"What news, Gandalf?" the king of Erebor asked as he leaned forward on his throne, his fur and velvet covered arms resting on his legs as he stared intently at the wizard.
The wizard bowed his head slightly. "My news is of the personal nature, O' King, and not meant for open court."
Nodding, the king stood. "Balin, show him to my personal rooms, and send for the others he believes should hear his news."
Balin bowed before leading the grey wizard from the throne room.
Quickly traversing the halls of the newly restored kingdom, Gandalf settled himself against the wall of the king's study, waiting for the king and the rest of his company to arrive.
The company arrived first. Ignoring the crowd of dwarrows and one wizard in his study as he arrived, the king removed his outer cloak and draped it over a stand in one corner, then softly placed his crown in its cushioned box on the table next to the stand. Turning, he nodded for Gandalf to begin.
Gesturing to a chair, he wordlessly asked permission to sit. Seeing the king's nod, he sat down and stretched his legs out before him with a small sigh. "I have not found him as of yet," the wizard stated.
"Are you that useless?"
Balin held up a hand to silence the rest of the present company. "Then what news brings you here?" he asked with raised eyebrows as soon as the shouts had lessened enough to be heard.
The king spoke up, "Yes, wizard. If you have not found him, then why are you here?"
"That is a bit of a long tale," Gandalf said with a sigh as he pulled out his pipe.
"And the short of it?" the king asked with raised eyebrows.
"I believe he is somewhere nearby. You still have a chance at your redemption, Thorin," Gandalf said with a sigh.
Turning away from the temporarily silent room, the King Under the Mountain turned to stare into the roaring fire. "I do not deserve it."
Gandalf nodded. "No one who seeks redemption believes they deserve it. It is for those who they seek it from to decide, however."
"Tell us your tale, Gandalf," Balin requested before Thorin could reply.
"Aye, and you better have information we can use," Dwalin growled from where he was leaning against the wall next to the door leading to the hall of the royal wing.
Gandalf took a few puffs of his pipe before he began. "As you all know, when I returned from the Shire, after Thorin convinced me of his sincerity and that the gold sickness had passed, I travelled directly back to give the news to dear Bilbo. I had left him at the edge of those green hills per his request. I did not see a soul as I traversed the knolls and hollows of that land, which was strange, as there is usually a good crowd in the markets I passed. But, not a hobbit was visible to me.
"Finally, I reached Bag End and knocked on the front door.
"A hobbit unknown to me answered the door. 'What do you want?' she snarled at me.
"'I am Ganda…' I started to reply only to be interrupted by the lady before me.
"'I know who you are, wizard. You are the reason Cousin Bilbo left. What do you want?'
"I took a small step back from the ugly cast of her face…"
Gandalf was interrupted. "What do you mean 'Bilbo left'? Why wasn't he at home, in the Shire?" Bofur asked incredulously.
"I'm getting there," Gandalf snapped before continuing. "As I was saying… The lass told me that Bilbo had arrived just in time to stop an estate sale happening in his very home, as his presence proved he wasn't dead. Over the next few weeks, he went here and there, rebuying his sold furnishings and knick-knacks with gold pieces that had a faint stink no one could place, not that anyone sniffed too closely. He was also seen purchasing unknown packages from travelling merchants. Then, letters went out to his kin. Telling broadly of his adventure, so they would understand why he couldn't stay, and to come get the gift he was giving them before his permanent departure. The lady at the door of Bag End was a cousin that Bilbo gave his home to, as long as she told anyone asking for him that he had left."
Here, Gandalf trailed off in his tale and stared into the fireplace across the room.
"He told me how you were the one to convince him of going on an adventure," Primula Baggins glared. "You're the reason he can disappear on command, aren't you?"
The hobbit held up a hand. "No, Gandalf. You will listen, then you will leave. His natural defense to be invisible went from instinctive to controllable. That only happens if there are multiple life threatening situations. And, Big People saw he could do it. He stated that only those he trust saw it. But, the only reason he wasn't punished is because he made a show of using his father's wedding band as a magic ring. There's a very good reason that hobbits don't go on adventures, and you know that, wizard! We do not want to wander again for a land that hasn't the notion of our power of invisibility. He gave away his worldly goods, gave my husband and me his home, put on a pack, a very small pack mind you, and, wearing his strange blade, turned invisible before my eyes. I watched his footprints as they disappeared down the row. Now, wizard, leave the Shire unless asked to return. You are no longer welcome here. As you should have guessed by the frightened, and unseen, hobbits you passed to get here." Finishing her diatribe, Primula stepped back and slammed the still brightly painted green door in Gandalf's face.
"What happened?" Ori cried from where he sat at his brother Dori's feet.
The wizard's reply was interrupted by a knock on the door. The guardsman that entered the room bowed to Thorin and stated, "We found another body, your majesty. Same as the others."
Thorin pinched his nose and nodded. "When you have a final report, send it to me."
The guardsman bowed again and left.
"That makes four now," Balin pointed out.
"I didn't think the intrigues of court would start so soon," Thorin said with a small sigh.
Gandalf looked perplexed. "What is going on?"
"Dwarrow are found dead, murdered," Nori grumbled from a dark corner of the room. "No one sees the assailant, and the fatal wounds are from behind. The first three have been found to be traitors, plotting against the line of Durin. Mostly by evidence found on their bodies or neatly laid out in their quarters. This latest one will most probably be found to be the same."
"Interesting," Gandalf said as he puffed on his pipe.
Thorin glared at the wizard. "Continue your tale."
Gandalf gave himself a slight shake and sighed. "I left Bag End, and the Shire, heading for Rivendell. Perhaps, if I had stopped on my way there, Bilbo wouldn't have such a large lead. I knew Elrond had told Bilbo that he was always welcome, and hoped he would be there. However, I had missed him by a few months."
"It was strange, my friend," Elrond said with a sigh from his comfortable chair. "He arrived, travel weary, but never seemed to lose his weariness. He was here for a month, and never gained much weight. When asked what he needed, he requested a leather coat and pants to be made for him. When asked why he wanted armor, he replied that he wanted to train with Sting, his dagger. But, he didn't want to ask for training unless he had the proper equipment to protect himself. A brief argument that he wouldn't be using a live blade during training was made, but he replied that he wouldn't think of training unless equipped properly. "
Elrond stood and turned to stare out the wide window. "The armorers were excited over the challenge of a hobbit's size. While his requests were being created, he showed great skill with a throwing dagger he said was a souvenir of his travels. So, a smith also needing a challenge decided to make hobbit sized daggers. The armorer heard and added sheathes and straps for the daggers to his leathers. Finally, both had finished their creations, and on the same day. I have to say, that was the first day that I thought a hobbit fierce."
Pausing, Elrond turned his gaze back to Gandalf. "He left a note giving his thanks and that he couldn't stay, that he had wrongs to make right."
Gandalf closed his eyes and looked weary. "Oh, Bilbo."
"At Rivendell, I spoke extensively to Lord Elrond. He said that Bilbo had wanted to train with his dagger, but didn't feel comfortable unless he had armor to wear besides his mithril shirt. So, a set of leathers was made. Then, when his commission was completed, he disappeared and left behind a note."
"And, what makes you think he's here?" Dwalin growled.
"'There is nothing in the west for him, he must have come east.' That was my reasoning. I crossed the Misty Mountains and found an acquaintance of mine, a ranger. He told me tales that made me think that Mister Baggins had made it at least as far as the outskirts of Mirkwood."
"I have seen many things, Mithrandir, but this was strange," the ranger said from his side of the campfire. "It's not often you come across camps of orcs, all dead from poison or wounds from behind."
Gandalf looked troubled. "Tell me, Gybyrn."
"Someone, or something, poisoned their cookpots. It seemed that caused the deaths of a good majority of the camp. The few who did not succumb to the poison ended up either garroted or stabbed from behind."
The wizard bowed his head. "And, the footprints?"
"He found scuffed footprints made by bare feet going east, and a small campfire here and there. My next stop was, of course, Mirkwood. There wasn't much to show the hobbit's passing other than spider corpses the elves couldn't explain."
"He did hate those spiders," Bofur muttered while Bifur grumbled agreement.
"And, that brought me here." Gandalf concluded his tale.
"You really think Bilbo is here?" Kili asked.
"And, if he is, why hasn't he shown himself?" Fili added.
"He left before Thorin woke from the battle, with no knowledge he was no longer banished, remember," Gandalf pointed out. "He will be existing in the shadow world of his ring at almost all times."
"Yes, his ring," Thorin growled. "Magic rings are not to be toyed with. What price is he paying for using it?"
Gandalf nodded. "Yes, magic has a price. However, Bilbo's ring isn't hurting him. He's cold while using it, and the world is all shades of grey, bleached of color."
Balin snorted as he remembered something. "There have been complaints from the markets. Not of theft, not really. Items are disappearing from the stalls, and gold left in its place."
Gandalf gave a small smile. "Gold pieces smelling slightly of troll?"
"There have been complaints of a small odor," Balin smiled in reply.
"But, why is he here, hiding?" Thorin growled.
"You have four bodies now, stopped before they could carry out treasonous plots," Gandalf pointed out.
The yelling from the assembled dwarrows took many a minute to settle down.
"You're saying Bilbo killed them?" Dwalin asked, incredulous.
"They were going against his friends," Gandalf replied calmly. "And, they were killed by an unseen assailant. He can turn invisible, after all." Gandalf looked pensive before seeming to draw himself back together. "For a hobbit to kill in cold blood is not an easy thing."
"I care not for your sensibilities," Thorin rumbled. "If it is him, he still helps protect myself and mine."
"The rumormongers in the taverns are saying the traitors are taken care of by 'Durin's Shadow', some supernatural creature bound to the line of Durin, sworn to protect the king," Gloin stated with a snort.
"It's not that that worries me," Gandalf stated with a glare. "Hobbits are made for growing and nurturing, not murder and mayhem."
After agreeing to keep a watch out for their invisible friend, the group disbanded for the moment.
"You are not telling us everything," Thorin growled once he and the wizard were alone.
Standing up, Gandalf shrugged. "I have told you all that I can. Goodnight, Thorin Oakenshield, King of Erebor."
It had been weeks since Gandalf had returned with his news about Bilbo. A few 'non-thefts', one more traitor murdered, and there no real leads on the location of the company's hobbit.
A group from the company had been hunting an elusive orc pack after it had been sighted near the mountain when they were ambushed by the orcs and wargs.
The battle was fierce and bloody. During a lull, Thorin saw Fili knocked to the ground and lay still as death. He was too far away to hear the orc gloat, but hoped he had enough time to get to his nephew before the beast lowered his weapon.
Before he reached Kili, Thorin saw the orc stagger forward slightly before its head reared back. A sudden thin wound appeared on the orc's throat before blood began to gush and the creature fell, dead.
Slowing in shock, the King Under the Mountain saw Bilbo appear from thin air as he whipped a thin wire from around the orc's neck, flicking the blood off his garrote wire. Thorin sped up as Bilbo knelt beside Kili.
As Thorin knelt beside his nephew, Bilbo looked up, startled, before disappearing again. "Bilbo! Wait!" Thorin called out, but there was no answer.
After Kili was declared only minorly injured by the healers, Thorin stormed off and called Gandalf to his chambers.
"Tell me, wizard," Thorin spat. "You said the ring wasn't harming him. I saw him! He's skin and bones!"
Gandalf sighed. "That ring isn't harming him, Thorin. It can't harm him."
Gandalf ignored the glaring king for a few minutes before replying. "I'm about to tell you a secret that if becomes known, will have grave consequences," he stated, staring into Thorin's eyes. "Consequences to you, your kingdom, myself, and the Shire. However, I know you can keep this secret, considering it has to do with Bilbo."
Gathering himself, the wizard continued. "There is no magic ring. The ring you've seen is Bilbo's father's wedding ring. Going invisible is an innate knack of hobbits, an instinctive protection ability. He has just used it so often, he can control it. But, any ability, be it wielding a sword or turning invisible, uses energy. Energy he hasn't been replenishing by eating and resting enough."
"That's why you insisted on a hobbit burglar," Thorin growled. "This innate ability."
Gandalf nodded. "I picked Bilbo because adventure is in his blood. And, Smaug had to be taken care of. Sooner or later, he would have ventured from his horde. And, who knows when or how he would've been stopped?"
"And, now what? How do we get through to Bilbo that he doesn't need to do this. That he's welcome here? That we'd… I'd… be honored if he'd stay here?"
Gandalf suddenly looked old. "I do not know, my friend. I do not know."
It was Nori who figured out the hobbit's buying pattern. Bilbo went to specific stalls every three days. Bringing this news to his king, a plan was formed.
Nodding, Gandalf handed a vial to the former thief. "Sprinkle this over the next batch of food he's set to 'buy'. It's harmless, but will put him into a deep sleep for about twelve hours, and make him at least half visible. Be careful with it. It's very rare, and I do not know when I can make more. We may accidently get some dwarrows with this, but it will not harm them. They'll just have a deep nap."
Nodding, Nori left the king's chambers with the small vial.
When Thorin and Gandalf were alone, the king raised his eyebrows. "How did you come by that?"
"When I was privileged to learn the secret of hobbits, they showed me how to make that potion. It's for the rare instances that the knack goes haywire. A traumatic occasion can make a hobbit go invisible. This was created to calm the hobbit down, while making it possible to help them."
The next night, Bilbo had taken the bait. Nori had watched the stall and saw the treated food disappear, a few pieces of gold left in its place. Watching closely, he was able to follow the hobbit from the nearly deserted marketplace.
It seemed like hours later that Nori finally found the hobbit's hiding place. He followed a trail of slightly swaying lamps in a non-existent breeze, tapestries depicting great battles fluttering in the same non-existent breeze, and smudges suddenly appearing in random bits of dirt.
Sneaking forward, he slipped into the small cave near the entrance of a currently abandoned diamond mine. Finding Bilbo unconscious and flickering in and out of invisibility, Nori nodded before wrapping the hobbit in the threadbare blanket crumpled in the shadows and carried his friend to the royal wing.
Thorin had been staring at his hobbit for hours now, ignoring his court and responsibilities.
Finally, Bilbo stirred. "What?"
"Hello, my friend," Thorin replied quietly.
"Thorin!" Bilbo exclaimed before diving off the bed and suddenly disappearing.
Racing to the only door out of the room, Thorin guarded the only exit. "No, Bilbo, we must talk."
"There is nothing to talk about," Bilbo's voice stated from a corner of the room.
"There is everything to talk about, my friend."
"I stole the one thing that proved you king!" Bilbo shouted, still unseen.
Thorin looked pained. "If I hadn't been gold mad, it wouldn't have been necessary."
"It doesn't mean I had an excuse."
"I banished you! I almost killed you!" Thorin shouted.
"You were right to!" Bilbo replied as he suddenly appeared huddled the corner near the fireplace before continuing in a whisper, "And, I wish you succeeded."
"No, Bilbo, no." Thorin replied as he strode forward and grabbed his hobbit up in a hug. "You should be honored. You stopped a senseless war, and saved the lives of my kith and kin multiple times. The moment I could, I rescinded your banishment and named you friend of the line of Durin."
"I don't deserve it," Bilbo softly replied as he held on.
"Yes you do," Thorin forcefully replied, tightening his hug. "You deserve everything I can give you. Stay."
Speechless, Bilbo nodded.