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A week later, outside an inn at the edge of Bree, Bilbo was helping Bofur carry bags of apples and potatoes to the cart. They had new waterskins and feed for the ponies, as well as jerky and spices that Bilbo himself had chosen, and a few early spring vegetables that he had not been able to resist buying. The stall owner had given him a good price, too, and had whispered over the exchange of radishes that she had always liked Hobbits and wished them the best of luck. The kindness had more than made up for the overpriced sausages that Otho had found halfway down the street.

At the moment, Rory, Drogo, and Otho were not speaking to each other, having gotten into a rather loud argument once Bilbo had told Otho how much he could have saved them. Otho was sulking and had turned away from the others, while Rory glared at the back of his head and Drogo looked disgruntled. Bilbo had heard the shouting --

"You can't go buying every tasty morsel you find! We've got to be smart about our coins, you fat-headed brat --"

"Don't call him that! Like you would know any better!"

"Yeah, I saw you looking at the weed earlier, Rory! Come here and show me your pockets, you big-mouthed hypocrite --"

-- and he wanted nothing to do with it, so he had chosen to help Bofur. As he set the last bag on the cart, he looked to see Bofur holding up a length of rope. With a smile, he took one end of the rope, and the two of them tied down the bags, then slid the wall of the cart back into place and stood back. Now they were supplied and ready to go.

"Rory, Otho, Drogo -- we're leaving," Bilbo called, and the three boys gave each other sour looks before grudgingly approaching the cart. Gandalf was nowhere to be seen, but Bilbo knew he was inside the inn, carrying on some mysterious business.

While Rory, Otho, and Drogo attempted to claim spots without speaking a word to each other, Bilbo patted the neck of one of the ponies, rolling his eyes to himself and turning his gaze to watch the street. He had been to Bree only twice before his return to the Shire last October, but he had heard of it from his Took and Brandybuck aunts and uncles, who had gone through Bree more than a few times in their lives.

The town he had heard about in his youth had been quiet but cheerful, with Men and Hobbits sharing wares and tables in friendship and trade. Bree was still quiet now, but it was stilted and anxious, just as the Shire was. Bree had been ravaged by Orcs during Shirefall, and there were not nearly as many Men as Bilbo had imagined. Many buildings were damaged or boarded up with thick planks of wood, and he had heard in the inn's pub that many families had gone to Archet and Combe, or even further south to the larger cities of Men.

Hobbits were still welcome here, still considered good neighbors by the Bree-men, but Bilbo saw many people eyeing them with concern. Likely the news of the Hobbits' decision had already spread, and Bilbo suspected that rumors had reached Bree before they had even arrived, once the Great Meeting had ended.

He wondered what would happen to Bree. The Hobbits who had refused to leave were moving to Bree, but what kind of life would they have here? Bree seemed like a sad place to live, just as the Shire was now.

Bilbo was distracted from his thoughts by a tap on his shoulder, and he turned to see Bofur standing beside him.

"Before we head off into the wild, Bilbo, I've something to give you," Bofur said, and Bilbo blinked at him, nonplussed.

"Bofur, you needn't give me anything," Bilbo said, curious and a little embarrassed. Bofur had already done so much for him! But Bofur shook his head and reached into one of his many pockets, pulling out a small but fine one-bladed axe, its wooden handle wrapped in thick blue leather, the blade carved with Dwarven knots that, upon closer look, were revealed to be leafy vines. Bilbo stared at the axe in shock, and Bofur held it out, waiting until Bilbo hesitantly took it.

He lifted the axe and looked at it admiringly, finding that the weight of it was nothing like he had imagined. It fit into his hand rather well, and he realized how small it was, compared to the axe that rested on Bofur's back. He wondered why on earth Bofur had given it to him, and he looked up at his friend in confusion, trying to find the words to ask.

Bofur's eyes were twinkling, and he had a small smile on his face. "Every Dwarf worth his salt carries an axe with him, whether it be a war axe or a tool like this. I didn't make the axe myself, I'm not that good at smithing, but one of the Dwarves who stayed with us this winter made it at my request. Nordi, his name was. Anyway, I made that handle, and I found the leather for it here, as well as some more for a sheath," Bofur said, holding up a cover that would fit over the blade, in the same blue leather.

"Bofur," Bilbo said, his eyes wide, "I can't -- I don't know how to use an axe. This is too much!"

Bofur grinned at him. "You can't take it back, I've already given it to you, and anyone can use an axe! It will make a fine tool for you on the road, and now you're almost a proper Dwarf, see?"

Bilbo immediately objected, but Bofur bore his flustered attempts to return the axe with a bright grin that made Bilbo's stomach churn with happiness.

"Well, if you insist, I suppose... thank you, Bofur," Bilbo finally said, and Bofur beamed at him. "I suppose this is what you were busy with?"

"Aye, wanted to get it done before the lads left for home. I'll show you some neat tricks for it once we get on the road proper," Bofur said, and Bilbo sighed, a smile touching his face.

"Thank you," he said, and he gave Bofur a short bow, then went to tuck the axe, now sheathed, carefully into his bag. When Bilbo turned back, all three of his cousins were leaning over the side of the cart, watching the two of them with far too much interest, the sour expressions from their fight long gone.

"What about us? You can't spoil Bilbo and leave us wanting," Rory said, a cheeky grin appearing on his face, and Bilbo covered his face with one hand, while Bofur roared with laughter.

"Haven't forgotten about you lads! Found you these," Bofur said genially, pulling out three small daggers and holding them out to the three boys, who clamored off the cart to receive them. Bilbo was pleased when all three thanked Bofur profusely, but he felt a headache form as he watched them lean close to each other to compare their new tools, wondering how long the peace would last. Bofur grinned as he watched them, while Bilbo rolled his eyes.

"Incorrigible," he muttered, and Bofur smirked.

"At least they're not fighting anymore," he muttered to Bilbo, who snorted and had to turn away when Rory gave them a suspicious look.

Then Gandalf strode out of the inn, and he glanced curiously at the three Hobbit boys as he ambled over. "Whatever are you all standing around for?" he asked, and he did not understand why Bilbo and Bofur groaned at the same time and began to laugh a moment later.

Soon, though, they were off, leaving behind the quiet town of Bree and riding off toward the looming Misty Mountains.

~

Thorin rarely saw visions during his sleep, but two nights before he left Khazad-dûm for Erebor, he had a long dream.

A young dwarf of the ancient halls turned new, he stood at his father the king's leisure and listened to the tale of their creator Mahal. Their father's father had crafted them from stone itself, strong children to tend to the stone of the world. They all had an old memory -- that they were once much more. Their father told them that once, they had two hearts that beat as one, but the father of their father's father told him that for the dwarves to have life, they must be struck in half. So they were, and so came the promise of a match to every dwarf -- a promise that every dwarf would not have to die alone, as they were born.

So their father the King of Dwarves told them, and so the young dwarf believed. He took up the axe and the hammer as his father's father taught them. He studied the craft of his people. He fell in love with gold and its glimmer in the dark caves where they dwelt. He worked, and he crafted, and he created beautiful things -- but he was always alone.

Then he was older. Then he began to feel the darkness of death, and he feared. He went to his father who was deathless and he asked, 'You said I would not die alone. You said I would meet my match. Where are they?'

His father the deathless looked upon him and touched his brow, where silver had begun to gather. 'Did you ever seek your match?' his father the deathless asked, and the dwarf said no. 'How will you find your match, if you never look for them?'

And the dwarf understood. He left his father who had guided him in all things, and he walked the great Halls of Dwarves, which wove through the mountains that parted the great land. Years passed. He met many dwarves and made many friends, but he never met his match -- until one day, he left the dark halls, drawn by a light at the edge of the hall.

He left the cave and walked out into the sunlight, and there was a green valley near the mountains, where dwarves with no beards walked. He approached them, and they smiled at him and welcomed him. He asked them, 'Why do you not walk in the halls of our father?' but the beardless dwarves only looked at him in confusion. They did not know his father, and the dwarf wondered if they were not his kin after all.

'How did you come here?' he asked next, and they told him that they were born from the earth. They had no mother or father as he had, but they had an old memory, of being much more than they were before they were struck in half. This startled the dwarf, who shared that old memory, who knew the old story and understood the old way -- but these were not dwarves, so how could they know of it?

But he knew that his father's father had a wife who loved the earth, and he wondered. But he would never know, because his father's father had left their world long ago. He could only suppose.

He wondered about these beardless dwarves, who did not call themselves dwarves -- who did not call themselves anything, really. They spent their days nurturing the earth and harvesting good foods, and at night they slept in holes that were small but warm. They were a kind people, and the dwarf liked them very much.

When he had eaten his fill, the dwarf realized that several more of the hole-dwellers had joined them, and he looked at them in curiosity. They were all laughing, talking, enjoying the warm weather and the fruits of their labor, and the dwarf saw in them a love for song and good cheer. He leaned forward, to share his love of gold, to tell them of his father who reigned king in the halls of the mountains -- and his eyes met the eyes of one of the small creatures who had joined them.

Everything else faded away. All he could see was those eyes.

The greyest of blues, the shadow of silver beneath the glow of a lamp, and the dwarf was lost. He did not understand why he could not look away. The other person did not look away either, and for a long moment, they could only stare at each other.

Then he understood, and he felt relieved, that his long search was over. He would not die alone. He reached out his hand, and a warm brown hand took hold of his fingers, and the dwarf knew --

And Thorin woke, confused and breathless, staring into the darkness of his chamber and feeling bereft. What had he dreamt?

He stumbled to the table where his water pitcher rested, and greedily he drank a full glass, until his heart stopped racing and his breathing was even. He stared down at the table, not seeing it as he remembered the dream. He clenched his hand, still feeling the warmth of the hand pressing into it, but no -- it was only his imagination. There was no warmth there.

Such an impossible dream. Could it have been from a ghost of these halls? A warning, perhaps? The call of gold had been on his mind often as of late -- was some remnant of his ancestors warning him against his fears?

And those small, beardless creatures -- he thought they might have been Hobbits, of all things. Such a strange dream. He had heard stories before, of Hobbits and Dwarves being friendly to each other long ago, but to find one's match in a Hobbit? And one with such eyes -- eyes that still called to him, still made him clench his hand over the ghost of warmth.

Thorin stood for a long time, staring into the darkness and thinking. He did not sleep anymore that night.

~

The next day, while Thorin was going over a list of supplies with Balin, he received word that the team of Dwarves from the Shire had returned.

"Good," Thorin said, lowering the list and giving the Dwarf a nod. "Have Bofur come to me when he has rested."

The soldier shifted and did not meet his eyes. "Your pardon, King Thorin, but Bofur did not return with us. He sent a letter in his stead," the Dwarf said, setting three scrolls onto the table, and a slow frown appeared on Thorin's face.

"He did not return? Where is he?" asked Thorin, picking up the scrolls and looking over them. One scroll was wrapped in a green cloth of a simple make, and he recognized it as the same cloth that the Thain had used on a letter years ago, when Thorin had first begun to exchange letters with the leader of the Shire. The other two were more ambiguous, but after a moment he noticed two small cirth on the cloth of the second, which he read as Úr. He studied the last scroll, wondering who might have written it, then looked at the soldier.

"He said he would stay with the Hobbits, and that he would explain everything in the letter, Your Majesty," the Dwarf said, and Thorin's frown deepened a little, but he accepted the explanation for now and dismissed the soldier to rest.

Then he sat down and looked over the scrolls, and Balin eyed him over the table. "Might as well read them now, Thorin," his friend said, and Thorin nodded slowly. Then he opened Bofur's letter and began to read.

Several minutes later, he lowered the letter and gave a great sigh. "Bofur decided that, to follow my orders of supporting the Hobbits, he would stay with them for the time being. Ostensibly, to protect the Hobbits, but I suspect he simply likes being with them."

"Wise lad," Balin said, and Thorin snorted.

"Clever, more like. He weaseled his way well out of my orders. But I think... I do not mind, not if he is looking after Bilbo Baggins," Thorin said, his voice dropping a bit, and Balin raised an eyebrow at him. "He did well on reporting about the habits and behaviors of the Hobbits. Their health is a worry, as well as the psychological effects of their trauma... but Bofur believes they are strong, and will survive. He also wrote down his observations of Master Baggins... and of his decision," Thorin said, glancing back down at the letter.

"He says that he will escort Bilbo Baggins here, and then to the Anduin Vale to meet with Beorn," he said after a moment.

"Does that mean they have reached a decision, then? May I?" Balin asked, and Thorin passed the letter over to him, picking up the third scroll and turning it over in his hands, his fingers stroking the white cloth that tied the scroll together.

While Balin read, Thorin sat back and thought about what Bofur had written.

I'll tell you now about Bilbo Baggins. I've befriended him while helping the hobbits, and Bilbo is a good lad. He is kind and thoughtful, and he cares about his family and friends.

Bilbo spends most of his time with children, telling them stories or playing with them, or in the Thain's library. He loves to read, but most of his books burned down. I've told him about Erebor's library, but I'm not sure he believes me, majesty. We'll have to show him when he comes to Erebor, won't we? If he's not in those two places, he's with his cousins. He's the oldest of them, and they all look up to him, since most of them have lost their fathers, and he's the closest father figure they have. A lot like a certain king we both know, if I should say so.

Bilbo carries darkness, though. He sometimes doesn't eat enough, or he lets other hobbits' opinions get to him, or he doesn't sleep right. I don't think any of the hobbits are healthy, not like we always knew hobbits to be, but I do think Bilbo is worse off than most of them. He spends more time worrying about other people than himself. He has nightmares about the Defiler, and his past haunts him.

Mind you, he hasn't told me this in person. I've watched him since I met him, and I can see the dark circles under his eyes, the way he rubs his stomach when he thinks no one notices. I've seen the way he stares off into the distance, the way his thoughts darken his gaze. I worry a lot for him, so I want to take care of him. He's become something like a brother to me, for all that he is a hobbit, and I can't leave him alone.

I've told him a great deal about Erebor. I can tell he wants to visit, but he's afraid of meeting you. I think he's afraid of disappointing you, because he thinks he's still a poor imitation of his old self. I think he's healed a great deal, but I've been watching him all these months, so I've seen all the changes. I hope that when you meet him again, that you see what I've seen. I hope you see the strength he carries and the good in his heart.

One last note on Bilbo Baggins, before I continue with my report. Along with my letter, you should have received two more letters. One is from the Shire Thain, and the other is from Bilbo himself. Seems he had a few things he wanted to say to you.

"Balin," Thorin said quietly. Balin looked up at him in question, and Thorin gave him a small smile. "When Bofur brings Bilbo Baggins here, take care with him. He lived in these halls when they were filled with Orcs, so he may be hesitant to stay. Give him my rooms for the time that he is here."

Balin looked startled, but he raised a curious eyebrow at Thorin, glancing down at Bofur's letter again. "Thorin, those rooms are..."

Thorin knew what he meant, that those rooms were meant for a Dwarf lord, but he did not care. "Give them to him. He rested easily enough in my tent after the battle. Mayhap he will rest easy again, knowing that I slept there safely. Make sure his family and Bofur sleep nearby, as well. He is khuzdibâh, and I'll not have him go wanting while he is in these halls. Not here, not where he suffered so much," Thorin said, more quietly, and Balin watched him solemnly.

"Your interest in this Hobbit is rather curious, Thorin, but I'll do ask you ask," Balin said, a small smile appearing on his face, and Thorin's lips twitched.

"I owe him a great debt. Likely he will feel the need to repay this as well, but whatever he does for me, I will always want to help him. It is the least I can do," Thorin said. Balin hummed in reply, and Thorin felt a bit humbled at being so honest, so he set Bilbo's scroll aside and pulled open the scroll from the Thain.

After reading for a bit, Thorin glanced up at Balin. "Fortinbras sends his thanks for everything we have done for them. They have also reached a decision, that they will definitely leave the Shire and go to the Anduin Valley," he said, and Balin started.

"Truly? All of them? But what of the travel -- will it not be dangerous for them?"

Thorin glanced down at the letter. "Gandalf has requested the Ranger Men of the North to guide them here and protect them. He and I spoke of this when he came here not a month ago. The Rangers will guide them here, and then a group of my soldiers will escort them to the Vale. I told you of this, did I not?"

Balin nodded, eyeing the letter in Thorin's hands thoughtfully. "Aye, but I did not know about the Rangers. It will be treacherous for them, I should think, with whatever remains of the Orcs still running about. We will have to prepare for their arrival. When did he say he would come? The Thain," Balin asked, and Thorin frowned as he looked through the letter.

"They hope to leave by the end of spring. They still have to prepare for travel and pack, as well as prepare supplies... so expect them by midsummer, Fortinbras says," Thorin replied, handing the second letter over to Balin, who took it and read, while Thorin took back Bofur's letter and glanced through it again.

He was pleased, though, that the Thain had taken his suggestion to heart. He would need to speak with Beorn about this on his way home. It was good that he had sent the rest of the army ahead, save those who had chosen to stay in Khazad-dûm, and those who would escort the Hobbits to the Valley. Beorn disliked most Dwarves on the best of days, and an army of them would have made talking to him about the Hobbits rather difficult. Thorin had planned to visit him already, to tell him of the possibility of the Hobbits' arrival, but now he would have surer news.

Thorin did not look forward to the upcoming Eastern Meeting. He hoped that Frerin and Dís, who had both gone in his stead, had managed to keep the peace while he was gone. Unlikely, considering Thranduil, not to mention the leaders of Dale and Laketown... but then, Dís was terrifying in all ways when it came to protecting the kingdom, and Frerin could handle any situation, no matter the severity.

He looked forward to seeing them again, at least. No doubt they would press him for every detail on his war march, but he would be glad to be home with them. He had already sent a messenger to them, and tomorrow, he would leave Khazad-dûm for good. He glanced at Bilbo's letter and felt a pang of regret, and for a moment he considered staying longer and meeting Bilbo when he came... but no.

He could not. He had promised, and he would keep his promise.

He would need to give Bofur another commendation upon his return. Bofur had given him a large amount of information on the Hobbits, the Shire, the Thain's plans, and Bilbo Baggins himself -- information that Thorin doubted that any Hobbit would ever share with them. He could use this information to help the Hobbits, to procure future agreements and guarantee their safety and health. He appreciated that Bofur would guard Bilbo Baggins from danger on his journey, as well.

When Balin looked up from the Thain's letter, muttering to himself about preparations and supplies, he glanced at the third letter and raised an eyebrow. "What about the one from Mister Baggins?" he asked.

Thorin picked up the scroll, turned it over in his hands, then tucked it into his pocket, giving Balin a look. "I will read it later," he said, and Balin watched him for a long moment.

"As you wish, Thorin. Shall we continue, then?" Balin said, and Thorin eyed him suspiciously for a moment, but Balin did nothing more than smile, so Thorin assented. For a time, he used his preparations for departure to forget the scroll in his pocket, knowing that if he thought about it too much, he would want to read it immediately.

~

Later that evening, after Thorin had laid out his clothes for traveling the next day, and had seen to packing up everything that he would not need in the morning, he sat at his desk and slowly opened the scroll in his pocket, laying it across the desk. He did not read it quite yet, studying the length of the letter and stroking a finger across the signature.

Bilbo Baggins.

He remembered the last time he had seen Bilbo, a shell of a Hobbit with dark, sad eyes and trembling words, who forced himself to act brave despite his absolute fear from the Defiler. The way those thin hands had grasped him, the way Bilbo's voice had shaken as he begged Thorin to give him time. Sometimes he wished he could go back to that moment and reassure Bilbo more, say something different to him, convince him of his worth, say something else -- but that moment was long over.

If Bilbo was writing to him now, then perhaps Bilbo, too, had not said everything he had wanted to say then.

Thorin glanced at the signature once more, then looked to the beginning of the letter and began to read.

To Thorin Oakenshield,

I have tried to start this letter several times, but each time I try to write, 'How are you? I am doing well. I hope you are doing well too,' or some meaningless sentences similar enough, I crumple up the page and have to start again. I do hope you are doing well, Thorin Oakenshield. You asked me to call you that, so I will, since your name is rather long for a dwarf.

Bofur suggested that I write to you, but I am unsure what to say. Surely he and my cousin Fortinbras have told you everything? But I will tell you what I can, anyway, just in case. I also have some questions that perhaps you can clarify, as well. I did not speak very well at our last meeting, but I am a better writer than speaker, so perhaps these words will reach you more easily.

When I left you, it was by the calendar of Men late September, approaching the end of harvest. Winter set in quickly after Bofur and I arrived, and I moved into the family home of my mother, a Took by blood. My cousin, Fortinbras, is Thain, and he gave me my mother's old room. I am very happy to tell you that I have family that survived Shirefall. My cousins, Drogo and Otho, Bagginses like me, and many other cousins as well. Almost all of us lost our parents to Shirefall, though. I have only a few aunts and uncles left. But they are alive, and that is what is important. I have family still.

The Shire is nothing like I knew it, though. I had seen Shirefall and feared the worst, but I always hoped that the Shire was just as it was the morning before everything changed. Beautiful, peaceful, green with life. But that was not true, Thorin. The Shire as I knew it is dead. Nothing green grows anymore. There are no flowers, no juicy tomatoes or beds of lettuce and herbs. The dirt is oily, and the sun almost never shines. There is always a haze of grey in the distance, and the breeze carries a sour taste. The roads where my parents and neighbors used to take leisurely afternoon walks are dry and rocky. The smials -- our houses in the ground, which were so bright and warm with the comforts of home -- are burnt and destroyed. This is no place to live.

We, the hobbits, have decided to leave the Shire. This past winter was the last we will ever see of this place. I hope that on the other side of the Misty Mountains, the lands are as green as you promised in your letter to my cousin. I would like to see them, and I will soon. All of my kin will leave by summer, after they finish preparing and gathering everything, but I will leave very soon, before them.

Bofur and Gandalf will guide us there. My cousin has sent me to speak to the person you wrote about, Beorn. You told my cousin that Beorn himself offered the Vale as a new home for us, and I will meet with him, to determine where we can live and what his rules are for living on his land. I am a very well-read hobbit, actually, and in my youth I studied the history of that side of the world very carefully. I was especially drawn to the battles in which your neighbor the Elvenking fought, and though I had considerably less histories on dwarfkind, I did read about your kingdom and family. Fortinbras thinks that with this knowledge, I will do well in managing any agreements between the hobbits and the various kingdoms of the east. I hope I do well in this.

As a King of your people and a representative of your kingdom, I hope you might share any information that would be helpful to us. We hobbits are proud farmers, but we have few seeds left from previous years. What we bring with us may not do well in such a different place, so if you know of any books that tell of what grows well in that area of the world, please let me know, and I will buy them from you. Is Beorn a farmer?

After I meet with Beorn, I will find a place for my kin to settle. The hobbits should begin to arrive by summer. Bofur told me it will take almost two months to reach the Vale from the Shire. Once they start arriving, we will begin making homes for the winter. We will probably have to buy supplies from Dale, or any other towns nearby, or even from Erebor. I will have money to pay for what we need. Or, perhaps as you suggested, we could make an agreement, labor for supplies. We hobbits have many skills that might be useful to you dwarves.

Bofur told me of the different market halls, but I would hardly know where to start! Do I need some sort of pass? Or perhaps this token you gave me will help? I suppose all of this should be discussed in person, not through a letter. Is there a certain person I should meet with in Erebor or Dale, to discuss supplies such as wood and metal? Hobbits live in holes in the ground, very comfortable homes if I should say so myself, and we are creatures of comfort. I believe it will take a long while to make a home out of the Vale, but we are determined.

I worry about what will need to be done when we arrive. How do people begin new lives? We will have to make new smials, new furniture, new cushions, new clothes, new everything. I am bringing some things that were not destroyed, but it will not be enough. How can we do this? I am unsure, Thorin. At least in the Shire, we had homes, but in the Vale there is nothing. Most of the craft masters were lost in Shirefall. I worry about how this will work.

Will we even like the Vale? Will Beorn even like us? Will the elves accept us? Will your subjects accept us? We are a simple folk and do not strive for anything greater than a warm hearth, a good meal, and a cheerful song. My people do not sing anymore, Thorin. Not happy songs. Will the Vale give us something to sing about again? Is the eastern world so much better than the Shire as it was? It was our home, and it is gone. How can we replace it?

How can I of all people hope to do this? I am only a hobbit. I never dreamed of anything so big as this. The world was just the Shire, with only books and rumors to tell of the adventures beyond our borders. Then there was Shirefall. And him.

I am sorry for telling you of these worries. I meant this letter to be better than this. I meant to show you how much better I am now. But I'm not better, not really. I still dream about him and the orcs. I'm still thin and sad and angry. I am so angry, Thorin, at everything that happened, and I cannot express it. I write about it and dream about it but I never speak of it. I do not want to scare my cousins. I am afraid of that feeling. I do not want to be like him. He was angry too, all the time. Azog, I mean.

Again, I am sorry. I should not have spoken about that, but this letter is already so long. I've talked all through this letter about myself. I meant to ask you questions about Erebor, and your kingdom, and your family. Bofur told me you have sister-sons, and that Erebor has a vast library, and that there is glowing moss on the walls, and that you can even make ale that glows in the dark from it. Was he lying, or is there truly such a thing? What are your sister-sons like? What is the rest of your family like?

Do you visit the library yourself? Is it truly so vast as Bofur says? He told me it was as big as the hall where the dwarves and the orcs fought, in the battle where everything happened. I happen to like books very much, so if it is so big, I would like to see it. I suspect most of the books are in Khuzdul, but I would like to see it anyway. I have practiced the letters that I remember, and Bofur has corrected what I had wrong. Perhaps I could learn more if that is acceptable. It is a beautiful language.

Please tell Healer Óin that his salves and medicines worked wonders. I am much healthier than I was. But none of us are right anymore. We have not had a proper seven-meal-day in too long! I do miss dwarf food, for all that it made me sick, because there was lots of it. Where did you get your supplies for the army? Bofur told me you made trades with men. Perhaps the hobbits could do this too, until we have tended the land well enough to grow our own?

I hope you are doing well. I hope the dwarves have cleaned out the mess the orcs left. I hope those halls are nothing as I remember them.

I have not forgotten our promise, Thorin. I am still not strong. But I am better than I was, and I hope that after we reach the Vale, after we build a new home there, that life will be a bit more normal. Perhaps after all that, you and I could meet again. What can I do for you that you have not already done for me? Please tell me, if you send a response to this letter. Please tell me what I can do for you. You have already done so much for me and my people. I want to repay you properly.

What can a simple hobbit do for a king of dwarves? How can I ever hope to repay you with all that stands between us?

Respectfully yours,
Bilbo Baggins

When Thorin had read the letter to its end, he stared at the signature for several minutes, stunned at the length and verbosity. How had such a tiny Hobbit written so many words?

In his mind, he pictured Bilbo sitting at a desk with dark eyes and sunken shoulders, sleepless with nightmares and thin from eating too little. He remembered Bofur's warnings about Bilbo's health, and he wished he could do something. He did not think it suited Bilbo, to be so wrought with worry, not after everything he had faced. And such worries -- he wished suddenly that he could go to Bilbo and speak to him directly, and for a moment he was torn between going home and staying here to wait for him.

Then he caught himself, and wondered at his own reaction. He could not stay and wait for Bilbo. What was he thinking? To abandon his kingdom for a Hobbit? No, he would keep his promise and let Bilbo come to him when he was ready. He had to return home, to lead his people and see his family again.

He could write a response to Bilbo, though. He pulled open a drawer and took out a stack of paper, setting it beside the letter. He took a deep breath, then read through the letter once again, looking past his initial response and studying Bilbo's words. That Bilbo wrote so well astonished him, but he felt pleased at the same time. Bilbo was not only courageous and strong, but intelligent as well? He remembered how much it had cost Bilbo to speak to him, that early morning so many months ago, and he wondered at what it might like to speak to Bilbo like this, but in person. He looked forward to it.

It pleased him that Bilbo continued to call him 'Thorin.' He still did not understand his own urge to have Bilbo address him familiarly instead of by his usual titles. It simply did not feel right, to have that Hobbit call him "Your Majesty" or "Sire," placing that level of power between them and leaving them unequal.

He paused as he read that Bilbo was Fortinbras' cousin. Family to the Thain? He had not considered Bilbo's heritage before, but now he wondered what the Thain had told Bilbo. Had Bilbo read his letter? He flushed suddenly, remembering that small addition he had made to the letter, for the Thain to look well upon Bilbo. Had Bilbo read that as well?

He felt gladdened to know that Bilbo had surviving family, but the description of the Shire saddened him the next moment. He had never been to the Shire, but he had heard of its peace and beauty, and he could not imagine losing his home like that. If the dragon had ransacked his home all those years ago, or if they had warred with the Elves or Men... but Orcs had never attacked his kingdom. He wished, not for the first time, that he could go back in time and stop Azog from invading the Shire.

Thorin twitched when he read of Bilbo's knowledge of the East. To know more of the Elves than of the Dwarves? He would have to send some books to Bilbo, once he returned to Erebor, to cure that lack of knowledge. Certainly the histories of his people would interest Bilbo much more than the dark, murky stories about Elves of all creatures. Some other books as well -- books on plants, as Bilbo had requested, and perhaps a book on their language. He would have to go to Erebor's library when he returned home. Perhaps even something from his own collection?

As Bilbo had requested such things himself, Thorin would personally see to sending the information the Hobbit needed, along with anything else he might want. Trade agreements and supplies could be dealt with once he spoke with Dís about the guilds and what they could do. Likely she would prefer to make a contract with the Hobbits themselves. Perhaps Beorn would have ideas, and Thorin could meet with Dale's leader as well.

He suddenly wondered if Bilbo and Dís should ever meet, and what they might think of each other. He shook his head at the thought.

Bilbo's worries rang true with him, truer than he could explain. He remembered when he had been crowned King, at such a young age, just after his father's death. Young and anxious, with so much responsibility, after such loss -- so much like the Hobbit he had met only months ago. His thoughts then must have mirrored Bilbo's now. He still felt anxiety, even with his age and experience, and it saddened him to read Bilbo's anguish of the same sort.

It unsettled him, at the same time, to read of Bilbo's anger. Of his refusal to name Azog but only once, and to see that familiar name written with harsh lines, gouging the paper with hate. Thorin knew, though, what Bilbo meant by 'him.' He could not imagine what Bilbo had gone through with Azog -- and it still left him furious, to think of Azog's ownership over Bilbo. He remembered when Azog had caught Bilbo in the middle of the battle, and still it made his chest burn. What could Bilbo do, though, when he had no one to talk to about such emotions?

Thorin did not think he was suited to understanding Bilbo's needs -- and yet he felt a kinship with this Hobbit, a deep sympathy for Bilbo's anxieties and emotions. Perhaps Bilbo had opened up to him because he had no one else to turn to -- and if that was the case, Thorin would not fail him.

He would answer Bilbo's worries, as well as his many questions. He would do his best to reassure Bilbo, and to offer him aid in what ways he could. Thorin could do that much, at least.

What can a simple hobbit do for a king of dwarves?

Anything, Thorin thought. Anything that you can, as I will do for you. You have already repaid me, Bilbo Baggins, and I will repay you a thousand times more.

He inked his quill and set it to the paper, spelling out Bilbo's name with care in Westron letters, then again in cirth. Then he began to write, and the more he wrote, the less he thought of the time, of his journey tomorrow, of Erebor far away. For a time, all he thought about was a Hobbit far away, who needed him but would not say so -- and whom, he suspected, he might need as well.

~

He was running. He could hear the drums behind him, the calls of catch him, gut him, drag him back to the Defiler behind him in the darkest of speech. He could hear the screeches and growls and grunts of Orcs that would love nothing more than to tear him to pieces. He heard the snarls of their Wargs -- could feel the hot breath on the back of his neck, and he screamed and slipped, fell to the ground, and when he turned on his back, his master stood over him, smiling with fury.

But Azog's eyes were empty and his mouth poured red when it opened, and there was a giant hole in his chest where Bilbo had stabbed him -- Bilbo screamed and covered his face --

Then he woke with a start, his heart racing wildly, a cry still caught in his throat. He looked around frantically, but there was no monster leaning over him, only the quiet of night and the whisper of the wind in the trees above. Instead of a cave of Orcs, he only saw the camp, his cousins sleeping peacefully beside him, and Bofur snoring across the fire. He glanced at Rory and saw that he looked vaguely uncomfortable, but he did not stir when Bilbo sat up. Shuddering faintly, he rubbed his face and carefully crawled out of his bedroll, then snuck across the camp to be closer to the fire.

For a few moments, Bilbo stood in front of the small fire, rubbing his arms and trying not to think about the horrific image he saw in his dream. They had been traveling across the continent for over three weeks. The Misty Mountains loomed in the distance, and Bofur said it would be about a week more before they reached the Western Gate of Khazad-dûm.

The journey so far had been long, but Bilbo had settled into the rhythm of travel comfortably. Otho, Drogo, and Rory were all familiar and safe to him, and he had once traveled with Bofur before and slept well enough. At first, he had been worried about sleeping in a place with so many others, but all of his travel companions were his friends. He trusted every one of them.

Bilbo had slept well and through the night during the first two weeks of their journey, pressed between his cousins while Bofur and Gandalf took turns watching over the camp. Then, it seemed that the closer they traveled to the mountains, the more nightmares Bilbo saw in his sleep. He knew that Rory was sleeping poorly as well, but so far Rory slept through the night -- unlike Bilbo.

Tonight they had camped atop a rocky hill that looked over the nearby Downs, that was hard to reach and, Bofur had assured them, safe from attack. It had not kept Bilbo safe from his bad dreams, though.

Bilbo tried to calm himself, reminding himself that it was a dream and that Azog was dead, but he could not relax. He glanced up and spotted Gandalf sitting against the large crag behind them, so he walked over to join him, curling up next to the grey folds of his cloak.

After a moment, Gandalf stirred, and blue eyes peered down at him in concern. "Bilbo?" Gandalf said quietly, and Bilbo glanced up at him sheepishly.

"Sorry," he whispered. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't, dear boy," Gandalf responded, sitting up and looking at Bilbo more closely. He hemmed under his breath. "Bad dreams?"

Bilbo nodded, and for a time neither said anything. Bilbo slowly stopped shivering, and Gandalf pulled out his pipe and began to smoke. Bilbo did not feel the urge to smoke himself, but he enjoyed the scent of Gandalf's Old Toby, feeling more relaxed as they watched the fire together.

Then Bilbo asked quietly, "Is there some magic to stop dreams?"

Gandalf was silent for a long moment, as he puffed on his pipe and stared into the darkness. "There is no such magic, my boy, and you would not want to stop your dreams anyway. Your mind uses dreams to sort itself, and some dreams are very important," he said, glancing down at Bilbo, who frowned to himself. Gandalf watched him, his gaze dark with sadness and unnamed emotions.

"I... am afraid to sleep sometimes, Gandalf. These dreams... these visions, they are painful and terrifying. I can't... handle them. Is there nothing I can do?" he asked, looking up at Gandalf with a solemn gaze.

Gandalf watched him for a moment, then sighed very deeply, reaching out to brush Bilbo's curls back. "There are old techniques for strengthening the mind, but I am not someone to teach them. For now, there is only time, and to fill your days with happiness, instead of grief. Time will make everything less terrible, Bilbo," Gandalf said quietly, but Bilbo shook his head, turning to look at the fire.

"There are some things time cannot mend, Gandalf," Bilbo said softly, and his expression darkened a bit.

"And there are many things it can mend, my dear boy," Gandalf said, and Bilbo looked back at him in question. Gandalf smiled at him. "I promise you will heal someday. I cannot say you will not always have terrible dreams, but they will be replaced with better ones. Tell me, have you had any good dreams lately?"

Bilbo watched him, a bit puzzled, but he nodded easily enough. "Sometimes I dream of the Shire as it was... and, well, this will sound silly and you cannot tell Bofur," he said, glancing over the fire to Bofur's figure, relaxing a bit to see him snoring, "but sometimes... I dream of Erebor, of what I imagine it to be like. Those are nice dreams," he finished, a small smile softening his mien, and Gandalf's smile widened with it.

"I think you will like Erebor when you visit it. Thorin will be sure to give you a grand tour of the whole city, and I should say that the markets are a delight to explore," Gandalf said, and Bilbo twitched at the mention of meeting Thorin again, but he looked forward to it.

"Do you think --" Bilbo started, but then he froze, when he heard a familiar high-pitched scream far in the distance. He whirled around and stared into the darkness, paralyzed with fright, barely noticing as across the camp, Rory woke with a start and looked in the same direction.

Orcs. Calling for a hunt -- who was the prey?

He only tore his gaze away when Gandalf reached up to touch his shoulder, gently guiding him back down.

"Bilbo," he heard, and he looked up to see Bofur standing in front of him, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "It's okay, lad, we're in a safe place, alright?" Bofur said, and Bilbo stared at him without responding. Behind Bofur, Drogo and Otho were sitting up, talking quietly to Rory, who gave Bilbo a wide-eyed look before hiding his face in his hands.

Bofur knelt down in front of Bilbo and took his shoulders in hand, forcing Bilbo to meet his gaze. "Bilbo, it's alright. I promise you, we're safe here. They can't know where we are, and even if they did, I'll protect you, alright? You and your cousins are safe with me an' Gandalf," he said, glancing at Gandalf, who nodded when Bilbo followed his gaze.

Bilbo took a deep breath, then gave a tiny nod and pushed Bofur away. He stood and darted over to Rory, kneeling down beside him and touching his shoulder, and Rory reached up to hug him tightly.

"We're okay, right?" Rory whispered into his ear, and Bilbo nodded.

"We're okay," he whispered back, and after glancing at Bofur and Gandalf again, he let go of Rory and curled up beside him, watching Otho and Drogo lay down on his other side. Bofur went to stand at the edge of the camp, eyeing the surrounding land grimly, while Gandalf watched over Bilbo and his cousins silently.

Nothing attacked them during the night, but no one in the camp rested easily. Early the next morning, before the sun had risen above the horizon, they packed up their camp and started east again, eating apples and jerky. They rode for about an hour, until the sun had risen to warm their faces, and then they stopped at a creek to water the ponies and refill their waterskins.

As he cupped his hands to take a drink, Bilbo heard the high-pitched scream again -- only now it was not distant, and he could understand what followed.

"Halflings! Kill them all!" Bilbo heard, and suddenly he could not breathe.

"They're coming," he whispered, and Bofur jumped up, pulling out his axe and looking around them, while Gandalf pulled out his sword. The ponies flinched and bumped against each other, sensing the threat so close to them. Bilbo stumbled to his feet and pulled out his small sword as well, a small sob catching in his throat when he saw the faint blue glow.

"Bilbo?" asked Drogo, grabbing onto Bilbo's arm.

Bilbo looked over at him with wide eyes. "Orcs are coming," he whispered.

Then Bofur was pushing at them, shoving them at the cart, and Bilbo began to move, grabbing onto Drogo and hoping that Rory had grabbed Otho. He heard the hunting call again and shuddered, remembering his dream and dreading turning around, even when he heard the snarl of a Warg.

"Onto the cart! GO!" Gandalf yelled, and all of the Hobbits scrambled onto the cart, while Bofur took the reins and snapped them. The ponies screamed and began to run, as Orcs swarmed out of the forest behind them.

"Get the Halflings!"