His body ached, his skin chafed by the wind’s howl. Tears bit his eyes, and blood stained his hands. The rock upon which he sat was as hard as the bones of the earth, unyielding, yet he ignored his own discomfort. How could he think about it, when so many lives hung in the balance?
Gone was the purpose of battle. The clash of swords had fallen silent. Axes no longer banged on armour like the heavy beat of drums, and the song of arrows as they soared through the air had reached its end.
The storm had passed, leaving devastation in its wake.
Crude tents offered shelter to the stream of injured as the healers dashed around, frantic to save as many as possible. Those they could treat received hurried bandages and warm cots. Those they couldn’t…
Bilbo’s eyes slid to where the corpses lay, reverently placed to one side. The elves slept in rows, their immortal lives forever extinguished. Their armour shone in copper and gold, clean despite the gore that seemed to stain the very earth itself. The men’s arms were crossed over their chests, kingly, even when clothed in rags. They were not soldiers, but they had fought like it all the same. Weapons still filled the hands of the dwarves, their blades bloodied from the ferocity of the fight even as their bodies were rent and broken.
‘Farewell, Master Burglar.’
A hoarse noise caught in Bilbo’s throat, and he pressed his fist to his mouth as the memory of hot blood and cold stone overwhelmed him.
Above the battle, Ravenhill seemed like another world, where thick ice and barren rock ruled. He had knelt at Thorin’s side, pressing at torn flesh as crimson flowed between his fingers. Promises had fallen from his lips: things about the mountain restored with Thorin upon its throne; long winters at firesides and cool summers as the world blossomed around them.
He had poured his heart out onto the bloody ground until the eagles came, carrying them both down from those stricken slopes. He barely remembered the journey. He had been too busy pleading to any power that would listen; begging that Thorin would survive just a little longer.
Perhaps someone had been listening, because his prayers were answered. Thorin still breathed when the eagles landed. Oin had been there in an instant, cursing black and blue, and his language only got worse as he took in the damage. Chaos had surrounded them, pitching Bilbo this way and that like driftwood caught in the rapids.
He did not remember sitting down, yet here he stayed.
A drab shape moved at the edge of his vision, and the newcomer groaned as he sank onto the stone at Bilbo’s side. The smell of pipe-weed and damp wool filled his nose, its familiarity comforting, and Bilbo shifted to make space for the wizard who had dragged him on this sorry quest.
‘I have done all I can,’ Gandalf murmured, jabbing the end of his staff into the churned mud so that it stood without support, ‘and still I fear it will not be enough.’
Bilbo pursed his lips, tapping the palm of his hand against his knee before squinting into Gandalf’s lined expression. ‘You couldn’t heal them? I thought – at the Carrock …’
‘Azog’s blade bit more deeply than his warg,’ Gandalf’s stooped frame seeming to fold in on itself as he shook his head. ‘Perhaps, if it had not been for the events at Dol Guldur…’ He trailed off, his grizzled face falling slack. ‘I am tired, Bilbo. My power grows thin.’
‘But they live?’ He ducked, trying to get a better look under the drooping brim of that great, grey hat. He could just make out blue eyes, fogged with weary consideration above the hook of the wizard’s nose.
‘For now.’ Gandalf reached into his pocket, pulling out his pipe and a small stick with which he began scraping the bowl. ‘Kili, I feel, has the best chance. An Elven maid by the name of Tauriel is assisting, unasked, in his healing. She gives much, more than she can afford, but she will not be stayed from her path.’ He hummed to himself. ‘Yes, Kili’s future may not be so bleak.’
Bilbo closed his eyes, remembering the young prince as they had brought him to Oin’s care. His wound was not as deep as those suffered by his brother and uncle, but it was higher in his chest. He had seen little to hope for in his few brief glimpses, and Gandalf’s words did not reassure him.
‘Is her power really so great?’ he whispered.
‘Perhaps.’ Gandalf sighed. ‘Perhaps not, but her regard for Kili is unquestionable. She will not stop trying until all hope is lost.’ He puffed on his pipe, unblinking as he watched Bilbo’s face, no doubt gleaning all the questions that he couldn’t bring himself to ask.
‘Fili, despite the odds against him, has not yet left us. Perhaps, in his case, I have brought the healers a little more time. The wound to his body is grave, but could be worse. It is the blow to his head from that fall which is of greater concern.’ A steady stream of smoke escaped Gandalf’s mouth as he exhaled, and the fragrance of pipe-weed thickened: a blessed relief amidst the stench. ‘Even if he wakes, there is no saying how much of the dwarf we knew will remain.’
Bilbo closed his eyes, his fingers clenched over his knees like a vice. His voice strained in his throat, rough across his tongue. ‘And Thorin?’
There was no response, and when he looked up it was to see only hopeless shadows in Gandalf’s gaze. A gnarled hand squeezed his shoulder in brief consolation. ‘I have done all I can,’ he repeated, and Bilbo knew those words were all he had to offer.
Death hung in the air: an expectant fog. Yet nowhere was it as dense and imminent as over the cot of Thorin Oakenshield.
‘Will you be all right, Bilbo?’ Gandalf asked kindly. ‘There is space for you in the healer’s tent, should you require it. I am sure our dwarf friends would want you there.’
He shook his head. It was too much, watching Oin at work, peeling back layers of armour and clothing to reveal the gaping wounds beneath. Besides, Bilbo knew little of healing; he would only get in the way. Best he wait here, as invisible to most as if he still wore the ring on his finger.
‘Very well.’ Gandalf grunted, heaving his weight up on his staff. ‘I have some business to attend, but I shall return before too long.’
‘Where are you going?’ His hurried question made the wizard blink in surprise, and he wished he could swallow back the panic in his words.
‘No further than Dale. I must discover who else has suffered at the hands of the orcs, and discuss what is to become of those who remain.’ He turned away, stepping over a puddle before calling over his shoulder. ‘We may have won the battle, but I fear the war with winter is just beginning.’
As if to emphasise his grim proclamation, sleet began to fall from the leaden sky. Bilbo pulled his coat around himself, watching some nearby dwarves struggling to light a campfire.
When he glanced back, Gandalf was nowhere in sight. He was left alone, torn between relief at the solitude and misery at being abandoned to his own, dark thoughts.
Balin’s soft voice carried through the air, and Bilbo tensed, anxiety thrashing in the pit of his belly. He hunched his shoulders, pressing his chin to his chest as if he could disappear. Surely there could only be one reason why Balin searched for him, and news of Thorin’s passing was not something he could face.
He’d said, months ago, that he had found his courage in the Misty Mountains; now all trace of it had fled.
A hand rested on his shoulder: a dead weight, despite Balin’s gentle intentions. ‘He’s asking for you.’
Steadily, the words sank in, penetrating the armour of cold that surrounded him. ‘He – He’s awake?’
‘Not for long, I dare say.’ The dwarf’s smile was crooked. ‘He’s pained, and the poppy Oin gave him will soon send him under again, but he lives yet, and it’s you he wants to see.’
Bilbo ignored the keening ache of his muscles as he rose, stumbling along at Balin’s side. When Thorin’s eyes slid shut up on Ravenhill, he had feared he would never wake again. Now, as he slipped into the tent set aside for the King’s use, he remembered that those fears had not been without their foundations.
Thorin seemed small beneath the furs. A sheen of clammy sweat glossed his grey face, and his lips were almost white amidst the shorn shadow of his beard. His hair tangled around his head, matted and filthy, and his fingers fluttered at his side. The only hint of colour lay in his eyes, their blue glazed, but not gone. Not yet.
A crack of sound drew Bilbo near. He knelt at the bedside, scraping his knees on the coarse sacking that covered the ground. A few oil lamps lit the tent’s interior, casting uncertain shadows across the walls as Oin and Balin busied themselves nearby, offering the illusion of privacy.
His name was little more than a gasp, but urgent fingers surrounded his hand. A spasm of agony twisted Thorin’s face, and Bilbo braced him through it, returning his grip with equal fervour.
At last, the rictus eased from Thorin’s expression, and Bilbo’s breath left him in a rush. It was a tiny victory, another sliver of borrowed time, and Thorin knew it as much as he. His hand did not leave Bilbo’s, but tightened.
‘You are not banished.’ His voice cracked and his chest heaved, the bandage around his torso already stained anew. ‘Erebor will always welcome you.’
‘Shhh, Thorin. No, no, it’s –’ Bilbo huffed, shaking his head as he bit back his protests. He had no wish for Erebor’s sanctuary – no use for it if it held nothing but the ghosts of those he called his friends. He had not come here with the Lonely Mountain or its hoard in mind. All he wanted was to help the dwarves reclaim their home. If he had known this was how it would end…
His thoughts died away, silenced by the realisation that even all this destruction changed nothing. He meant what he’d said on Ravenhill: he was glad to have shared in Thorin’s perils. If the clocks turned back and he was asked to make his choice again, aware that it would end at a bedside that may soon be a grave, his answer would still be the same.
He would not have missed this adventure, not even to spare himself the pain at its end.
‘I stole the Arkenstone.’ He winced at his careless words, but he couldn’t let Thorin do this: sweep it all under the rug as if it no longer mattered. ‘I gave it to those you consider your enemies. I betrayed you.’ He raised his eyebrows, the twist of his lips brief and mirthless. ‘Or have you forgotten that?’
‘I left you no choice.’ A faint smile curved Thorin’s mouth, and the softness in his gaze was more than Bilbo deserved. ‘Your actions were not born of greed or madness.’ His lashes fluttered, his breath leaving him in a sigh as his voice began to slur. ‘If only I could say the same.’
‘No, it’s – you – you were ill.’ Bilbo shook his head. ‘You were not yourself.’
‘A reason. Not an excuse.’ In his hand, Thorin’s grasp slackened, the bite of his fingers lessening until no strength remained.
He surged to his feet, fear choking him as he stared at Thorin’s bandaged chest, waiting for the rise and fall that would show him life still lingered. It took what felt like an age, but at last he found that steady swell, and relief made him light in the head.
‘He sleeps.’ Oin stepped forward, his palm cupping Bilbo’s elbow as he guided him to a stool nearby, nudging it closer to Thorin’s side. ‘Whether he’ll wake again? That’s in Mahal’s hands.’
Bilbo wondered how long he had been watching, ready to intercede. His horn lay on the table; the healer was too busy mixing poultices and potions to bother with the hearing aid, so perhaps he hadn’t heard what they had said. Still, it was clear his attention had never been far from the King.
The twin braids in Oin’s beard had unravelled, the bushy grey unkempt, but despite his harried appearance the old dwarf’s gaze was bright with compassion. He reached out, picking up a bowl of water as well as a clean rag. Both were pressed into Bilbo’s faltering hands without a word. They were rudimentary tools, but he knew how to put them to use. It wasn’t much, but he would help in any way he could.
He barely noticed the silence in the tent as he soaked the fabric, ignoring the cool trail of water over his own skin as he wrung it out before pressing it to Thorin’s brow.
It was slow, patient work, blotting away the grime. He banished the patina of sweat from Thorin’s cheeks, already gaunt with lingering pain, and swiped at the dirt crusted in his hairline from a long battle and a longer journey. He couldn’t recall the last time any of them had a proper bath, and it seemed like the dust of Middle Earth clung to them, set in blood and left to stain.
Oin had cleaned and dressed most of Thorin’s wounds, but his hands, blistered from wielding Orcrist without cease, had not been tended. With care, Bilbo eased the mess from scraped knuckles and swept the mud from around Thorin’s fingernails. He dipped the cloth again and again, smoothing it all away until Thorin lay, as clean and comfortable as he could make him.
When he set the bowl aside, he realised that Balin and Oin were watching him, their expressions lined with sadness and something he could not name.
‘What is it?’
Balin glanced in Oin’s direction before summoning a strained smile. It bristled his beard, but did nothing to banish the grief in his eyes. ‘You’ve done a fine job, Master Baggins, but did you not think of yourself?’
‘My – myself?’
Oin held up an empty plate. The metal was spotted with age, but Bilbo could still see his own filthy reflection. Blood had dried down his temple, and his hair was a rat’s nest of tangles. More than one tear split the cloth of his borrowed coat, and the fabric was stained beyond repair.
It was enough to make a hobbit stare, and heat flared in his cheeks as he realised Oin had intended for him to bathe his own wounds, rather than those of a dying king.
‘Oh, I–I –’
He was saved from having to give any kind of answer by a shout from across the tent. ‘He wakes!’
The cry made him jump, and he noticed that Fili and Kili also lay nearby. He had been too engrossed in Thorin – too caught up in his faint words and whispered pleas – to notice anyone else. Now he stared, watching Tauriel as she shifted at Kili’s side, her face alight with frantic hope.
‘Eh?’ Oin scooped up his horn, lodging it in his ear and turning in her direction. ‘Say that again?’
‘He wakes! Kili wakes!’ She sucked in a breath, her words falling over one another in haste.
Oin looped the cord of his horn through his belt, dropping it to swing from his hip as he gathered supplies and crossed the tent, his age doing nothing to slow his pace. Bilbo watched him go, locked in a twist of helplessness. He longed to follow, but what could he do? He felt like he did back at the beginning of their adventure, a spare wheel with little use.
‘Fear not, Master Baggins,’ Balin urged, perching on a nearby crate. He winced beneath the burden of his armour, and the metal clanked as he shifted around, trying to get comfortable. ‘Oin will do all he can for Kili. He cares greatly. Though not, perhaps, as much as that young elf.’
There was a sparkle in his eyes, just a glimmer, but it eased the bleak chill of the air. Bilbo slumped beside him, declining the offered pipe and watching the weed in the bowl glow before Balin exhaled. ‘Things may seem grim, but I have faith. There’s none so stubborn as the line of Durin.’
A huff of laughter wheezed in Bilbo’s chest, and he bit it back before it could become a sob. ‘I’d noticed.’ His gaze drifted to Thorin’s face, his strong profile soft now as he slept. ‘A trait of kings, I suppose.’
Balin hummed in agreement. ‘Indeed, and Thorin rules still, in name, if nothing else. With no heir in adequate health to step up and take command, it falls to his advisors.’ The stem of the pipe clanked against his teeth as he chewed on it. ‘It’s up to me to ensure that a kingdom remains for Thorin to rule, and at a time like this, that’s never easy.’
He frowned, knowing enough of Balin by now to suspect he was hinting at something. ‘Why are you telling me this?’
The dwarf sighed, scratching his cheek as he spelt it out for him. ‘Because, Master Baggins. I am not Thorin’s only advisor. He considered all of the Company to hold that title, including you. If you have any clever little ideas up your sleeve, now’s the time.’
‘Like bargaining the Arkenstone, you mean?’ His voice sounded bitter, even to his own ears.
‘Better it be with men and elves than in the hands of a power-mad king.’ Balin drew in a breath, exhaling a cloud of smoke. ‘Everyone has their strength. We need to make the most of that. My brother confers with Lord Dain to assess our remaining forces, while Bifur, Bofur and Gloin are building more tents. Oin leads the healers, while Bombur, Dori and Ori are sorting supplies: food, clothes and clean water.’
‘What about Nori?’ Bilbo asked, not missing the one name notably absent. He had not seen him since the battle, and a sudden dank horror stirred in his gut. Had he fallen?
The dwarf in question loitered at the tent flaps, his coiffed hair flattened and his face wet from the sleet. He looked wind-bitten and cold, but there was a cunning light in his eyes as he continued.
‘There’s mutterings in every camp. The dwarves accept the authority of the Company, for now at least.’ Nori rubbed his hands together, holding them out to warm them near the flame of one of the oil lamps. ‘The men are a ragged, sorry lot, more refugees than anything else. There’s resentment there.’
‘And the elves?’
Nori gave Balin a dark look, conveying his thoughts on the subject of that race with ease. ‘They hover on the edges. No hindrance yet, but no help either. They look to their own.’
‘Most of them,’ Bilbo pointed out. ‘One, at least, is here, doing what she can. We shouldn’t ignore her efforts.’
Nori inclined his head in agreement. ‘We owe her a great deal, from what I’ve seen. Possibly the life of a prince. If only they’d do the same for the King.’
Balin grunted. ‘We’ll not be so fortunate. There’s only so much the lass can do, and her kin will not be so eager to offer aid.’
‘Has anyone asked?’ Bilbo raised his eyebrows as he received two incredulous stares. ‘Has anyone even spoken to Thranduil since the battle?’
‘Gandalf’s soothing ruffled feathers,’ Nori conceded. ‘Either that or interfering; it’s hard to tell with wizards.’
‘The King of Mirkwood is unlikely to spare the life of a dwarf he loathes.’ Balin shook his head. ‘Thranduil will not trouble himself.’
‘Maybe not.’ Bilbo got to his feet, pressing his knuckles to his lips as he thought. His stomach thrashed with painful anxiety and his hands still shook, but he ignored it. Maybe he couldn’t heal Thorin’s wounds, but perhaps he could bring someone who could.
He didn’t have much, after all, but he did have good manners.
‘What does he want? Bard needs the gold. He’s got people to feed and shelter, but Thranduil has the forest, and the elves had no reason to march on Erebor. Why did they bother to come at all?’
‘The jewels of Lasgalen.’ Balin’s answer came quick and sure. ‘He says they are owed to him.’
The awkward silence that followed was the only response Bilbo needed, and he threw up his hands in disbelief. ‘Give him the gems. Ask for his help.’
‘And if he refuses?’
‘Then at least we will have tried, and if nothing else, we’ll see the back of him.’ He scrubbed at his face before pointing a finger towards the sliver of light that led to the outside world. ‘You said it yourself, there’s enough resentment as it is. If we can remove even a bit of it, our job becomes that much easier.’
Balin took one last draw from his pipe, his eyes twinkling at Bilbo through the smoke. When he finished, he tapped the clay vessel on the heel of his boot, letting the ashes drift away before climbing to his feet.
‘And that’s what I meant about strengths, Master Baggins. You’re neither dwarf, nor elf, nor man. You have no care for the gold beyond its use as a tool. You find the obvious path that the rest of us are too blind to see.’ He nodded his head, indicating Thorin’s sleeping form. ‘It was the same kind of thinking that took us on this quest in the first place, for better or worse.’
‘So you’ll do it?’ Bilbo asked. After so long raging against Thorin’s possessive madness, Balin’s easy acceptance seemed hard to believe.
‘Oh, not me. You.’ He smiled as Bilbo stuttered. ‘I’ll be with you, of course, but you’ve dealt with Thranduil before, and he may listen to a hobbit where he would refuse to even look upon a dwarf.’
Bilbo half-turned, his chest tight at the thought of stepping out of the tent. Here, Thorin still lived. It was an anchor point; a gateway between one place and another. If he left, would Thorin drift away, never to return?
It was a foolish fear – death would claim its own whether Bilbo stayed or fled – but he couldn’t escape the idea. It paralysed him, making him dither, trying to muster excuses even as he warred with himself.
The snap of canvas scattered Bilbo’s thoughts as Dwalin ducked through the threshold. The fur at his shoulders carried snowflakes like stars, and his armour was dark with orc blood. He bent his head in quick conference with his brother, his words too low for Bilbo to make out.
The gleam of weapons caught his eye, and he stared at the two guards who followed, solemn and serious. They were not the polished, processional kind, but thick-set dwarves who meant business. They stood halfway between the cots and the outside world, ready to challenge anyone who approached.
‘He’ll be safe, lad,’ Dwalin promised, folding his arms as he noticed Bilbo eyeing the soldiers. ‘These are harsh times, but I’ll not let Thorin out of my sight, nor anyone I don’t know and trust near.’
‘You think someone might …’
‘Finish him off?’ Dwalin raised an eyebrow. ‘Aye. Politics.’ He sneered, looking as if he were tempted to spit but thought better of it. ‘I’d like to see anyone try it.’
‘Are you coming, laddie?’
A bright vee of light seeped over Balin’s shoulder. It struck a white line through the tent’s shadowed interior, and Bilbo sucked in a breath. In here, he could only watch and wait, a helpless bystander to the drama unfolding before him. Yet in the bare, stricken world of the battlefield, perhaps there was something he could do to help.
Not for the sake of the men, nor the elves, nor even himself.