When Bilbo came to himself, he was literally by himself. He was lying on the flat stones of Ravenhill, and no one was near. A cloudless sky, but cold, was broad above him. He was shaking, and as chilled as stone, but his head burned with fire.
He was alone, and for days after, that would change little.
“You should be grateful I remembered hearing your voice there, silly hobbit,” Gandalf scolded as he carried Bilbo away from the battlefield. “All others are helping the wounded, and they would have little time to find your small body amidst the much larger ones!”
Pain and weariness dragged at him, but it was Gandalf’s mention of the wounded which roused Bilbo. He felt sick and his worn limbs were like straw, but he forced himself to stay awake. “The wounded?” he asked anxiously.
Gandalf held Bilbo like he was little more than a child as he headed for the camp. “Indeed. By some miracle of fate, all members of your party have survived, although we had feared for Kili, Fili, and Thorin. I believe that destiny has something else in mind for all of them.”
”May we never meet again!” echoed in Bilbo’s head like a drum of war. The memory gave him strength when he felt he had sacrificed it all. He wiggled and kicked until Gandalf stopped with a foul curse.
“Mister Baggins, what by the –”
Bilbo’s ring called to him like the sirens in his mother’s stories. If he slipped it on, he could flee, and not even the cunning eyes of a wizard would be able to see him. He could vanish and none would be able to find him. He shuddered at the temptation, feeling it like a physical drag on his heart.
“I cannot see him!” he gasped.
Gandalf’s arms stilled around him. “I beg your pardon?”
The ring called to Bilbo so loudly that he wanted to clamp his hands over his ears. “Thorin! I cannot see him!”
”Take him, if you wish him to live; and no friendship of mine goes with him.”
Bilbo felt ill but knew now it had nothing to do with the blow to his head. He wished nothing more than to slip on his ring and hide somewhere to weep. His grand adventure had ended with both the most resounding success and most terrible failure of his life. Nevermore could he call the dwarves his friends, nor see Thorin’s rare, sweet smile directed at him, a smile hard-won and then viciously lost. His heart ached with a fierceness he had never known in the Shire. Suddenly, he wished to be home so badly his eyes stung with it.
“Dear Bilbo,” Gandalf said gently. His arms remained tight around Bilbo, strong and soothing, but they were not the arms Bilbo desired. “His words were spoken in anger and greed. Those words were not spoken by the Thorin we both love.”
Bilbo sniffled. He didn’t feel like a Took. He felt like a battered Baggins, far away from the warmth of his home. Still, the Took in him would not be silent. “Did you hear him speak? Did he renounce his words?”
Gandalf’s hesitation answered for him. Bilbo buried his face in Gandalf’s cloak before the wizard even began to speak. “He is still unconscious, but surely when he awakens he will realize his grievous error.”
Now the Took within him faded, leaving Bilbo cold and empty. He ached so deeply he wished for but a moment that he had not awoken on the battlefield, allowing him the fantasy of being remembered as a fallen hero. “I don’t want to go to the camp, Gandalf. I am done with the world of Men and dwarves. I am done with violence and treasure. Please, Gandalf. I wish to go home.”
In the distance, campfires blazed. Elves and Men and Dwarves bundled about the camp, oblivious to the lone Wizard and Hobbit in their midst. Gandalf clutched tightly at Bilbo and felt him tremble. He felt Destiny tremble, too, and knew whatever his answer, there would be ripples beyond imagining.
After all the hobbit had suffered, Gandalf could not bring himself to deny Bilbo this. “All right, Mister Baggins,” he said, and felt the world shift around them both. “I will get you home.”
With so many dead and dying, few asked about the whereabouts of the company’s lone hobbit. Those who spared Bilbo Baggins a passing thought assumed him long dead. They noted Gandalf’s leave and thought it odd that he left before even the celebrations could begin, but wizards were odd folk. None paid it too much mind.
None thought of the hobbit again until Thorin finally awoke. “The halfling?” he rasped.
And felt something within himself die when Balin bowed his head and wept.
The commotion which greeted Bilbo upon his return kept him busy for quite a while. Hunting down his own furniture and silverware should have left him cross, but it instead relieved him. For months upon his return, he only needed to worry about that and convincing people that he was indeed alive, as his breathing form before them was not enough proof to warrant the return of his things.
He wrote of his adventures but carefully edited certain things. There was no need for anyone to know of them, and they did not contribute to the adventure itself, after all. Bilbo wrote of Thorin gifting him with the mithril coat but not how Thorin had laid his hand on Bilbo’s breast and stared at Bilbo like the hobbit was one of his treasures. He made no mention of Thorin sitting beside him by the campfire and assuring him that, once they reached Erebor, he would feel homesick no more.
If Bilbo was lucky, he might forget those details, too. They contributed to nothing, really.
He returned home June 22, S.R. 1342, and for a year, only those accursed memories and the ring, hidden on the mantle, kept him company.
June 22, S.R. 1343, Gandalf returned to his home.
“You are going to break that one of these days,” Bilbo scolded. Above his head, the light swayed and shimmered. Gandalf grimaced and rubbed his head.
“It’s going to break me one of these days,” he grumbled. Bilbo scoffed and turned back to the kitchen.
“Nonsense! The great Gandalf, felled by a light! I would not be able to write that down. I would need to make something up! Would you like some tea?”
With one last glare at the light, Gandalf followed Bilbo. “If it would so please you. I have a long journey ahead.”
Bilbo set them both out tea and snacks, with milk, sugar, honey, and jams to the side. He didn’t look up as he stirred his own tea. “Another journey then? To what lands do you travel now?”
Gandalf stirred his tea and watched Bilbo with a weight that only a wizard or elf could manage. “To the East. There is much I must look into…” He sipped his tea and added far too lightly, “And I have not seen the Lonely Mountain since the Battle of the Five Armies. I would quite like to see how everyone is doing.”
Bilbo sipped his tea and did not answer immediately. In many aspects, he was quite an odd hobbit, not even counting his adventure. Sting resting over his mantle meant little compared to the emptiness of his hobbit hole. Being a bachelor at 53 was quite odd indeed, and the only family which visited were the cousins on the Took side of the family.
In an important way, though, he was a typical hobbit. Hobbits heard of divorce and remarriage occurring among Men, and the gossip lasted for weeks. Marriage was for life, whether the parties liked it or not.
Thorin had offered to make his home Bilbo’s home, and the memory of his last words was still as painful as ever.
“Send everyone my regards,” Bilbo said politely, and Gandalf’s silent invitation died in the air between them.
Gandalf hummed and ate a biscuit. “I will.”
Only when Gandalf left did Bilbo allow himself to weep again.
As the months dragged on in the Shire, Gandalf traveled East. There were whispers of a darkness growing, and each whisper Gandalf gathered only put him more ill at ease. Dark birds flew ever watchful through the skies. Shadows rose in the East. Orcs and Wargs gathered, terrorizing all in their path. By the time he reached Laketown, Gandalf’s other task had all but slipped his mind.
Like few questioned Gandalf’s leave, few questioned his return. Bard roared for a feast while the Master watched on, ever wise but ever wary of his power. Gandalf preferred him over the previous Master, but he felt no need to share that. He graced him with a nod before Bard swept him into the next room.
The sight of shining metals and beautiful ornaments in the great hall warmed Gandalf. As Bard showed him his seat at the front of the table, he quipped, “Gifts for the apology King Thorin refuses to make. He has calmed greatly since the great battle. He directs his ire now at any orc or goblin who dares to traverse his realm.”
The words should have comforted Gandalf, but instead the darkness in Bard’s eyes made him ill at ease. “You make it sound less like defense and more of a personal vendetta,” Gandalf mused.
Around them, the people of Laketown hustled and bustled, more than ready to feast and rejoice. As much as Gandalf desired to join in their joy, the sorrow on Bard’s face stayed him.
“It is,” Bard said simply, and then he was called to sit at the far end of the table. Gandalf noted that the Master made no attempt to join in the feast.
Gandalf mused about Thorin’s new vendetta even as Bard called everyone to sit and drink. He held up his ale and Gandalf automatically did the same. Some beings simply needed a cause, Gandalf knew. Thorin’s home had been reclaimed. The white orc was dead. Thorin had made something resembling peace with the people of Laketown and the elves.
When Bard toasted the honored dead and made a special toast to the Great Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf almost lost his ale. He suddenly had a terrible fear about the origin of Thorin’s hate.
“Do you claim that Bilbo Baggins is deceased?” he demanded. One of the soldiers beside Gandalf laid a tender, apologetic hand on his arm. Gandalf almost struck it off.
“Alas,” Bard said, and the sorrow in his eyes gained a new weight, “he fell at the Battle of the Five Armies. I suppose you left so quickly you had not heard.”
A horrified wonder swept over Gandalf as the men toasted and mourned around him. When he had swept Bilbo Baggins’ crumpled body away from the battlefield so long ago, he had not expected this reaction. He had thought of Bilbo’s heartbreak, which he blamed on himself for convincing Bilbo to go on the adventure. He had thought of Thorin’s rage and how it needed time and distance to cool.
When he said “Bilbo Baggins is alive and living in the Shire,” he could not even hear those thoughts any more.
Bard and his people begged for Gandalf to stay and share Bilbo’s tale, but Gandalf grabbed his things and fled from Bard’s halls. He hurried to Erebor and wondered how late he was.
He also wondered what he would encounter in the great kingdom Under the Mountain.
The dwarves allowed him willingly into their halls and graciously allowed him audience with their King. Kili led him there with the barest of limps, and that and his silence compounded the guilt raging in Gandalf’s heart. He thought of the feeling of Destiny on the battlefield and its shift. For the first time, he wondered if he had made the wrong choice. He had not only failed Bilbo, but he had failed the dwarves, too.
Fili stood beside the King, and Kili hurried to his side. Thorin watched Gandalf with dark eyes as the wizard approached. Since their last meeting, Thorin had seemed to age centuries, not years. There was fresh white in his hair and a scar by his eye. It was the weariness which attracted Gandalf’s eye, though, dragging down Thorin’s broad shoulders. With the news from Laketown, Gandalf wondered how much of it was due to the battle and how much of it was grief.
“My greetings to you, Thorin, King Under the Mountain,” Gandalf boomed, and now that he looked, he saw scars on Kili and Fili, too. So much pain over stone and gold. “I bring glad tidings this day.”
“Gandalf the Grey,” Thorin returned. Even his voice was heavy, dull and stern. “They must be glad tidings, indeed, to convince you to enter my halls.”
Gandalf stared at him, and he realized it was not only Bilbo’s grief which was his to bear: it was Thorin’s, as well. “I must soon continue my way into the East, as I have much to do and little time to do it. I was informed, however, of a grave misconception, and I hope to lighten your hearts by correcting it.”
At least, he hoped it would lighten their hearts, and that Bilbo had not been correct in fearing Thorin’s anger even after all this time. Few could hold a grudge as long or as fiercely as a dwarf, especially one of royal lineage.
Thorin looked unimpressed, and Gandalf hastened to continue. “Many believe that one Bilbo Baggins fell at the Battle of the Five Armies. In fact, he did fall, but not grievously, and I was able to safely recover him from the battlefield. He is quite recovered now, and he is safe at home in the Shire.”
The sudden silence felt like the mountain had just fallen on his head. Thorin slowly sat up on his throne, eyes widening until Gandalf feared they would fall out of his skull. Both Fili and Kili trembled beside him, staring at Gandalf like he was a specter in their midst. Whispers rose and hushed around them. Fili turned to Kili and whispered rapidly in his ear, but Kili only shushed him and did not look away from Gandalf.
“Master Baggins believed his presence undesirable after the battle and requested to return home to recover,” Gandalf continued, not adding that Bilbo had recovered from most of his wounds within a fortnight. “It did not occur to either of us that he would be believed to be dead.”
If Gandalf had not been watching for it, he might have missed Thorin’s own trembling. “The Halfling is alive?” he whispered, and only the silence in the great hall allowed his voice to carry.
Gandalf smiled gently. “And well.”
Gandalf watched emotion after emotion flash over Thorin’s pale face. “And does Master Baggins believe he is despised still?”
Gandalf shrugged like he could not see the pain in Thorin’s eyes. “He has no reason to suspect otherwise.” He hesitated a moment before adding, “But perhaps an invitation to see your halls again would go far in correcting him.”
Gandalf hid a smile when Thorin leaped to his feet and began shouting orders. Kili and Fili fled, and it did not take a wizard’s eyes to see the tears on their cheeks. In the distance, he heard a cheer rise like a wave. He turned to watch the brothers go and carefully did not take notice of Thorin’s own tears.
The trolls’ gold went far in securing Bilbo’s own furniture, even if he feared his silverware was lost forever. The Sacksville-Baggins continued to despise him, but he was quite all right with that. He discovered over time that he was a favorite among his cousins on the Took side of the family. He gifted them generously, because he could never explain why he was so grateful.
He supposed Gandalf was off on another grand adventure and the dwarves were still angry with him. The noble elves would never deign to visit anyone. The Men looked at him like he was a pet.
When these thoughts came, he only wanted to slip on the ring and hide, but he always resisted. He had made his choices, and now he would live with them.
Bilbo was a Baggins and a Took, after all.
Some days these words were a colder comfort than others, and this day was one of them. Bilbo sat at his desk and ran his fingers over one of his maps. Maybe today was the day he would choose to go on another adventure. He couldn’t sit here and mourn forever, could he? He betrayed Thorin, but it was to save his life. He could not regret that. Nor would he expect Thorin to forgive him. Decades later, Thorin still despised the elves who betrayed his people.
No, there would be no forgiveness, but Bilbo was done with regret. If he had to make that choice again, he would make the same one.
As much as he hated it, Bilbo wanted to move on. He wanted to see and speak with people who knew beyond the borders of the Shire.
This time, though, he would leave a very large note on the door. A very, very large note: Out adventuring. Not dead. Don’t auction my things without my permission. Thank you.
His fingers trailed over the map, and Bilbo imagined the places he could go. He preferred somewhere without spiders. He was done with spiders, really. Well, just the really big ones. The small ones could be quite useful –
The knock on his door interrupted his thoughts. He stood and answered it rather absently, his mind still on the map.
As such, Bilbo wasn’t prepared at all for the score of armed and adorned dwarves at his door.
“Good afternoon,” he greeted faintly.
Months passed following Gandalf’s dramatic entrance and quick departure. In that time period, the Kingdom Under the Mountain had seen more energy from its King than in the years prior. A light had returned to their King, and Thorin called on his people to bring Erebor back to its old glory. With a song in their hearts and on their lips, they were quick to obey.
Thorin never sang along, but Kili and Fili liked to say that his song was on its way. Thorin never shushed them.
When the horns blew, Thorin slowly rose from his throne, and all around him rose in silent anticipation. Bofur impatiently elbowed Bombur, who had fallen asleep in a corner. Kili and Fili stood tall and strong, only their grins giving them away. Balin, freshly arrived from Moria, waited. Ori, Nori, and Dori waited at the doors, Dwalin shushing them from behind..
The horns blew again and the hall opened, a score of dwarves marching in, Bilbo Baggins in their midst. Thorin had personally overseen the hall’s decorations, but the hobbit did not seem to notice. His gaze wavered between Thorin and the floor. Thorin’s own gaze did not waver once.
Oin and Gloin led the dwarves to stand before the throne. As one, the score bowed. After a moment, Bilbo hastily bowed, too. Only Fili and Balin noticed Thorin’s small smile.
“Your Majesty,” Fili announced clearly, and even as he grinned, no mirth touched his words, “The burglar Bilbo Baggins, of Bag End!”
Bilbo bowed again, looking like he was about to fall over. His eyes kept going back to Thorin’s face. He caught the small smile. “At your service.”
Thorin stared at Bilbo like he had once stared at the Arkenstone, like he had gazed upon Erebor before it had been reclaimed. His voice carried through the hall.
“And I, at yours.”