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Oak and Mistletoe

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The first raven had come from the wizard.

Its insistent pecking interrupted Bilbo in his breakfast and he licked strawberry jam from his index finger with a sigh before unlatching the window and letting the bird inside. The claws clacked against his kitchen table as it hopped over and stood expectantly next to the plate with his half-eaten meal.

‘Alright, just hold on,’ he muttered as his fingers unknotted the rolled up message from the bony leg.

He took another bite from his toast and started to read the letter but as he scanned the few lines in Gandalf’s familiar hand, the sound of his crunchy chewing slowed steadily until he stopped completely at the final line. He knew that very little should surprise him, coming from the wizard, but this…

After swallowing with some difficulty, he sat silently as he contemplated the message.

Finally, he stood up.

‘Right.’ He closed his robe. ‘Right. First check the linen cupboard and…’

Bilbo was interrupted in his thinking at an affronted tug to his knotted belt and looked down at his bird companion. The raven gave an indignant squawk before tapping its beak against Bilbo’s plate.

‘Oh, I beg your pardon,’ Bilbo gestured to the remains of his breakfast. ‘Help yourself.’

As he watched the raven gobbling down the rest of his bacon, Bilbo started to compose a reply to the wizard in his head, though the message from Gandalf hadn’t really left any room for either refusal or acceptance of this strange proposition.

He looked down at the bird as it was sweeping its beak over the plate in search for any last crumbs of toast.

‘The wizard speaks your language, doesn’t he?’

The raven bent its head to the side, bobbing up and down twice.

‘Will you tell him…’ He tapped three times on the table in thought. ‘Tell him that I will ready the best bedroom and await the arrival of this dwarven prince at the beginning of summer,’ Bilbo finished with a decisive nod.

The raven gave a final squawk and flew out of the still-open window. It circled Bag End once before heading north to where Gandalf the Grey was currently staying during one of his many travels.

 

X—X

 

The second raven came from Erebor.

Bilbo had been making use of the sunny day to work in his garden when a croaky voice came from behind him.

‘Good morning,’ it said.

‘Good morning,’ Bilbo answered distractedly, pulling at a determined weed. ‘Fine day, isn’t it?’

‘Down here, it is. It’s a bit chillier where I usually fly.’

‘Fly?’ Bilbo abandoned his work and turned around as he rubbed the sweat from his forehead, leaving behind a smear of dirt.

The largest raven he had ever seen in his life was strutting up and down his fence, its beady eyes taking in both the small hill and the dishevelled hobbit standing in front of it.

Bilbo blinked. ‘You speak Westron?’

The bird fluttered its feathers. ‘Of course I do. I am a raven from Ravenhill, after all. We speak all the known languages of Middle Earth and some of the unknown ones as well,’ it said as it spread its wings once or twice, obviously hoping to impress this hobbit from the Shire.

Bilbo nodded, wanting to be polite to anything with claws that big and sharp. ‘And where is Ravenhill?’

‘Within the borders of the great mountain kingdom of Erebor,’ the raven said as it hopped onto a post in the fence, staring down at Bilbo from its high vantage point. ‘Thráin is my ruler and I and my kin do his bidding.’

Bilbo recognised these names from Gandalf’s letter and started to understand. ‘And what has King Thráin bid you to do here in the Shire?’

The raven puffed out its chest. ‘To tell you that he has sent his son, Crown Prince Thorin, to stay with you in your…’ It looked back at Bilbo’s home. ‘In your hole-in-the-hill. You can expect his arrival within a month.’

Bilbo bristled slightly at this description of his comfy home but he smiled tightly at the raven. ‘Thank you for telling me. And you can report back to your king that I will try to ensure that the Prince will have a restful recuperation under my roof, and I hope his stay in the Shire will give him satisfaction.’

The large, black wings extended and the raven made a few flaps, trying to gather pressure beneath them. ‘You can try, Master Baggins.’ Its feet left the fence. ‘But I’ll wager you won’t succeed.’ It took off over the meadow beneath Bilbo’s hill, its croaky voice floating back on the wind.

‘Because nothing satisfies Prince Thorin!’

 

X—X

 

Bilbo spent the next month preparing for the royal visit. Not that royalty mattered much to Shire folk, but he had always taken pride in his home, his food and his hospitality. And all three must be impeccable if they were to please this demanding prince. It wouldn’t do to let him travel back to Erebor with tales of impolite hobbits.

On the first evening of summer, precisely one month after the last raven’s visit, Bilbo was walking around his larder, looking with satisfaction at all he had prepared for his visitor: Sausages, the ripest cheeses, a bounty of fruit and greens from his own garden and even his mother’s seed cake, fresh from the oven. It had been baked especially in honour of his guest, and Bilbo hoped the prince would arrive soon; otherwise it would be nothing but a dry and flavourless husk.

Looking out of his window at the darkening road, he made the decision to start preparing the last meal of the day. If the prince still managed to arrive today, he could always quickly supplement it with some cold potatoes from luncheon, maybe make a hot potato salad with onions, and there would still be enough for two.

But the prince did not arrive in time for supper.

The fire in his sitting room was low when Bilbo gave a final glance at the path leading up to his home. All quiet. He drew back from the window and stifled a yawn before heading to his bedroom. It was too late now for anyone to knock, he thought as he pulled on his pyjamas. His head hit the pillow as he thought about what could delay a dwarf prince and his party on the road. Images of attacking animals or tempting roadside taverns were the last things dancing through his mind before he turned over and succumbed to sleep.

He didn’t know what woke him but he was awake, staring up at his ceiling. His bedroom was suffused with a golden light from a low sun. It was still early, much earlier than Bilbo, gentlehobbit of leisure that he was, liked to get out of bed. He stretched his arms above his head, grabbing hold of the pillow and fluffing it up before turning over on his side with his back to the window.

But it was no good. These warm summer mornings were not suited for sleeping in. Though his eyes were shielded, the sun still tickled his neck and his blanket became uncomfortably warm. With a sigh, he threw it back, shuffled to the side of the bed and stood up.

Bilbo yawned as he padded to the kitchen, tying the belt of his robe into a loose knot before firing up the stove.

He shut the metal door on the small flames licking up the side of a fresh log and went to the front of his home, wanting to see what the Shire looked like this early in the morning.

The rush of fresh, dewy morning air that met him as he opened the door provided a refreshing awakening after the stifling blankets of his bed. He closed his eyes and stretched, hoping to get his body and mind fully awake before starting work on his breakfast. And it looked to be another meal he would be eating alone.

As he opened his eyes, he became aware of two of his neighbours standing down the lane and staring up his home while whispering hurriedly with each other.

Bilbo frowned. Surely it wasn’t such a strange sight, him being up this early and standing outside his smial. Feeling self-conscious, he tightened the belt around his robe and made to turn back inside when he was interrupted by the sound of wood creaking coming from the left side of his door.

Ignoring the curious hobbits, he ventured down the path alongside the front and stopped dead when he saw what was sitting on his bench.

It was a dwarf, sitting upright and sleeping outside his home. Bilbo stepped closer. He had only ever seen the dwarves from the Blue Mountains at a distance, so he allowed himself to take the time to study this one. Could it be one of the prince’s party who was sent ahead to herald his lord’s arrival? The poor thing must have travelled all night, Bilbo thought as he looked down at the muddy cloak and worn boots.

The face was interesting. Dwarves were known to be a stout people, heavy with meat, beer and metal adornments. But this one’s sunken cheeks, sharp nose and simple dress spoke of a life of want. The beard was short, not the usual dwarven custom, and the hair was long but simple. No fanciful braiding or beads. Did the royal family of Erebor not treat its servants well?

Bilbo could almost feel his fingers itching to cook for this one, to feed him until some colour and pleasing plumpness returned to that sorry-looking face. When the prince arrives, he would invite him and all of his followers to a grand feast. But first he would treat this one to some much needed breakfast.

Bilbo placed a gentle hand on the broad shoulder, feeling it tense in awareness under his touch. The dwarf’s eyes twitched, opened slowly and immediately found Bilbo’s face.

In the morning sun, the blue eyes should have been beautiful. The colour should have brightened up next to the golden light, giving life to the weary face. But they remained dull and neutral, staring numbly at Bilbo before the dwarf stood up.

‘Bilbo Baggins?’ The voice was deep and even.

‘Yes,’ Bilbo said, looking up at broad figure. ‘Good morning.’

The dwarf hummed low in response as he shifted on the stony path.

Bilbo glanced over his shoulder at the two gawking hobbits who were still watching intently. And now he knew what had first drawn their attention. It wasn’t every day that a dwarf took up residence outside Bilbo Baggins’ home.

Eager to end the display, he turned back to the dwarf. ‘You must be tired from your journey. Please, come inside.’

The dwarf nodded, hoisted his pack and followed Bilbo through the door.

The entrance was cool and dark after the bright colours of the outside and Bilbo set to work helping the other off with his cloak and pack. Once he returned from hanging them in a safe place, Bilbo halted as he watched the figure of the dwarf from behind. Sharp shoulder blades seemed to tear through skin and tent the dwarf’s shirt over his back. The exposed lower arms looked strong but wiry, prominent veins snaked from pointy elbows to bony hands.

Bilbo’s eyes softened in sympathy. This dwarf needed more than a good breakfast after several months’ travel. He needed several hearty meals, care, rest, recuperation… And at that point, he suddenly recalled the choice of words in Gandalf’s letter, remembered the mention of the prince’s unknown illness.

Bilbo shook his head at his own foolishness. This was obviously the prince in question. The worn clothes and simple appearance must have been a form of protection against any robbers who would see a lone dwarven prince as an easy but profitable prize.

‘Your Highness?’ Bilbo tried to suppress his wince at the foreign-sounding formality. He didn’t think he could stand spending the whole summer with someone called Your Highness.

The dwarf turned to look at him. ‘Thorin,’ he corrected.

‘Oh!’ Bilbo’s shoulders dropped with a relieved sigh. ‘And you can call me Bilbo.’ He smiled widely at Thorin, feeling hopeful about the months to come.

But there was no responding smile. The dwarf nodded once, his face impassive as his eyes left the hobbit to look around the interiors.

Bilbo’s first instinct was to feel offended. A hobbit was fond of his niceties and courtesies, even if they weren’t always sincerely felt. A smile should be an easy thing to offer to the person inviting you into their home. But then he admonished himself: this prince had travelled for months, had been ill before that, and had just woken from sleeping on a wooden bench. And Bilbo knew what would soothe all his troubles.

‘Breakfast,’ he announced. ‘I already have the stove lit, so it won’t be long. Do you want to change out of your travelling clothes before then?’

‘I’ll be fine,’ Thorin said without looking at him. ‘Where did you put my pack?’

‘In your bedroom. It’s just right he– ‘ Bilbo moved to escort the dwarf down the hallway when Thorin swept past him.

‘I’ll be fine,’ he threw over his shoulder as Bilbo saw his back disappear into the best bedroom.

Well. Bilbo tugged sharply at the belt around his waist. Well.

Setting aside the rudeness of dwarves, he padded into his larder and surveyed what he could offer his guest this morning. After picking out the essentials, his eyes alighted on the seedcake, a golden dome on his mother’s favourite plate sitting on a high shelf. A fitting welcome for royalty, he thought as he carefully lifted it down and took it to be placed in the middle of his dining table before starting on breakfast.

Bilbo was just lifting the last sizzling piece of bacon out of the frying pan and on to Thorin’s plate, when the dwarf reappeared from his bedroom and stood with a hesitant air next to the table.

‘Sit down, please.’ Bilbo tried another smile before moving past the dwarf to deposit the pan in the kitchen and grabbing a plate of lightly toasted bread to take back into the dining room.

As he sat down, he poured a cup of tea for the other and gestured wordlessly for Thorin to tuck into his heaping plate of tomato and mushroom omelette with piles of bacon on top.

The dwarf nodded curtly and picked up his cutlery.

Bilbo had gotten used to eating alone after his parents’ death and was therefore accustomed to dining in silence, his thoughts more than enough company to keep him occupied. Usually they spent the time while he was eating, wandering around his memories of the day before, what he had read, what he had written, the state of his garden, and what he needed to gather during his next outing to the Old Forest. Hobbiton relied on him to keep his stores of weeds, plants and herbs fully replenished, no matter how little most hobbits liked to admit to being dependent on Mad Baggins.

But Bilbo soon wrenched himself away from his thoughts, remembering that he had a rare guest to entertain. He looked over at Thorin, preparing to enquire about what the dwarf wanted to do on his first day in the Shire, when he stopped short at the sight of him.

Thorin sat perfectly straight, transferring a forkful of food from his plate to his mouth. Then he chewed listlessly 4-5 times, swallowed with some effort and repeated the process all over again.

This was a strange sight to Bilbo’s eyes. Hobbits were fond of their food and took great pride in being able to cook it well and share it with others. Meals were jolly occasions, filled with obvious enjoyment of the food being eaten. It wasn’t just a senseless, mechanical chewing and swallowing. Bilbo wasn’t a proud hobbit. Not compared to most people, anyway. He did take pride in his cooking, however. Maybe the prince was used to finer things than a simple omelette.

‘It must have been exciting,’ Bilbo started, desperate to say anything to stop that mindless eating, ‘to travel all that way along the Great Road over the Misty Mountains. The sights you must have seen.’

Thorin’s fork lowered onto his plate. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s a long way.’

Bilbo tried again. ‘And did you travel it all alone? I confess to being surprised at you sitting by yourself outside my home.’

‘I did. I find it to be quicker that way. No one to insist on long evenings at roadside inns and more time spent putting one foot in front of the other on the road.’

Bilbo tilted his head to the side in wonderment. ‘You take no pleasure in travel?’

‘It’s a way to get from one place to another. Nothing more.’

‘But if you spent time at the roadside inns or paused in a passing forest glade instead of simply putting one foot in front of the other, you might find some enjoyment in your travels.’

Thorin looked down at his plate. ‘I doubt it.’

Bilbo leaned back in his seat, settling into the discussion. ‘Is that why you travelled through the night before arriving at my home? To end your travels sooner?’

Thorin took a short sip of his cooling tea and grimaced. ‘I didn’t travel through the night. I had planned to arrive at my destination yesterday afternoon but got lost along the eastern border of the Shire.’ He folded his arms. ‘I arrived well after dark when there was no light in your windows.’

Bilbo’s eyes widened in realization. ‘You spent the night on my bench?’

Thorin inclined his head once. ‘I did.’

Bilbo shook his head at this dwarf’s peculiarities. ‘But you could have knocked! I had a nice, soft bed all ready for you. Surely you would prefer that instead of a hard bench?’ He blinked rapidly, his astonishment plain on his face. ‘It would have been no trouble, no trouble at all.’

‘As it was no trouble for me to spend the night outside as I have done for the last months. A bed, a bench, the ground; they’re all just places to rest your head and close your eyes.’ Thorin shrugged as if that was the end of the conversation.

‘But that doesn’t make any sense!’ Bilbo was really getting agitated now. ‘You talk as if you can’t feel the difference between soft and hard, between nice and foul.’

Thorin’s shoulders stiffened. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He pushed away from the table and stood up. ‘Thank you for breakfast. It was… filling.’

He turned around and headed back to his room with a heavy stride, leaving Bilbo behind to gawp at the empty seat and half-eaten meal abandoned by his long-awaited guest.

With jerky, abrupt movements, Bilbo stood up and cleared the table. The seed cake, which had occupied a place of pride on the table, was taken back to the larder, untouched. Out in the kitchen, he emptied Thorin’s plate into the bucket of kitchen waste which was going over to Farmer Holman’s pigs at the end of the day. What a shame it was to waste such an excellent omelette on an undiscerning animal. But, Bilbo thought as he looked over his shoulder in the direction of Thorin’s bedroom, it had also seemed to be wasted on the dwarven prince.

His thoughts whirred with his first impressions of his guest, trying to find some explanation for the odd behaviour he had experienced from Thorin. And that was when he remembered the raven’s words: that nothing satisfied the prince. Bilbo had himself discovered the truth of those words. Not the beauty of the breadth of Middle Earth, not the promise of a soft bed or a hot meal at tavern after a long day’s walk, and not even an fine breakfast cooked by Bilbo Baggins.

And then something struck him, making him abandon his work. His soapy hands dripped into the washing bowl as he contemplated this new revelation. He had heard of something like this before, but descriptions of it were mostly found in old texts from far-away lands. No one in the Shire had ever dealt with something like this.

As he wiped his hands, he made a decision about what to do. He had an experiment to perform.

Bilbo marched up to the open door of Thorin’s bedroom and called out, ‘Thorin?’

The dwarf turned around, his pack in his hands. ‘Yes?’

‘Could you come outside with me? I would like to show you something.’

Setting his pack down on his bed, he followed Bilbo through the back door, where they stopped to survey the lush back garden. To the right of the door were Bilbo’s prized rose bushes, the early morning dew melting off them and carrying their perfumed scent around the green lawn. The smell was strong, bordering on cloying, but Bilbo appreciated the beauty of the rose alongside its delightful scent.

He looked up at Thorin. ‘I want you to take a couple of deep breaths through your nose and tell me what you can smell here in my garden.’

Thorin stared back at him. ‘Is this some sort of hobbit fancy? You want me to tell you what your garden smells like?’

Bilbo smiled his most innocent smile. ‘Oblige me. Please.’

Thorin narrowed his eyes at Bilbo’s guileless face but still took a couple of steps out into the garden, pulling strong sniffs through his nose as he went.

‘Well?’ Bilbo called after him.

Thorin turned around. ‘Horse droppings,’ he said. ‘That’s all I can smell. Horse droppings,’ he finished with a nod.

‘Manure,’ Bilbo corrected, his suspicion from earlier growing stronger still. ‘It’s good for the rose bushes. You don’t smell the roses?’

Thorin shook his head.

‘Here,’ Bilbo said, leading the other over to the bushes, ‘come closer and try again.’

Thorin sniffed. ‘Still horse drop- Excuse me, manure.’

A cold sensation ran down Bilbo’s back. He snapped off a fully-grown rose from the bush and raised it to Thorin’s face. ‘Try again.’

Thorin inclined his head over the flower. His voice was quiet when he finally said, ‘Nothing. There’s nothing there.’

In one final desperate move, Bilbo tore a fistful of petals from the rose and crushed them between his fingers. The scent rose up to his face, sweet and spicy, before he all but threw them in Thorin’s face. ‘How about now?’

Thorin closed his eyes. ‘Nothing.’

Bilbo dropped down the rose and its petals and stepped closer, his gaze intent on Thorin. ‘Why did the wizard send you to me?’

‘Because I’ve been ill,’ Thorin said the last word with some distaste as he pursed his lips in annoyance.

‘I know. But what did he expect me to do about it?

Thorin squared his shoulders under Bilbo’s searching gaze. ‘He didn’t say.’

‘Well, of course he didn’t.’ Bilbo shook his head. ‘Haven’t you spoken to a wizard before? Ask them about the South and they’ll talk about the North. And they always have a least seven different schemes going on at once. Secret schemes, of course, because you can’t let us mortals have any say when it comes to our own lives. No, that’s best left up to the wizards!’

Thorin blinked in surprise as he looked down at the small hobbit getting increasingly redder in the face. ‘Has Gandalf tricked you before?’

‘No, not as such.’ Bilbo glanced over the hedge to his nearest neighbour, wondering if Hamfast had started working in his garden yet. ‘We’d better talk about this inside,’ he said and walked away, expecting Thorin to follow.

Once inside, Bilbo sat down at his table and Thorin quickly did as well.

‘No,’ Bilbo said, continuing the conversation. ‘He never tricked me. But I’ve known him for many years and I know that he will never tell you the whole truth for reasons of his own.’ He interlaced his hands on the table in front of him. ‘And that’s why the two of us have to be completely truthful with each other if I am to help you.’

‘Truthful?’ The chair creaked as Thorin shifted, his arms folding in front of him. ‘Well, then the truth is: I am not ill. Others think I am but I’m not.’

Bilbo narrowed his eyes in thought. ‘And your father is one of those people?’

‘He’s only one with the power to send me to some hobbit apothecary on the advice of a wandering wizard, so yes.’

‘Apothecary? Did Gandalf call me an apothecary?’

‘Not in so many words. But since I’ve met nothing but foreign apothecaries in the last three years, I thought you would be another one.’

‘Well,’ Bilbo said, spreading his hands out on the table, ‘just as you are not ill, I am not an apothecary.’

Thorin sat back in his seat. ‘What are you then?’

Bilbo moved to speak but then hesitated. Was there a term for what he was? Mad Baggins was the first to spring to mind but he quickly smothered it back down. Wise Hobbit seemed too grand a title and any of the words to do with medicine were insufficient.

‘I…’ Bilbo bit his lip in thought. ‘I have a library of texts filled with knowledge handed down from mothers to their children. I know how to stay a fever, how to cool a rash, how to clean a wound. I know the plants of the forest. I know what they can do for us, both good and bad. I know how to prepare them and mix them to the greatest advantage. I know concoctions and can make one for an aching head or a low mood.’

‘Witchcraft,’ Thorin breathed as he stared at the unassuming hobbit.

‘That’s one word for it.’ Bilbo looked up into Thorin’s wide eyes. ‘But not one I like to use.’

The birds chirped a merry song outside the open window as Bilbo waited for Thorin to understand what he had just been told. The dwarf seemed insensible to this, his eyes focused on Bilbo as he pondered.

When the dwarf remained silent, Bilbo started again. ‘Now, I have been truthful towards you. Maybe it’s time for you to return the favour?’

Thorin blinked, seemingly pulled away from his thoughts, and his sullen mood returned as he said, ‘I already told you. I’m here because my father is convinced that I’m ill.’

‘But you’re not?’ Bilbo raised his eyebrows. ‘So the fact that you can’t smell the scent of a rose, only the manure that grows it, that you don’t enjoy any food, and you can’t tell the difference between a feather bed and wooden bench, that’s all normal behaviour for you?’

‘It is,’ Thorin said as he looked down at the table.

‘Has it always been like that?’

‘As long as I can remember.’

‘Then…’ Bilbo floundered, his worst suspicions having been confirmed. ‘Then what gives you pleasure in life? What makes you happy?’

‘The absence of cold, of sickness, of pain.’ Thorin looked away from Bilbo’s searching gaze.

‘Oh,’ Bilbo breathed out. ‘Oh, you poor soul.’

Thorin stood up abruptly, his chair scraping noisily against the floor. ‘I did not come all this way just to be pitied by a- by a witch!’

Bilbo stood as well and moved around the table to grab Thorin’s hand, keeping a hold of it even as Thorin tried to walk away. ‘I offer no pity. But sympathy? Kindness? I offer those in abundance.’ He looked up into that haunted face, hoping to make this dwarf understand. ‘And I will help you. I swear that I will.’

Thorin looked down at Bilbo, his eyes tired as he studied this strange hobbit. ‘You’re not the first to say those words to me. I have become something of an object of study to the learned people of Middle Earth.’ His tone of voice held a bitter note.

‘Splendid.’ Bilbo’s lips quirked into a hint of a smile. ‘You can tell me what they have already tried, and then I’ll know what to avoid in my search for a cure.’

‘You sound awfully sure of yourself.’

‘I'm not. But I do still have hope for you.’ Bilbo squeezed Thorin’s hand. ‘Even if you don’t.’