parted.  Both turned to the door. >>Gimli is—<<

The door burst open before the end of the introduction and Gimli, hair falling in disarray and face red from running full into the room. Dis waved away the guard and Lif hurried to her son’s side. She had not seen him so disheveled in weeks despite the odd hours he had been keeping.

>>Gimli, you’re a mess. Whatever is the matter?<<

>>Mother, Aunt,<< the young dwarrow gasped. >>I need to talk to you in private. It’s urgent.<<

 

 

***

 

Gray Havens

Bright was the day and early the hour as Glorfindel rode into Mithlond. Its towering arches of marbled grey and white dazzled in the sun’s light, yet their great beauty was dimmed by the grave tidings the golden elf bore. When, usually, such beauty would have eased his spirit after months of travel in the north now it only illuminated the shadows that stretched over his heart.

He dismounted from Asfaloth as an elven runner met him ready to take his mount. Glorfindel shook his head. ::I cannot tarry. I need speak with your lord.::

The youth, no more than a hundred surely, nodded and raced off once again. He returned a moment latter besides a tall dark haired elf, his robes of much finer quality. Glorfindel sighed. He hoped to see Cirdan but it seemed he would have to content himself with his aid instead.

⁞⁞Hail, Lord Glorfindel.⁞⁞ Galdor strode forth into the welcoming plaza of Mithlond’s main courtyard. ⁞⁞Most fortunate is the hour of our meeting. I apologize but Lord Cirdan is not present. I will be your host in his absence.⁞⁞ He noticed Asfaloth’s tack still in Glorfindel’s hand. ⁞⁞What is this? Has no one come to see to your horse? My apologies I will have you seen to at once and a room prepared.⁞⁞

Glorfindel refused to roll his eyes. Galdor as usual tested his patience. The elf was not a bad fellow but Galdor was as reluctant to believe poor news as he was to exhibit modesty. Even the usual joy Glorfindel felt of hearing Quenya speech was spoiled by the fact that the other elf only used it demonstrate his knowledge and standing. However, as Quenya was rarely used or studied it would serve best for the news the golden elf had to relay. ⁞⁞My apologies but I have not the time to stay. Lord Elrond awaits my return. I wish to impart a message for Lord Cirdan.⁞⁞

Galdor’s dark brow rose before the startled elf inclined his head. ⁞⁞Of course, I will gladly relay your message.⁞⁞

⁞⁞Inform your lord that a darkness is brewing. I set off to Imladris to report my findings to Lord Elrond and that on giving them the Council will be surely be called.⁞⁞

Galdor startled. ⁞⁞A Council meeting? Whatever for?⁞⁞

Glorfindel glanced about the open courtyard. ⁞⁞I would rather not share such tidings here—⁞⁞

⁞⁞You ask me to share mere speculation with my lord,⁞⁞ Galdor interrupted. ⁞⁞Without some justifiable cause I would not feel comfortable providing him with only rumors.⁞⁞

An oppressive, crackling energy like that breathe of time before a lightning strike fell across the inner courtyard as a dark look came over Glorfindel’s face. An elf-lord’s anger was not a subtle thing. ⁞⁞Do you question me, seneschal? I who walked beneath the Two Trees light and have alone returned from the Undying Lands?⁞⁞ A rumble came from the clear sky. The elven youth, who had stood diligently by just out of the way, cringed and dashed away in fright. Asfaloth whickered reprovingly, not at all impressed by his rider’s temper. The horse’s snort dispelled the cloud of irritated anger, and as quickly as the heavy atmosphere had descended it dissipated.

Shaken Galdor bowed his head. ⁞⁞Apologies, Lord Glorfindel. I meant no offense and of course shall impart you words to my lord.⁞⁞

The golden elf stifled a sigh. He had not wished to cow Galdor into obedience. Hundreds of years returned to these shores and still Glorfindel found himself longing for the simplicity of Mandos’ Halls. Death had made no demands of him and oftentimes he felt void of the peace dying had entailed.

⁞⁞Your loyalty to your lord is commendable, but be wary of your words, seneschal. More often are grievances recalled then apologies.⁞⁞ He pulled a small pouch free of Asfaloth’s saddle bags and the horse nickered gentle at him. Glorfindel patted his mount’s flank gently before easing from the pouch a small wooden box. He opened it carefully and exposed its contents. ⁞⁞This should settle any concerns your master should have at my council.⁞⁞

Speech was lost to Galdor as he looked inside of the container which had been careful etched with ruins to preserve what lay within. Indeed it had done quite a good job. Inside the box lay human flesh: a tongue that looked as fresh as if it had just been cut from the mouth of its owner. While the appendage was unsettling itself, it was the barbed piercings and the tattoos that adorned it which rendered him speechless. He had seen its like before and had not expected to again. After all how could Lord Glorfindel possess the removed tongue of a Black Númenórean sorcerer if all such dark magicians had been thought long dead?

 

 

***

 

Hobbiton

Spring edged gradually into summer in the Shire and while the Baggins’s Calling was the main topic of conversation it was hardly the only one. Drogo Baggins had rose to the occasion as Family Head and, with the ever-present help of Bungo, was praised as fair a landlord (if not as experienced) as Bilbo ever was.

Lobelia Sackville-Baggins gave birth to Lotho Sackville-Baggins on a fine May morning accompanied by much screaming and threats made to her husband’s assets. There was much rejoicing amongst both Bracegirdles and Sackvilles, the new mother happy enough to even share her newborn with her least liked relations. It was rumored that Bruno Bracegirdle himself had swooned with delight upon meeting his nephew and while the hobbit refused to comment on it his ears did get suspiciously red.

A week after his birth Lotho was formerly christened at the Party Field where Drogo Baggins stood as Bilbo’s proxy beneath the Party Tree. Lobelia reluctantly grateful for his attendance, did end up hugging not only Drogo but Primula as well before bursting into tears at Bilbo’s christening gift. The specially manufactured set of silver glistened in the mid-morning light, a curled SB etched into each utensil’s handle.

Not all the new gossip focusing on rejoicing for as there is a season to sow there is a season to reap. So no more than a fortnight after Lotho’s birth, Isumbras of the Shire passed in the night Fortinbras to his left. Belladonna, who had been sent for, sat to his right holding her brother’s hand as he breathed his last.

 

Yet even the grief felt at the old Thain’s Withering could not halt Shire life. Days passed, the sun rose and set, and Hobbit life went on. While sorrow remained heavy in the hearts of many, a certain restlessness grew in certain hobbit youths. Rosemary Took-Cotton drove most of Tuckborough and her fathers to distraction with chasing after her as she played at having her own adventures.  Not even her favorite watcher, her life-giver, could calm the little hobbit lass. Cousin Bilbo had gone away on his adventures; surely it was her turn to as well. Ferembras felt the same restlessness stir beneath his feet. Something was coming, something soon. Hopefully whatever it was would be enough to regain his father’s approval and show his maturity after all.

Ferembras was not the only hobbit youngling to feel the waxing air of apprehension. In Brandy Hall Larkspur and Seredic looked towards the west, brows furrowed. Foreboding as it was a weight of anticipation also fell over both. Perhaps whatever approached would allow him to redeem himself. Perhaps this would have her prove herself more than a scared burden.

Still further the stirrings echoed and during her busy rush of setting tables, Salvia hesitated a moment to listen. But the faint rumblings had nothing clear to say. So she picked up her tray of ale and returned to the lively tavern room. Setting down her tankards, she briefly spared a thought for Bilbo and hoped he was alright before shaking off the prickling portent.

 

 

***

 

Rivendell

Alone in his study Elrond sat in peaceful meditation, the air from his balcony stirring papers briefly before settling again. The ease of spring sunshine fell gentle across the room, spilling its way slowly across the floor. Birdsong and the distant strum of a harp hung in the air.

Yet the serenity of the moment was fleeting. A great foreboding drew over the Elf-Lord. A clouded foresight of eroding earth and turbulent skies entered his mind’s eye. A knowledge of great change instigated a shifting in the pattern of what might-have-been and what-might-be. Fractured images: a sea of gold awash in shadow. Widespread flames so encompassing that he could not see what substances it used as kindling: an ocean of fire. A great dragon swarmed by a fog of various birds over a field of corpses under a waning moon.

Elrond jerked from the vision. He rose from his chair, trembling arms braced against his desk. Dread sat heavy in his breast.  Gathering his torn composure he wandered to the balcony, the study’s stillness now stifling. The clear streams of Imladris, the green peaks of its trees, the soft sunshine that fell upon its stone and wooden walls soothed the Elf-Lord’s nerves. Yet when he closed his eyes fire still crackled and the dragon, its color indiscernible in the moon’s fading light, remained.

Laughter rose and drew the elf’s gaze to the courtyard below. Beneath his balcony Elrohir and Elladan strode forth, blades and bow set aside in the peace of Imladris. Their grimness of their usual battle-ready presence lain to rest for the time being. His heart ached at the sight. Elrond closed his eyes and the tranquility of the moment was lost to the images of flames. Various peoples and lands swallowed by the blaze: an inferno licking over the trees, fields, and streams. The conflagration burned his lands, people, and children.

The elf-lord turned back to his desk. Whatever harbinging such premonitions offered, he would not be content unless he had all three of his children beneath his watchful eyes. He needed to write Arwen, request her return as speedily as possible from Caras Galadhon.

Elrond paused in gathering quill and parchment. Perhaps he should write to the Lady Galadriel as well. If such portents had invaded his sight, surely the Lady of Light had suffered similar grim visions.  He dipped quill to ink, his thoughts dark.

A dragon falling to its death. Worry weighed heavy on his chest. A message to check on Bilbo as well.

Hopefully it would not be needed.

 

 

***

 

Rhosgobel

Sebastian croaked then curled in on himself and Radagast’s heart tore at the sight. No.

The house darkened further, creaking and groaning as the giant arachnids pressed against windows and boards. Attempting to break into the crooked house and allow more death and witchcraft in. No.

Rhosgobel was his home. The dead animals, rotting trees, poisoned mushrooms did not belong. It was his power that protected this place. And damn to the Void any who would harm his home and those under his protection.

The brown wizard ripped the blue crystal from his staff and pressed it to the hedgehog’s lips. Sebastian was not dead yet. The trance stole over him as a whispered spell drifted from his lips. ⁞⁞Free the animal from the curse. Now hear words of my voice. Be its life renewed.⁞⁞ The words rose into a crescendo until the sickness he sensed in the poor creature eked from it into the crystal. Wearily he set his healed friend aside.

With worried eyes he looked up only to sense the darkness fleeing. Rushing outside his home he watched as the foliage rustled as the departure of giant spiders, far from where they ought to be.

Ungoliant’s spawn traveling about in daylight outside of the darkest, deepest shadows that Greenwood had to offer. Something was very wrong indeed. “Where on this good earth did those foul creatures come from?” Surely their dwelling must be near.

Richard flew above him drawing his attention. The bird had always had the most current news.

“The old fortress? Show me.” At the sparrow’s chatter he raced off to gather his rabbits and sleigh. Whatever darkness was at hand, he must find the answers.

The horror that awaited him though was not at all expected.

 

 

***

 

Thranduil’s Keep

::News has arrived from the woodsmen near Rhosgobel. They say the spiders have spread further west and north, my lord.:: Tauriel stood firmly, the picturesque state of a soldier reporting. It made a bitter mixture of pride and regret rise in Thranduil’s throat that the Elf King had long become accustomed to. The image of the red-haired elf child that had followed him lost beneath wary warrior eyes.

::And what do I care for the gossip of woodsmen?:: Thranduil took another sip from his wine chalice. Wine always soothed away the worst of his remorse. ::They are not of our concern.::

::My lord, it is further proof that the great-spider’s enlarge their territory not only towards us but throughout all of Eryn Galen. If you would allow me to gather enough forces, we could locate the main nest and—::

::No. Our forces are needed here, Tauriel.:: He saw the hesitation in her step upon hearing him say her name. He knew the force of it, as it was only in private that he let himself refer to her by name instead of title. As if the years parted for a time when he allowed her to openly treat him as anything else but her sovereign. Only in private would he allow regret and nostalgia to sway him.

::Yet surely some could be spared.:: The wine did not bury the stirring of pride he felt on seeing her show the same spirit that she had often displayed as a child despite her now being a woman grown. The same strength of character that so mirrored Miriril. The very same that would lead her to a similar fate and a broken grave.

Another swallow of wine did nothing to sooth the sourness of his thoughts or remove them from his words. ::I have made myself clear, Commander. Now go perform your duties.:: 

Tauriel’s mouth snapped close before she bowed her head in acknowledgement. She paused before the corridor to meet Legolas’s eyes. There was no apology for eavesdropping apparent in the young prince’s expression, only a bitter smile of sympathy. Tauriel’s gaze fell from his before continuing on her way

::You are too old to lurk in doorways, Legolas.:: The prince remained at the room’s entrance even as his father stood. The glass of wine shook slightly as it was placed upon the table besides its open wine bottle.

::You should heed her more, Father. If Tauriel is right then—::

::Regardless if her rumors are true or not, the plight of humans is not my affair. The borders of the Woodland Realm are where your focus should lay, son. Anything else is incidental.::

Legolas stood firm. ::A sickness that starts in the root will not prevent the leaves from falling.::

Thranduil laughed dryly. ::A proverb from my own child.  Very well, then: the oldest forests have deep roots. We have endured all that has come before, apart from man and his turmoil. We shall do so again.::

Legolas tisked before turning away. He’d rather go spider killing with Tauriel than argue with his father. Maybe the two of them would find some satisfaction for their frustration in a decent hunt.

Thranduil lifted his drink as he spoke to his son’s retreating back. ::I respect Tauriel greatly, both as my former ward and current Commander. But I will be obeyed, Legolas. Do not forget that while you are my son, I am your king.::

The echo of footsteps was the prince’s only response.

 

Thranduil stood for sometime as the emptiness of his chambers grew to a waiting expectant silence. A sharp breath parted the Elvenking’s lips, the trembling of his hand which held his wine glass had became more pronounced. With a yell of rage the king threw the chalice. The silver goblet clashed against the far wall bouncing away as drops of red scattered across the room.

How dare they? How dare they all? His kingdom threatened? His children endangered and questioning his decisions (and for as much as Tauriel was not his blood had he not taken her as his ward when she was still but a child, should that not make her his)?  None of the other Elf Lord’s faced such trials. Mithlond was to the peaceful West while Lothlorien and Imladris were protected by two of the great rings. Whereas Eryn Galen was left to its fate. No protection, no attempt by any of his fellow Elf Lord’s to offer aid.

Not true. Celebrimbor did not abandon you.

The wine bottle smashed against the floor with much more satisfaction, glass skittering and sliding amongst the pooling red liquid.  The destruction did nothing to silence the truth of his thoughts.

Celebrimbor upon learning of the rings’ true nature had set aside such craft. He would never make a fourth to complete his set of elements meant to protect and delay the ruin of Arda. Yet before his attempt to flee from the Sauron’s shadow, the great elf-smith had gifted Eryn Galen its own protection. A series of white gems honed of pure starlight to protect and heal the Greenwood.

And he sent them away like a fool.

Miriril would have cautioned against it. Miriril would have warned against letting fear consume his thoughts and twist his actions. But Miriril was dead, her body having cooled of all warmth in Angmar’s darkness as the gems had sat idly in Eryn Galen’s keep. Useless.

If they had only been with her she would have been safe, she would have returned. Legolas would have had his mother and him his wife. He had debated for centuries as Erebor grew greater and Legolas older. Even as an orphaned Sylvan elf that shined with the same confidence, the same compassion as his beloved, wormed her way into his household and heart. At last he was certain of his choice and convinced in the craftsmanship of Erebor’s smiths. So the White Gems of Galen had been sent away to be rewrought as necklace and chocker, one to grace his son and the other his adopted daughter.

Like a fool he had given thieves his valuables and been surprised when they robbed him. And now they were beyond his reach, beneath a dragon’s hide. What purpose would they serve his realm if he sacrificed his people to dragon-fire to regain them? If he risked losing his children to a dragon’s terror as he had lost his father?

Still why should his children not question his decisions? He had made poor ones more than once. Thranduil fell to his seat, unimaginably weary.

Let the world turn to ruin. What had fighting for Arda gifted him but grief? The War of the Last Alliance had claimed two-thirds of his people, his father Oropher, and left him marred by dragon flame. The compassion of his wife and her insistence in offering aid at Fornost had ensured her death and the deaths of those retainers who had agreed to accompany Miriril. And still the world, the Council, the other Free Peoples would ask more of him. Let them perish. Here in his halls he would hoard his people and their wealth.

It was a long while that the elf king brooded there amidst his mess before, in time, a servant stumbled through.

 

 

***

 

Dol Guldur

He used to have a name. Now, for longer than he could count he answered to scum and filth. To the pushing hands and snapping teeth of his Orc captors, and to the dark brash tones of the twisted Men who walked among them. Oh yes those Men with their barbed tongues and their magic evoked with blood and pain. He feared them more than their Orcish allies. For the one would eat him once outgrew his usefulness, the other would unmake him for their own evil purposes. It was better to lose a name, better for them to continue think him some feeble-minded stunted man-creature than to know his true origins. As long as he served his place as custodian to their other prisoner he would live. As long as he lived there was hope for freedom.

A large orc missing his left eared banged against the bars of his cage. Ghazzog, one of his familiar tormentors (and what did that say about how long he had dwelt in this place that he knew their names though it had never been given to him) enjoyed waking him in such manners. The orc did have uses though. If it had not been for Ghazzog’s continual conversations with himself over the years, made up of both Black Speech and Westron, the captive would not have the grasp he did of the foul Orcish language.  //Up, filth.\\ The orc hastened to open the cage’s doors, not that the lock had worked for some time now. There was no real fear of his escape; the illusion and magic cast over the ruined fortress were deterrent enough. Even if he could make his way pass those wards, the army of Wargs, Orcs, and dark magicians would stop him. Not that he had ever made it pass the dark magics when he had first attempted to escape, back in the early days. No the cage was not a prison but a reminder for him that he was an animal to them: a beast to use and then discard.

“Stupid thing. Move,” Ghazzog demanded, kicking at him. He hastily grabbed for the small bag they allowed him to keep and rose to his feet, hobbling slightly. It always hurt to walk, prior tortures having caused his once sturdy feet to be poor broken forms of their previous glory. Still he was fast enough with the incentive of Ghazzog’s anger. //Always Ghazzog fetch the freak. Ghazzog don’t stick him. Ghazzog don’t eat him. The runt’s not good enough for a mouthful.\\ The orc spit a blackish glob onto the captive’s face before throwing him forward. There was no point in dodging as it would only incite more anger and instead he rubbed the offending muck onto his already grimy clothes. The prisoner shuffled onward towards the familiar dilapidated structure that housed the experiments of the magician’s leader as well as many torture objects.

“Good you’ve brought it,” the Westron flowed like oil off the barbed tongue as one of two black robed figurers turned away from the crumpled body on the floor to the Orc. The man was tall with an air of expectant authority in his every action and bedecked in dark armor encased in a black shroud. Blood, not his own, was flecked across his face and stained his hands. The flickering torch light of the chamber gleamed off his half shaven crown illuminating the runes that ran in rows from his left brow to his neck. The other similarly shrouded figure turned as well, a female similar in manner and appearance except that it was the right side of her head shaved and tattooed.  Both wore their unshorn hair in multiple braids pinned back in loops to their head in dark clasps. They hair and eyes gleamed dark-grey in the torchlight though both seemed to be in Man’s prime.

“See to your charge,” the woman said dismissively, her words claiming the same accent as the man’s. The little captive hurried to obey noting the new stains of blood on the floor, hard to distinguish from the old. “We still need him as the hour grows near.”

“Lord Azog will like this news,” Ghazzog said with a mangled grin.

“We care not for Azog’s liking. Our deeds are for Zigûr and his glory. He cannot rise without his most loyal Nâlu. What praises are your Azog’s worth compared to the successful resurrection of our Lord and his Nine,” the woman laughed as she toweled the blood from her hands.

Ghazzog gnashed his teeth even as the man raised his hand for patience. ˀˀDo not antagonize the foul idiot, Lômiphêl. Orcs are distasteful but they still have their uses or why would they also not serve the One?ˁˁ

“Apologies for my sister. Please inform Azog as you wish. We will call if we have need of you again.”

Still displeased the orc grunted and turned to leave. Ghazzog’s eyes flashed to where the runt worked quickly to bind Thrain’s wounds. The once dwarf-lord a shriven mad figure of the great warrior he had once been. Ghazzog continued on. Let the two magicians deal with the freak and dwarf-scum, Ghazzog had better things to do.

ˀˀI know not how you stand that refuse, Îrpân. At least Azog has some intelligence behind his eyes.ˁˁ She tossed aside her towel. ˀˀHas there been any developments from the mountain?ˁˁ Lômiphêl moved aside, offering the basin’s use to her brother. From his place over the dwarf, Thrain’s custodian listened eagerly even as he ripped and salve bandages from his small bag. He had been around these sorcerers before and had noticed the difference of their speech. Always Westron was used to speak with the Orcs and their own language with one another. Some deviation of Old Adȗnaic he was able to follow it well enough as it hailed as the roots for the Westron tongue. Frequent exposure had further assisted such skills.

Îrpân shook his head as he took advantage of her offer. ˀˀNo. The dragon remains quiet about their state. But we have time.ˁˁ The man rinsed first his hands then bowing over the basin to clean his face. A chain fell loose from his garments, a dark band with three rings stringed upon it, to hover over the water. Lômiphêl eyed it eagerly. Thrain’s tender did the same.

Îrpân rose from drying his face and, on noticing his sister’s gaze, slowly and deliberately tucked the necklace away. ˀˀDo not appear so keen, sister. I merely hold them as vassal for our Lord. It is but for a short time longer.ˁˁ

An enthusiastic brilliance lit Lômiphêl’s face at her brother’s words. ˀˀYes. Soon corporeal forms. Just a few more rituals, a few more lives extinguished to ensure their restoration.ˁˁ

ˀˀIndeed.ˁˁ The sorcerer male turned his attention back to the collapsed dwarf. The captive’s gaze had returned to his charge and he dared not raise it as the foul man stepped nearer. ˀˀThrain will be a great sacrifice when the time comes. So many years of pain and torment. When the time is neigh we shall lift his madness, reveal the fall of his line, and even as his last spark of hope is lost, his spirit shall feed our Lord.ˁˁ

Lômiphêl smiled before her attention fell to the dwarf’s caretaker. “Leave and take the dwarf with you.”

The custodian hastened to obey, gathering his supplies and looping Thrain’s arm over his shoulder. But even as departed as swiftly as he could, he watched the two pour wine. Each raised their chalices in a toast. Behind his departing back he heard the male speak, ˀˀFor the glory of Tar-mairon.ˁˁ

The sentiment was echoed by his sister. ˀˀFor the glory of Tar-mairon.ˁˁ

 

Back in Thrain’s own cell, this one not a small cage but an actual room with working locks, the captive placed the dwarf upon the pallet of scrounged furs. A kindness he had worked for days to provide when he had first been charged with dwarf (after hours and hours of torturing their unusual captive had yielded no results but nonsense language his torturers did not understand).

Esmun Hornblower of the Shire carefully covered his fellow prisoner even as plans ran through his head, taken solace in what little peace he could until the maddened dwarf’s waking.

῁῁I’ve found them,῁῁ he whispered to himself, perhaps more than a little mad himself. Outside his room the Sendings of his knack continued to pound against the enchantments of the old keep. Just waiting for the time they would escape and take five years worth of messages to his kin.

 

 

***

 

The Lonely Mountain

Deep in the mountain’s depths a dragon slept, dreams as always a mockery of what-might-of-beens and what-had-come-to-pass.  She haunted his slumbers again, the tawny haired she-creature, almost-elven in form and heavy with child. Her warm golden eyes filled with devotion on seeing him; a reality of his creation that never was. Then just as always in his dreams, she turned away smile widening as she ran through dark corridors out of the cavern’s opening and into blinding sun-light. A defiant, victorious laugh heralded by the flapping of wings. Then the light dimmed and all that remained of her presence were two long pinion feathers: a reminder and a promise. Smaug stirred in his sleep before resettling, discontent as ever with the dream. Perhaps in another it would of recollected remorse and regret. Yet dragon’s are covetous beasts and only frustration at thwarted desire woke in his breast. But soon his mind bent to darker thoughts and his own ambitions. His slumbers shifted from her haunting figure to his own plans. So once more her ghost was set aside until the dream’s return.

Chapter Text

To Bilbo it seemed an age since they had left Hobbiton and finally met the banks of the Hoarwell.  He had made the journey previously with his parents or Elrond’s people, yet he felt it had never taken so long before. He supposed pleasant company made the journey faster. Though, he admitted to himself, it had been more pleasant of late. Thorin had gone back to being quiet, but the others had become more affectionate and approachable since Dwalin’s gift. It had made the last miles of the journey in the Lone-lands more enjoyable as the Company seemed more eager to accept and welcome him.

 They made their way down the steep slope to the Hoarwell’s banks, thankful that they were experiencing their second consecutively sunny day. The river ran swollen with the rains of last week and the large stone bridge stretched across its red banks. Gray stones, coated with lichens and ivy curved over the swirling waters in three great arches. There the Company crossed with little fanfare except for a moment of trouble when one of the ponies spooked.

Bilbo’s luck being what it was, when the snake slithered from its hole in front of Bifur’s mount it was of course Myrtle who noticed the creature and made a break for the water rather than the bridge. Bofur was only a moment too late in trying to snag Bilbo’s hood as burglar and pony galloped past the group of dwarrows and towards the Hoarwell’s turbulent tide. Myrtle found the thrashing waters to be just as dire a prospect if her abrupt stop was any indication. A fortunate circumstance for the hobbit’s luggage which remained firmly tied to the pony’s saddle, if not so fortunate for the hobbit. At the sudden halt Bilbo was soundly flung from Myrtle’s back and into the river.

The water dragged and pulled as Bilbo turned beneath the tide. Hobbits were not swimmers to begin with and the water’s pull was strong. The roiling current not letting him know up from down. Beyond the sheer panic and confusion, a hysterical bubble of thought rose: If I die now it would be terribly inconvenient.

Before actually terror could overcome him a firm grasp hooked beneath Bilbo’s jacket and he was lifted from the stream to look up into the face of his rescuer. He had a glance of worried bright blue eyes and silver streaked dark hair in disarray before he turned away to cough up river water.

Thorin’s heart beat madly and it was only Dwalin’s grip at his shoulder which kept him grounded. He had not thought, not planned, as he had Minty speed down the Hoarwell’s banks ahead of the flailing hobbit with Dwalin and Daisy hard on his heels. Nor did his sudden dive into the waters after the burglar show great forethought. But he could not let Master Baggins be swept away or drown. He could not.

Bilbo purged the last of the water from his lungs as Gandalf and the other dwarves at last joined them. The hobbit’s godfather was quick to clear back the concerned Company members and assessed the lad for himself. Besides him Oin and Dwalin did the same for a rather waterlogged Thorin. When no injury was found on either, the wizard nodded his head grimly before calling that they should cross quickly then have a short halt so that dwarf lord and hobbit might rest and change. None disagreed with him.

Bofur offered Myrtle’s tact quite cheerful now that the scare was over but Bilbo could not help but glance back to Thorin. Even now the dwarf-lord gazed at the hobbit as though struck and Bilbo did not think he misread the concern in the other’s eyes.

“Thank you.” Thorin’s mouth felt parched at the hobbit’s quiet, almost shy murmur. He could not gather the moisture to open his lips or speak so he only stared in reply. Master Baggins seemed just as unwilling to look away.

At Gandalf’s further insistence that the sooner they start the sooner they would clear the raging river’s banks and a nudge from Dwalin to take Minty’s bridle, Thorin shook himself free of the Burglar’s gaze.

“Someone ride beside Master Baggins least he lose control of his mount again,” Thorin said as he mounted Minty once more and the two pranced away.

 

Much of that ride was spent in wet things, Thorin unwilling to lose too much of the day to let they clothes dry properly. Thankfully the protective oils done to Bilbo’s leather armor had kept it from being ruined and the June sun was quick to dry them as they rode. The sunny weather seemed all too happy to linger. And so it did for the next day as well.

Bilbo’s journey continued with the shared moment between him and the dwarf leader continuously prodding the poor hobbit like an unwanted thistle. Was it truly concern (and concern directed at him no less) that he had seen in Thorin’s eyes? And why risk himself to rescue Bilbo when there were several other able bodies? And even if Thorin’s parting words had been undeserved, the dwarf lord had still given Bilbo time to catch his breath. Yes he was uncouth and belligerent but perhaps Bilbo had also been unfair in some of his judgments of Oakenshield. After all he could not be the worst of fellows if he was willing to risk life and limb for his least liked member of their party.

***

The days passed by with the usual stops for meals and sleep. Nori continued accompanying Bilbo’s morning foraging treks and the younger dwarrows sought his attention during their rides. The Ris and Urs still slept nearby at night, in what he had determined as a sign of gratitude for protecting the younger party members, and Thorin remained aloof in his attention to the hobbit. So time passed until an evening came when the Company paused at a large clearing, a deserted building resting at its crest.

Thorin called a stop. “We’ll camp here for the night. Fili, Kili, look after the ponies. Make sure you stay with them.” The dwarrow youths nodded and went about removing their gear for the night as the rest of the Company set about making camp.

Bilbo was to join them but hesitated on seeing his godfather wandering amongst the dilapidated and abandoned ruins of a farmhouse. It was not familiar to the hobbit as he had not diverted from the East Road here on pervious journeys. Though it appeared Gandalf recognizes the place. Bilbo relinquished the reins into Balin’s hands and went to join him.

“Godfather?” Bilbo took hold of the wizard’s sleeve.

“A farmer and his family used to live here.” Gandalf’s eyes crinkled with sorrow and speculation. Bilbo clung closer to his godfather’s side. The wizard sunk against him momentarily before gathering his composure. It was hardly the first time mortals he had known had perished. He starred down at Bilbo’s concerned upturned face. It would hardly be the last, Gandalf thought hollowly.  Behind them Thorin’s orders to various Company members echoed in the farmhouse’s pasture.

“I think it would be wiser to move on,” Gandalf intoned, parting from Bilbo as Thorin strode up to the ruins.

Thorin’s eyes flashed to the burglar and the hobbit with one last pat to his godfather’s arm walked past the dwarf lord. His sleeve brushed Thorin’s in passing each other and a faint flush brightened Bilbo’s cheeks. They had not been so near one another since the rescue at the river. Bilbo rushed back to Balin’s side, retaking Myrtle’s reins, uncertain if he was more bothered that the blush may be caused by his embarrassment at the incident or the memory of Thorin’s concern focused solely on him.

 “We could make for the Hidden Valley,” Gandalf continued, drawing Thorin’s gaze away from the fleeing hobbit.

The dwarf lord’s focused reluctantly returned to the wizard. “I have told you already, I will not go near that place.”

“Why not? The elves could help us. We could get food, rest, advice.”

 “I do not need their advice.” Not from wizards and not from elves. Gandalf had made no secret of his assistance being in accordance with furthing his own aims. Thorin would not let the wizard’s machinations hinder the Company’s quest.

Gandalf shook his head. “We have a map that we cannot read. Lord Elrond could help us.”

“Help? A dragon attacks Erebor, what help came from the Elves? Orcs plunder Moria, desecrate our sacred halls, the Elves looked on and did nothing,” Thorin growled. “You ask me to seek out the very people who betrayed my grandfather and betrayed my father.”

Gandalf bit back his own growl. Leave it to any race of the Free Peoples to claim the greatest grievances against the others. He could name a time or two dwarves had shown themselves unwilling to assist their allies as well. Yet no good would come of that discussion. “You are neither of them. I did not give you that map and key for you to hold on to the past.”

The dwarf lord snarled at him, “I did not know that they were yours to keep.”

The wizard stormed off in a fury. “Everything alright? Gandalf, where are you going,” Bilbo asked as he godfather stomped past.

 “To seek the company of the only one around here who’s got any sense.”

Bilbo followed after Gandalf, leaving Myrtle in Balin’s keeping once more. “Who’s that?”

 “Myself, Bilbo! I’ve had enough of dwarves for one day.”

“Are you jesting,” Bilbo puffed angrily as he snatched at Gandalf’s robe. The wizard pulled free and waved him away, grumbling about rock-brained dwarf-lords. The hobbit turned his annoyed gaze from his godfather’s departing back to the dwarf-king’s face.

Thorin met Bilbo’s stare momentarily before turning back to the Company. “Come on, Bombur, we’re hungry.”

 “Is he coming back,” Ori asked sliding up to Bilbo’s side.

“He best if he knows what’s good for him,” Bilbo said darkly before he returned to unloading his pack along with the other supplies from Myrtle’s back. Those who felt brave enough to venture near the irate hobbit were hardly surprised to hear him muttering beneath his breath on the sullenness of godfathers and dwarf-lords.

 

By the time camp was prepared, dinner ready, and the ponies left to graze under Fili’s and Kili’s (mostly) attentive watch, Gandalf had yet to return. While this unsettled one particular burglar and upset a certain king, neither of the dwarrow princes gave it much concern. Mainly because one was busy rambling on about a certain dwarrow-dam and the other attempting to make the torture end by means of knocking himself out by way of concussion.

 “Do you think she likes me,” Fili asked staring wistfully off in the direction of the Company’s camp.

Kili continued to thump the back of his head against the nearest tree. Fili had spent the last half hour of their watch extrapolating on Ori’s virtues. Admittedly anyone who could describe the dam’s timidity and stammering as enduring must be one love-struck dwarrow. However that did little to ease the torture of having to listen to his elder brother (previously known as something of an expert when dealing with idle romances) make lovelorn sighs over the little scribe.

Fili poked as his brother’s side when the knocking of a head against wood was the only reply he received. “Well do you?”

“If she thinks anything like I do, she knows she’s best off fleeing for the hills rather than having to spend the rest of her life listening to your snoring,” Kili remarked. He was not quite quick enough to scramble away when Fili tackled him.

They rolled about until Fili rose victorious, Kili’s head thrust into the dirt with his brother’s knee firmly planted on his back.

“Get your fat arse off me.” Kili struggled but Fili only pushed his head more firmly into the ground.

“What was that, brother? I don’t believe it was an apology.”

“You know I didn’t mean it, Fi. So get off.”

Fili relented; he hopped off his brother’s back taking a seat on the ground besides Kili.

“You know she really is a fine dam, sensible and kind.” Kili happily flopped over onto his back to stare up at the sky and his brother. “I can’t think of anyone better suited to you.”

“Thanks, Ki.” Fili rose and offered his hand. Kili took it and stood, shaking grime from his hair. It did little to help the fact that he been rolling around in the dirt.

Fili patted at his back with a chuckle as they turned back to resume their sentry post. Their merriment though was short lived as they walked about to check on their charges.

Both stood besides the last group of ponies filled with a sense of dread. Kili broke the silence. “Fili?”

“Yes?”

“Did you only count fourteen too?”

“Yes.”

“I was afraid of that.”

***
Bilbo peered out into the forest’s gloom hoping for the glimpse of a particular pointed hat as the brother’s Ur dished out a hearty stew to their companions. When neither hat nor wizard proved forthcoming, the hobbit sighed before taking a seat by the fire.

Bombur paused in his eating to gently pat Bilbo’s shoulder. “He’s been a long time,” the hobbit murmured.

 “Who,” Bofur asked, passing Ori another bowl to hand out to her brother.

“Gandalf,” Bilbo replied.

“He’s a wizard! He does as he chooses.” The hat wearing dwarf pressed two full bowls into Bilbo’s hands. “Here, do us a favor: take this to the lads.”

Bilbo sighed but dutifully marched off towards the woods, leaving the others dwarves to discuss stew quantities and qualities. However Bifur stopped him from entering the forest. The older dwarf pressed a little pouch into his hands. On examining it, balancing the bowls on a nearby stump, Bilbo saw it was full of dried herbs and peppers. >>Give to Kili. He likes spice in his food.<<

Bilbo donned a confused expression. They was certainly no way the dwarrow knew he understood him. “I’m sorry what?”

Bifur scowled in return. >>You heard me. Kili. Fili cannot handle taste.<< The dwarf waited for a moment before nodding and stomping off to return to his cousins. Bilbo stood frozen as thoughts flash through his mind. When had he given himself away? Had Bifur told Thorin or the Company of his suspicions? Bilbo shook his head. Why talk to him in private then instead of before the other dwarrows? Dwarves guarded their language fiercely and surely Bifur would find it odd that a hobbit would understand Khuzdul. It would certainly raise more questions on how he knew something so secret, leading to greater spying. Bilbo’s only comforts were that Bifur had been private about the matter and Bilbo hadn’t truly confirmed he understood the other. Though he silence had probably not helped matters. Bilbo slipped the pouch into his pocket, retrieved the bowls, and continued on into the woods his thoughts tangled on how such developments were sure to complicate his Calling.

Any hope Bilbo might have had that the princes would distract him from his worries, disappeared upon seeing the lads. Both were restless gawking at their equestrian charges.  “What’s the matter?”

“We’re supposed to be looking out for the ponies,” Kili said stiltedly.

Fili turned to Bilbo. “Only we’ve encountered a slight problem.”

“We had sixteen,” Kili added.

“Now there’s fourteen,” Fili finished.

They all examined the group of ponies.

Kili counted off names silently. “Daisy and Bungo are missing.”

 “Well, that’s not good. That is not good at all. Shouldn’t we tell Thorin?” Bilbo’s gaze flickered between the two.

At the thought of his uncle’s disappointment, Fili was quick to jump to an alternative course. “No. Let’s not worry him. As our official burglar, we thought you might like to look into it.”

Bilbo rolled his eyes but looked around. After all there was no way that the ponies would have left no trail at all. Though dug up trees were not at all what he expected. “Something big uprooted these.”

Kili nodded. “That was our thinking.” 

Bilbo stared at the two in exasperation. “Something big and possible quite dangerous made off with some of the ponies and you don’t want to tell Thorin?”

“Well—,” Kili began.

“There’s a light,” Fili interrupted. Fili and Kili pulled him down behind a log within view of the light which apparently was a good size fire reflecting off the boulder’s further ahead. Harsh laughter sounded from near the blaze.

“What is it,” Bilbo asked.

“Trolls,” Kili called back as he and Fili hopped over the log and ran off towards the light. Bilbo followed, though he hesitated before abandoning the soup bowls. Wasting food was always deplorable behavior but there didn’t seem to be much point in bringing soup while running towards trolls. Not that it seemed like a bright idea to run towards trolls at all.

All three ended up ducked down behind foliage again as a massive troll stumbled by, a pony hefted under each arm.

“Myrtle and Minty,” Bilbo breathed. “They’re bound to eat them. We have to do something.”

Kili exchanged a look with his brother. Thorin would have their hides if they let the ponies get eaten.

“Well you are a burglar. Mountain trolls are slow and stupid, and you’re so small,” Kili began pushing Bilbo forward.

Bilbo grabbed the younger dwarrow’s arm in a vicious grip before he went stumbling into a tree and then turned on the two princes. “Are you insane?”

“But, Bilbo, they’ll never see you,” Fili insisted. “All you have to do is sneak past them.”

“Oh yes,” the hobbit sputtered. “Just sneak past the massive trolls and steal back the ponies. How exactly am I going to do that quietly? I can’t just put them in my pockets!”

“But Bilbo you’re our best chance.”

“No, this is an awful plan.” It truly was. “You,” he pointed at Fili, “are going to find Thorin and explain everything. And you,” he turned to Kili, “are going to wait here to relay any changes.” Bilbo thought quickly. Even if he could risk taking on his dragon form this close to the camp, killing trolls without harming the ponies would be practically impossible. And such a fight would be surely noticeable. Which meant he had few options; most of which would have him relying on the Company. An act he was reluctant to take despite his lack of choice. “I will sneak over there but only to get us more details. It would be stupid to go into a fight without as much information as possible.”

The princes hesitated. Bilbo narrowed his eyes. “You either fetch Thorin or I will.”

The brothers exchanged a glance but conceded. Fili rushed back to the encampment with a whispered, “If you run into trouble, hoot twice like a barn owl, once like a brown owl.”

Kili hunkered down easing back into the foliage. “Are you sure this is a good idea,” the younger prince asked.

“Better than trying to steal a herd alone,” the hobbit replied. More distressed neighing could be heard and Bilbo was certain that the remaining ponies behind them had lessened in number again. “Stay here. I’ll be back.”

As quietly as possible Bilbo neared the light source. “Twice like a barn owl, twice like a brown—once like a brown…. Utter nonsense,” he mumbled beneath his breath. Kili watched on fretful. Perhaps it would have been better not to send Bilbo out or at least not alone. If anything happened to the hobbit it would be his and Fili’s fault.

Meanwhile, Bilbo’s careful approach had been well rewarded. Despite having never seen a troll before it was obvious that three large figures gathered around a mighty cauldron were indeed trolls. And he found there were as disgusting as any description he had ever heard as the argued over the contents of their stew. The news of the farmer’s fate would no doubt distress Gandalf (and indeed distressed Bilbo himself though he had not known the man) but their discussion of the ponies roused the hobbit’s protective spirit. Like the Void he was going to let any of these filthy blighters have one bite of Myrtle or the rest.

Bilbo listened intently for a time unable to discern which of the three was the leader of the group. Mayhap there was no set leader as the infighting between the three worsened. It certainly was not Tom who suffered abuse from both of the other larger trolls. Bert had say over the food and didn’t seem afraid to berate William as well as Tom. But William was the largest and there was a general meanness to his countenance that superseded the other two. When it came to fighting he would most likely be the worst of the bunch. Bilbo’s attention shifted from their quarrelling over to the ponies’ enclosure. A rudimentary paddock made of wood and rope. Simple enough to cut open but the mounts would surely bolt in panic. Even now they nickered and whinnied in discontent being so near the trolls. Perhaps if the others acted as a distraction he could secure the mounts. That’s if any of them were sensible enough to listen to his advice. Oh what a time for Gandalf to have wandered off!

Pulling back from where he wandered nearer to see the ponies, Bilbo eased into the bushes. A sharp crack similar to the breaking of a stick far to his left resonated in the clearing as the trolls had quieted down while the whiny one, Tom, searched for a disgusting handkerchief.

All three Trolls’ heads snapped in the direction of the sound. Bilbo fought not to close his eyes in frustration. Could not one of these Company members listen to him? If that was Kili he might murder the young dwarrow if the trolls did not get the chance.

“West Nags ya say, William?” Bert rose from his seat, setting aside his container of squirrel dung spice. “Where’d you say you found them?”

“I only got the first two. Wanderin’ alone they were. Tom, were’d yer get the others?”

“Oh,” the third troll whined. “There’s a great ‘eap of ‘orses over in the littler clearing.”

William and Bert turned to each other each with wide broken tooth grins. “Riders,” they hissed together. The sight of those smiles was enough to cause dread to crawl down Bilbo’s spine even if their words were not.

“Yer not be havin’ horse tonight, but travelers,” William said to Tom, all three trolls rising up. “Might be enough for a pie.”

A plan, Bilbo needed a plan. Mounting alarm fought his ability to think. Perhaps if he attempted his half-form and directed his knack at the trolls he could burn the three. Of course he had not managed to breathe fire since that time with Goldberry and Tom Bombadil. Also he would have to be precise enough to miss the ponies and not catch the woods ablaze. And possible whatever made the noise might see him. But what choice did he have. Hopefully the darkness and his position would help his aims and hinder any watcher from spying him. The hobbit prepared to step forward before the trolls could go in search of his fellow party members.

Of course such plans and risk of discovery proved pointless as a host of dwarrows, brandishing their weapons, rushed from the tree line. Kili and Fili ran in the lead followed by Thorin and the rest.

Bilbo watched on in horror at the reckless charge before shaking himself. Well he had wanted a distraction for the ponies. Freeing one of his father’s daggers the hobbit scurried over to the ponies’ enclosure. He sawed free the binding rope as fast as possible keeping a careful eye to the battle least he be sneaked up on. Of course on the rope snapping loose and the wood falling free the mounts were quick to flee in several directions adding further chaos to the battle. Better that they had to spend time gathering them later if they won this fight then to allow the faithful creatures to be these foul thing’s lunch.

Bifur found the fight exhilarating, his cousin’s beside him and his companions surrounding their enemy. Battle-rage fell over his sight. The desire to cull since unnatural beings encompassed him. Indeed the battle rush has set into all the dwarrows, many cries of feral victory failing from crazed grins. Even as they fought in concert beneath the trolls feet cracking teeth, cutting flesh, and breaking bone there was a dark satisfaction that lay over the group. A troll swooped up Ori but Fili was quickly there, his duo blades slashing and freeing the dam. His bright smile blinded her for a moment before he was off back to the fight. Ori raised her slingshot in response, letting loose a stone into the smallest troll’s eye. Beyond her, Gloin and Oin parried blows between axe and staff. Dwalin cleaved with his hammers oft times joined by his brother and Thorin welding Deathless. Even further on the eldest Ris darted and lunged, pole-club, knives, bolas, and sword dealing their own damage.

The odd dance of weapons might have continued on if the angered Bert had not taken one of their sitting logs and thrown it at the dwarrows. Fili and Kili quickly dived apart, the wood just grazing the elder dwarf enough to send him stumbling onto his back. William pressed his advantage and lumbered forward, lifting her sharpened make-shift man-sized knife. The young princes were too separate from the others and though Kili turned to rush back to his brother’s side, there was no saying if blade or dwarrow would be quicker. Certainly there was not time enough to stop the troll’s rampage. A bellow of rage sounded as Thorin saw his fallen nephew.

And Bilbo did not stop to think.

A red jacketed form flung itself over the elder dwarrow. Fili’s blue eyes met Bilbo’s and widened in disbelief as green irises altered to yellow, pale skin morphed to green scales. Kili, the only other with a clear of the view of the hobbit, fumbled in shock even as William’s knife fell. Bilbo grunted as the blade jabbed downward onto his left shoulder, slicing through clothes only to be slowed by his leather armor and halted by dragon hide.

On the blade’s retraction, Bilbo let the transformation falter, his half-form dissipating. He returned to a mere hobbit even as he staggered to his feet and pushed Fili further from the troll. Not a moment too soon for the dwarf, though it did no good for Bilbo. The great brute snatched him by his arm and lifted him from the ground.

The rest of the Company members huddled around Fili, pulling him up, even as the trolls grouped themselves around Bilbo. Bert took his left arm and leg while William took the right, Tom hovering besides them. Kili tried to fling himself with a shout of “Bilbo,” only to be snatched back by his uncle. At his side Dori lowers Ori’s readied sling, awaiting Thorin’s orders.

“Lay down your arms, or we’ll rip his off,” William hollered at the stalemate.

Thorin, who had witnessed the Burglar’s rescue of his kin, watched as fear fell over the hobbit’s features. Still perhaps it said more of the dwarf lord than it did of their burglar that he was surprised by Master Baggins’s response.

“No,” the hobbit twisted in his captures hands. His fright was obvious to all the dwarrows. Still Bilbo called out to them, “Run. I’ll be fine.”

Gathering his knack to him, Bilbo fought to think. If they leave I can…. His thoughts were interrupted of their plans as Bert twisted his arm. A startled cry wrenched from the hobbit at the pain.

“Drop them now,” the troll emphasized its order by continuing to twist Bilbo’s arm. With an audible pop his arm dislocated from his shoulder, producing another scream from the hobbit.

Frustration and rage tore through Thorin at the hobbit’s pain and with resigned fury he planted his sword Deathless in the ground. Around him the Company followed suit even as they watched in horror as their burglar remained restrained above them. Sweat sheened Bilbo’s forehead as he dangled from both arms while Tom gathered the weapons. Once collected, Bert and William mercilessly dropped him. As he fell Bilbo heard the dwarrows’ cries of worry but it was only for a moment. As his injured arm met the ground, pain overwhelmed Bilbo and the dark folds of unconscious stole over the hobbit.

***

Bilbo woke to throbbing pain in his body and to the realization that while neither his hands nor feet were bound he was indeed tied up in a sack.

“Bilbo, laddie. Can you hear me?” Bilbo groaned in answer to Balin’s question. He wished he could have convinced himself it had all been an awful dream but on seeing the elderly dwarf also bound in a sack the hobbit resigned himself to reality. Tentatively he shifted into a sitting position, biting back against the pain from his shoulder, and took stock of their situation. Balin lay at his side while around him Kili, Fili, Thorin, Gloin, Bombur, and Oin were in a heap of sacks. All seemed stripped of armor as well as weapons though Bilbo noticed that Fili thrashed about as though trying to reach something. The hobbit’s own clothes remained unmolested (he supposed the trolls thought there was no reason to strip an unconscious prisoner). Across from them the three trolls bumbling around a fire where a great spit stood above it with more of his companions on it. Bofur, Nori, Dori, Ori, Dwalin, and Bifur rotated over crackling flames, a few trying to futilely blow out the blaze.

Dire straits indeed. But there must be something he could do if he could just think. No point to changing into a dragon. He’d only be injured in that form as well. And there was still hope that if they ever got out of here, Fili might dismiss his transformation as a trick of light. Bilbo snorted. With his luck not likely. He wriggled about a bit more, his good right hand brushing his thigh. As his fingers tapped against Esmeralda’s knife a bit of hope sparked in the hobbit’s heart. It wasn’t much but his prospects seemed just a tad brighter.

The trolls’ argument over food once again arose as Bert turned the spit.

“They should be sautéed and grilled with a sprinkle of sage,” Bert insisted causing cries of fear and anger to rise from the dwarrows.

“Ooh, that does sound quite nice,” Tom replied eying Bombur quite hungrily

William was quick to disrupt their discourse. “Never mind the seasoning; we ain’t got all night! Dawn ain’t far away, so let’s get a move on. I don’t fancy being turned to stone.”

And despite his own fear and pain those words gave Bilbo an idea.

“Wait! You are making a terrible mistake.” Bilbo struggled to rise.

From his place on the spit Dori cried back, “You can’t reason with them, they’re half-wits!”

“Half-wits? What does that make us,” Bofur unhelpfully added.

Bilbo managed to stand, his good hand fumbling for his knife.

“What is it,” William asked.

“The strange one that wriggles around. It woke up ands talkin’,” Tom replied.

“Yer no dwarf,” William stooped down to look at him. “What are you then? An oversized squirrel?”

Bilbo twisted about in his bag, having reached Esmeralda’s knife and worked it free of its strap and his pocket. If he could get free he could work to distract the trolls further until either Gandalf’s return or daybreak. “I’m a burglar—uh , Hobbit.”

Tom looked befuddled. “A Burgla-Hobbit?”

“Never heard of a burrahobbit,” Bert interjected.

“There any more of yer sort around here,” William asked.

“Yes, lots,” Bilbo said, angling himself to keep his right side hidden as he cut at the clothe sack. He hadn’t really listened to the question as he concentrated, but almost immediately added afterwards, once he’d considered the trolls words: “No, none at all, not one.”

“Well which is it? And what mistake are we making,” Bert grumbled.

“Uh, I meant with the, uh, with, uh….” Bilbo searched for an excuse. His thoughts fell to their argument on food but he was quick to dismiss it. He wanted to distract them from thinking of eating them, not remind them.

“Well,” William asked threateningly. Bilbo floundered to think of something, anything. Curse it if only he was not so unlucky all the time. Bilbo’s eyes widened at the thought.

“They all are. Burlga-Hobbits I mean. Oh yes it’s a nasty curse you see, befalls dwarf-folk all the time.” Trolls and dwarrows both stared at him as though he’d lost his mind. “It, uh, causes you to lose your beard and become weak. An awful thing with bad luck just pooling out of you. Quite, uh, catching no matter the, uh, species.”

“I don’t know,” Tom began.

Bert hit the smaller troll with his free arm at the interruption. “Shut up, and let the, uh, flurgaburburrahobbit talk.”

The sack cloth beginning to part, Bilbo hastened to continue, trying to think of proof. “Just look at that poor soul; already getting to late term stages. Down to just his last whiskers,” he gestured to Kili with his chin.

“Hey!” A look of outrage fell over the dwarf prince’s face.

“And that’s not even the worst of it. The…um…infection is where you should be most concerned. Bad luck and …um…sickness just spreading everywhere. They’ve all got…worms. Yes worms in their … tubes.”

Tom hopped back from the bound dwarves in disgust even as Bert stared suspiciously at the one’s he’d been turning on the spit.

Bilbo caught a glimpse of grey and a rather recognizable hat out of the corner of his eye. Thank goodness Gandalf had returned. “In-In fact they all have, they’re in—infested with parasites. It’s a terrible business; I wouldn’t risk it, I really wouldn’t.”

“Parasites, did he say parasites?” Whatever was the Burglar up to, Oin wondered.

Kili’s offense grew greater. “We don’t have parasites! You have parasites,” the young prince defended.

Gloin was as confounded as his brother. “What are you talking about, laddie?”

As the dwarrows all chimed in about how they had no such thing. Bilbo rolled his eyes in frustration. Could they not put two thoughts together and see his plan. Thorin, quick to understand, kicked the others who quieted and turned their attention to him. Understanding dawned on the fellow Company members’ faces and many were verbose in confirming the Burglar’s words.

Oin yelled, “I’ve got parasites as big as my arm.”

Kili not to be outdone insisted. “Mine are the biggest parasites.” Fili, still unable to reach his hand-axes attached to his boots, joined his brother with a cry of: “I’ve got huge parasites!”

“We’re riddled,” Nori insisted. Despite being stripped of armor and weapons, the dam still had a few knives hidden on her person. She struggled to reach them and their bindings though it would do little good to get free as the fire still crackled beneath them.

“Yes, I’m riddled.” Ori spoke up despite her fear. Anything that might distract the trolls from eating them was worth it.

“Yes we are,” Dori shouted, in a panic over his sisters’ welfare. “Badly!”

William snorted. “What a load of rubbish! Bad luck for yer all but we’ll be fine.”

One arm almost free, Bilbo reached for his knack. Oh if they wanted bad luck, he’d give it to them. He reached for the nearest troll, Tom, and let the twist of warmth ensnare the idiot.

The dumb troll reached out to grab a dwarf for a quick nibble when a cramp started in his leg. Tom squealed at the pain and bunglingly tripped backwards upsetting the set aside stew pot. The cauldron swayed for a moment before it fell over. A sloshing tide of foul soup cascaded from it burning Tom’s toes and running beneath the spit, extinguishing the fire.

The dwarven shouts of parasites fell silent as dwarrows and trolls both stared in perplexion at the event. Well that worked better than expected, Bilbo thought. “See it’s already begun.”

William rounded on the hobbit. “You think I don’t know what you’re up to? This is somehow yer doin’.”

“I told you it’s strange. Build back up the fire. Hold ‘is toes over the fire.  Make him squeal,” Tom added, nursing his poor feet.

Bert swiped at the hobbit, but Bilbo, arm finally free, stabbed his knife into the troll’s hand. The cook bellowed and ripped his hand back knife still embedded in it. Bilbo tried to hop out of reach but the sack and his pain impeded him.

William snatched the hobbit up from around his stomach and shook him. No other weapon at hand and becoming progressively dizzier from the abuse his shoulder was taking, Bilbo searched his pockets in panic. A rustling in his jacket pocket caught his attention and he pulled Bifur’s pouch of spice free.

William rounded to his brethren, hobbit still in hand.  “This little ferret is taking us for fools!”

“Ferret?” The indignation in Bilbo’s voice was quickly followed by a spray of herbs tossed into William’s face. The troll roared in pain as the spice met his eyes and he dropped the hobbit to better swipe at the irritant. Bilbo twisted to fall on his good side but still muffled a scream as he bad shoulder was jarred.

Watching his kin stumble about in pain, Bert questioned, “Fools?”

As if waiting for just this moment, Gandalf appeared standing upon a large rock that loomed above the clearing. “The dawn will take you all,” he pronounced before striking his staff upon the boulder. The great rock sheared in two and sunlight poured forth into the clearing. As the damning light fell on the trolls’ skin, they began to shriek as pallid skin morphed to stone. Within seconds, all three trolls stood as statues around the fire pit. The dwarves cheered and Bilbo fell back to the ground with a sigh of relief despite the pain. That went better than expected.
Even Thorin could not help his smile on seeing the wizard.

 

It took some time to cut free the dwarrows in the sacks and those on the spit. At the trolls’ demise, Nori was quick to free herself and her siblings. Dori, the sap, swept both sisters into a large hug even as Dwalin, Bofur, and Bifur grumbled that they would like to be unbound as well.

Once all were free of sacks and spit, Thorin was quick to have them retrieve their belongings and weapons. Those not injured were sent back to the camp to recover their deserted possessions. Gandalf, having checked on Bilbo, left his godson in Oin’s capable hands. Already the dwarrow had reset the hobbit’s shoulder with Dwalin’s careful help. The old healer then insisted that the hobbit be allowed to lie down even as he turned to providing ointment to ease the minor burns the spit dwarrows had suffered.

Gandalf thumped his staff against the troll statue, a pleased smile on his face. On seeing that the others were tended to Thorin approached the wizard.  “Where did you go to, if I may ask?”

“To look ahead,” Gandalf replied

“What brought you back?”

“Looking behind.” Thorin accepted the response with a nod. Gandalf’s attention returned to the statutes. “Nasty business. Still, you are all in one piece.”

“No thanks to your burglar.” Master Baggins had indeed protected Fili, but had failed to consider himself. Selfless, Frerin’s voice whispered. Stupid, Thorin obstinately though back. If the hobbit had not been caught in the first place they would never have had to surrender. “I suppose we have you to thank for the fire.”

Gandalf hummed noncommittal and raised a reproving brow at him. “He had the nous to play for time. None of the rest of you thought of that.”

Indeed. And the burglar had pled for them to leave, Thorin admitted to himself. He thought you’d leave him, Dis’s voice accused. A reluctant repentance filled the dwarf lord. He might not have been kind to the hobbit but surely he thought Master Baggins knew that the Company (that Thorin) would not abandon one of its own. 

Gandalf’s next words shook him from his thoughts. “They must have come down from the Ettenmoors.”

Thorin examined the stone figures as well. “Since when do mountain trolls venture this far south,” he asked.

“Oh, not for an age, not since a darker power ruled these lands.”

The two shared a meaningfully look as both thought of histories long past. It was Gandalf who shrugged off these heavy thoughts first.  “They could not have moved in daylight,” the wizard stated.

“There must be a cave nearby.” Thorin stomped off to gather more of the Company to assist in finding its location, Gandalf quick to accompany him.

***

A tad cruel, Nori escaped Dori’s smothering concern leaving Ori the sole recipient of their brother’s affection without an ounce of regret. She loved him but could not abide his nearness. The dangerous brew of terror, anger, relief, and exhaustion boiled in her blood and she could not remain still a moment longer. When she was in such a mood it was best to not be near her family. So as Thorin sought volunteers to look for the troll hoard, Nori was only too willing to agree. When a certain dwarrow guard volunteered as well it seemed too good a chance to pass.

Post battle jitters had led her to make poor decisions before. Yet even as she dragged a surprised Dwalin into the shade, far from the others prying eyes, she could not find any room in her heart for regret.

She’d almost died today, surely she deserved some reward.

The kiss was not a kind thing: a clacking of teeth and bruising of lips fierce and feral. But Dwalin, who had so longed for anything the dam was willing to gift him, took it eagerly. Hands finally full of warm, battle grimed Nori who was beautiful even in her disheveled state (and alive so importantly alive). Let a stronger dwarrow then him find the strength to deny themselves such enticements. It seemed an age they stood there, the dam clinging tighter to him, grip firm and demanding a mimicry of his own grasp.

A cry rang out as someone had successful found the troll hoard and within a second Nori tore herself from his hold. The dam, eyes bright, stared at him for a moment before Nori danced close for a quick peck and a whisper of “Later,” then rushed off to join the others. Dwalin pressed his palm to his lips in minor astonishment then caught his breathe and hurried after the dam. He was not planning on losing sight of Nori, not after this.

 

On finding the cave, most of the Company members elected to remain outside. The air that emitted from its opening was foul and the inside filthy. Bilbo in particular refused to be moved. A night spent sleepless and with more excitement than any creature could want, the hobbit lay unmoving from the pallet Oin had appointed him. Except for Ori being allowed to place Bilbo’s pack next to him (something he had accepted with a smile of gratitude) the old healer gruffly refused to let anyone near his patient. The hobbit needed rest and that was that.

So it was only Bofur, Gloin, Nori, and Dwalin who accompanied Thorin and Gandalf into the cave. Despite the wizard’s cautions about being careful what they touched, the piles of coin and other small treasures lured more than one dwarf from their leader’s side.

Thorin let the Company go about their business, his own eyes drawn to a cobweb strewn stack of weapons. Gandalf close behind him.

The silver swords especially seemed to call to the dwarf lord. He picked up two of them memorized by the blades exquisite shape and craftsmanship. “These swords were not made by any troll.”

Thorin passed the longer to Gandalf and examined his own blade closely.

“Nor were they made by any smith among men.” Gandalf drew the sword in his hand out of its sheath a few inches and blew a bit of the dust away. “These were forged in Gondolin by the High Elves of the First Age.”

Elf make. Thorin’s face fell in disappointment and disgust but Gandalf was quick to reprove. “You could not wish for a finer blade.”

Reluctantly, Thorin kept hold of the sword and drew it from its sheath. The hilt felt made for his hand and he reluctantly admitted that the blade held the finest balance of any weapon he had ever felt. Even his faithful Deathless could not rival it for comparison.

Nori listened to the discussion even as she set to work besides Gloin and Bofur to dig a deep enough hole for a few of the hoard’s treasures.  A small chest laden with coins and a few valuables was shoved into the earthen opening. Nori began to push dirt back over the pit when her shovel caught on something. There among the rubbish and debris lay a fine sword, its hilt a dark grey, nearly black, inlaid with swirls of either silver or iron (it was so grim streaked she could not tell). The scabbard was also dark and where it sat loosely in its sheath the blade was as black as night. Certainly elvish. Her lip curled in contempt, she had no use for elvish things. However it might fetch a pretty price in the future. While Gloin was distracted talking to Dwalin, the dwarrowdam used her shovel to slide the sword into their hole. Quickly she moved to cover it up before Bofur returned with more baubles.

Their leader stomped past just moments after they had finished.  “Let’s get out of this foul place. Come on, let’s go. Bofur! Gloin! Nori!”

The wizard followed the impatient dwarf and companions only to stop as his foot hit something hard and metal. Gandalf brushed aside the leaves and muck with his staff, revealing another blade. Its appearance similar to the ones he and Thorin carried but of a smaller make. Gandalf stooped and pulled the short-sword from the earth. It would do no good for a dwarf or man but might be just the thing for a hobbit.

 

While their uncle and the wizard went below and Balin, Ori, Dori, Bombur, and Bifur tried to orderly arrange their campsite supplies, Fili and Kili had been left as lookout. Thorin’s angry words of reproach for their neglect in watching the ponies still rang in both their ears. So in part at an attempt at privacy and in part their own curiosity while trying to also get as good a view of the area as possible, the Durin heirs had climbed up one of the stone trolls and took refuge there. Both noted how the stone felt odd beneath their feet, echoing not all like true stone to their stone-sense.  There was no life to it. They made their way up quickly, Kili only pausing for a moment to work free Bilbo’s knife from the stone hand. It took some strength but the dwarrow was able to recover the prize. The dark-haired prince sat twisting it in his hands as he and his golden brother surveyed the woods.

>>You think he’ll be angry for long,<< Kili asked casting his gaze about. No sign of the ponies or any threats.

>>He should be. We nearly got Bilbo and the Company killed with our carelessness.<< Fili shuffled nearer his brother.

>>We didn’t mean any harm,<< Kili whispered back.

>> No we did not, but that does not change that Bilbo was hurt to make us comply.<< Fili could not bear to say tortured though they both thought the word.

Kili stared down at his hands in thought. Would it have been different if he had done as Bilbo said and not followed after the hobbit?  If he had not tried to send Bilbo in alone in the first place?

Fili watched Kili struggle with his thoughts of only-ifs. He reached up and ruffled his unusually dour brother’s hair. >>We made a mistake, we won’t do it again.<<

Neither could bear to sit in silence for long when another question lingered between the two. >>Speaking of Bilbo did you see—was it just me are did he change?<<

>>I saw it.<< They had heard Oin as he looked over the Burglar stating how lucky he was that the troll’s blade had deflected off the hobbit’s odd leathers rather than impaling the lad. But Fili and Kili knew better. That blade had definitely hit strong and firm. Whatever Bilbo had done, whatever he had changed into had been what had protected both from the troll’s strike. >>I’m not sure what happened, but he saved me.<<

>>I think it would be best if we didn’t tell uncle.<< Even as he made the suggestion, Kili squashed a worm of guilt in his gut. Usually he would take any of his concerns to Thorin but his uncle’s reaction was too unpredictable when it came to the hobbit.

>>Right,<< the elder brother nodded in agreement. Fili knew he would need to make his own decision on the matter before reporting it. >>At least for now. I want to talk to Bilbo first. Learn what that was and why.<<

>>Why what?<<

>>Why he risked showing me?<<

***

If the others would leave him to sleep here for a year Bilbo thought he might just do that. Oin had bound he reset shoulder, warning he would need to not strain it, pushed a handful of jerky onto Bilbo, and forced the hobbit to take the elderly dwarrow’s own recovered sleeping roll. Familiar with the temperament of Bolger healers Bilbo ruefully obeyed. He knew better than to risk a physician’s anger by being a poor patient. Oin’s stout guard of him was surprisingly reassuring and a tad gratifying. It spoke of no special treatment, but only a professional straightforwardness.  Beneath the dwarf’s watch, Bilbo eased into a state of drowsiness not quite sleep but akin to it. It made the passing of time quite uncountable.

“Bilbo, how are you?”

“Hmm?” Gandalf was crouched over him, a worried furrow to his brow. The wizard must have persuaded Oin to let him pass. “Alright. Tired.”

His godfather nodded then pulled a blade free from his cloak. “Here. This is about your size.”

Bilbo stared down at the short sword still sleep bewildered. “I can’t take this.”

“The blade is of Elvish make,” Gandalf insisted, “which means it will glow blue when orcs or goblins are nearby.”

“I have never used a sword in my life,” the hobbit protested even as the wizard helped buckle the sheath to his waist.

“And I hope you never have to. Still it will serve you better in close quarter fights than your knives. I trust you to know when to use it to spare a life rather than take one.”

“Gandalf—”

Before Bilbo could reply, Fili stood from his perch and warned, “Something’s coming!”

The wizard was to his feet in an instance, helping his godson to rise and gathering the dwarrows near.  “Stay together! Hurry now. Arm yourselves.”

However, the arrival of a wild looking man and a sleigh pulled by over-grown rabbits was hardly the threat they had been expecting.

 

Radagast the Brown was indeed an odd sort, Bilbo decided after the wizard’s unconventional introduction (the stick insect bit being a touch disturbing). Yet the Earth hummed happily at his presence, a warm welcome of †Friend, friend.†

At the Earth’s greeting the wizard abruptly turned his focus from Gandalf. His gaze fell on Bilbo, eyes widening.

Gandalf was quick to pull his comrade aside before any other utterance could leave the brown wizard. Radagast continue to stare back over his shoulder at the confused hobbit

“Such a bright soul. And earth-beloved. I’d not think to see the like again,” Radagast muttered in awe once they had halted some ways from the Company.

Gandalf raised a brow in reply, glancing around to make sure none of the dwarrows had followed. He would not put it past Oakenshield. Further into the woods, he could vaguely see that Thorin had gathered the rest of the Company in attempt to collect the ponies. “We’ll speak of that later. You had news?”

Radagast’s focus returned to Gandalf.  “Yes. The Greenwood is sick, Gandalf. A darkness has fallen over it. Nothing grows any more, at least nothing good. The air is foul with decay. But worst are the webs.”

Gandalf asked, “Webs? What do you mean?”

From her hiding place in the foliage listened eagerly. It had barely taken a discreet nod from Thorin for her to be off and sneaking after the wizards. The dam slid closer from her hiding spot as the brown garbed wizard continued to describe to Gandalf the horrors he’d seen. Spiders at Dol Guldur? The spirits of the dead? A Necromancer? Her eyes narrowed in skepticism. Could Gandalf really believe this drivel? Yet what if it’s true, she thought to herself. The Company’s way laid though the Greenwood. If dangers such as those the flustered brown wizard described were before them, she would need all the information she could gather.

A hand grasped her shoulder and Nori jumped, a dagger slipping into her hand in an instance before she turned on the interloper. It was only the hobbit, one arm still bound with his pack upon his back. Bilbo cautiously pulled his hand back. He had not meant to sneak up on the dam; had only come closer at all to tell Gandalf that Thorin was planning for them to move camp, as not one of the ponies had been found. But still how interesting it was to be the one spying rather than the one spied on.

“Mister Thorin wants—,” he began.

A distant howl cut through his words. Dwarrows, wizards, and hobbit alike turned at the sound. From the corner of her eye Nori saw Gandalf briefly tuck something beneath his robes, having missed the end of their conversation, before she rushed back to the Company. The sound was obviously familiar to them though Bilbo had not heard it’s like in the last twenty-five years

“Was that a wolf?” He felt the vibration of fear in his own voice but could not help it; he had not seen a wolf since the Fell Winter.  “Are there—are there wolves out there,” the hobbit asked, rushing up after the dam.

Thorin saw the two come running up together, igniting a hastily smothered ire, before he turned his attention back to their surroundings. He would find out why Nori was again alone with the hobbit later.

“Wolves? No, that is not a wolf,” Bofur stated in trepidation, pulling his mattock closer.

Behind them came a dread growl and Bilbo turned in time to see a huge warg leap down at them. Thorin swiftly brought his blade down upon the creature killing it at Bilbo’s feet. The hobbit stared on in shock; a look of relief or and gratitude passed between dwarrow lord and burglar before the arrival of another of the beasts distracted both. A second warg raced in towards their side but was quickly dispatched by Kili’s arrow and Fili’s spinning swords.

Thorin yanked his new blade free of the dead beast, Deathless still strapped to his side. He strode forward to meet the approaching wizards. “Warg-Scouts,” he spat. “Which means an Orc pack is not far behind.” A nervous air of unease claimed the group as more howls rose in the distance.

Chapter Text

Few times in Bofur’s life had the behatted dwarrow been unable to summon some cheer or mirth (and those times while uncommon had been the worst of his one hundred thirty-eight years). Yet as he stood there watching the wizards argue, this was certainly added their number. No ponies, Orcs enclosing, and the Companies’ fates left in the hands of a deranged old man.  This was surely not this dwarf’s day.

“I’ll draw them off,” Radagast insisted.

“These are Gundabad Wargs; they will outrun you.”

“These are Rhosgobel Rabbits.”An unexpected confidence radiated from the Brown Wizard. “I’d like to see them try.”

Gandalf eyed the beasts before nodding and clasped Radagast’s shoulder. Wary of dwarven ears, he uttered, ::Be safe. We head to Imladris; find us after. I fear the Council will need your report.::

The brown garbed wizard hesitated a moment. He had never been fond of Council meetings. Saruman’s derision notwithstanding, Radagast hated the thought of being so long from his home. He had already wasted days of travel in search of Gandalf, knowing his kinsman often wandered the far west. Even more Radagast yearned for home for he had a foulness to uproot. He cared more for the woodlands and its animals than for mortal Man, or Elf, or Dwarf. Yet his duty as an Istari demanded his attendance; he had been derelict in his duties for Eru’s children too long. Radagast nodded at his comrade. ::Travel swiftly,:: he yelled, leapt upon his sleigh, and sped into the forest.

Gandalf turned to the Company. “Come along now, this is no time to tarry.”

 

Away from Imladris. I must lead them away. Radagast silently repeated to himself even as his sled raced through, around, and past the Warg Riders. This was one thought he must remember even as mockery tripped of his tongue. “Come and get me!” He laughed maniacally as the chase carried on. He would lead them to northward Rhudaur, towards the Coldfells before breaking free of his pursuers.

Behind him the enraged Orc leader screamed in fury. //It smells of dwarf. Capture it. Kill its beasts.\\

Radagast urged his rabbits on quicker. Hopefully he would buy Gandalf and his Company enough time.

 

***

They ran through the day into the night, exhausted and hungry, knowing that Radagast’s diversion would only hold for so long. Bilbo struggled to keep pace, shoulder throbbing with every step, as he persistently tramped after Thorin and Gandalf. On either side of him a Ri dam jogged, bolstering the hobbit when his feet faltered and silently urging him along. Dwalin ran ahead besides the Durin heirs secure in the knowledge that Nori would look after Bilbo. Thorin and the lads needed him to watch over them instead.

Gandalf led them southeast out of the forest and into the wide grassier planes full of large boulders and rock formations. They had been in luck to salvage as much of they had of their supplies. If it had not been for Thorin making sure they had secured what they could after the troll attack, they would have been worse off with no provisions or supplies. Yet without the ponies such items weighed them down terribly. Bilbo labored under just his pack’s load. It was not so overwhelming for the dwarrows; they were of hardy stock and had the not so long ago experience of carrying their livelihoods on their backs. Anything that was too bulky or unwieldy to carry, such as Bombur’s stew pot, was quickly discarded. Nor did the endless run seem to daunt Gandalf; for all that he appeared an old man, the wizard was quite spry when he wanted to be. A slight burn of shame, of uselessness settled over Bilbo. Perhaps Thorin’s words of his weakness were not untrue.

They trudged on until once again the light of predawn began to touch the horizon and even the dwarrows with their hardiness yearned for a break.

“We must halt,” Gandalf called to Thorin. The dwarf lord seemed determined to continue on despite his fatigue.

“We cannot. Your friend will not trick them forever. We must continue on, before they turn back our way.” Even as spoke Thorin’s jog slowed to a walk, a slight gasp to his breathes.

Gandalf placed a hand on the dwarf’s shoulder. “Your Company is exhausted, Thorin. It will do us no good to continue on if we’re too tired to stand and fight. Radagast is no simpleton, but a worthy Wizard; and he has much lore of beasts. If anyone could entice a Warg pack to disobey their handlers to follow a potential meal it would be him. Let us find shelter. Give the Company an hour or two of rest. No good will come of driving them further before the sun’s fully risen.”

Thorin nodded in acquiescence.  “For an hour or two, but no more.”

More than one dwarf groaned at the easing of their belongings from their backs. Bombur and Bofur were quick to distribute some dried meat and an apple each to the group, though many started to fall asleep mid-bite. Gandalf took up sentry for the time, settling on one of the nearby boulders and shooing Thorin off to join his companions.

A brief assessment of Fili and Kili reassured him that all was well with his nephews as he found them scarfing their food. The half-asleep forms of the rest of the dwarrows confirmed that agreeing to Gandalf’s advice had been their best recourse. Thorin rested his hand briefly on Fili’s head, before carrying on checking that the rest of the Company had been seen to. He paused on coming to Nori, finding the dam carefully tucking Dwalin’s spare coat around the hobbit and her sister. It seemed the two youngsters had collapsed almost immediately upon their stopping. Thorin noted how Bilbo’s pack had been barely discarded beside the hobbit; as though he had flung it down before dropping wearily himself. Once again the burglar looked too youthful in sleep but instead of peace his face had a pinched look. No doubt even sleep had not alleviated the pitiful creature’s pain; Thorin fought not to feel regret over the necessity of it. 

“He did a brave thing. For Fili. For us.” Nori looked at him with sharp eyes. Thorin was no fool; he could read between the dam’s words. Yes Bilbo had done well by them and Thorin it could be argued had not done the same.

“He still keeps too many secrets.”

“Not all secrets are bad,” his Spymaster retorted. If ever there was a being who understood the importance of lies and omitted truths it would be her. “And what will you do with his once you know them. Secure his trust, gain his confidence, and manipulate him with them for your own ends?” She smirked as he turned a dark look on her. No, that was not Thorin’s way. One of the many reasons the dam had chosen to follow him. “He saved your heir’s life. You owe him. Distrust him or not, but show him some respect or you will divide the Company.”

Thorin could not even contest Nori’s words. His dark gaze flickered to the sleeping forms. The same faint ache that had stolen over him at Brandy Hall cast its pall over him. Once more he wished to reach out for the hobbit. “I will consider your advice. Get some rest. We’ll not stop for long.”

Thorin doubted he would get much sleep. Between Erebor’s looming specter and the memories the Orcs had stirred, his slumbers were sure to be full of old horrors and worst imaginings. He cast one more glance of Bilbo’s curled up form. The hobbit’s screams as the trolls hurt him was another sight that Thorin was certain would come to haunt his dreams.

 

***

It was a merry chase but even Rhosgobel Rabbits tire and Radagast would risk neither them nor himself in the Coldfells’ shadows. As a wizard the Brown was known best for his friendship of bird and beast, but he was also a master of shapes and changes of hue. For some time he had been charming and casting images of far off dwarvish ponies but his energy was waning in the coming night. He had done all he could so it was he let the illusion fade and urged one more spurt from his rabbits, sprinting away from the Warg Riders.

The scout leader, Yazneg, pulled back on his mount’s scruff with rage as the wizard fled and those he thought they had been pursuing disintegrated to air. //Treachery.\\ He rounded his warg, blowing his horn to gather the pack. Riderless beasts and mounted Orcs regrouped around him. //Find the dwarf-scum’s trail. No rest or you answer to Azog.\\ The pack dispersed into the darkness, as the sun slowly sunk and nightfall washed over the group.

 

***

Thorin had them trudging on within two hours, a steady walking pace to conserve their energy. Hopeful Radagast would have confounded the Warg Riders enough that they would have given up their hunt. With the anger they harbored for his line, Thorin doubted it.

The light turned to midday when the howling could be heard again.

“Come on,” Gandalf called. “Stay together. The Company rushed across the grassy plan, looking for shelter among the great rocks. The wizard’s gazed flickered about. He had not come this way in some time but the secret entrance should be near.

A front runner of the wargs appeared through a gap in the boulders, just before their cover would disappear. “Ori, no,” Thorin snapped hold of the dam’s hood and dragged her back.

There, the wizard thought. That patch looks right. “Come on! Quick!” Gandalf shepherded the dwarves ahead of him.

Thorin’s dark gaze turned on him “Where are you leading us?”

Gandalf did not answer instead pushing them onwards. The front runner must have caught their scent for it appeared on top of the rock face ahead of them. Kili was swift to loose his bow on the warg and orc, an arrow apiece hitting both. The two tumbled down the boulder to the dwarrows below and were summarily killed. However the sound of their fight had drawn the fellow Warg Riders, a horn blowing to call them all towards the Company’s direction.

“Move. Run!” Gandalf lead them further through the grassy plain towards another formation of rocks. Thorin stopped as another orc rider and riderless warg crested the hill ahead of them. From behind his nephews shouted of more approaching.

“Kili, shoot them,” Thorin ordered. The younger prince strung another arrow to bow, Fili flanking him protectively. Ori dug through her pockets for more rocks for her sling and took up a place on Kili’s other side, in an arc around the Company. Her weapon may be paltry but she could help nonetheless. 

Where…there! Gandalf turned at last to a large rock and ran towards it, disappearing into the crevice below. This had to be the route; he just needed to check it first otherwise it would only be a deathtrap for the dwarrows if the flung themselves into a dead end pit.

Bilbo left his newly gifted sword at his side. It would be useless to him unless the battle came nearer and at this time it seemed the Orcs wished to play with their victims. He palmed one of his father’s old throwing daggers. Between those two and the set he had been given by Fort, which he plucked from his pack on rising, he had sixteen. Hopefully enough.

Fili took a sword in each hand. “We’re surrounded!

Arrow after arrow was shot from Kili’s bow. Ori slung rocks at his side. Drawing from his fading reserves of energy, Bilbo tried to let his knack loose beyond the company’s perimeter with mixed success. Whether due to his fatigue or the distance only a little dirt and rock gave way between warg paws; it barely hindered their hunters.

Kili cried as another arrow found its mark in an Orc throat, “Where is Gandalf?”

Dwalin drew back alongside Thorin axes in hand. “He has abandoned us,” the bald dwarrow snarled.  He had known they shouldn’t have trusted the wizard.

Bilbo’s knack faltered and he swayed slightly. He could not spare the energy. Ori loosed another stone at an approaching warg but the rock merely hit its ear and bounced away. Its orc rider laughed at it approached the dam. Behind her Bilbo threw his father’s knife. The blade struck the orc’s face then flew past, skinning a flap of flesh from the creature’s cheek as it dodged too late distracted in its laughter. A scream of rage fell from its mouth even as blood seeped from the wound.

Thorin raised the elvish blade, faint blue light gleaming from its surface. In his other hand he held his axe, his Oakenshield fastened to his arm with Deathless and his short bow strapped to his back.“Hold your ground!”

Gandalf popped his head from the crack in the rock, the pathway confirmed. “This way, you fools!”       

Thorin urged the others on into the rock, Bofur first with the rest following. Dori snagged Ori’s jacket and pulled the dam backward even as Nori did the same for Bilbo. The bleeding warg rider signaled the others forward. //Kill them, but leave the small creature to me.\\

Dori pushed Ori down at the fore, even as warg snapped close and Thorin’s blade cut it down. Nori hastened to push the hobbit after. The dam then reached for Dori but her brother would have none of that as he shoved his other sister through the crevice. He followed.

“Nine, ten,” Gandalf counted off.

Above them Thorin and Dwalin kept safe the opening. “Kili, run. Fili, to me,” he called to his nephews. Both princes broke their position to join their uncle. “Dwalin, go,” the dwarf ordered and pushed his shield-brother into the crevice. Fili shoved Kili forth as well and followed behind. Thorin came last even as the bleeding warg rider lunged at the crack.

The Company gathered near the entrance in defense, but the sounding of hooves and a non-Orcish horn blew above them. Battle noise carried from the crack and an Orc fell through the opening, a shaft in its throat. Thorin plucked the arrow free, examining it. “Elves,” he spat, a knowing gaze falling on Gandalf.

Dwalin who had gone ahead to check the cave’s interior called back, “I cannot see where the pathway leads. Do we follow it or no?”

Still shaken from the battle, Bofur ran towards him. “Follow it, of course!” The rest set off after the miner, Thorin’s face grim as they had little choice

“I think that would be wise,” Gandalf agreed. Bilbo looked at his godfather who merely raised an eyebrow innocently and offered his arm to the hobbit. Bilbo snorted; he knew this was no coincidence. Though, he did accept his godfather’s aid as they stepped further into the crevice.

The Company traveled on following the path, which grew narrow at times but still more than tall and wide enough for a Man to stride through. Above the crack, daylight streamed down though it was not much for it appeared the crevice was between two tall cliffs. The light was a boon, helping them know the passage of time and see the way ahead (for while dwarves have great eyesight in the dim and dark the same cannot be said of hobbits). Eventually daylight passed and Gandalf insisted that they stop. Bilbo who brought up the rear, just ahead of the wizard stumbled quite grateful to a halt. Only the quick catch of his godfather’s hand snagging his pack, kept the hobbit from falling to the ground.

“Gandalf, where are we,” Bilbo whispered as he gazed up at the lingering bits of light that broke among the path.

“You can feel it, can you not?”

“Yes. It feels like…” the hobbit sat down abruptly. “Well, like magic. Familiar magic.”

The wizard’s eyes twinkled. “Exactly as it should be. A very powerful and, to you, familiar magic.”

Their conversation was cut short as Thorin squeezed his way around the other party members calling for the wizard. Gandalf patted Bilbo’s shoulder and stepped around the hobbit as much as the crevice would allow, meeting the angry dwarf lord.

“You know this way. Where does the path lead,” Thorin accused, his gaze pausing on Bilbo’s wearied form. Concern furrowed his brow before he returned his gaze to the wizard.

Gandalf’s raised his eyebrow in consideration at the dwarf’s behavior. “Where it leads to is refuge. I would not risk the Company if I were not certain of the way. We need food, for one thing, and rest in reasonably safety. We have lost the road and we must find it or we shall be done for. Also it is very necessary to tackle the Misty Mountains by the proper path, or else you will get lost in them, and have to come back and start at the beginning again (if you ever get back at all).” The wizard rested his staff against the rock wall. “Trust me, Thorin; I have only your best interests in mind.”

“Fine,” the dwarf lord snapped. Bilbo, who had been listening to all despite his wearied state, blinked his eyes open in surprise when Thorin’s hand touched his uninjured shoulder. The dwarrow reached past Gandalf and pressed food into the hobbit’s palm: more jerky and some cheese. “Eat and rest,” he commanded before pulling back. An apple was lobbed at Gandalf’s head by Dwalin as the other’s divvied rations down the line. “We’ll continue on at first light,” Thorin informed the wizard before he made the way back.

A moment later Nori appeared having crept her way to them. “I brought your meals, what there is of it,” offering Gandalf some more dried meat. Bilbo simply shook his head. “Thorin—Mister Oakenshield already brought me mine.” The dam looked down at where Bilbo held the final bits of cured pork and the last of the cheese. Her eyes narrowed in speculation. “Did he now? Well take a bit more.” She pressed a handful of nuts and dried fruit on him, before turning back. After all, someone needed to make sure their leader ate as he had apparently given away most of his meal.

 

Eventually the light returned and while the crevice had been uncomfortable allowing little sleep, the Company woke to a better morn than the previous day. Food was once more rationed out, nearly the last of the stores as quite a bit had been lost with the ponies, and then they continued on. Thorin was in the lead. While Dwalin would follow his king anywhere, he was happy the passage only had one way to go so Thorin could not lose the way.

Some hours later, Gloin yelled back down the line, “There’s light ahead.”

The Company stumbled out as the crack opened onto a rock shelf of stairs with a stream running freely alongside. The steps led down further overlooking a wide valley guarded by cliffs and forests, full of flowing rivers and elven architecture.

“The Valley of Imladris,” Gandalf announced with pride. “In the Common Tongue, it’s known by another name.”

Bilbo looked down at the valley with pure joy, the same awe he had felt when he had first seen it upon his face. “Rivendell,” he breathed.

“Here lies the last Homely House east of the sea.”

Thorin stomped up to the wizard, “This was your plan all along, to seek refuge with our enemy.”

Gandalf squinted at the dwarf’s disdain. “You have no enemies here, Thorin Oakenshield. The only ill-will to be found in this valley is that which you bring yourself.”

Bilbo’s eyes shifted between the two and he bit his lip to keep his own council. Thorin replied, “You think the Elves will give our quest their blessing? They will try to stop us.”

“Of course they will. But we have questions that need to be answered. ” Thorin’s eyes widened in surprise before his gaze lowered in agreement. “If we are to be successful, this will need to be handled with tact and respect and no small degree of charm. Which is why you will leave the talking to me,” Gandalf said, leading the way.

The Company marched down the cliff steps, approaching the rushing rivers, and crossed over the bridge into Rivendell. Bilbo watched as a few elves were seen strolling about, some vaguely recognizable. There were few of Elrond’s House who interacted often with the hobbits on their visits, but those who did were the fastest of friends. The dwarrows looked about uneasily.

A familiar dark-hair elf sauntered down the stairs. Lindir, Elrond’s steward, was graceful as ever. “Mithrandir,” he greeted.

“Ah, Lindir!” Gandalf ambled over to the elf even as the dwarrows murmurs of distrust grew. 

::We heard you had crossed into the Valley,:: the elf informed as his eyes wandered over the group.

“Stay sharp.” Bilbo heard Thorin whisper to Dwalin, obviously unhappy with elf’s attention.

“I must speak with Lord Elrond,” Gandalf said, drawing Lindir’s eyes back to the wizard.

“My lord Elrond is not here.”

“Not here? Where is he?”

Gandalf’s question was answered by the echo of elvish horns. The Company turned as one to see an armed gathering of horseman approach along the bridge at a rapid pace.

>>Ready weapons,<< Thorin ordered snatching Bilbo and hauling the hobbit into the middle of the dwarrows as they bunched together. Dori and Dwalin did the same with Ori and the rest pressed Kili and Fili beside Thorin. “Hold ranks,” he cried.

The mounted elves circled around the Company until their leader separated from the others.  Bilbo, with only mild apprehension, stood on tiptoe to see Elrond greet Gandalf.  Around him the Company slowly relaxed; the hobbit wiggled around the obstinate dwarrows, moving closer to Elrond’s voice.

::My friend,:: Gandalf questioned, ::where have you been?::

::We’ve been hunting a pack of Orcs that came up from the South. We slew a number near the Hidden Pass.:: The elf lord dismounted and briefly hugged the wizard. “Strange for Orcs to come so close to our borders. Something, or someone, has drawn them near.”

At Elrond’s pointed look, Gandalf admitted, “Ah, that may have been us.”

Thorin stepped forward, Nori and Dwalin at his flank; Bilbo took this as his opportunity to also break from the group. Recognition lit Elrond’s features on seeing the dwarf lord.  “Welcome Thorin, son of Thrain.”

“I do not believe we have met.”

“You have your grandfather’s bearing. I knew Thror when he ruled under the Mountain.”

“Indeed,” suspicion overcast Thorin’s eyes, “he made no mention of you.”

Rather than watch hostilities rise, Bilbo stumbled to the fore, surprising both elf and dwarf lords. “Hello, my lord,” he added rather shyly as all eyes fell on him.

“Bilbo,” Elrond moved forth to catch the hobbit, unbidden affection filling his voice. Lindir also looked at the hobbit with a kind of pleased shock. “I had not expected you to be with such companions.” His gaze fell to the hobbit’s bound arm and the thinness of Bilbo’s cheeks. “You are injured. Come I will tend to you.”

A smile spread across Bilbo’s face. “It’s not that bad. Mister Oin took care of it after the trolls. Though I don’t think the Orcs and Wargs did it much good. But after some rest I’m sure it will be right as rain,” the hobbit babbled on as more than one dwarven mouth fell open. Thorin’s own turned down with a bitter cast. It was quite apparent that their burglar and the elf lord were on friendly terms. “Hamfast sends his greetings. I’ve a letter somewhere for you from him. And how have the twins been? And Arowen? Is Glorfindel here? Oh but I’m so glad to see you, Lord Elrond. It’s been much too long.”

The elf lord’s own smile rose in response, though it was tempered by his worry. ::You are in need of medicine, rest, and then some food. Come, we will talk after you are tended.:: Elrond raised his voice, gaze falling back to Thorin. ::Light the fires; bring forth the wine. We must feed our guests.::

“What is he saying,” Gloin growled while many of the others still stared at the hobbit. They had already suspected he had some fondness for the tree-shaggers with his use of their tongue. That could be addressed later; the red-head rather deal with the elf’s words for now. “Does he offer us insult?”

A bellicose attitude fell over the Company and many shifted their weapons in uneasy grips. Gandalf sighed exasperatedly, “No, master Gloin, he’s offering you food.”

As the dwarves quickly discussed this amongst themselves, Bilbo did not miss the elf lord’s smirk. The hobbit was certain Elrond had been purposely provoking the dwarf’s prejudice.

Balin, ever diplomatic, interrupted, “Perhaps we could rest first. We have had little sleep and I’m certain some refreshment would cause a better temperament for all.”

Elrond nodded his head graciously. “Certainly. Lindir prepare rooms for our guests. We shall feast after they have recovered.” Then, before any more argument could commence, Elrond took Bilbo by his good shoulder and swept the two of them away.

Rivendell’s steward signaled for Gandalf and the wizard’s group to follow him. A rush of joy stirred in Lindir’s breast. Bilbo had returned. Elladan would be gladdened to her this news. A blush formed at the thought. Of course Elrohir and Glorfindel would also be pleased.

The seneschal nearly stumbled as behind him one of the dwarves grumbled, “Did that pointy-eared bastard just steal our hobbit?”

 

***

::You are too thin,:: Elrond insisted after he had led Bilbo to a healing rooms to bathe and have his arm redressed. The hobbit now donned the elven made garb he had been gifted on his previous visits which had been left in Imladris. His belongings and previous clothes had been whisked away by one of Elrond’s servants to be laundered and mended.

::It has been a lean few days,:: Bilbo replied. The salves Rivendell’s host had applied already eased the ache of his shoulder. Between elven magics and a few good meals to boost his hobbit healing, his shoulder would be healed within the week.

::This,:: the elf lord prodded his thinned belly, to Bilbo’s chagrin, ::is not the work of a few days missed meals. Despite their other neglect at least your wound was well tended. I suppose you will not tell me why you travel with this dwarves.:: When Bilbo would not meet his gaze Lord Elrond sighed and helped the hobbit down from the healer’s bench.  From his robes, for the elf lord had found time to change as the hobbit bathed, he produced a familiar knife. Lord Elrond handed Bilbo Bungo’s old throwing dagger. ::This was found during our battle with the Orcs. I am glad to give it back to its rightful owner::

Bilbo clutched it to him gratefully. ::My thanks.::

::No thanks are needed.:: The elf offered his arm to the hobbit he had grown quite found of throughout the years. ::Come. I will show you to your rooms. And perhaps you will do me the honor of telling me how your parents’ fare.:: So the rather mismatched pair went on their way, Bilbo only too eager to relay the exploits of Bungo and Belladonna Baggins.

 

The dwarves while not happy with elven hosts were more than eager to benefit from elven beds. With so many in their Company there was little choice but to assign them many of Rivendell’s guestrooms and more than one dwarf departed on his own for a bit of privacy. The corridor of rooms offered ample space. Nori especially was more than willing to take advantage of such circumstances as she stealthy pulled Dwalin into an unused room and barred the door.

This is a mistake. She knew it even as they pulled at one another’s armor, weapons and clothes coming to litter the floor. You’ll regret this, her mind whispered as she pushed him back on the detestably elven bedding. Her hidden knives and beads were discarded for the feeling of his hands in her hair and over her body. You’re a liar and a thief; this will end in pain. But such thoughts were insubstantial as the two shared moans and laughter. For all that their kisses were fierce and bodies eager, there was still a gentleness to Dwalin she had long since treasured. Ever since that long ago day when his gentle hands had first bandaged her injuries.

When they lay side by side after, Dwalin gathered the dam further into his arms. A motion he could barely believe. Nori was quick, in impulse and movement, and to hold her close now was dreamlike. He grip grew a little tighter as though she would vanish if he did not keep her close.

>>I would court you, if you would let me.<< Her copperish locks brushed his lips as he spoke. When no response, not even a flinch or struggle to pull away, was forthcoming he pulled back to find her face lax in sleep. Dwalin’s shoulders relaxed and he tucked the dam close once more. His own eyes heavy the dwarrow sunk deeper into the soft bedding. He would tell her when she woke.

Besides him, Nori remained still, letting her lover fall to slumber. Her thoughts so easily set aside for passion returned in force. He would be disgusted if he knew, her mind hissed. He’d have naught to do with you just like his ancestor would have not to do with Sibor. Poisonous though her thoughts might be they were no less true. So she waited even as weariness tried to lure her to her own slumbers. Only once she was certain of the depth of Dwalin’s sleep did the dam wriggle free of his arms. A hurried search for clothing, weapons, and beads and Nori was ready to sneak out the door somewhere she could sort herself and re-braid her hair. Somewhere where she could pretend she had not given into her own bad impulses.

Still even as she crept about and disbarred the door, she could not help one last glance back. Her lover (no not hers she reminded herself) lay asleep in the too large bed, sunlight shining off the tattoos of his arms: his right inked with a dwarven battle-cry, the left with a blessing for homecoming. The image of Dwalin his arms reaching out to take hold of a now absent partner was almost enough to lure her back. Almost. But in her heart of hearts the dam knew she was a coward. So Nori turned and stole away from the room between one heartbeat and the next.

 

***

Dwalin awoke to Nori’s absence with the slow flame disappointment in his heart. It did not take long for that light to spark into a furnace of anger and shame.

 

***

More than one dwarrow was slow to rise when the brown-haired elven attendant had returned after several hours time to invite them to their meals. Once dressed in full, the Company was led to an open portico with two table set with food for the dwarrows and a higher dais with seats for Gandalf, Thorin, and their host. Balin was quick to have them seated, pushing his surly brother down beside Oin, before taking his own seat by Bilbo. The hobbit had reemerged from his resting chambers in their corridor just as the others had been summoned. Master Baggins looked quite better for few hours sleep and the promise of nourishment the elder dwarrow decided. Though, unlike most of the Company, the hobbit had chosen to bring his weapon while the dwarrows had only brought those they could easily conceal. On seeing Gandalf and Thorin enter also with their swords, Balin wondered if it had been perhaps at the elf lord’s request that the blades were present.

Elrond with a light joke welcomed Gandalf up to the dais and Thorin grimly followed. His mood blackened further on spying the hobbit adorned in elven clothes. Master Baggins would have looked much better in his road-stained waistcoat than that elfin drapery. Even better in dwarven finery, Dis’s voice teased. He ignored it quite soundly.

As the three took their seats, the other Company members began to feast. However, more than one complaint rose over the fare and entertainment.

“Where’s the meat,” one exclaimed. Another eyed the harp music with disdain.

Kili smiled at the elf maid harpist and winked when their eyes caught. Dwalin, mood grim since waking without Nori in his arms, had no patience for such behavior. The dam had snuck in apart from the other dwarrows and taken a seat besides her siblings. No matter how hard he tried to catch her eye Nori refused to meet his gaze. It was easier to turn his frustrations onto Kili and his flirting with the enemy.

Kili quickly averted his eyes on seeing Dwalin’s contempt. “I can’t say I fancy elf maids myself; too thin,” he rushed to deflect from his behavior. Dwalin’s eyebrows rose sardonically. “They’re all high cheekbones and creamy skin.” Bofur shared a commiserating look with the bald headed dwarrow, only to smile and nodded affably when Kili fixed his attention on him. “Not enough facial hair for me. Although that one there is not bad.” He gestured to a passing elf.

Dwalin spared a brief look for the prissy thing and some good humor returned to the dwarf. He lent in closer to Kili. “That’s not an elf maid,” he simply stated. A raucous laughter rose from the surrounding companions, but Bilbo did not smile. He had never been one to discount love between races; indeed most hobbits refrained from such prejudice though the marrying between different Free Peoples did not often occur. Betsy Butterbur and Bob Staddle were the most recent of such pairings. However, for a race who so often gave much of themselves for Arda’s happiness, hobbits thought it pointless to prevent love wherever or with whomever it may bloom.

“Do you find something wrong with a male liking a male,” Bilbo asked the table, his words easily heard by those who sat nearer the dais. He had known some groups of Men scorned such pairings, as well as the love between two females. From what he knew of dwarves he had thought they were more like elves or hobbits on the subject.

“Now, laddie,” Balin soothed. “It’s not like that. More than one dwarrow may find a spouse among their own sex and find no love at all. Dwalin’s merely teasing the lad for ogling the elves.”

“And what is the problem with that? Do dwarrows find some shame in appreciating the other races,” Bilbo exclaimed, drawing quite some attention. “Be it elf or hobbit, man or dwarf, if I loved someone I would not care of race or form. I would weigh the character of a person based their actions rather than their height.” The hobbit stabbed his fork quite forcefully into his salad and took a mulish bite. The siblings Ri stared appraisingly at their burglar and Kili also sent more than one curious (almost hopeful) side-eyed glance at the hobbit. Meanwhile talk soon fell back to the dubious quality of the music as Oin stuffed a napkin in his ear trumpet to muffle the noise.

At the dais, Elrond took a long sip from his chalice, hiding his amusement at Bilbo’s outburst. The hobbit like his mother had always been quite willing to give his opinion despite personage or status. More than once the elf lord himself had been on the receiving end of Belladonna’s sharp tongue.

“My lord.” Gandalf claimed Elrond’s attention offering up the elvish blades he had mentioned. Elrond set aside his wine and examined each carefully.

“This is Orcrist, the Goblin Cleaver,” he said in awe while inspecting the sword Thorin had claimed from the hoard. “A famous blade, forged by the High Elves of the West, my kin.” He offered the blade back to Thorin. Even without foresight, he sensed its fate lay with the dwarf lord. “May it serve you well.” Thorin accepted Orcrist with a gracious nod, reluctantly thankful the elf lord would not contest his claim on the blade. Elrond turned to the other sword. “And this is Glamdring, the Foe-hammer, sword of the King of Gondolin. These swords were made for the goblin wars of the First Age...”

Elrond’s voice grew fainter as the music rose and at his seat Bilbo pulled his own short blade slightly free from its sheath. He could not say what had possessed him to bring the weapon beyond his own curiosity. Bilbo had suspected Gandalf planned to question Lord Elrond on the elvish swords’ origins, and the hobbit supposed he had thought to inquire on his own as well.

Balin interrupted his thoughts. “I wouldn’t bother, laddie. Swords are named for the great deeds they do in war.”

“What are you saying,” Bilbo questioned sternly, despite the elderly dwarrow’s gentle tone, “my sword hasn’t seen battle?”

“I’m not actually sure it is a sword,” Balin replied. “More of a letter opener, really.” Bilbo stared down at his blade in thought rather than argue. Even he knew that Elves would not waste steel that could sense orcs and goblins on a letter opener.

Elrond retuned the blade to Gandalf. “How did you come by these?”

“We found them in a troll hoard on the Great East Road, shortly before we were ambushed by orcs.”

“And what were you doing on the Great East Road,” Elrond questioned with a shrewd look.

“Oh only a bit of traveling,” Gandalf deflected from Thorin’s perturbed expression. Taking a gulp of wine the wizard hastened to change the subject. “A lighter fare than your norm,” Gandalf remarked.

Elrond raised a brow, but allowed the matter to lie for now. “Meat will be provided later this evening if any want another repast. I did not think it wise to overstuff those who’ve been on meager rations less it makes them sick.”

“What do you mean,” Thorin asked incited that the elf would accuse him of not providing for his company members.

The elf turned to the dwarf, face carefully neutral. “Bilbo has had little to no sustenance these last few days.”

“We all have.”

“Yes but races differ in their needs. Hobbits are accustomed to seven meals in order to stay healthy. With how thin he has become I do not think that you are your company has provided that.” Elrond purposefully let his voice rise over the assembly and many an elf player had faltered in their tune to allow him to be heard. More than one dwarf’s attention fell to Bilbo who avoided all their gazes as he picked carefully at his food.

“Ha has voiced no complaints,” Thorin protested. Surely the hobbit would have mentioned if he was starving. But would he, Frerin’s voice questioned. Would anyone show such weakness when they had already been so disdained?

On seeing Bilbo’s embarrassment (which had not been the point of elf lord’s lesson at all) Elrond’s voice returned to its previous, more private state. “Unless it inconvenienced another, the hobbit I know would not speak of it.”

The dwarf’s and elf’s gazes turned to Gandalf. A guilty look stole over the wizard’s features.  “Bilbo has made due with foraging,” the wizard explained. “These last few days have been less than ideal but he has been seeing to himself.”

“He should not have had to,” Elrond stated firmly.

Thorin rose. “Excuse me.” Stiffly the dwarf lord went over to join his companions.

::Was that necessary?:: Gandalf looked less than pleased.

Elrond was not troubled by the wizard’s displeasure, the elf lord had his own to make known. ::They and you do Bilbo a disservice. He is strong but it is wrong to expect such strength from him all the time.:: His gaze flittered to the hobbit. ::Bilbo is precious to my family and if you do not look after him better I will pluck him from your Company.:: As he let Gandalf stew on his words, the elf lord looked over the assembly of guests. “Why is he here at all, Gandalf? Thirteen dwarves and Bilbo. Strange traveling companions considering he has not left the Shire in over a half decade.”

“And it is for just such a reason, Bilbo should take a bit of a holiday with me. Besides these are no ordinary dwarves.” Gandalf gestured at the assembly. “These are the descendants of the house of Durin. They’re noble, decent folk. And they’re surprisingly cultured. They’ve got a deep love of the arts.” Lindir who had stood beside his lord’s chair watched as one (perhaps female?) dwarf pocked some of the dinnerware. Another ate quite vulgarly while the short thief complained of the music.

Nori turned to the nearest harpist. “Change the tune, why don’t you? I feel like I’m at a funeral.

“Did somebody die,” Oin unhelpfully added.

 “All right lads. There’s only one thing for it,” Bofur said determinedly and hopped up from his place. Some merriment was definitely needed between the Elf lord’s revelations about Bilbo and the rather dismal music. The jolly dwarf leapt up onto the pedestal in the middle of the arbor and began to sing. The hobbit was surprised for he recognized the tune as one often sung in the Shire and wondered where Bofur had heard it.

 

There is an inn, a merry old inn

Beneath an old grey hill,

And there they brew a beer so brown

That the Man in the Moon himself came down

One night to drink his fill.

The ostler has a tipsy cat

That plays a five-stringed fiddle;

And up and down he runs his bow,

Now squeaking high, now purring low,

Now sawing in the middle.

So the cat on his fiddle played hey-diddle-diddle,

A jig that would wake the dead:

He squeaked and sawed and quickened his tune,

While the landlord shook the Man in the moon:

‘It’s after three!’ he said.

 

Most of elves assembled looked disturbed by the music, but Bilbo was quick to note the small amused smile Elrond hid at the tune’s beginning. Of course as the song continued on and the Company began to pelt each other with their feast the smile was soon absent. Poor Lindir looked quite shocked by the whole affair. Bilbo could not help but think that if Elladan was there, more than one arrow would be noked for making the bearer of his affections look so troubled.

While the tune was light-hearted and fun, the waste of food was not so easily forgiven by the burglar. Food was a gift of Arda to sustain Eru’s children, a reminder of what Yavanna and her fellow Valar had wrought; even without the lean times of the Fell Winter in near memory, such action would be considered unpardonable by any hobbit. A dinner roll was lobbed past Bilbo’s ear as the song came to an end, incensing him further. Across from the Bugler’s table Thorin merely took another swig of drink, surveying the scene with amusement.

The dwarrows flinging of food escalated and Bilbo saw that their leader planned to do nothing about such behavior. Well this hobbit would not have that. Bilbo stood abruptly his healing arm knocking his glass goblet, shattering it against the floor as his good hand came down on the table’s solid wood. “How dare you,” he said as the Company suddenly fell silent. “You waste food and you dishonor our host. I thought…” Bilbo’s voice wavered as weariness overcame his anger. “I thought better of you all,” he said, voice quiet in the silence. He turned his back on them and walked away, his disappointment lingering long after his departure.

 

Bilbo could take no more of dwarrows today. Between Lord Elrond’s provocation and the Company’s antagonizing the hobbit needed a moment alone. He roamed Rivendell’s hallways before he wandered out into the open courtyards and gazebos. There stood a private garden, long fostered by elven hands and it was here Bilbo on the bench before the flowers that he rested. Often he had helped tend this place on his fauntling visits and often it had been a place of comfort and peace.

::What troubles you, my little wing? I had thought to find you in better spirits.:: The lilting voice started the hobbit just as two figures sat down on either side of him.

“Indeed we have been so long without you,” the brunette elf on his right commented, tossing aside his hair and his removed his great bow from his back. Elladan careful set it aside.

“Yet we find you so grim,” the other said on his left. Elrohir a mirror image of his twin also discarded his weapon, a long sword he leant against their bench.

A golden figure, the first speaker, took up residence before their seat and crouched down to meet the hobbit’s eyes. Glorfindel was as bright and beautiful as the last time he had seen him, the quiet sorrow in the elf lord’s eyes held at bay by a gentle warmth. “I hope you are not unhappy with your return to us.”

A joyful smile grew on Bilbo’s face. “Never. It is so good to see you all.” There was much hugging and affectionate touches, the twins both only too happy to toss his curls. He had missed them, these three who had watched him grow, who had helped him regain his voice after Adamanta’s death. “I thought you would be afield,” the hobbit commented, settling back.

A dark look flickered across Glorfindel’s face but passed quickly. “We were needed here. But tell me, little bird, what brings you to us? I am gladdened by your arrival but it seems rather sudden.”

“Ah,” Bilbo was uncertain how much to say. Gandalf seemed to want Lord Elrond’s help but had been rather secretive about their reasons. “I accompany Gandalf and the dwarven Company. It seems my godfather thinks I am in need of an adventure.”

Scowls formed on the twin elves faces and Glorfindel himself did not seem impressed. The days would soon be growing darker and with shadows stirring from the north and west, it seemed a poor time to endanger Bilbo. The thinness of the hobbit’s frame and the lad’s obvious injury of his arm seemed only to confirm such thoughts.

“You are wounded,” Elrohir commented, easing back least he jostle the hobbit’s shoulder. “How came you by it?”

“Oh a bit of a run-in with trolls, but your father has seen to it and it is mending well. I should have full use in less than a week with his care,” Bilbo tried for nonchalant though the sharpening of three pairs of elven eyes suggested he had missed his mark.

“Trolls. More than one and this far south.” Elladan looked murderous as such a thought.

Bilbo sought to redirect the unhappy elves’ attention. “That reminds me, I have a question for you, Glorfindel.” He sought to unbuckle his sword, Elladan swiftly assisted when it proved difficult to do one-handedly. The elf-twin then offered it to his golden elder at Bilbo’s behest. “Gandalf found these and two other greater swords within the trolls’ cave. He was able to identify the other two as Gondolin-make but I hadn’t been able to ask him about this one.”

“Two others,” Glorfindel stared down at the blade almost reverently as he withdrew it from its scabbard.

“And who holds the others?”

“Oh! He left the one with Gandalf and well the other—”

“He left in my possession,” Thorin interrupted stepping forward. The elves did not move even as Bilbo flinched. Glorfindel had sensed the dwarf’s arrival midway through their conversation but had felt no need to point it out. It would be better to instead examine why it had taken the dwarf so long to reveal himself.

On seeing the familiarity of his features, though he had never met this dwarrow before, Glorfindel bowed his head. >>Durin’s scion,<< he greeted to the carefully concealed confusion of the twins. At Thorin’s back Dwalin, who had refused to stay behind while his liege wandered the elf’s dwelling (despite his desire to corner Nori), tightened his fist on hearing this elf speak their language. His knuckle-dusters creaked at the movement drawing Elladan’s and Elrohir’s attention.

Thorin also was aggravated by the elf’s casual use of Khuzdul. It had been bad enough that after the hobbit’s outburst Thorin had felt compelled to offer Lord Elrond his Company’s assistance in cleaning their mess. Even worst was it to find their burglar dressed in elf-garments and surrounded by too-attentive elves, but the use of his language tipped the dwarf lord’s ire. >>How know you our language,<< Thorin asked sternly, menace in his words.

Glorfindel was not so easily intimidated. >>It was a gift of your ancestor to me. I knew Durin well when Khazad-Dum was still held by your fine people.<< The elf lord rose. His voice slipped back to Westron with ease. “I am Glorfindel, once of the House of the Golden Flower, declared dwarf-friend by the Deathless. I bid thee welcome.”

Both dwarrows startled. Even among their kind the name of Glorfindel, the twice-lived was well-known and respected. He had been brother-sworn to Durin and like the First Father had been the only other known beings to have returned from death.

Bilbo, who had long listened to Glorfindel tell him tales of old, found this knowledge new. Still being the polite hobbit he was he was quick to made introductions. “Glorfindel, these are two of Gandalf’s party. Thorin son of Thrain and Dwalin son of Fundin. And may I introduce our host’s sons, Elladan and Elrohir.

Dwalin spared a glance for the twins but Thorin’s attention remained on the golden elf. Hesitantly he gave a nod. “At your service, Lord Glorfindel.” His eyes flickered to the still seated elves. “My host’s kin,” he added with another nod.

“May I see the blade Bilbo described,” the golden elf asked, ignoring the air of awkwardness. “It would be…good to see a reminder of Gondolin before her fall.”

A reluctant sympathy stirred in Thorin’s heart. He removed sword and sheath from his back and offered them to the elf lord. Glorfindel passed Bilbo’s blade back to Elladan and accepted Thorin’s. He stared at the sheath in awe, his eyes misting in recognition of the blade. He murmured the runes to himself too quiet to be heard clearly before unsheathing the sword. It glistened long and pale and bright in the post-midday sun. “This is Orcrist,” he said with no little amazement before resheathing the blade. Eyes bright he turned to Thorin. “And you came by it in a troll hoard?”

The naked long held grief on the elf’s face disconcerted the dwarf. Never had he seen so open an expression on an elven face before. Thorin cleared his throat, averting his eyes. “Aye.”

Glorfindel’s gaze returned to the blade. “No doubt plundered from plunders. This was borne by Ecthelion, Lord of the House of the Fountain and Warden of the Great Gate, protector of the King. Here,” he turned the pommel to his audience, “is his emblem.” Four diamonds inlaid in the handle embedded within an Elven seal. “The hilt is fashioned from dragon’s tooth and runes on it translate ‘Tooth of Dragon’. The sheath reads: ‘Born from the Maws of Dragons I am Always Hungry and Thirsty.’ I would recognize it anywhere.”

Such irony that so fine a blade was fashioned from two of his enemies: elf and dragon. What satisfying retribution would it be to use such a weapon to further his own ends? Thorin fought to keep such thoughts to himself. The twice-lived elf seemed far too knowing for his liking. “A fine blade indeed.”

“It is,” Glorfindel confirmed. “Ecthelion wielded it in the wars with Morgoth. It was well known for the deaths of thousands of orcs and goblins; it is still well feared by their races.” He closed his eyes in reverence. “It has been lost since Ecthelion fell slaying Gothmog. I had not thought to see it again.” Carefully he presented the blade back to Thorin. “He was my heart-brother, as well as friend and kinsman. He would be proud that another warrior would bear it.”

With even greater reverence than that he’d shown to Elrond did Thorin accept the sword back from Glorfindel. This was not some heirloom from a long-gone age; to the golden elf this was a treasured piece of a lost home. The bestowing of such an item was no trifle. No matter if it was elf-forged or not, this was a handsome gift. >>I will honor it.<<

>>May it guard you well, Thorin son of Thrain,<< the elf replied. Glorfindel turned back to Bilbo. ::My apologies, little wing. You asked me to look at your blade as well.::

::None needed,:: Bilbo insisted, even as Elladan handed over the short sword. Thorin’s fingers gripped Orcrist more tightly as he returned the sheath to his back on hearing the hobbit. Was it not bad enough that the Burglar was elven garbed but must their speech fall from his mouth as well? Khuzdul would sound much better from those pretty lips, Dis’s voice mocked him. As much as he wanted he could not argue with the sentiment. Dwalin watched his king’s knuckles whiten, observing his gaze on the hobbit. A nudging suspicion formed. For Mahal’s sake he had enough to deal with Nori; he could not also contend with the lustful notions of his romance-stunted friend.

“Ah,” Glorfindel’s voice distracted both dwarrows from their thoughts. “I am sorry little one but I am not certain of the owner of your blade.” Before Bilbo’s face could drop in disappointment, the elf hastened to add, “It is a noble weapon, I am sure. Such craftsmanship was only used for the finest of arms. But if the other sword you found is as grand as Orcrist it could belong to either.” His free ruffled the hobbit’s hair even as he pressed the sheathed blade to Bilbo’s heart. “This is a companion blade, commissioned and bestowed only by the most faithful of family. If it accompanies Orcrist it would have most likely been fashioned at Duilin’s request.” The love of Duilin and Ecthelion may not have been well-sung of unlike that of Beren and Luthien but it had shown just as brightly. Glorfindel could easily believe the Lord of the House of Sparrows to bespeak such a cherished piece. He himself had once thought to commission such a blade before the unhappy truth of his once beloved was revealed. Oh Maeglin, you pitiful creature. Glorfindel fought to not stray back into such memories. Death should have made the embrace of sorrow weaker, but the golden elf found that second life just had him cling to such reminders.

Even in the Halls of Mandos, Glorfindel had not allowed himself to search for his traitor once-beloved. Death did not heal all wounds, nor ease all hearts.

“I do not know which other sword was found or else I would presume it’s commissioner as well.”

“Lord Elrond called it Glamdring,” Thorin offered. A pallor fell over the golden elf. The sword of his king so near; it was a bittersweet knowledge.

“Excuse me. I must speak with Gandalf,” the elf lord half-bowed an apology. ::I will talk with you later, little wing,:: he assured Bilbo as he strode back to where the other’s had been dining.

::Go with Glorfindel, he’ll have need of your comfort,:: Bilbo begged the twin elves. They nodded in agreement and rose as one, gathering their weapons.

::We will find you later,:: Elladan promised.

::Do not hide from us when we come looking,:: Elrohir teased, following after his elder brother.

Bilbo rolled his eyes; he had not done such things since he was a faunt. Left alone with the two dwarrows, Bilbo slid off the bench and bid his farewell.

Thorin was quick to stop him. “Master Baggins, I wish to speak with you.”

The hobbit’s posture stiffened but he remained at the dwarrow’s request. When nothing was forthcoming, Bilbo tapped his foot nervously. “Yes?”

“You should have told me.” Behind his lord, Dwalin rolled his eyes. Thorin was sure to make a mess of this. He kicked his friend and liege rather pointedly. Thorin grunted and stepped closer to the hobbit. Too close. He continued in a better vein. “I mean if you are in need you may come to me. The welfare of the Company, of all the Company is my concern.”

“You never seemed to mind before,” Bilbo stated quite frankly. Too often had their conversations ended at Thorin’s whim; well not this time. Bilbo poked impolitely at the dwarf’s chest with his sword’s hilt. “You’ve disapproved of me since our first meeting, belittled me unceasingly, and I am to believe you care for my wellbeing. Unlikely. I can take of my best interest myself, Mister Thorin, and will continue to do so.”

“You’re best interest! Was allowing yourself to be tortured by trolls in your best interest? Was nearly being skewered helping Fili? Or fighting beside the rest of us during the bandit ambush,” Thorin thundered. Bilbo rocked back at the force of the dwarf lord’s vociferousness. Dwalin fought not to palm his face. A royal mess of this indeed. “You are far too reckless with your safety. It is my responsibility as leader of this Company to see to the security of all my companions. At the very least I would not risk your health because I have unknowingly starved you!” Thorin took a deep breath, attempting to cool his ire. The hobbit’s eyes had widened a considerable degree; he did not mean to frighten the creature. “Regardless, it was badly done. The Company…no …I owe you my regrets.”

Bilbo was not certain what to say; such an apology from Thorin was so wholly unexpected. “I—I will, um, keep it in mind. No lasting harm done, eh?”

Thorin’s brow darkened at his remark, and Bilbo found he wanted nothing more than to make his escape from this uncomfortable conversation. “I best put this away.” He waved his sheathed blade haphazardly nearly clocking the dwarf lord. The hobbit flushed crimson. “Uh, sorry.  I, um, best go. Goodnight.” Bilbo scurried away quickly from the dwarrow.

A spot of warmth burned in Thorin’s breast at the Burglar’s flustered state. The flummoxed dwarf lord stared after the departing halfling quite unsure why the hobbit would say such a thing as it was only four in the evening. Dwalin observed the interaction with no little hilarity and second-hand mortification over Thorin’s infatuation.

 

***

In the coming hours Bilbo had seen more than one dwarrow wandering around the elfin realm though never alone. He had especially spied Kili and Fili more than once as the two made their way around Rivendell clearly in search of something or someone. Bilbo suspected quite well he knew who. But the hobbit had made Rivendell is home for many months over the course of years so woe to the two Durin’s heirs in trying to find their Burglar.

He breathed a sigh of contentment from the balcony as her overlooked Rivendell’s sights. He had missed this. He had not stepped this paths or walked these halls since he had taken on the responsibility of Head of the Baggins Family. It was good to breathe the air and watch the rivers of Imladris’s soothing sights.

“Not with your companions,” Lord Elrond asked as he stepped up to hobbit’s side.

Bilbo merely sighed, quite used to the sneaking of elves and hobbits. It had been a favored game when he was younger, both here and in the Shire. “I think some separation will do good for both me and them. I shan’t be missed.”

 

“Only fools would not miss your presence, Bilbo.” The elf lord gently touched his shoulder. “Come I have something for you.” He led the hobbit with him to Imladris’s Great Library. The delicately carved doors opened with ease onto massive walls full of tomes and scrolls.

A raven-haired elf in dark blue, nearly black robes, turned at their entrance. ::My lord,:: Erestor bowed his gaze falling to Bilbo, “and the young Baggins. It has been long since you have wandered in my territory, little one.:: There had always been a quietly dignified nature to the elfin archivist’s interactions; Erestor was not exuberant in his regard, but his favor evident by when he welcomed one into his domain.

Bilbo looked on the rows of books and scripts with the same delight he had felt as a fauntling of sixteen. ::I have missed it and your company.::

Erestor tilted his head with a soft, fleeting twitch of his lips. ::How may I be of service?::

::Will you fetch Gerontius’s gift?:: the librarian’s eyebrow arched slightly in surprise at his lord’s words. Elrond merely nodded towards Bilbo. ::It is time it is returned to hobbit hands.::

At once the raven-locked elf disappeared into the depths of the library.

::What gift, my lord,:: Bilbo asked.

The elf lord did not reply until Erestor returned; a hand stitched grey bound journal in his hand. ::I have kept this at your grandfather’s behest this past twenty years. To safeguard and give into your keeping when the time was right:: Elrond accepted the book from the archivist and proffered it to Bilbo. The hobbit took it hesitantly. ::He asked that I wait on conferring it until you had relinquished your heavy grief over Arradeth’s passing. I am glad to see such a time has come and your burden eased.:: Bilbo looked up at Elrond in surprise, but the elf merely smiled. ::There is a peace about you and while your grief is present it no longer rules you.::

Bilbo thumbed open the book. His jaw fell slack in shock and he could not believe such a thing had passed the Shire’s borders. Each page was penned in precisely scrawled Green Tongue. The hand writing achingly well-known. His grandmother always did have a heavy hand.

::The contents of its pages have been unread; for even if were in a tongue known to me it would be so,:: the elf lord assured. ::You and your family are as kin to me, Bilbo. Whatever secrets penned upon its parchment are for your eyes alone. I hope it is a welcome sight.::

The enthusiasm of the hobbit’s hug was assurance enough for any elf.

 

***

A mighty gift. Orcrist lay upon the bed in the room Thorin had been granted. Even fully sheathed its metal danced in the light. An elfin blade true, but a peerless weapon nonetheless.

At its side was Deathless. The dwarven steel had been an early coming-of-age present from his grandparents. Thror had drawn its design (during one of the brief respites from his madness) and his grandmother had forged it herself, engraving Thorin’s chosen crest into the pommel. It reminded him of a happier time. If not a simpler one. Thror’s moments of sanity had been fleeting even then and Thrain had yielded to his father’s insanity. His grandmother Saett had buried herself in her Craft while his own mother Alis had turned to raising her children. Often had Thorin wondered at his family’s blindness; though the Smaug’s coming was an undeserved punishment visited upon his people for one dwarrow’s faults. (His grandmother and so many more had died in those flames.)

He rubbed the scabbard’s worn edge. It was with this blade he faced the dragon alongside the King’s Guard. It was this sword that he carried into the Exile of Durin’s Folk. He had wielded it a Khazad-Dum, had deathly wounded the Defiler with it. Named in honor of Durin, father of his line; the sword was a reminder of his past and birth-right. Such a weapon was not easily forsaken.

Yet Orcrist was no ordinary blade. Given to him with both his host’s blessing and that of Glorfindel, dwarf-friend and twice-lived. As the elf had been a companion to Durin in an age long past no dwarrowkind could dispute such a gift.

But Deathless could not be cast aside.

Thorin picked up the blade and swept from his room in search of his nephews. Fili had no need of another sword; the ones his golden-haired heir had forged as proof of his Mastery were too well-suited for the bladesmith. But Kili was hard on weapons. And though Deathless carried Thorin’s emblem and not his younger nephew’s, the blade would serve the youngest Durin heir well. Beside if he could but find a forge Thorin would have no problem altering the pommel. Kili might prefer his bow but Deathless would serve him well.

 

The pride the lad had on his face at receiving the gift proved Thorin’s choice wise.

 

***

Late that evening Gandalf, Thorin, Balin, and their elven host stood in Lord Elrond’s private anteroom. There an argument brewed between dwarf lord and wizard.

“Our business is no concern of elves,” Thorin spat, distrust clouding his face.

Gandalf sighed in frustration. “For goodness sake, Thorin, show him the map.”

“It is the legacy of my people; it is mine to protect, as are its secrets.”

“Save me from the stubbornness of Dwarves.” Gandalf thumped his staff against the marble floor. He gestured at the dwarf. “Your pride will be your downfall. You stand here in the presence of one of the few in Middle-earth who can read that map. Show it to Lord Elrond.” The elf lord watched on impassively as Durin’s heir struggled with his decision.

At last Thorin relented and plucked the map from his vest.

Balin moved to stop him. Despite his wit for diplomacy, the elderly dwarrow did not trust Rivendell’s lord; he too remembered how easily elves turned away when dwarven need had been high. “Thorin, no!”

Thorin brushed Balin aside. Once teacher, friend and advisor the dwarrow may be but this was his choice and his alone.

Lord Elrond accepted the chart with deft fingers. “Erebor.” It was hardly surprising; yet stern grey eyes fell on the dwarf lord. “What is your interest in this map?”

Thorin moved to speak, surely some insult, but Gandalf speedily interjected, “It’s mainly academic. As you know, this sort of artifact sometimes contains hidden text. You still read Ancient Dwarvish, do you not?” A look of understanding passing between wizard and dwarf. Neither would profit from elven interference and Gandalf would not have the quest impeded.

The elf lord studied it thoroughly. :: There are moon-letters here, beside the plain runes which say 'five feet high the door and three may walk abreast.::

“Moon runes. Of course. An easy thing to miss,” Gandalf excused.

 “Well in this case, that is true,” Elrond walked over to his desk. “Moon runes can only be read by the light of a moon of the same shape and season as the day on which they were written.”

Thorin asked, “Can you read them?”

The elf lord closed his eyes and touched the parchment, the meditation of his foresight easing over him. Thorin made to disrupt the elf but Gandalf blocked the dwarrow’s path with his staff. After a time, Elrond raised his head.  “These runes were written on a Midsummer’s Eve by the light of a crescent moon nearly two hundred years ago. It would seem you were meant to come to Rivendell. Fate is with you, Thorin Oakenshield; the same moon approaches at the end of this month.”

“That is over two weeks from now.” Thorin’s displeasure was evident in the flatness of his tone.

“Indeed. It will give your Company time for supplies and rest. I would like to watch over Bilbo’s recovery as well.” Lord Elrond returned the map to Thorin’s keeping.”You are welcome to Imladris’s bounty.”

Thorin bit back his bitter words. If he did not need the elf lord’s help he would be more than willing to give her all the curses of his dwarven tongue. The elf acted as though he could not be trusted with the hobbit’s recuperation. Though two weeks would give them time for the Burglar to heal.

Balin took hold of Thorin’s shoulder and gently prodded him away from the desk. “Our thanks,” the elderly dwarrow bowed to Lord Elrond.

At his advisor’s gratitude, Thorin delved deep for some courtesy of his own. He nodded to elf lord. “Good evening.” Thorin spun on his heel and strode from the room. Balin scurried after.

Gandalf sighed at the dwarf lord’s briskness and moved to follow. “Wait, Gandalf, I must speak with you. I have a grave foresight to share.”

 

***

The Company had abandoned their rooms for the night, gathering instead in a large open chamber. Food had been brought by an elfin runner at Lindir’s instruction, much meat among it. The elf steward was only too glad that the dwarves preferred their odd campsite rather than endure another repast with them. Nori had been making herself quite scarce from her companions (especially one certain dwarrow) and had found the pantry. More than one small cask of ale had been pilfered from the elves’ stores. She ate her stolen sausages and cheese, lingering next to Bofur. The behatted dwarrow merrily cooked their food over broken elven furniture. With a single sausage he sent Bombur crashing to the floor splintering a table beneath him.

It was to the uproarious laughter of this spectacle that Thorin and Balin returned. The dwarf king surveyed the burns from the fire on the floor, the damaged furniture, and some more-than-likely dubiously obtained drink. “We’ll be guests until Midsummer.” Thorin turned and walked away, leaving Balin to make explanations. If he was going to deal with the headache of apologizing to his long-term host tomorrow, he would do so after a descent night’s sleep on a bed. Even if that bed was elven.

 

 

Alone in his room and apart from the dwarven Company, Bilbo carefully thumbed through the pages of Arradeth’s tome, belatedly learning his grandmother’s secrets deep into the evening.

 

Excerpts from the Journal of Adamanta the Hobbit, once Arradeth the White:

῁῁What I do now would be considered a heinous crime to my kin, but as I suspect I am one of the last of Varda’s chosen I care naught. The knowledge of dragons has ever been a spoken tradition as living words do not die so easily as text on aging pages. Yet this I write not for dragon eyes but in honor of you Gerontius, my first friend. For you rekindled the spark in my failing Heart and offered your language and stories; I would now do the same. To you I leave this missive of my life and knowledge. Do with at as you will for my trust in you is unwavering as the sun. Always will it come before and after all shadows have passed….῁῁

῁῁…As Manwe blessed his chosen creatures and devised them with Eru’s consent to carry a Valar’s grace, so the Star Queen did for us. Great were the Eagles the Lord of the Breath of Arda granted his wisdom and knowledge upon. But his wife, the Star-kindler too wished to have her own messengers and servants. Thus she chose the winged lizards of the Far East and on them she placed her blessing. In each breast she lay a light so bright it will seek ever to illuminate and heal the dark. In time this light became inseparably bound to these beings’ Valar bestowed fëa and hröa. Thereby dragon Hearts were birthed…. ῁῁        ‘

῁῁…But even though Varda’s light was meant only to seek and nurture life, soon dragon Hearts became grasping possessive things. So with such covetous spirits, it came as no surprise that they fell to Morgoth’s power. Belegurth twisted them with fire and sorcery and bred them for his aims. From his devices was birthed a host many and terrible. At his will came forth the fire-drakes, the cold-drakes, the winged and the wingless wyrms. Glaurung the Deceiver. Ancalagon the Black. Seregruth of Gondolin’s Ruin. Gostir the Wretched. Such follies were birthed from our weaknesses….῁῁

῁῁…Yet from those born of such sorceries arose offspring who broke their begetters’ shackles. A new order of Varda’s chosen who bequeathed their Hearts not to Melkor-the-fallen’s rein but bestowed them upon Arda. These Hearts were gifted and sown within the earth. Their sacrifice meant to slow the decline of Arda Marred in repentance.  Therefore the Iaew was formed and came into their purpose…. ῁῁         

 

The last page of her journal:

῁῁ I wandered alone, the last of my order and guardian of the Enemy’s treasures, since even dragon-fire could not melt the charms laid upon them. Thus I waited in my solitude for the time of my Extinguishing as my Heart was to be gifted to Arda as recompense. Here I confess my dearest friend that you at last came into my reclusive cavern and set my lonesome Heart ablaze. Your silly offers of handkerchiefs and tales of lands thriving with life beyond bleak walls eased the burden of my loneliness. Never was such a creature so blessed as I by your presence. From there you know the rest of our journey together.

῁῁Now I have brought my burden to your Shire. Cast aside a long served duty for the contentment found in your lands and the pleasure of your smile. I cannot say I regret it. Perhaps you will judge me harshly after reading this account. I do not believe it truly so. You are much too good. But still I fear it in my coward’s way.

῁῁With this last page my tale is told. I offer here my stories and my histories, all that I have been and all that I will be. It is yours, gifted without expectation of reciprocity. For a dragon’s Heart can only ever be given freely. My beloved Gerontius, mine is yours and yours alone.῁῁  

 

***

Beyond Imladris’s calm valley and soothing rivers, across the Lone Lands wilderness stood tall the ruins of Amon Sul. Within that weathered fortress the Warg Rider scouts returned few of number to a host of their cohorts, a large white warg at their center. Yazneg flinched as the creature growled at him but his attention soon fell beyond the massive beast to its owner. He cringed as he dismounted expecting Lord Azog’s fury.

//The Dwarves, Master... we lost them. Ambushed by Elvish filth, we were--\\

// I don’t want excuses. I want the head of the Dwarf King!\\ Azog turned from where he surveyed the landscape, the moonlight glinting on the metal claw of his severed arm. His strode up to his lieutenant and halted on seeing the gash upon the other Orcs face. //No Elvish arrow made that.\\

//Not from an Elf. Some strange dwarf-child.

Further anger fell over the Pale Orc. //Beaten by a babe.\\

//No, Master. Was the Elf—\\

Azog took hold of Yazeng chin digging his fingers into the still gaping wound. The orc rider withered in terror and pain but continued to choke out his explanation. //We were outnumbered...there was nothing we could do. I barely escaped with my life.\\

Azog released the failure’s face and lifted him by the throat with this metal claw. //Far better you had paid with it.\\ He stroked Yanzeg’s head with his good hand and with a roar threw him to the riders’ mounts. The wargs fell on the orc rending screams and flesh from him. Azog turned away to scratch his white warg’s scruff unbothered by the screams. More than one of his kin quavered in fear at the display well others licked the lips at the blood spilt.

The Pale Orc addressed those assembled. //The Dwarf-scum will show themselves soon enough. Make sure the word has spread of the price on their heads.\\ He turned to single out Fimbul among the group, now lieutenant of the Warg Riders with Yazneg’s expiration. //Check with the magicians and let me know of any news from the Mountain. I will be informed of any changes.\\ The Orc was quick to leap on his Warg and called the other riders to follow. Together they ran from Weathertop to do Azog’s will.

Chapter Text

Bilbo woke to summer sunshine and an inexplicable swelling in his Hearts, Arradeth’s tome (for every word had been a dragon’s even if it had been penned by hobbit hands) lay open on the bed near him. A feeling of sorrow and liberation stole over the hobbit. His grandmother had shared much of herself with him and had taught him so all she could in their little time together. The ability to control his transformation from hobbit to dragon, his skill in languages, and his knowledge of bird and beast trailed back to her teachings. With her passing Bilbo had not only been inflected with a ravenous grief and guilt, but with the knowledge he was alone. As sure as Bilbo was that Adamanta Took had loved all her children and grandchildren, none other than her and him had even known a Drakish form. In the others dwelled no thrill of flight, no rush of flame inside one’s gullet, no snap of tail or swipe of claw. That had been hers and his alone. At her sacrifice (he hated to think of it as that but Fili was right, it had been a sacrifice) Bilbo had lost more than a beloved grandmother. He had lost a foundation, a source for a world none of his other kin could understand. Yet here in these pages it had been gifted back to him in a wholly unexpected way.

Bilbo brushed the tear tracts from his face. He was not certain still if they were the product of elation or unhappiness. With full Hearts he set aside the journal and dressed for the day.

 

Fili knew others often thought him and his brother flighty and forgetful. Even in Thorin’s Halls, where both had been much more careful of their behavior, he knew that others saw his youth as a deterrent. But he had been raised by Thorin who was uncompromising. By Dis, his mother and Vili, his father; one of who had overcome the dogmatic practices of tradition through the might of her will and the other who had set aside comfortable safety for his love. By Skali his grandfather, arguably one of Ered Luin’s Council’s greatest politicians. By his half-parent Dwalin who embodied unwavering loyalty. Given such an upbringing, Fili had at least enough cunning to corner his allusive savior.

So Fili had bided his time and noted which hallway Bilbo had taken and which door. While the rest of the Company had been kept to guest halls, it seemed the hobbit’s room was a more permanent fixture (no doubt a remnant from his past stays as evidenced by his familiarity with their host). So Fili and Kili on being unable to locate him the evening before had planned. Thusly was the reason why the dwarrow princes now claimed the spot across from Bilbo’s door and had been keeping their watch since half an hour before dawn’s rise. Uncomfortable as the ground was, it was the best place to waylay their burglar for a private conversation. With all the patience of aged stone, the two waited until finally the door creaked open well past the sun’s waking.

Bilbo did not expect the surprise of the princes’ company when opening his door. Then again when is surprise ever expected?

Fili knocked his shoulder against a drowsing Kili’s even as the golden-haired prince rose from the floor to face the hobbit. His brother scrambled up after. Fili stepped closer, not so close as to touch but enough to block the hall and Kili followed suit. “Bilbo,” he said, “we need to talk.”

Fili’s single sentence caused nerves to twist and writhe in the hobbit’s belly.

Bilbo knew he could lie. Should lie. It was what his kin or Gandalf would advise.

Having gathered the princes into the privacy of his room they sat uncomfortably, Bilbo on the bed and the dwarrows on the dressing bench across from him; both parties uncertain of who or where to start. He noticed that both princes wore no visible weapons (always a good sign) and Kili had even been good enough to return his knife from Esmeralda. Even Bilbo’s sincere gratitude at having it returned had not lessened the unease in the room. There was no uncertainty in anyone’s mind on what the topic of their discussion must be, but no one wanted quite to admit what had happened during the troll debacle. It had been too odd, too strange, but some explanation was needed.

It was Kili always happy to jump headfirst in the most tactless of ways that started the conversation. “Is it usual for hobbits to turn so green and…scaly?”

“Um, no…not as such,” Bilbo admitted. Fili merely watched the hobbit, gaze unwavering. Some sweat began to form on hobbit’s brow. Bilbo knew he could lie. Knew he could deflect or spin some tale…but. His sight flickered to Arradeth’s journal. His grandmother had not been ashamed of what she was (perhaps repentant of the actions of her kind but not ashamed). His eyes slid back to the princes. Both had been quite free in offering some attempt at camaraderie. If he lied now, whatever seedling of friendship that had started to sprout between them would surely wither and die.

And this secret was truly his alone. It had nothing to with hobbits or their Callings. It was something he could gift if he truly wanted to.

“I’m not the usual sort of hobbit,” Bilbo finally acknowledged.

A snort escaped Fili. “Really, as if we had not noticed. You transformed before my eyes and took a blade in my stead. I don’t know any Man or Dwarf who could do such much less a Hobbit.” The golden haired dwarrow huff of air caused his moustache to tremble. “I’m not here to judge you, Bilbo. I just want to understand how you did it. And why?”

Bilbo wet his lips. “If I tell you are you going to report it to your uncle?”

The brothers exchanged a glance. A lifetime of respect and love for Thorin warred in their hearts against their dwarven honor. It was Fili who replied at last. “You saved my life at the risk of your own. It would be a poor reward to return such a gift with disloyalty. Nothing you say here will be repeated.”

“I owe you my brother’s life,” Kili added. “My honor as one of Durin’s line is now bound to you. My silence is also yours.”

It was more than the lonesome hobbit had expected and, while it could not guarantee they would not hate him after, it gave Bilbo enough courage to find his words.

“I am the only one of my kin to have a second form. Though the same blood runs through my mother’s line no one else can change their shape like me. It’s probably easiest to understand what I am by the sharing of my grandfather’s tale.” Both princes leaned forward entranced as Bilbo began. “Once a wizard took a hobbit named Gerontius Took on an adventure to slay a dragon….”

 

***

As stealthy as Nori was Dwalin had years of catching sneak-thieves. So when she tried to creep out of their shared quarters before any of the others woke, he was waiting outside the door to catch her.

“I need to speak with you,” he informed blocking the doorway with his bulk. Nori’s eyes shifted between him and the others. As always they dam was trying to plan six steps ahead but this time Dwalin would not have it. Whether or not Nori wanted to talk, he was warranted some answers.

On seeing no escape without waking their comrades, Nori’s shoulders drooped in resignation. A part of Dwalin regretted the burn of his anger, but he held firm to if only to quench his guilt.

“Fine,” the dam bit out. “But not here.” She nodded towards one of the solitary rooms down the corridor. Dwalin stepped back and had her lead. He would not restrain her still but if Nori tried to run he would be right behind her.

Of course the spy expected that and put up no resistance. For the time being at least. Better she and Dwalin say their pieces now than let it fester enough to draw the others, especially Dori’s, attention. Once the door was closed and their privacy secured Nori spun around, posture stiff with her back facing the wall. “Well. What do you want?”

Dwalin hated to see the dam so guarded especially with the memory of her warm body held so close to his still fresh. But he could not let his resolve waver. “You left.” The statement was too simple to hold all the pain and anger that it did.

Nori fought back a flinch. “We were done weren’t we? No reason to bother sticking around.”  A part of her missed those arms, those hands on her, grounding her and keeping her from running. For a moment she wished he would do so. A greater part despised herself for that weakness and him for making her feel such a way.

She would not meet his eyes and Dwalin swallowed down bitter words. “There was ever reason for me, lass. I would offer you courtship.”

Her head jerked up at his words and for a moment fear shone in her eyes before they grew hooded, unreadable to him. “You should not want to,” she snapped.

“Why not?” He held his arms rigid at his sides despite the lurching need to hold her. Nori would not appreciate being pinned, being trapped. He would not make her feel his love would confine her. “If you would just stop running from me, lass, you’d see I’m not going anywhere. You are it for me.” His often-thought words tripped clumsily off his tongue. “Nori daughter of Kori if allowed I would offer you the strength of my axes and the words of my hear—”

“Stop. I-I do not want it.” A coldness fell over her so unlike the fiery thief he knew. For a moment she was as distant as flame to an empty hearth. “Keep your oaths, Fundin’s son. Your words are not welcome here.” She made to move past him. “Come find me if you want a tumble but that’s all you’re get from me.”

He moved to block her path. “Do not ask me to treat you like that lass. I cannot. I will not.

Nori’s face contorted into a sneer. “Too unrefined for your tastes; well too bad. Sometimes that’s all you get with spoiled goods.  It’s certainly all I want of you.” She stared at him gaze unwavering though the words felt like curdled milk within her stomach.

“Your blood’s as good as any of Durin’s get. As good as mine,” Dwalin insisted. His fists strained not to reach for her.

“But it’s not.” Her scornful laughter grated like blades against his heart. “Go back to Thorin’s Halls if you want to court. All I can offer is a warm bed for the night. No need to waste my time with anything further.” She pushed past him to the door.

Dwalin’s hands clenched so hard they began to tremble. He would not touch her without her permission. Nori was no longer the little beggar-thief who had to be caught and jailed for a night of punishment. This was the dwarrowdam who had earned Thorin’s trust and Dwalin’s respect. He would not hold her to him just because he did not want her to leave.

He had made his offer and she had refused. He would break all they had between them by forcing her to stay.

 

***

“…and so as I was dying, my grandmother gave up her life in a secret way of dragons and I lived in her stead,” Bilbo finished the tale. He would not share the truth of dragon Hearts with them. Such knowledge was only meant for a drake to bear. “In time I found I could take a partial form, a mix of hobbit and dragon. Which is what you saw the other night. And what protected us from the troll’s blade.”’

Both princes had been engrossed in the story and it took them a few seconds into the hobbit’s silence to shake tale’s entrancement from their minds.

Kili frowned in consideration while Fili could not look away from their burglar. Bilbo did not seem any different in appearance than a few moments ago; still only a Halfling dressed in elvish clothes. Yet now the princes knew there was so much more to the little fellow. Fili studied the hobbit as Bilbo fiddled with his hands nervously. Yet he was the same Bilbo Baggins they had met in Bag-End, just perhaps a bit more visible than before. The same being who had earned the devotion of his own people, of a wizard, and their elven host. Bilbo had the same capacity for evil as any being and still remained good despite a hard world.

“You’ve always been this way,” Fili asked. “It is how you were born?”

“Essentially.” Kili looked up at Bilbo’s words. “I mean the first time I ever changed (even knew I could change) I was seven. Was a rather unpleasant shock at the time.” the hobbit wrinkled his nose at the memory.

A burst of giggles broke from Kili. Fili soon joined his brother in laughter as a startled expression spread over Bilbo’s face.

“You’re a dragon?!” Kili howled, his emotions a turmoil of surprise and disbelief and realization.

“Well only partially.” Bilbo was quite confounded by their reaction.

“No wonder Gandalf wanted you on the quest,” Fili said, regaining some control over his laughter. It was quite crafty of the wizard to bring a dragon to slay a dragon.

“Well I’m sure it played its part,” Bilbo confessed still confused. “Aren’t you angry? Don’t you hate me?”

The two dwarrows sat up straighter and even Kili’s merriment calmed at the hobbit’s quiet, almost scared questions. “Why ever would we do that,” the dark-haired prince asked.

“I’m a dragon!” Bilbo hopped off the bed, unable to sit still. “Aren’t dwarves supposed to hate dragons? Their evil and possessive; they know only how to plunder and destroy. Isn’t that what they say? That dragons love only gold and themselves.”

Kili cocked his head. “I wouldn’t say any of that about you.”

Fili agreed. “I’ve heard Men-folk describe dwarves similarly. And while I’ve met some who were that way, I’ve known many who are not.”

“But you lost your home to one,” Bilbo exclaimed. “Smaug took everything from you.”

The golden haired prince stood and his brother followed. “You are not Smaug and Erebor fell before either of us was born. We couldn’t blame you for that.” Fili and Kili stopped the hobbit’s pacing, each placing a gentle hand on one of his shoulders.

“You’re the hobbit who swore himself to help us regain the home of our mother,” Kili stated as solemnly as his brother. “You pulled us out of the way of those bandits’ arrows and bought time so we didn’t end up troll food.”

“You saved me from the being skewered. You told the Company to run.” Fili’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “And don’t think we’ve forgot that. Next time you’d better not even think of asking that of us. You’re one of us, Bilbo; we’d no more leave you than we would Thorin.”

“Not that we didn’t think of leaving tied up in his sack,” Kili declared, waggling his brows at Bilbo’s surprise. “With how he’s been acting towards you I doubt Fili and I were the only one’s thinking of a little mutiny.”

Fili rolled his eyes but did not hide his smile. “We’re with you for however long you want us, Bilbo.”

Tears welled in the hobbit’s eyes and the two dwarrows carefully embraced their burglar. A look passed between them over Bilbo’s head. No they would not tell. But if Thorin or any of others found out and lost their wits over the discovery…well they were two of the best fighters the Company could boast. Durinsons were known for their fierceness in battle and their need to protect their family. Bilbo may not be theirs by blood but that was not the only tie that could bind a dwarrow to another. If Thorin had been truthful about how long they would be staying in Rivendell, the two of them had time to prepare.

Eventually both princes pulled back allowing Bilbo some air. They all settled back in their seats as the hobbit tried to regain some composure.

“I do have a question,” Kili asked a little too keenly.

Bilbo nodded at him even as he wiped at his eyes.

A grin of utter excitement grew on the dwarrow’s face. “Can you fly?” Fili looked at Bilbo with just as much interest as his brother. “Will you show us?”

An unexpected laugh emerged from the hobbit and the princes grinned gladly in response.

 

The day passed with little fanfare. The dwarves kept mostly to themselves making their plans since their stay would now be so extensive. More than one noted the princes’ and hobbit’s absence, especially Thorin. But none were quite sure were the hobbit’s room was (Bilbo had indeed been given his old room and only Fili had seemed to pay attention to where the hobbit had gone off to the night before). Even fewer had any idea were the princes might have wandered off to. Despite their distrust of their elven hosts it would be foolish to think they would harm the Durin heirs. More likely, Balin proposed, that the lads had went off exploring and were causing some mischief. It was agreed that if the two had not returned by dinner the Company would go in search. Gandalf had taken to meeting with Lord Elrond and Lord Glorfindel who discussed the growing darkness of late. A council, the elf lords insisted, was needed. The Grey Wizard knew it was but worried over Saruman’s interference with the dwarves’ quest. The leader of his Order had too long dwelled in Orthanc without traveling Arda’s lands; the Watchful Peace was coming to an end but the White Wizard would not see it.

Meanwhile in Bilbo’s room Fili, Kili, and the hobbit were sharing a tray of food brought by an elven attendant. Both lads had shed the boots and sat on the floor with Bilbo joining them. Their talk had progressed to the sharing of childhood anecdotes with a clarifying question here or there.

“Then Kili took our Adad’s calipers and rounded the door waving it in a frenzy. I don’t know what he was planning to do except poke his own eye out.” Fili continued to laugh even as Kili reddened in embarrassment. “Only the noise wasn’t any warg like he had feared but old Greppi’s pet hog. The pig managed to chew through his rope and got loose only to get lost in the Halls. So there’s old Greppi running up with Adad on his heals cause they couldn’t finish their meeting and Kili’s screaming. The pig’s so confused it trampled over him right into the luthier work room and they spent the next hour picking up wood and strings from all over the place.”

The dark haired dwarrow glared at his brother and the chortling hobbit. “You laugh but that hog was mean. Near bit off my arm and Amad still yelled at me for touching Adad’s tools.”

“She yelled at him too for leaving you in the workroom unattended.”

Bilbo wiped moisture from his eyes, he had been laughing so hard. “How old were you?”

“Seventeen,” Kili said with a wry smirk. “Probably wouldn’t even remember it if I didn’t still have the scar from the damned pigs teeth.”

Fili leant forward conspiratorially to Bilbo. “He tells all the ladies it’s from an Orc fight.” Kili shoved his older brother playful with a squawk of outrage.

Bilbo chuckled. “So your father was a luthier?”

“He was,” said Fili, pushing Kili away. “A master of course. Good enough to even become one of the Luthier’s Assembly or be the Guildmaster itself. Our Assemblies,” Fili clarified at Bilbo’s interested gaze, “are those who are the greatest of our Masters (known as Craftsmasters), never numbering more than seven, with the Guildmaster as the leader of the Guild. Father would have been brilliant at it.”

“He never wanted to be part of it,” Kili said, eyes wistful. “Said he’d much rather have time for us and Amad then squabble over whose works were good enough to earn a Mastery.”

“He sounds a remarkable dwarrow,” Bilbo stated.

Bittersweet smiles tinged both the princes’ faces. “He was.” Fili took a deep breath. “He was laid to stone fifty-three years ago this last spring. We’d had a bad rain that year and some of the older tunnels had collapsed. Every able bodied dwarf who could be spared went to help. Kili and I would have been there as well but Amad got a cold the day before and we both ended up catching it. They thought they had secured one of the larger one’s Adad was working in but it collapsed. Over fifty dwarrows dead.” The room grew heavy with that memory and Bilbo extended his hand in comfort. Fili and Kili grasp with welcome, their fingers entangling with his.

“I am glad that you are here,” Bilbo whispered, in a quiet steady voice.

“Same for you,” Kili said even as Fili squeezed both their hands a little tighter.

Sometime later when the subject had changed to some of Bilbo’s own tales, the dark haired dwarrow interrupted a rather descriptive story about the Toffee Pudding Recipe War between his father and Aunt Camellia. “She’s the one that called you an Unfortunate, isn’t she?” Kili had hated the contemptible way the hobbit matron had treated Bilbo.

“She-she did.” Bilbo was surprised the lad still remembered (then again if anyone could impress her vileness upon another being in only a few minutes it would be Camellia Sackville).

“Will you tell us why,” Fili asked. “Only if you wish to,” he quickly added at the alarm on the hobbit’s face.

“Or could you explain the fire thing with the trolls?” Bilbo startled but Kili merely grinned unrepentantly. The youngest Durin was not as unobservant as many would believe.

Bilbo was not certain what to say. Knacks were not really spoken of but nor were they hidden. Gandalf obviously knew thinking it some odd peculiarity of the hobbit race. There were and never had been any magical practitioners among them unlike the other Free People, so the wizard had assumed a bit of magical potential had been sown into each hobbit family instead. No one had ever desired to correct him on the matter. And he was not the only one to know a bit on that particularity of hobbits. There was a reason the small folk were so welcomed in Breeland. More than one Bree man knew that if you wanted something mended good as new you’d ask a Banks or if you needed an animal soothed you’d fetch a Mugwort. It was not that he could not share his knack; he just never had to before. Everyone knew what being an Unfortunate was and what it meant, tainted as it was with being so unwanted position. Though if Fili and Kili did not hate him for his dragon heritage, he doubted a few more eccentricities would do the trick.

“Whatever you say is still in confidence,” Fili claimed as Kili nodded in agreement. “You have our word.”

With such honesty and the start of true friendship between them how could he not offer up at least what truths he may.

“Well,” Bilbo started, “while I’m not a, uh, usual hobbit (with the whole dragon thing), hobbits are a little bit different than the rest of the races. We don’t have magical folk like the rest of you but instead a certain way with things. The first to show signs of a knack were the Oldbucks, the oldest of our families….”

 

***

“I had not expected to see you or your companions this morn,” Lord Elrond greeted as Thorin and the Company came striding into the usual dining hall. More than one elf glanced the dwarves’ way as there had been little sign of their guests except for that first meal.

The dwarf lord grunted in reply. Thorin wanted no reminders of how stubbornly the Company had kept to itself the day before. Sitting in their commandeered chambers among the wreckage of the dwarrows’ impromptu party with more than one member growing antsy from their inactivity had not been pleasant. Even his sister-sons return before sunset had caused no ease of mind; there had been a gleam in Kili’s and Fili’s eyes that did not bode well. There secretiveness of where they had been indicated some best unknown mischief had been afoot so Thorin had let the matter lie. Hopeful whatever wild behavior the two had been up to would not be traced back to the Company. Regardless, in the end it had been determined that no matter how the dwarrows might wish not to mingle with elves, two weeks would not pass quicker within their rooms. They would have no choice but to associate with their guests less idleness paired with cramped quarters drive them to fight amongst themselves. Hopefully the group would come to their senses regarding the rooms and some recreation could be found in this elvish hovel.

At such dwarvish elegance, Elrond merely continued, “You are more than welcome to our morning repast.” The dwarves took to the food eagerly, this time a healthy mix of meats was set between the vegetables and fruits. While many only ate the more hearty foods Bilbo, who had arrived much earlier, slipped into a seat besides Thorin’s nephews. The hobbit was only too eager to point out foods the two might wish to try at least once. Surprisingly the lads took to the hobbit’s suggestions with vigor; Ori, a doubtless picky eater, was even tempted by their (most notably Fili’s enthusiasm) and cautiously ate some herself. All three seemed pleased with Bilbo’s choices and Thorin observed more than one dwarf eye their plates with interest.

Apparently the elvish food and drink agreed quite well with Master Baggins as he looked much better. Of course a good rest in a solid (if much too soft and elvish) bed and eating his fill of food (also too elvish) while enjoying clean clothes (by far too elvish) would better the hobbit’s appearance. Still there was something about the Burglar’s spirit that seemed much brighter as well. While he would give shy smiles and quiet comments throughout the journey, Bilbo now openly chatted and laughed with his sister-sons. It was as if the barrier of mistrust between them had fallen; for even as Thorin scrutinized their actions he became aware of how often Fili and Kili deferred to the hobbit, giving the slight being their keen attention when he spoke. Even as he watched their meal come to end and Elrond’s sons come up to greet the hobbit, he observed how his heirs let the hobbit make their introductions and how both dug their diplomatic manners up to return the greeting with sincerity. The two wished to make a good impression. Thorin’s brow furrowed. Why his nephews sought the approval of Master Baggins’s friends, especially elvish ones, was a mystery to the dwarf lord? Was this some result of Fili’s rescue by the hobbit? He would need to keep an eye out.

 

With the meal ended, Thorin and his companions followed his sister-sons, the hobbit, and his elven entourage out into Rivendell proper. Lord Elrond also came to join them and it was with purpose they were lead to an open area where many structures well tended had been built in a half circle. Forges. Thorin would know such buildings anywhere though these where far finer than any smithy among Men he had seen in his travels. At each of the twelve forges was an elf at work some merely cleaning tools while others forged with hammer and tongs. At the dwarrows entrance, the largest forge ceased its toil. An elf with light chestnut hair brought his hammer down one final time onto the piece he was crafting before an assistant came forth to cool the metal. ::Celebring, attend to Tindir’s progress,:: the elf called over his shoulder, even as he removed leather gloves and apron before he approached the group.

“Is this them,” he questioned even as he bowed to his head to Lord Elrond. A wide grin stretched across his features and more than one dwarf drew back at the sight. “Are you truly of Durin’s Folk?”

“We are,” Thorin stated blandly.

“Who’s asking,” Dwalin added, stepping up threatening next to his king.

Instead of offense the elf smiled even broader at both dwarrows’ tones, before casting a contrite look towards his lord.

Elrond fought to not roll his eyes in reply. His senior by a century or so, Iulben had never outgrown his troublemaking ways. Too long spent among the dwarven peoples, he thought even as Imladris’s host offered introductions. “This is Iulben, leader of the Gwaith-i-Mirdain, once of Ost-in-Edhil. He had wished to make your acquaintance. Iulben, I present Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror and his Company.”

The elf bowed deep to the assembled dwarrows, eliciting no little shock. “A pleasure. Too long has it been since I have spoke with Durin’s Folk. Not since the closing of the doors before the fall of Casarrondo.” His smile dimmed at such an admission but soon brighten at the dwarves’ interest.

“Casarrondo?” Ori stepped hesitantly forward to ask her question.

Iulben’s eyes caught on her and widened a fracture further even as he gave his reply. “Ah, I believe it is now called Moria in the common tongue, but as one who once dwelt beneath its shadows it will always be Casarrondo to me.” He gazed about at the Company, his attention lingering near Oin and Dori before returning to Thorin’s face. “You do indeed have the barring of Durin’s Folk. I can see it in many of your countenances. Our Lord’s Lady had your look and well do I remember her face.”

“Your lord,” Gloin asked appalled as his gaze slid to Lord Elrond. The elf frowned in consternation. As if Celebrian had ever resembled a dwarf.

“Aye, our long lost Lord Celebrimbor and his Lady Narvi.” A hush went through the dwarrows as they stared at the elf. Narvi of Khazad-Dum, the great Crafter of Durin’s Doors. Not much was known of what became of the greatest Dwarven Craftsmaster of the Second Age after her masterpiece’s completion. Surely she could not have gone to live among the elves nor become the lady to one? What poppycock? Nori who had been silent throughout the affair stiffened at the mention. Dori squeezed his sister’s shoulder comfortingly.

Iulben continued on despite the dwarves’ reaction. “Even if I did not know her I would recognize the signs of Durin Folk. There was great friendship between our peoples. Even long after Eregion’s Fall, those of the Gwaith-i-Mirdain would count you as friends.”

“Odd that you would call us friends when none of your people offered aid to me or mine,” Thorin bit back.

Iulben’s eyes widened in surprise. “But aid was offered, my Lord Elrond, himself sent the missive to your grandfather once news reached us of Erebor’s fall.”

Thorin’s face turned white even as a grumbling clamor rose from his fellow dwarves. Only Fili and Kili were silently watching their uncle from where they stood with Elrond’s sons and Bilbo. What lies! How dare they?! But even as he thought it, doubt whispered in his mind. Thror had been so consumed by gold-lust. Was it not possible he would refuse the help of elves if their offers were only for aid and not for the reclamation of his wealth? How easily might his grandfather have turned away such help if it would not regain him the Mountain? His gaze sought Balin’s and he could see from the Fundin’s son’s frown that even he could not discount that possibility.

Lord Elrond observed the revelation with some carefully guarded astonishment. If the dwarf lord had not known of Imladris’s offers of support it would give some explanation for the dwarves’ discourtesy and hostility. Not justification for it, but provided understanding at least. “Regardless of events past, was there not some reason for your interest in our guests, Iulben?”

The elven smith gathered his thoughts at Elrond’s words. “Of course. I wanted to make you welcome. Our forges are open to you. Only ask and we will be happy to provide whatever necessities are needed.”

 

“Celebrimbor?” Kili looked to his companions in question as the others and Thorin continued to speak to the elves. “I do not know that name.”

Fili frowned in thought. “I’ve heard it mentioned in Balin’s annuals but it was only a foot note on the making the Doors of Durin.”

“To be expected. He was often called Keblel-Rathakh in your histories. However while his works were most beloved by both our peoples, he himself was not.” They turned at the sudden voice and found a golden elf staring at them. Bilbo welcomed him most eagerly and introduced him as Glorfindel. The hobbit had to bite back a laugh at the shock the stained both princes faces on meeting the fabled elf. Glorfindel, quite happy to ignore their stares, took a seat in the grass and gestured that the rest might do the same. It was less dignified than either dwarrow had ever witnessed an elf be, though both the Twice-Lived and Elrond’s sons looked well at ease. “There are those among the Free Peoples who take grievance at the tale.”

“Why,” Bilbo asked curiously. He had not heard this story before. The name Glorfindel mentioned seemed more familiar to the dwarrow princes, who listened to the elf with eager surprise.

“Celebrimbor was the greatest of our smiths, excepting his grandfather. But then Feanor was long dead before for his birth, so even that might not be true.” Elladan frowned at the name and Elrohir pressed against his brother’s side. The Kinslayer’s name exacted nothing but disdain and even Glorfindel spoke it with distaste. “Some would say it was the folly of his blood that sealed Celebrimbor’s fate, other his blindess to malice, and still some lay the blame on his dwarven love. More fools they that blame the victim of the deception when others had been deceived as well.”

“An elf and dwarf in love,” Fili asked in disbelief. Kili held his tongue not wishing to have more teasing at his expense.

“And what does love care for face or form, young dwarrow,” the golden elf replied. “Your own host’s father was of half-human parentage.” The dwarf princes’ eyes widened though Elladan and Elrohir did not look pleased at the sharing of their heritage. “We are all Eru’s children whether fashioned by his hand or another’s. It is his flame that resides within our Ardan-shells. Great was the love Celebrimbor bore Narvi, born first of friendship and sharing of Craft, which blossomed into adoration. She was welcomed in halls as one of his people, equal in power to him despite the long-sown enmity between Dwarf and Elf. Only respect did he have for her and her people. So much that he entrusted one of his gravest mistakes into the hands of Durin III. Though long the enemy tortured him, not one word of information did he give of that artifact or of Narvi’s people.”

“His people accepted her,” Kili asked despite himself. The prince could feel his brother’s attention fall to him though he continued to look at the golden elf.

A gentle smile spread across Glorfindel’s face. “They did in time. I had the pleasure of Lady Narvi’s company only once but she was a fierce, bright creature and not easily tempered. Well-known is the stubbornness of dwarves that even the distant decorum of elves crumbles before it.”

 

***

Time drifted on as Bilbo healed with brief diversions here and there that kept him from dwelling on Arradeth’s writings or on Thorin’s grim visage. Rivendell’s calmness was a balm against the emotional and physical strain of his travels since leaving Bagshot Row. He still found time to spend with the Company and even missed some of their previous venturing (the quite mornings as he and Nori foraged or the sharing of cooking tricks with Bombur). Yet the vastness of Rivendell allowed him the solitude he had sorely needed without being needled by Thorin’s words and deeds.

Ori’s presence was particularly delightful as she made little qualms about wanting to learn more about elven arts and histories, unlike her brethren.  Nori and Dori in particular went out of their way to be scarce of the elves; Dori would site some errand and Nori would just flounce off with a grunt of disgust (nicking more than one item along the way Bilbo was quite sure). But Ori’s genuine interest sparked an affinity in the hobbit. So on finding her roving the halls alone one day (she had claimed Balin needed her assistance to escape Dori’s sight), Bilbo could hardly be blamed for taking the opportunity to interest the scribe to Erestor’s domain.

::Why have you brought a dwarf into my library?”:: The dark haired elf was not amused.

Bilbo barely kept from rolling his eyes. “Last I knew it belonged to Elrond, not you. And stop that. It’s rude to speak about people in a foreign tongue.”

“Indeed. Much better to speak about them in a common one,” the elf replied before turning his attention on nervous Ori. The little dam did not quaver but admitted that the elf’s focus made stone’s tumble in her stomach. Bilbo readily introduced her as daughter of Kori and scribe, and in turn introduced her to Erestor, chief councilor and archivist of Imladris’s libraries. Then with little more than that and a mention of Ori’s interest in history the hobbit abandoned dwarf and elf to each other’s company.

What awkwardness that might have settled between the two was quickly dispelled as, with a sigh, Imladris’s librarian led the dam into a section of high shelves filled with the chronicles of Arda. Ori was so entranced she forgot her nervousness and a brief though pleasant conversation ensued regarding what knowledge the little scribe was most keen to read. Soon enough the dwarrowdam was left with a sizable pile of books and scrolls, tucked away at a most comfortable desk and chair.

The hours passed by quite quickly without her notice for when Ori next noted the time she was surprise to find that the sun had begun to set. She scurried from her seat; by now Dori must have discovered her ruse. Her brother would be furious. And no doubt Nori was scampering around in all sorts of trouble looking for her. She piled her texts carefully and turned to the shelves, attempt to recall where she had pulled each item from.

“Ah, I see you have noticed the time. Bilbo has come to fetch you.” Erestor appeared behind her and plucked the tome from her hand. “Do not trouble yourself, I will put them away.”

“Oh I couldn’t—“

“Your companions await you do they not? If you tarry long they would most likely not allow you to return. It would be a shame for the books to be deprived the company of one so eager for knowledge.” He gently guided the dam to the entrance. “Miss Ori,” she looked up as the elven librarian opened the door for her. “You have a soft hand with the delicate scrolls.” She colored at the (possible?) compliment. Erestor smiled slightly. “If you would like to return at any time, my door is always open.”

“I’ll be certain to show you the way, Ori, if you don’t remember,” Bilbo said greeting the dam with a smile. Ori had noted that the hobbit smiled more often among the elves than he had during their whole journey. She resolved to change that from now on. “My thanks, Erestor. A good evening to you.”

“To you two as well,” the archivist returned to his domain as hobbit and dwarf made their way down the hall.

“By the way,”’ Bilbo interrupted Ori’s thoughts of worry over her siblings and the hobbit’s happiness in the Company, “I told Balin to let Dori know I was borrowing you for the day. I said needed some help with some books.” The hobbit nearly fell over at the tackling hug Ori gave him.

 

***

On the eighth day of their stay, Lord Elrond finally pronounced Bilbo’s arm recovered much to the hobbit’s relief. He was extremely grateful for the elven healing but if he did not need to imbibe another draught of limpe again. The elvish drink improved healing, but was awful, thick and with an aftertaste that made all food eaten taste vinegary after it was drunk.

Still at last with the freedom of full health, Bilbo finally had the approval for what he had desired doing since entering Rivendell: he was going hunting with Elladan and Elrohir. While the need for game was always welcome at Lord Elrond’s table, sport was not the reason for the hobbit’s going; Imladris’s forested grounds hid more than one clearing big enough for a dragon.  It had been over two months since he had last stretched his wings and Bilbo was only too eager to take the first relatively safe opportunity to do so.

He did not plan to go alone as both Fili and Kili had taken an unexpected liking to the elf twins, who had done the same in response. Though both Elladan and Elrohir had been initially wary of the dwarves’ persistent attempts at cordiality after the fiasco of their first day’s arrival, all four had settled into an affable companionship revolving around the hobbit. The knowledge of Bilbo’s secret amongst their group became a common bridge to build a genial relationship. After all, each thought privately to himself, if Bilbo had entrusted his dragon self with the other and they had not spurned the hobbit that would surely speak of a good character despite racial prejudice. Though, not all others who saw them together felt that same way.

::What causes our Lord’s fine sons to engage with such stunted runts,:: a elf maiden asked her companion, oblivious or unconcerned of Bilbo’s presence further down the hall. He paused on his way to meet his companions on hearing her words.

::Pity perhaps,:: the similarly graceful looking male elf replied. He shared a smirk with his female friend. ::What other reason would there be to remain in the company of such ugly, uncouth creatures? Certainly Lord Elrond is gracious to assist such rabble but even his patience must grow thin in knowing that they taint his sons propriety with their residence in our halls?

The seed of contentment that had grew within Bilbo’s breast on Fili’s and Kili’s acceptance of him sprouted and tangled like a thorny vine, piercing something deep within.  ˟˟How dare they speak of ours that way! ˟˟ His Hearts roared in overprotective anger. ::Foul words from foul tongues,:: Bilbo interjected at the two, startling at least the maid though the male seemed unsurprised at the hobbit’s presence. Though the longer he looked upon Bilbo’s face the more his arrogant smirk fell. Whatever sight they saw in the hobbit’s eyes caused the pairs tongues to still in sudden wariness.  ::Your words are the only taint to grace these halls. Better you should choke on such insults than repeat them before Lord Elrond or his kin. They do your lord no justice and only make your own fair faces twisted with their ugliness.::  Neither elf seemed capable of speech while staring the hobbit’s yellow tinged eyes, though soon both grew pallid as a familiar hand took up residence on Bilbo’s arm.

::Well said, friend. As for you two my brother’s ears and mine remain quite elfin even our companions do not,:: Elrohir commented coldly leaning over Bilbo’s shoulder. His approach had been quite stealthy as had his brother’s and the two dwarf princes.

Elladan kept his place by Fili and Kili, raising an eyebrow while his hand remained on the sword at his waist. ::Only simpletons would think we would not hear your yapping. If our father has no issue with our conduct I do not see what matters your opinions. Go along now before we speak to him of your behavior; we have no need of your acrid tongues.::

::Or your sour faces,:: Elrohir added. The two elves scurried away quite quickly at the displeasure of Elrond’s fierce sons and the hobbit’s disquieting impression.

“What was that about,” Fili asked. Kili merely looked between the retreating elves and Elrond’s sons.

“Two who have more venom to spew than sense in their heads,” Bilbo harrumphed before taking hold of the dwarrows’ arms and pulling them along. Elladan and Elrohir fell into step behind them. “We have a lovely day ahead of us. Let’s not let those two noddies spoil it.”

“Noddies,” Kili repeated amused and continued to be dragged along. 

So off the five set out into Imladris’s wooded depths with any of air of awkwardness quickly dispelled by Bilbo’s bright attitude. They did do some hunting with Kili quick to challenge Elladan to a contest of who could down the bigger prize. Elrohir was surprised at the vigor with which his elder twin applied himself. Though both brothers were known for their grimness (and after what had befallen their mother how could they not be grim), Elladan had always been the more severe of the two. Perhaps it was his bias as the younger, but Elrohir was much more likely to joke or tease as was the more approachable of the two. Only Bilbo and their sister had ever been able to rekindle some of Elladan’s once mischievous nature. There still dwelt an unquenchable vengeance in their hearts but when beside the hobbit some of their ire slumbered. Bilbo made it hard not to want to appreciate life’s sudden joyful moments. How odd now that this foreign dwarven prince might elicit a similar effect in his twin.

“Kili’s good at that,” Fili stated interrupting Elrohir’s thoughts. Bilbo trudged on before them, appointed referee of the others’ competition which had degenerated to a show of marksmanship instead of a search for game. The younger elf twin’s focus turned to the golden-headed dwarf. “He’s always been good at making friends. Must get it from our father’s line. Uncle inspires loyalty but couldn’t charm a rock and our mother’s just as bad. He used to drive them all crazy as a dwarrowling when he managed to get the Men’s children to play with him. Handsome enough for most races with too congenial a personality, he can’t help but draw folk to him.”

 “Hmm, my brother has quite the opposite problem,” Elrohir admitted. A teasing tone entered his words as he raised his voice. “Though he shares the same fine face as me, his temper is quite sour. I am told people may tell us apart easier now that his demeanor more resembles that of over-ripe lemon.” Elrohir smirked as brother’s arrow went just a hair off of its mark. With a hard glare at his twin, Elladan resolutely ignored his brother and focused on his target. Kili crowed as his own arrow hit the mark dead-center.

Fili caught onto Elrohir’s game quite quick. “At least yours has wits,” Fili added with his own smirk. “My own can’t be depended not to wander off without a minder. I fear his sense of direction is just as poor. He would not know up from down if he could not sense stone beneath his feet.”

“I know my directions just fine,” Kili squawked in protest, his distracted attention causing his aim to veer at the newest challenge.

“Indeed, wit is a much needed attribute but at least a social nature allows one to engage with those they find favorable. Here again poor Elladan is lacking. Despite finally approaching his dear one, he makes no progress with so dour an appearance.” Elrohir hid a smile at the twitch to Elladan’s eye. Oh he was most certain to best Fili in irritating his brother better than the dwarf.

“At least yours has a sweetheart; Kili’s more likely to catch a pox than anyone’s attention with so meager a beard.” The glower Fili’s brother sent his direction was so reminiscent of their uncle’s he fought to quell a laugh.

“But surely some will overlook that missing attribute for your brother. But much to my despair I believe it would take a rare elf indeed who would over look my own brother’s grim visage. For all his beloved is good natured, I fear he is too prim and prissy a fellow to ever—.” But at last their jibes had gone too far.

“Don’t you dare insult Lindir,” Elladan snapped, rounding on his brother.”

“You’re one to talk, Fili. I don’t see you doing anything except mooning after Ori. A whole lot of progress there, eh?”

Before their bickering could continue, Bilbo coughed quite loudly. The hobbit’s disappointed stare stilled their tongues. “If you are all done teasing one another, I’d thought you’d like to know I think this spot will do.” Despite a few glares promising later retribution the elves and dwarves set aside their argument to look about the clearing Bilbo had found.

It was quite large with more than one damp log and growth mushrooms found among its foliage. Bilbo quickly disrobed using a few bushes for cover and tossed his garments to Elladan. The elf (used to such behavior ever since their first hunt had ended with torn hobbit clothing) wordlessly folded them into the empty sack he carried at his waist.

“Step back and look away,” Bilbo cautioned before a sudden burst of light surrounded him. The elves were quick to do so though both dwarf princes were only a little slow, their eyes briefly blinded. Gradually the brightness faded, eyesight returned, and where once stood a hobbit there was no more. Large was the dragon that loomed over them, four feet planted upon the ground and wings tucked close. A great tail twined about its legs and even as they watched the beast that was Bilbo stretched its coiled muscles before lowering its haunches to the forest floor. His vast neck bowed and a serpentine face so unlike their hobbit’s came to rest so that it met its companions’ heights. Even Elladan and Elrohir who had witnessed Bilbo’s change before wondered at the look of him.

The sight before them was breathtaking. It had been one thing to know how unique Bilbo was even after his stories of hobbits with their little magics. Yet this transformation was indescribable. Where once a naked hobbit stood now loomed a magnificent dragon. For it was thing to know something and another to see it.

Kili stared in awe and Fili approached hesitantly, his brother right on his heels. The golden haired dwarf reached out but stopped before touching Bilbo.

The dragon huffed a little laugh and murmured in a voice to great to ever whisper, “You may if you want.”

At such an invitation how could he resist? The green scales were hard; warm not hot, with a brilliant luster that varied in hue.  Fili’s breathe caught. Kili jumped forth to touch the dragon as well, a grin of pure delight on his face. “Bilbo, you’re amazing.”

Bilbo unfurled his wings, their viridian webbing glinting like emeralds in the sunlight, with an odd but not unkind smile stretching his face. Laughter echoed in the clearing as the dragon enjoyed his friends’ wonder, all fear of his form absent in their rapt faces.

 

***

Being fully recovered also brought an unanticipated change to Bilbo’s schedule. Dwalin had snatched him up by his repaired jacket after breakfast the following morn and deposited the hobbit in one of Rivendell’s courtyards. Kili and Fili appeared as well holding Bilbo’s elven blade with chagrined looks on both their faces. Dwalin scowled at both lads before thrusting the sword at the hobbit.

“Today we train,” he grunted. Apparently some of the dwarrows had taken to sparing in their free time and while the princes had joined once or twice, both had been avoiding the task either wandering off with Bilbo or at times Lord Elrond’s sons. Dwalin was displeased and annoyed with such lazy. But now that Bilbo’s injury was healed the dwarven guard would allow no excuse. He had not only secured the hobbit and the princes but the rest of the Company had been forced to join them including Thorin. Elladan and Elrohir took a seat on one of the railings overlooking the yard intrigued by the sight. More than one of their elven kinsmen drifted by to watch as well.

Dwalin drew Kili aside but waved the other prince away before taking point in directing Bilbo’s usage of his sword. “I’ll not coddle you, lad, as we have not the time; but I’d not make a beginner train with Fili. Twin swords are no fair fight for a novice.”

The other dwarves divided into groups for their own sparing.  Thorin took on the opponents of Oin, Gloin, and Bifur growing accustomed to the feel of his Elvish blade. Balin watched with his bladed mace hanging at his side shouting a few pointers to Bombur and Bofur, neither of which were fighters as they were armed only with the tools of their trade. However mattock, iron ladle, and cleaver could be deadly enough in the right hands. Nori and Dori fought each other the pairing a good match: the dwarrow’s strength and reach well paired with the dam’s fleetness and dexterity. Ori stood alone taking aim at some practice targets Dwalin had set up for the occasion. Only Fili stood alone and Balin thought the prince might ask him for a spar or else await the other Fundin son’s attention. But it appeared neither were what the golden haired dwarrow intended.

The teasing of the other day still plagued Fili; Kili had not been wrong in his comments. The elder prince freely admitted he had been prone to cowardice regarding his affections for Ori. Dori and Nori were fearsome (Nori’s skill with daggers well known and Dori’s strength uncannily mighty even among dwarves), but they were not the reason for his hesitance. Fili had gained something of a reputation for idle romances though such gossip was more than slightly exaggerated. Ered Luin’s Council had been quite eager to find a betrothal for Thorin’s heir as his uncle seemed disinclined to marry. The practice was not uncommon among the nobility though most dwarrows would balk at an arranged marriage; but alliances were often needed and if no love impeded it than such arrangements were tenable. More than one lord’s daughter had been paraded before him for future agreements sake. Neither his mother nor uncle would have it of course; Fili, who had hoped to find his own match like his father, had done what was needed to prevent that course of action. So the eldest prince was known to be something of a social flirt and more than one dam swore true love at his smile. With his time divided between his teachings, work, and the study of his dual Masteries, Fili truly had no time for romances. What dalliances he might have wished for were only fleeting fancies crushed beneath the weight of his duties. Such habitual behavior kept any lord’s daughter from feeling slighted while marking such flirtations as unnoteworthy since any dam (and a few dwarrow) no matter common or noble received the same attention. However, while such reputations were easily built they were not easily overcome. He hoped the Company who had known him his whole life would not judge him by a hastily decided persona. He hoped it would not affect his chances of truly wooing the steadfast scribe.

But even that excuse was cowardly; so reaching into the depths of his breast for dwarven strength of will Fili took his courage in hand. Gathering his warhammer, the golden haired dwarf approached Ori. “You were really excellent when fighting the wargs.” The dam fumbled stone and sling at Fili’s unanticipated approach. A ferocious blush stained her cheeks as she hurried to gather both. Fili continued on determinedly, “I never knew a sling could be so useful before. That is, uh, I don’t mean—I didn’t think it was useless only how you use it makes it more, um, useful.” The same red stain that discolored Ori’s face now spotted his cheeks. Around them weapons practice slowed though neither seemed to notice. At his place with Dwalin and Bilbo, Kili did not know whether to laugh or cry at his brother’s attempts.

The golden dwarrow was not to be dissuaded by his blundering tongue. “It’s very useful and you’re really good at using it but, um, a sling’s not the best for close quarters fighting and I thought I might show you my hammer. Wait. I mean,” Fili was more red than gold by this time, “what I meant was a warhammer might be a good fit for you. I brought mine with me for the journey but between my blades, and the hand axes, and knives I don’t really need it. Not that it’s not useful. I, uh, I wouldn’t offer you something second rate. It’s just….” Fili took a deep breath and tried to not muck this up further. His gaze met Ori’s, only sincerity in their depths. “I much rather it protect you than stay at my side.”

Thorin, who had observed his nephew’s actions with despair, thought at least the last bit might gain him some good will from the older Ris.

“I hope Dori does not kill him,” Dwalin commented, keeping an eye on the proceedings even as he corrected Bilbo’s stance.

“I’d be more worried about Nori.” Kili said, letting his own blade linger towards the ground as he watched his brother nervously.

Dwalin grimaced at the mention of the elder dam. Bilbo’s attention like the rest had strayed towards the two young dwarrows. “Why would they want to harm Fili?”

Dwalin began to shake his head (such things were not to be shared with Outsiders), when Kili answered. “He’s doing a pre-courtship ritual. He’s demonstrating his interest before her family by sharing a skill and one of his possessions with her. It can go really badly if Dori interrupts since as head of her family it means he looks unfavorably on the match. If they find his offer really disagreeable it can lead to a really nasty fight. If that’s the case my money’s on Nori.”

The bald headed dwarf nearly choked on his tongue. >>You cannot tell him these things. Thorin would have your braids, heir or not. He may be our companion but you have not right to share our customs with an Outsider.<<

An unusual fierceness flared in Kili’s eyes. >>He will not be Outsider for much longer. Fili and I will see to that.<<

Dwalin’s eyes widened in understanding as his gaze flickered from prince to hobbit and back. He knew the lads were fond of Bilbo (he himself was rather fond of the hobbit) but he did not know their regard had grown to such a degree. “Until you’ve actually done it, it would be best to watch your tongue.”

Bilbo glanced questioningly from Dwalin to Kili. “Until he’s done what?”

“Shh. I think Ori’s going to respond,” Kili hissed.

The little scribe had been trying to find words for a good few moments. However, it seemed at last she had gathered her composure for with a visible straightening of her posture, she looked the Durin prince in the eye. “I would be honored if you’d teach me.” A bit of hesitancy returned to her as she added a tad more quietly, “And perhaps you’d like to try my sling. Since it’s so…useful.” Ori’s eyes drifted over to her elder siblings, firm but with a hint of a plea. Fili also eyed the eldest Ri warily.

Even Thorin had to tear his eyes from where they watched Dwalin manhandle his hobbit in order to better gauge Dori’s reaction. Ori’s brother might just crush his nephew into the dirt if he was dissatisfied with the Durin’s interest in his sister.

The silver haired Ri brother watched Fili’s tentative offer with keen eyes; his and Nori’s bout ended on the prince approaching their sister. Once more his knowledge of Thorin’s nephew warred with his resentment over what the Ri line had endured by being a Durin’s rejected spawn.  Still Ori was not as their mother had been, not as Nori was, and perhaps there was hope for her. She did look happy at the prince’s attention. Besides it was only a preliminary approval, one that could always be snatched back before actually courting or marriage. Anyway Dori doubted Thorin would approve of an extensive courtship on the journey (he would most likely wait until after the Lonely Mountain was reclaimed) and who was to say what would come to pass on reaching Erebor. The eldest Ri nodded with gentle encouragement to his youngest sibling. Ori’s face alit with happiness even as Fili’s broke into a wide grin.

Yet the middle Ri sibling scowled fiercely at her brother’s compliance. Nori turned on her heel and stamped off in displeasure. Ori’s smile dimmed at the dam’s departure but still she took at tentative step closer to Fili, accepting his proffered weapon.

Dori stared disapprovingly in the direction Nori had departed but did not make to follow. His sister needed time to cool her head. For a moment the dwarves stood captivated by the scene while more than one curious elf observed the events confusedly.

Not willing to be a spectacle for their hosts, Thorin cleared his throat. “Back to practice,” he announced. The dwarrows returned to their sparing, Balin taking the elder dam’s place as Dori’s opponent.

“Kili, keep helping Bilbo,” Dwalin ordered his charge before setting off after Nori.

 

Nori had been half way back to their rooms when footsteps sounded behind her. The dam nearly palmed a knife when the hand landed on her shoulder despite recognizing whose it was at once. How could she ever mistake Dwalin’s touch for any others? She shook off his hold and turned on the taller dwarrow. “What,” she demanded. “What do you want from me now of all times?”

He glared at her before seeking taking a frustrated breath; patience was the only way to deal with Nori when she was trying to instigate a fight. “You shouldn’t wander off alone. None of the Company should.”

“I’ve been fine on my own for years now. I don’t need looking after. And why should you care huh? What? Looking for that quick tumble I offered?” The words rose bitter on her tongue.

Dwalin’s face darkened but he refused to rise to that bait again. Nori had meant to hurt him last time, to drive him away, and he had let her. Well not again. “No. I came to check on my companion.” She glanced away in shame at that. He continued heartened that at least their tentative friendship might not be lost between them. “Why are you so upset? It’s only a preliminary step and Fili’s not like the rumors say. He’s not some rake.”

“Of course he’s not. Who do you think helped spread those rumors for him?” It had been the simplest way to keep Fili safe, something she had eventually persuaded both Thorin and Balin on. Despite blood and her ancestors’ treatment, she had always been fond of the Durin lads. Her initial risk to protect them was what had gained her clemency and then later her status as Thorin’s Spymaster. Yet though she trusted Thorin’s line with her life, she could not with hers or her sister’s hearts. Blood would always out.

“Then why won’t you give him a chance to prove himself?” Unspoken but still heard was Dwalin’s question of why she would not let him do the same.

“Because your line can not be trusted with mine Durin’s Blood. He’ll not want her in the end.”

You would not want me if you only knew.

“He will. Fili’s not fickle. Do you really think Dori would ever risk Ori’s happiness with him otherwise?” He wanted to shake her, to make her hear how if she would not trust him (a truly bitter thought) she could trust her brother.

Jealousy was an ugly twisting snake within her. Dwalin was right; Dori would not risk it if he did not think Ori could be happy. But that did not change the truth of her own case. Dori and Ori had little if any of the strangeness of their blood, but it ran rife in Nori. No normal dwarf longed for skies above them as much as ground below.

“You’re right. Ori might be happy.” But not herself.

Still he seemed to hear her unspoken words. A softness fell over his battle-worn features. “I would take any part of you that you are willing to give.”

She bit her lip and shook her head. “Thief’s don’t know how to give, Fundinson, they only take.” Once more she tore herself from him and headed off to seek some solitude. Dwalin watched her go as bewildered and hurt as before. This time he could not bring himself to follow.

 

***

The next day Nori gave Fili advice at how to better hide his knives with Ori at her side. The smiles on both the prince’s and scribe’s faces were near blinding at the elder dam’s visible show of support. Thorin and Dwalin watched on from the balcony, one with approval and the other with vicious longing.

 

***

Bilbo had been enjoying an afternoon of peace and quiet after escaping Dwalin’s (now daily) morning training by once again wandering the long halls of Imladris. Despite how much time he had spent here he felt he would never know all of it no matter how long his lived. Ranor the Wanderer. His grandmother had named him well. Eventually he came to the balconied hall where the remains of Narsil were held in the arms of stone Gilraen and the great painting depicted Isildur’s last battle. His focus fixed upon where Elendil’s son struck at the Enemy’s ringed hand. Often he had passed this hall or heard whispers of the story, but never had his thoughts lingered on the Dark Lord painted therein. Always his eye had been drawn to the struggling Isildur and the brilliance of Narsil’s blade. But in that moment his sight fixed upon the Enemy. He thought of Arradeth’s journal and a deep hatred settled over him. Bilbo could not look away.

::How odd to find you here?:: The grave tone shook the hobbit’s frame and he turned to find a familiar young man lingering in the room’s entryway. The beard was new for before only scruff had lingered on his chin, but then it had been some time since he had gone to join the Dunedain. ::It reminds me of the first time we met though at least this time I do not find you trying to climb my mother’s statue.”

::Well I had thought the sword shards would be interesting.:: He grinned at the man. ::Estel, it is good to see you. Though I thought you still resided among the Rangers.:;

::I have been though I’ve returned to Imladris as an escort.::

::An escort for whom?::

The man stepped aside, no longer blocking the doorway from sight. Revealed behind him stood a elven woman bedecked in rider’s wear, her rich brown hair braided back from her brow. Neither it appeared had yet changed since their arrival.

::My lady,:: Bilbo bowed.

Arwen tisked good-naturedly. ::And is that how you greet my brothers, dear Bilbo, or are I the only one so singled out?:: She knelt down to his level and embraced the hobbit. ::So glad am I that Father’s letter came in time for me to see you. Too long has it been.::

::So I have been told,:: Bilbo stated ruefully.

::You must do better in visiting us more often then. You’re company is always a boon to my kin and I.:: She released from their hug to softly touch the hobbit’s curls. Estel watched them fondly, quite familiar that such actions were reserved for elves greeting those they felt were family.

Bilbo flushed at the gesture. ::I will try my lady though it was not neglect of you but duty that has kept me in the Shire.::

::Then it has been us who have been negligent,:: she said standing. ::The Shire is not so far from here that we could not visit you.::

Bilbo agreed hesitantly. ::The path to Bree is not always friendly but you would ever find a place open to you at Bag-End. Both of you,:: he said including Estel with a pointed look.

A twinkle of mirth sparked in the Ranger’s eye even as he bowed his head in acknowledgment. ::I am glad to hear so. Though the news of the road disturbs me. What is this I have heard about you and trolls?::

 

Lindir strolled Imladris’s grounds beside his Lord in panic over the arrivals of the Lady Galadriel and Lady Arwen as well as their small escort. The feast he had been hoping to prepare would be barely worthy of the Lady of Light and the usual entertainment would be sorely lacking. How could he produce anything of merit for Elladan’s grandam with so little time? Not that it mattered that she was relation to Elladan (he blushed at such a presumptuous thought); his lord’s son should not factor into this at all. More importantly he would dishonor Lord Elrond’s House with so meager a welcome.

Elrond hid a smile behind his sleeve. His mother-in-law might still inspire awe and terror in himself but it was still amusing to see Lindir’s panic over the Lady Galadriel. Perhaps Elladan’s affections were not so misplaced as feared for the nervousness on his steward’s face reminded him much of his own when had sought to woo Celebrian. However, he had not had the stress of worrying about dwarves as well during his courting period.

::The kitchen’s under enormous strain, we are almost out of wine,:: Lindir’s complaints carried on. ::And I just know that star-haired dam’s been sneaking ale no matter that no one has caught her yet. Two of our finest casks gone and not one witness.:: Lindir huffed, a rather inelegant act. ::How long do you think they will be with us?::

::That has yet be decided,:: Elrond admitted but took pity when a look of petulance appeared on his steward’s face. ::At least until Midsummer’s Eve. The day is fast approaching.::

::Not fast enough,:: Lindir grumbled.

The two walked out of the archway into one of the larger gardens only to stop in shock. Oh Lindir’s eyes. Naked dwarves! Both male and female playing and bathing in the fountain of Elwing. The carved likeness of his lord’s mother had never been so soiled. Neither elf spoke as Elrond looked in affront and Lindir in disgust. Above the spray of water and the dwarves rambunctious noise another sound was heard which caused both to freeze in dread.

The voices that hung in the air were definitely that of Arwen and Bilbo, punctured infrequently by a man’s. Their dread was soon confirmed as stepping around a corpse of trees Bilbo came to a sudden halt on seeing the bare dwarrows. A flush of red infused his face followed by a pallor of white. The hobbit quickly turned about to face his still hidden companions. Elvish ears and eyes could quite easily make out his words and features.

“You know,” Bilbo hastened to block the path, forgetting his Sindarin at the sight of so much dwarrow skin, “I think I saw an interesting flower over there. Far over there.”

A man who had been following Bilbo peered past the hobbit’s shoulder. It was Aragon (Elrond could not think of him as his fostered son that elf-like boy Estel, when the lad now wore the clothing and grim-bearing of Arathorn’s people). The man eyes widened at the sight and he was quick to assist Bilbo in blocking the way from Elrond’s innocent daughter’s eyes. “A flower? How interesting. You should certainly show us.”

Arwen’s laughter at their strange behavior lingered in the air but it proved that both hobbit and man were successful in diverting her attention as she did not come in sight of the fountain. Relief caused both Lindir and Elrond to breathe again. Never had an elven lord been so grateful for another of the Free Peoples’ presence.

A dwarven boot soon sailed towards them, breaking their reprieve and falling short of lord and steward. Ori laughed at missing Nori after her sister had snapped at her with a sodden shirt only to shriek on noticing the elves. Much awkwardness was had by all as Elrond advised of the bathing rooms while Lindir kept his eyes closed and pretended he was elsewhere.

 

Hours later Lindir’s evening was still not going well. A proper feast had been prepared but as he feared the usual amusements were deficient for the Mistress of Lothlorien’s visit. Instead a great event was to be held in the Hall of Fire in honor of both ladies for the following evening. Though the usual telling of tales and singing of songs would commence, Lindir sought to have each volunteer display only the best of their talents. No silly ‘Tra-la-la-lally’ nonsense rhymes. Therefore it was rather nerve-wracking when Lord Elrond approached him to request that he inquire if the dwarves would like to join in the reverie. Apparently Lord Glorfindel and Gandalf had reminded his lord that Durin’s Folk were lovers of music and art. Such was what brought the unfortunate seneschal to the dwarves’ rooms.

“You wish us to entertain you,” the dwarven leader was as pleasant as ever Lindir observed after hearing the elf’s message.

“You are more than welcome to join in the entertainment,” Lindir clarified. Not the dwarves had ever done so before. The Hall of Fire had been thankfully lacking their guests’ presence which could only be for the good of all, the seneschal firmly believed. Lindir’s thin veneer of politeness slipped a bit with impatience; could the dwarf lord just say no already so the elf could go about his duties.  “No attendance is mandatory but Lord Glorfindel had bid my lord to inquire. If you did wish to perform I would be happy to procure any additional supplies you may need. Instruments perhaps?”

Thorin was not fooled. The elf no doubt expected him to decline his offer no matter what Lord Glorfindel claimed. Thorin was more than tempted to do so rather than be sport for these pointed-eared bastards. But even irritated at the elf’s haughtiness some logical thought persisted yet. The celebration was in honor of Lord Elrond’s daughter and her grandmother so any mischief or mockery would be more than imprudent. Beside it would be discourteous of him to not provide proof of dwarven skill after the Twice-Lived’s defense of them. Even better if it caused Elrond’s steward to have to lower his prissy nose.

“We accept. I will send Balin with a list.” The look of distress on the elf’s face before he closed the door was worth his agreement. Thorin turned to his Company, many watching in disbelief. The dwarf lord only grinned fiercely. “We’ll show these tree-lovers how proper music’s done.”

 

***

Very merry was the Hall of Fire that next eve, so much so that even the dwarrows could find no fault in the amusements produced (except for that they were not nearly dwarven enough). Still more than one ballad and tale moved them deeply. The only moment of dissidence occurred when Elrohir took his place near the great fire and began to share a rather ingenious dwarven song, which Fili had taught him, about a barkeeper’s very friendly daughter and son. Fortunately Elladan tore his brother from his place at the front and dragged him from the room, gaining the gratitude of Lindir. More than one elf including the Lady of Light hid a smile and Arwen concealed her face behind her hair as a giggle slipped from her. Estel had also covered his mouth to cloak his hilarity and mortification over Elrohir’s actions.  Nonetheless, the steward’s heart beat a little faster in admiration of Elladan as the elder twin forced his brother to take a seat and explained how singing a bawdy song of how accommodating an innkeeper’s children were was no proper tune for their grandam or sister to hear. Lord Elrond was torn between pinching his brow in exasperation and sharing in his wife’s mother’s merriment. Meanwhile more than one dwarf guffawed and even Thorin smirked a bit.

Lindir had done an exemplary task of procuring the instruments from Balin’s list and they stood waiting to one side of the room, available so the dwarves and any elf who wished to might use them. After one particularly mournful love ballad Thorin at last rose from his chair; his companions followed as each dwarrow sought out their chosen instrument. While it was not expected that all dwarves would know how to play, it had was concerned a great pride of Durin’s line and Durin’s Folk to learn. Some claimed the practice dated back to the Deathless’s time, alleging it was his wife who had encouraged the fondness for music in their people. Regardless though not masters of the art, Thorin and his companions boasted no little skill.

Kili and Fili were quick to collect fiddles, while the sons of Fundin obtained viols.  Bofur produced his own recorder and Bifur after a bit of help from his cousin correctly lifted a clarinet. Bombur took up drum while the Ri siblings chose flutes of various sizes and styles. Only Oin and Gloin did not lift theirs; the sons of Groin where gifted at unwieldy instruments, which had taken Lindir some time in finding. The elder brother sat before a harpsichord placed to the side of the instrument table while his brother took a seat next to him at an elegantly strung dulcimer. Finally Thorin came forth with a hand harp and all took up places among the group. With an air of eagerness to hear the dwarves the hall soon hushed. Then they began with all but the Ri siblings, Bofur, and Bifur taken up the verses”

 

The world was young, the mountains green,

No stain yet on the Moon was seen,

No words were laid on stream or stone

When Durin woke and walked alone.

He named the nameless hills and dells;

He drank from yet untasted wells;

He stooped and looked in Mirrormere,

And saw a crown of stars appear,

As gems upon a silver thread,

Above the shadow of his head.

The world was fair, the mountains tall,

In Elder Days before the fall

Of mighty kings in Nargothrond

And Gondolin, who now beyond

The Western Seas have passed away:

The world was fair in Durin's Day.

A king he was on carven throne

In many-pillared halls of stone

With golden roof and silver floor,

And runes of power upon the door.

The light of sun and star and moon

In shining lamps of crystal hewn

Undimmed by cloud or shade of night

There shone for ever fair and bright.

There hammer on the anvil smote,

There chisel clove, and graver wrote;

There forged was blade, and bound was hilt;

The delver mined, the mason built.

There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,

And metal wrought like fishes' mail,

Buckler and corslet, axe and sword,

And shining spears were laid in hoard.

Unwearied then were Durin's folk

Beneath the mountains music woke:

The harpers harped, the minstrels sang,

And at the gates the trumpets rang.

The world is grey, the mountains old,

The forge's fire is ashen-cold

No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:

The darkness dwells in Durin's halls

The shadow lies upon his tomb

In Moria, in Khazad-Dum.

But still the sunken stars appear

In dark and windless Mirrormere;

There lies his crown in water deep,

Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

 

The last notes of Oin’s harpsichord and Gloin’s dulcimer slowly faded and still no word was spoken. Thorin had debated much on which song to sing unwilling to tell of Erebor again least he further raise his host’s suspicions. However the final choice was made in honor of Lord Glorfindel’s kind words. The Twice-Lived had remarked on how great Durin’s Folk were and Thorin was more than proud to prove it.

The Lady of Light rose from her seat of honor, beautiful and almost unbearable to look at in her brightness. “Such lovely dwarven chords I have not heard in some time. You do me great honor, Durin’s kin.” A smile blossomed on her face and she began to clap.

Those who had been struck dumb by such beauty coming from dwarven grumbles quickly joined and many of the Company flushed at the applause.  The dwarrows hastened to return to their seats as another soloist took the floor.

Bilbo, who had kept their seats, turned from his hushed conversation with Lord Glorfindel and smiled quite pleased at them all. The golden elf bent his head in respect and Thorin returned the gesture.

Fili still a bit nervous of the famous elf, took a seat at Bilbo’s other side having to scramble past Kili for it. “Do you plan to sing,” he asked. “I remember you singing in Tuckborough. You’re voice was rather fine.”

Glorfindel laughed, the sound oddly subdued. “Of course Bilbo shall sing.”

“A fine ballad of hobbit bravery,” Kili asked sincerely.

A few of the Company laughed, Thorin among them. Glorfindel frowned but Bilbo ignored the joke. “Hobbits do not sing of great songs or deeds.” Why sing of losses that were only so evident? The Mathom-house held enough of those stories without making songs about them as well.

Gloin snorted, “What no tales on your great battles of uprooting turnips?”

A few more chuckles burst from the dwarves. It was only natural to tease a companion but there was a hint of actual mockery. Gloin had made no point in hiding his exasperation over having a child nearly Gimli’s age on the journey. Even Ori was concerned him though at least the young dam had kin to look after her.

Bilbo may have disregarded their behavior but Glorfindel could not. “Do you doubt the bravery of hobbits?” The Company’s laughter died out at his tone. “At the Fall of Fornost it was five hundred Hobbit archers that answered their king’s call to war against Angmar and the Witch-King. Many stood by men and elf against the Dark Powers. It was with their help we prevailed.”

Eyes widened in disbelief even as Bilbo panicked beneath their stares. Thorin’s gaze especially burned where it fell on him.  Fornost had been one of the few times when even Hobbit sensibilities and their duty to the Callings had not swayed his people from acting. They owed their king but more than that any act to bring low the Witch-King’s forces would have spurred them on. They would not allow another Great Slaughter to take place. Many a hobbit lad and lass had fallen in that battle but well worth it had it been to protect their homeland. Still let the dwarves think what they would of him as long as no more suspicious interest fell on his People.

“That was a long time ago and I know nothing of archery,” Bilbo flustered and then rose abruptly. “I believe I’ll go next shall I.” He hurried to replace the Elvin flautist who had just finished. The dwarf king’s gaze did not waver from the hobbit even as he fled. The golden elf also slid away in the resulting shuffle, abandoning his seat besides the dwarrows.

Bilbo drew a deep breath at the Hall’s front. His plan should still work despite Thorin’s Company singing a different song than he expected. It would have worked better with their tune of the Lonely Mountain, but he supposed it had been a bit overconfident of him to think that was the only song they would sing. Still he had Glorfindel’s blessing and that was enough for him, even if he angered the rest of the assembly. These fools (both elf and dwarf) needed to remember that they were not so different; he hoped to stir a reminder of compassion and empathy for one another with his tune.

“I dedicate my song to all who have known hardship and valor. May all roads bring us to peace.” A few of the audience nodded while more looked curious. Without further hesitation Bilbo began to sing the Lay of the Fall of Gondolin:

 

Rejoice that ye have found it and rest from endless war,

For the seven-named city 'tis that stands upon the hill,

Where all who strive with Morgoth find hope and valour still.'

'What be those names,' said Tuor, 'for I come from long afar?’….

 

 

As good a transition as any Dori supposed with the dwarrows having mentioned Gondolin in their song as well. Still a bit melancholy for such a cheerful venue. He looked about at the sobered assembly his eye catching on a half-shadowed figure near the door. A great expression of anguish fell over the elf’s face (though hair and eyes remained obscured) and the dwarrow watched as the figure discretely edged out of the room, making a quiet escape. Dori, who had no desire to dwell on the grief of homelands lost, followed after partly in curiosity and partly in concern.  Unfortunately, elf legs are much longer than those of dwarrows and he did not catch the figure until they had already made their way outside into the open grounds of Rivendell.

The courtyard was awash with starlight while the lone figure stared up in quiet sorrow, pale hair gleaming near silver in their light. Dori knew he should mind his own business but he thought of how often he had sat alone in worry of his future and dejection of his past, unable to share such emotions with two sisters who needed his strength. With such understanding of that isolation how could he not be moved to pity for another?

“Are you well, Mister Elf?” The figure turned suddenly at the question. The elf’s face was clear no longer distorted by flickering lamplight and Dori froze in alarm. “My apologies, I did not mean to interrupt you, my lord.”

Lord Glorfindel stared at him eyes curious that this singular dwarf had thought to approach him at all. His welfare was not often inquired after even among his kinsmen, whose reverence of him caused distance between him and them. It was lonely being the only elf to ever return from death and back to Arda’s shores. “No apologizes needed, friend. I appreciate your…query.  I am well.”

“Really?” Dori could not help putting his hands on his hips and squinting his eyes in incredulity. He was too used to hearing lies over one’s health or happiness from his sisters and had often gave them a similar response (though he did not mean to do the same to the elf lord).

Glorfindel could not help the giggle that burst forth from him. He had not been taken so to task since Ecthelion last walked beside him. The laugh soon faded at that memory. “I see you will not be fooled by blithe pleasantries.”

“With two sisters, one who’s always up to no good and the other following after rapscallions, you can hardly blame me.” Dori appeared stunned by his own forwardness but the elf lord only seemed pleased at his frankness.

“Rare to find so candid a person in these Halls.”

“Aye, they say no one’s as blunt as a dwarf.” When did he lose control of his own tongue, Dori wondered.

That at least produced another laugh. “Indeed. Are these the same folk that tell how unwise it is to seek the council of elves for our answers are both yes and no?” Another chuckle burst forth at the nonplussed expression on Dori’s face.

“Well,” the dwarrow huffed a bit, “if you gave a few more straightforward answers maybe such things wouldn’t be said.” He crossed his arms defensively. “‘I am well’ indeed!”

Glorfindel’s merriment cooled. “Ah, you have much clearer sight then most. I left the assembly because I could not bear to hear the Lay Bilbo would recite. Many welcome such words of grand battles as tribute to those fallen, but…death changes how one views such songs. I have no wish to dwell on lost kin and home even more than I already do.” No. Those he had left in Mando’s Halls or to wander Valinor’s shores would not trouble his thoughts tonight. He would not let them. The faint smile reappeared. “Still it is clever that he has chosen its verses for the assembly.”

Dori cocked his head curiously. “What do you mean?”

“There is a fellowship born out of similar experiences. Many here remember homes lost to darker powers. Or have lost those they love to war and strife. It is good that Bilbo would remind both our peoples of our similarities rather than our differences. While there is much that sets elf and dwarf apart we all understand the pull of grief and home and hardship.” Glorfindel’s distant gaze returned once more to Dori. “Though I suppose your kin know much of that, especially you and your sisters.”

Dori stiffened. “What do you mean?”

The gentleness of Glorfindel’s countenance grew even softer. “I see it in the faces of you and your siblings, Dori son of Kori. You are of Sibor’s stock, daughter to Narvi and beloved child of Celebrimbor. The blood of the Elves flows in your veins.” Dori drew back at his words and Glorfindel raised both hands beseechingly. “Fear not. The knowledge of their daughter is not common. Nor would any here know she had a child of her own. My own knowledge was imparted by Celebrimbor before he fled the Enemy. Death changes how one sees things as I said. It is the only reason I can perceive their mark upon your features.”

The dwarrow remained stiff. “Do any others here know?”

Glorfindel softly shook his head, face kind as long golden locks fell about his shoulders. “Perhaps Iulben suspects but he would say naught of it nor will I.”

“Why mention it at all then,” an anxious tension touched Dori’s tone.

The elf lord gazed at the dwarrow considerately. “It is hard to be torn between oneself. Whether by life and death or elven and dwarven blood. I would offer what aid I could even if it is merely a willing ear.”

“Why? Why should it matter to you,” Dori insisted thought the elf’s gentle manner seemed to cause the dwarf to relax somewhat.

“You are kinsman to my kinsman, descendant of my friend. But mostly my good dwarf you have been kind to me for no other’s sake but my own. May I not do the same in turn?”

Dori stared at the elf incredulously. He had never met so incomprehensible a being before. Here was a figure out of legend who offered him the role of confident and friend. Elves are madder than I thought. Especially this one. At last the dwarf exhaled uncertainly. “Oh who am I to tell any elf to do, much less the Twice-Lived.”
A smile as dazzlingly as sunlight brightened the elf lord’s face; even in the moonlight it was bewitching. “My friend, please call me Glorfindel. I need no titles when in the company of such a benevolent fellow.”

Dori spluttered and flushed eliciting a laugh from the golden-elf. And even despite the teasing the dwarf found himself somewhat charmed by his unusual companion.

 

The burglar’s ballad was beautiful, detailing Tuor’s coming to Gondolin to the city’s betrayal and the great battle that suffered such heavy losses. The Company was transported to a city of old and a homeland not their own but just as grievously lost. Thorin could not pry his eyes away from Bilbo. The firelight played off the gold in the hobbit’s brown curls, making him a dazzlingly sight as he stood there chin high and eyes closed. Too striking a gem for elven halls, the dwarf thought. The hobbit’s Westron words fell like crystal shards, beautiful and broken.

The elves did not weep but a silent enthrallment had fallen over them. Ori looked about and shivered; she had heard stories about how elven memory did not fade. How terrible must it be to harbor since immortal sorrow without the reprieve of forgetfulness? But even more than grief, she read great pride in the stillness of their countenances. She noted Dori’s absence but perhaps he had gone for walk. Dori was often more at odds about elven ways than even Nori. Ori could appreciate elven habits as a distant unspoken heritage, while Nori loathed them and her own un-dwarven compulsions. But Dori was so often torn between his affection of them since they evoked memories of their Amad and his rage in remembering as an army of these fair folk turning from those desolated by dragon-fire.  Neither Ori nor Nori had ever seen Erebor and while its lost affected the younger Ris, it was only their brother who truly recollected the dreadfulness of that time

Bilbo’s Lay came to its end as it recounted how the Gondolindrim mourned the loss of the White City and found refuge with Tuor and Idril at the Mouths of Sirion. The last note of the hobbit’s song fell in the Hall’s silence. 

“It was well told and the verses were beautiful. Although I have not heard it sung or composed in Westron before,” Lord Elrond finally remarked. At his side Lady Galadriel’s sight remained fixed on the hobbit though she made no comment.

Bilbo was careful not to meet her eyes; he had heard many cautious tales of the White Lady (a few even from her grandchildren) and was not sure he could undergo her clear sight evaluating his spirit among this assembly. “The Lay was in part composition of the Dunedain’s with only a few of my own additions.” Bilbo had Estel’s help earlier that day in recounting the verses in order to be prepared for tonight. “I find most melodies are often improved by sharing them among peoples. Such collaboration helps to polish the tales beauty to a greater vibrancy and adds something to the telling.” Not as subtle as he would like, but Bilbo was a hobbit and more than one Calling had succeeded due to brash guidance.

Gandalf did not hide the look of pride he shot his godson. Bilbo’s words had been quite clever. The Lady laughed at that reply while Lord Elrond fell to contemplation. Bilbo quickly made his escape to his table as another took his place by the fire. The lord’s children and Estel watched their friend thoughtfully.

 

At last all good things come to an end and after Bilbo’s song a few more took up the entertainment but a heavy weight of deliberation had settled over the assembly. It was no secret that Durin’s Folk had been without home more than once, but the Lay of Gondolin delivered in Mannish tongue before both dwarves and elves caused much reflection on that thought. More than one being was left to recall the bitter heartache of a lost homeland and see it mirrored in the other race present. Whether elf or dwarf such pain held all equal. It was to these thoughts that many retired for the night and soon the Hall stood empty.

Bilbo was restless, unable to quiet his mind enough for bed and instead roamed one of the outer staircases studying the stars. He thought longingly of how he might have enjoyed them from Bag-End’s back garden. Of how he would have laid in that cool well-loved grass listening as his mother’s voice entangled with his father’s chatter would rise from the smial’s back door. If he closed his eyes he could almost hear the two. Melancholy for Belladonna’s confidence and Bungo’s soft well-thought out advice stretched over Bilbo. Bag-End he missed for it was the only home he had ever more, but even more he missed his parent’s voice and reassuring company. The lack of them left an echoing absence in his Hearts.

Heavy footsteps roused him from his sad thoughts. He turned to see Thorin waving Dwalin on and climbing the staircase to join him. “Are you ill,” the dwarf asked stepping a bit too close. Below Dwalin rolled his eyes but left his friend to his flirtations, following after the Company. The bald-headed dwarrow doubted Bilbo would push Thorin off the balcony no matter how much an ass the dwarf lord made of himself.

“No.” Bilbo knew his reply was rather curt but he did not think it undeserved. He could not understand Thorin Oakenshield, one moment the dwarf was berating the next risky the safety of himself and his kin for the hobbit’s sake. Not to mention the reprimand that had sounded almost like praise and the apology of the other day. The dwarf was infuriating in his every action and deed. Yet he was the purpose of Bilbo’s Calling as well. The hobbit was torn with how to deal with the maddening leader.

Now it seemed Mister Oakenshield wanted to attempt civility. “Are you fond of the stars? It seems the elves certainly are.” The dwarf said elves with only slighter disdain than usual but Bilbo supposed that was still progress considering he had heard of no other dwarven property destruction having occurred in the last few days.

“I am,” the hobbit disclosed. “Perhaps it is from being among elves so often as a faunt, but I know a few hobbits who our quite fond of star-gazing. Though we do prefer growing things but even then I am no great gardener.” Oh Bilbo did love the feel of good earth in his hands and the satisfaction of a seedling taking root, but he had not much time for it. Besides Hamfast’s family had more than made Bag-End’s gardens grow, the Gamgees had made them flourish finer than any other smial’s. Homesickness crept over Bilbo once more and a wistful look took up residence in his eyes. An ache took root in Thorin’s chest at the sight and his hand settled over the spot as if to ease the pain. Seeing the movement Bilbo’s focus returned to the dwarf lord. “And what of you and your people, Mister Thorin? Do you have any fondness for stars?”

“Not much. They are useful for travel above ground but little else. Besides the tree-shaggers put too much importance on them.” There had been a time when he was quite young when those far away lights had intrigued him but that was swiftly swept aside for admiration for rock and stone. “Though,” Thorin added as he watched Bilbo’s attentiveness withdraw at the dwarf’s less than kind words, “I might be biased. The first lights I ever saw were those of the crystals dwarrow-wrought to illuminate our halls and the fires of our forges. My people are quite cautious to not let our dwarrowlings out of our mountains at too young an age so it is not unusual to spend many years without starlight or sunlight.”

“No natural lights at all?” Bilbo could not imagine not having the sun beating on him or the moon or stars above. Hobbits may live in their smials but they did not linger all day within them.

The hobbit’s curiosity caught, Thorin continued on. “We dwarrows prefer the surety of stone above us and below. But as such any natural light that makes its way into our caverns is rare and much prized. My grandma had a room with one such crevice that allowed sunlight if I recall.” He did not speak of Erebor much and never with Outsiders. It was painful to even speak of it amidst his kin who understood his nostalgia. Yet if it kept the Burglar looking at him with such open interest Thorin would continue on.

“I do not think a hobbit would enjoy such dark dwellings,” Bilbo mused. The words were like barbs to Thorin’s ears. Surely his homeland was not so dreary it could not entice the hobbit.

“All is not darkness in dwarven halls, Master Baggins, no matter what other folk would have you think! In fact there was a cavern were I and Frer—,” the name caught in Thorin’s throat. If his time in the Lonely Mountain was hard to speak of, recollecting his brother caused even greater anguish. Master Baggins’s gaze grew concerned but the dwarf lord forced himself to continue on. “There was a cavern I and my brother would often visit. It was a massive cave where no dwarrow had ever shaped stone into homes or foundry due to its natural charm.” Some had argued it would serve better use by being purposed as such but even in madness Thror had not allowed that to past. One does not destroy a crystal bed just because a different gem might be found beneath it. Dwarrows were shapers and crafters, not destroyers. “It lay off the main path and was perfect for solitude or escaping minders.” A faint, bittersweet smirk twitched his lips. Bilbo listened captivated; Thorin had never spoken like to this to him before and he feared one wrong move would cause the dwarf’s words to cease. “Along its great roof and crags were thousands of small striking blue lights, shining in the depths. Amid them strands of delicate droplets hung, reflecting the lights splendor. They dazzled in the darkness. We called them cavern fireflies or glowworms, though once they hatched the only produced fungus gnats. But if one lay down and observed them they would twinkle and move as the creatures within them stirred. Before I ever saw stars I thought they must be like those beings. Some distant kin to cavern fireflies that were themselves lights of beauty waking to life. I fear that stars were a cold and distant disappointment after seeing those caves.”

“It sounds lovely,” Bilbo breathed, cautious to not disturb the fragile atmosphere. “Hopefully you might share the sight with me someday.”

The Burglar’s words caused Thorin’s heart to leap to his throat and he tried to swallow past it to speak. Staring into Master Baggins’s earnest gaze an impending insight (one that seemed to have been creeping on him since entering Bag-End) shifted in the dwarf lord’s mind. No. Surely he did not—not for this creature. “I—.”

The tapping of wood on stone and a sudden elvish shout interrupted Thorin’s thoughts, drawing hobbit and dwarf’s focus to the walkway the stair’s balcony overlooked.

Gandalf it seemed had also not yet sought his bed, though it seemed Lord Elrond had waylaid the wizard. The two’s voices were easily heard in the emptiness of Imladris’s footpaths

“You have been dishonest with me, Gandalf.” The elf lord’s tone was not harsh but it lacked warmth.

The faux innocence in the wizard’s voice was evident in comparison. “Oh, in what way?”

If Gandalf’s words were meant to persuade the elf that the wizard had no hidden intent, it most certainly failed. “After such a display you cannot expect me to be ignorant: two songs about lost homelands and a map to Smaug’s lair. When were you going to tell me that it was Thorin’s Company’s purpose to return to Erebor and try to reclaim the Mountain? Or that you had dragged Bilbo into your plans?”