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Pain-Bearer

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Once again, Bilbo had to say goodbye. At least Erestor did not have the large, sweet Hobbit eyes to make him regret saying the words, but that did not mean he was happy to say them.

He woke to a mild headache that was only soothed by a cup of very strong tea. Still, his headache was not irritating enough to stop him from packing alongside his cousins, with the surprising help of Erestor, who showed up at his door with a tea tray, a lovely assortment of pastries, and Bilbo's chest of books.

Every book that lay within had been painstakingly and carefully cleaned, rebound with supple leather, and gently engraved with titles in silver script. Bilbo lifted the books out with reverence, his eyes stinging as Erestor looked on with a faint line between his brow. He noticed then that his mother's glory box had been cleaned as well, oiled and shining, and a breath caught in his throat.

"I hope you did not mind, but I amended some of the ones with torn pages, so the script may be different, but the information is certainly the same. Is it not enough? I should have chosen a better leather, but I thought of the climate of the Vale and --"

"They're perfect," Bilbo whispered, and Erestor shut his mouth quickly, though his gaze warmed.

Bilbo knew that Gandalf was ensconced in deliberation with Elrond, and Bofur had disappeared sometime earlier that morning. Across and down the hall, Rory, Drogo, and Otho raced around in a flurry of activity, shouting at each other as they tried to find everything that, in their enjoyment of staying in a place with proper beds for more than one night, they had thrown about their rooms as if they truly lived within these walls. Bilbo rolled his eyes as he heard a shout, followed by a scuffle. Erestor raised an eyebrow, but Bilbo distracted him with a plea to help him pack, and Erestor was all too content to assist.

"I will write letters to you in the Vale," Erestor declared as he folded Bilbo's clothes into a bag. "I will send you books, so that you do not grow bored in the winter. You will write back." His long fingers fluttered over the shirt he had just picked up, and Bilbo smiled up at his arrested expression.

"I will write," he promised, reaching up to grip Erestor's hands briefly, before letting go and looking into his mother's glory box, happy to see his precious books looking like normal again. Then he frowned. "Was it always this full?"

Beside him, Erestor twitched, as if in guilt, and Bilbo looked at him in surprise. "Erestor, did you --"

"Bilbo! I can't find my vest! Have you seen it?" called Drogo from the other room, and Bilbo gave Erestor an amused glance before going to help his cousin. When the vest was found and he returned, the glory box was closed, and Erestor once again was composed.

The Elf was arranging Bilbo's clothes still, and Bilbo walked over to help. "I suspect that box will be heavier than it was when I came to Rivendell," he teased, and Erestor let out a sniff, picking unseen bits of lint from Bilbo's shirt.

"I'm certain I have no idea of what you are speaking," the Elf said loftily.

"Certainly," Bilbo huffed, and after a moment they smiled at each other.

When his belongings were packed into bulging bags and trunks, Bilbo sat down on the bed and looked around the room that had given him such restful sleep. He sighed -- he did not want to leave only to spend future nights on a lumpy bedroll on the ground. He would miss the steady meals and the peaceful atmosphere, and most of all --

"I wish we had more time," sighed Erestor, standing in front of Bilbo.

"I would come back to visit, if you would like," Bilbo offered, shy with the newness of their friendship. "And... you could visit me, as well. Once my home is complete."

Erestor watched him, solemn features warming, as they did often in Bilbo's presence. "I shall visit, as will you. Though we have had little time to know one another, I feel as if you and I have been friends for a long time. We converse with such ease and share interests so closely. I am glad to have met you, Bilbo."

Bilbo smiled up at Erestor, warmed by his open mien and words of camaraderie. He reached out to take Erestor's hands and squeezed them, pleased that he had made such a wonderful friend. "I feel just as you do, Erestor. I hope that our letters are long and frequent, and I hope you will visit soon! Thank you for everything you have done for me. My books... my research, and your gifts. Don't think I didn't notice how you snuck in my favorites of the books I borrowed." Erestor looked chagrinned, and Bilbo laughed, his cheeks turning pink as he thought of the titles he had glimpsed in the glory box. "Thank you. I cannot thank you enough."

Erestor's gaze softened, and he squeezed Bilbo's hands back before letting go. "You never need thank me, Bilbo. All this I was glad to do, and more. I will miss you and think of you often, and I wish you all the luck with your journey." They shared another smile, until another scuffle in the hallway distracted them both.

"Best go see what other trouble they've gotten into," Bilbo sighed, but he had a smile on his face as he left his room, Erestor following with a small laugh.

~

To say goodbye to Rivendell was to walk through its halls and think of all that had changed. Bilbo took his time, as everything had been loaded onto the wagon and all that remained was to add generous supplies of grain and other food from Elrond's stores. What had changed was not just how he was received by the members of Elrond's house, but also how he looked upon this realm, as well as how he looked upon himself.

He noticed that unlike the first time he traversed these halls, he was greeted with smiling faces and well wishes for his journey. No longer did Bilbo look at these Elves with distrust and fear. Now he accepted their kind words and did his best not to hide or flinch away -- and after enjoying the warmth of Rivendell, it was too easy to view these people as those who would not harm him.

It was with a light heart that Bilbo visited the library one last time, to return the last of the books he had borrowed and to explore it once more. He would borrow nothing else, but perhaps there were topics he could make a note to research on his next visit -- for surely, as he had promised Erestor, he would return to Rivendell, someday in the future.

It was among the books about Greenwood and the Elvenking Thranduil's realm that Bilbo found a most curious sight -- Bofur, nose stuck in a thick volume that Bilbo had not read, but that he recognized as one his fingers had passed over a few times before while searching for related books. Bilbo stopped short and stared. Bofur had a few papers sticking out of his pocket, and instead of looking pleased with what he was reading, his brow had gathered together in a fierce frown, and he was muttering to himself.

"Bofur?" Bilbo called, and as if struck by lightning, Bofur jumped and whirled around, eyes wide.

"I'm not doi-- oh, Bilbo, it's just you," Bofur said with a sigh of relief, closing the book and shoving it back on the shelf, but Bilbo did not miss how Bofur's gaze darted to the book as his fingers let it go.

"Yes, I was just returning the books I had borrowed. What were you reading? Was it interesting?" Bilbo asked, curious because Bofur had never before shown such an interest in books.

"Yeah, just thought I'd see what had attracted you so much to this place. So! All packed up?" Bofur said, clasping his hand Bilbo's shoulder, and before Bilbo knew it, the two were walking out of the library, caught up in conversation. He would only recall the odd moment later that night, and he would think little more of it, because who was he to judge someone for reading?

Their dinner that night was more subdued than the previous night's, though it was no less joyful. Well wishes and good-byes were toasted to the Company, and Bilbo went to bed that night with a smile, resting deeply and with no dreams.

Their departure took place early in the morning, and Bilbo had little more to do than urge his sleepy cousins onto the cart before sitting beside Bofur. Elrond, his sons, Glorfindel, and Erestor saw them off, and Bilbo waved good-bye until Rivendell was too far away to see the faces of the friends he had made.

The entrance to Moria was about four days away, and with every hour that passed, Bilbo saw the mountains that had haunted his dreams loom ever higher. He remembered the days that he had been dragged alongside his mother, and he could not help his shivers. Rory slunk behind him and ended up, more often than not, pressing to Bilbo's back as he entertained Drogo and Otho, and Bilbo did not miss how Rory's shoulders hunched in further the closer they traveled. Oftentimes, Bilbo would turn to join the conversation, both to soothe his nerves, and to ease the anxiety that was growing in his cousins' minds.

All the while he remembered, and oh, how he tried to forget.

~

Far on the other side of the Misty Mountains, lay a kingdom resplendent in its power and might, hidden beneath a lonely peak covered in snow. Two massive statues of stone twisted into the likeness of Dwarven kings of long ago stood at the grand entrance, protecting the thousands of Dwarves that lived within its halls. It was the greatest kingdom in the land, and it was called Erebor.

The king had not yet returned home, but that did not keep the kingdom from running as usual, headed by Frerin and Dís, brother and sister of Thorin, King under the Mountain. The Prince managed official duties that King Thorin would have commanded, while the Princess held absolute power over the various and many guilds of Erebor. Thorin's kingdom was safe and well protected within their hands.

The two young princes of Erebor, Fíli and Kíli, had learned a great deal about ruling and government under their mother's and uncle's tutelage, during the years of Thorin's war march. Fíli, as the firstborn and Thorin's heir, was well into being groomed to be king someday, though they all hoped that such a day was far in the future. Fíli, like his brother, was young and impetuous, though the weight of responsibility had culled many of his wilder urges. By contrast, his brother Kíli, who was next in line to inherit General Dwalin's position as leader of the military, was still excitable and carefree. Fíli was not yet so solemn in his duties, though, that Kíli could not easy entice him into mischief.

It was all Princess Dís could do not to shake both of them, for they were still children at heart. She was proud of them, as only a mother could be, but oh, how those boys frustrated her.

Today, for instance, Kíli had ducked out of his practice with Dwalin and had nearly coerced Fíli into sneaking out to Dale. Nearly, because Dís had walked upon their plotting, and all too quickly she had taken Kíli's ear in hand and given him a stern lecture. Dwalin showed up ten minutes later, and Kíli was escorted away, giving his mother and brother betrayed looks.

Fíli had wisely remained silent when Dís had turned her wrath upon him. He now walked beside her as they made their way to the Central Guild, the focal point of all of the commerce in Erebor. At various points behind them, guards walked, allowing the royal family their privacy, while protecting them all the same.

"You cannot let him continue to get away with this childish behavior! He is a prince of this nation, and I will not have him go gallivanting about and bringing shame upon this family. Your uncles will both hear of this, and I will have you know now, son of mine, that if you join him in any of his antics, I will not hesitate to drag both of you across my lap like the children you want to be!"

"He's just anxious because Thorin has yet to return home," Fíli said quietly, and Dís turned her head with a sharp look at her son. Fíli met her gaze steadily, and after a moment Dís sighed.

"We all are, Fíli, but that does not mean that the rest of us will choose to break into the barracks in Dale and leave chickens in the soldiers' beds. That boy is a menace! How do I still love him?" she lamented, and Fíli huffed a small laugh.

"Because he is still your son, as am I. He will settle down when Thorin arrives. It should be soon," Fíli said, but it was with a weary note that echoed in Dís' mind. How many times had they said that? How many times had they thought, Surely he will come home today, only to wait for nothing.

"How did you become so wise, my son?" Dís asked, a small smile softening her serious mien. He was becoming more like Níli every day, and though Fíli looked more like his father, he had her eyes. It eased the ache she sometimes felt when she looked at him. How ironic it was, for the son that looked like his father to inherit the line from his uncle? And Kíli, who would take on the duties of the line of Lí -- he worshipped Thorin. All it took was one word from Thorin for Kíli to behave.

At least they both had known their father, and loved him. At least her brothers loved them in return, childish and immature as they sometimes acted.

"I learned it from you," Fíli said, in a flat tone that had a chuckle escaping Dís before she realized it.

"You have been spending too much time with Frerin," she said to him, as they passed beneath the Arch and turn onto the pathway into the Guild. She did not mind when Fíli smirked at her, reaching up to tug affectionately at one of his braids.

"Pay attention today. We have visitors from Fogrín's folk, and every one of the dunderheads he sends to me is surlier than both of your uncles together. Keep your wits about you," Dís lectured, and Fíli nodded obediently. Dís lead him into the Guild, even if he knew his way by now. He was content to let her take charge, though.

He was more here as a formality, than to learn anything of Guild matters. Fíli would need to know the politics, if he ever had to settle cases, but Dís knew that his mind was not inclined toward business as hers was. Kíli certainly had never inherited that side of her; her younger son took after his father with his love of fighting and tactics. Fíli was more like Frerin in his interests, and he was slower to temper like Frerin as well -- unlike Dís, Thorin, and Kíli.

Dís had not decided, yet, whom she would choose for the Guild to vote on when she was to leave her position. Every one of the guilds would get a vote, and if she chose poorly, it would reflect on her past decisions as Guild Master. If either of her sons had a child that was inclined toward business, perhaps. Their cousin Glóin had a small brood of children, and he had always been good with business. Perhaps Glóin's son Gimli held promise, or better yet one of his daughters, especially if either Fíli or Kíli took an interest in their distant relations.

Dís would have to wait and see. For now, she would teach her sons what she could. She could wait for an heir, for she would not leave her position anytime soon.

"Consider my thoughts, son of mine. Your brother is growing into a position that will be, at once, feared and respected across the lands of this world. He will command the armies at your disposal, and instead of studying and learning as he should, he frolics and runs about like a child. His friends may think it merry fun, but what respect can be wrought of a few paltry tricks? Pranks on our allies, jokes at the expense of our diplomats -- it is embarrassing."

Dís took a moment to gather her thoughts. "I never wished for you or your brother to grow up so quickly, after your father..." She stopped herself, and she did not look at Fíli, who had taken the loss of their father as badly as she had. His silence spoke volumes, and after a moment of silence, Dís had recovered enough to continue.

"I know my sons, and I know that your brother is a loving, playful boy. But if he is to become a Dwarf of legend, he must grow into that seat of power. Please speak with him. He cannot stand my glares, nor Frerin's lectures. You and Thorin are the only ones he listens to, and Thorin is not here," Dís finished quietly, slowing as they approached the door.

She looked up at her son, who stared into the Hall of Commerce, eyebrows furrowed in a way that struck her. Fíli looked so much like Níli, and yet there, in his eyes -- the deepening solemnity of Frerin, and the darker hesitance of Thorin. Mostly, though, Dís saw in his eyes a mirror: his own frustration with his brother, despite his ambivalence whenever Kíli's antics were brought up.

"I will speak to him," Fíli said at last, and Dís smiled at him. Then they went into the Hall together to begin the day's business.

~

Swish. Thud. Creak. Swish. Thud. Creak. Swish.

"'You must cease these immature tricks!' they say! 'You must act like an adult!' they say! A few jokes, and suddenly I am, once again, the blight of this family. It never ends!" ranted Kíli, youngest of the royal line of Durin, as he destroyed a large target painted with a crude picture of an Orc. Arrow after arrow, he slotted and let them fly, never caring that he destroyed half his arrows, ignoring the burn in his fingers as he sought to relieve his frustration.

"Is that what they're calling you these days?" called a teasing voice, and Kíli just barely stopped from loosing an arrow into his brother's face as he turned abruptly.

"Fíli," he breathed. Then his brow drew together again, as he noticed the serious expression on his brother's face despite the lilt in his voice. Without another word he turned away and continued to let arrows loose into the Orc's face.

He expected a lecture. He expected his mother's and uncle's words parroted back to him, in the same stream of judgement he suffered this morning when Dwalin had finally deemed him properly punished. Instead, he felt a faint swoosh of air by his head, and he saw one of Fíli's daggers land amidst the sea of arrows. Another followed, and then Kíli continued alongside his brother, until the Orc was merely a splattering of paint upon splintered wood.

It was not as if he did not realize how needless his antics truly were. It was only a bit of fun. Something to help pass the long winter months when they had few visitors and too much free time. His soldiers enjoyed it -- not that they were truly his soldiers, the way Dwalin carried on -- so what was so terrible about a few jokes? It was not as if he did not use the opportunity to look into the documents hidden in the Dale Marshall's office every time.

Kíli had not missed his mentor's lectures, though he was glad for Dwalin's return. Seven years was seven years too many spent suffering through the stern glowers of Nyrad, Dwalin's second in command, even though Dwalin was hardly better.

At least Dwalin's training did not have Kíli running himself completely ragged. He believed Nyrad was out to torture him.

Still Fíli did not speak to him, so Kíli crossed the small training ground to grab two swords from the wall. This ground had been theirs as long as they had known to fight -- inherited from their mother and uncles, who had learned the arts of war in this very room over a century ago. Kíli tossed one of the swords to Fíli, who caught it neatly, and twirled his own in his hand, smirking.

"Come at me, brother," he taunted, and Fíli grinned back at him before rushing forward.

It was easy to fall into the dance of a fight. He and Fíli knew each other better than they knew themselves, and despite Fíli's bulk and Kíli's agility, they were well matched. Neither gave quarter. Neither backed off. It was rushed, and wild, and Kíli felt his frustration and anger melting away, as he exchanged blows and taunts with his brother. He saw that same drain of emotion from the weight that had drawn his brother's brows downward, and he felt glad that in this room, between just the two of them, there was no strife.

Neither of them won -- but they grew too exhausted to continue, and Kíli staggered to the table where he kept canteens of water. He threw one at Fíli who drank greedily from the metal, and Kíli grimaced as he realized the water was stale. Had it really been so long since he had trained down here? He glanced across the room at the destroyed target, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

He had painted that four months ago. Usually they were destroyed within a single month. Perhaps he had been focusing too much attention on his pranks after all, and not enough on his own training.

"We'll have to paint a new one," Fíli said quietly, taking Kíli's empty canteen and setting it back on the table. Kíli made a thoughtful noise, sliding his gaze over to his brother.

"Perhaps with the good Elvenking this time?" he asked slyly, and Fíli snorted even as he shot Kíli a scolding look.

"Even you should remember the blistering we received from Frerin the last time we used King Thranduil. What about a Troll? Dwalin said they had to fight a couple in the battle, didn't he?" Fíli said thoughtfully. Kíli's eyes widened with glee.

"He did! A Troll would be perfect, Fíli, good thinking! I'll have to find some spare wood," Kíli said, already plotting how best to paint his new masterpiece. As he studied the wall where they usually fixed their targets, he noticed that Fíli stayed silent, and his shoulders sank slightly.

Here it comes.

"Have you ever thought to tell Dwalin about your little spy network?" Fíli asked, and Kíli sent him a sharp glance. He busied himself with hanging up his bow and the two swords, and Fíli allowed his silence, moving to straighten what mess Kíli left behind.

"You shouldn't know about that," Kíli said after a moment, and Fíli shot him a smirk.

"Like you can keep anything from me. I know you used to meet Nori at the tavern on Silvercrest. Be a bit more subtle, would you? Not to mention your occasional spars with Bofur," Fíli said, grinning, and Kíli huffed a scowl, shoving at his brother's shoulder.

"You know Dwalin never appreciated that side of command. He hates Nori, and the less said of Bofur's involvement, the better. Besides, with both of them gone, who else was to carry on their work?"

"Maybe Nori's partner in crime?"

"Ha! He couldn't sneak his way out of a coal mine," Kíli grumbled. "I can't believe you! Stay out of my spy network." Kíli pouted, and Fíli laughed at him, tugging him out of the room.

"Come, we should find supper. Are you telling me your future king should not know of his kingdom's best kept secrets? You forget, while you suffered at Dwalin's and Nyrad's hands, I learned a thing or two from Thorin and Frerin. Nothing escapes them, no matter how quick you are to hide it, brother dear," Fíli said, his voice dropping as they walked closer to the busier halls.

Kíli sulked, envying his brother for the time he spent with Thorin. Hopefully when Thorin came home, Kíli would be able to spend some close time with him. How he had missed his uncle! Home did not feel right, for Thorin to be gone so long.

They walked in silence together for a few minutes, an easy companionship, before Kíli felt the need to ask the question that had been burning in his mind since Fíli had walked into the training hall earlier.

"Aren't you going to lecture me?" he asked with a sigh.

Fíli glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "And have you resent me for it? You don't need me yelling at you. I know you the best, after all, and I know why you do these things. Mother, Frerin, and Dwalin may seem harsh, but they do love you, brother. They worry, as I do. They expect us to be adults as they are, but we are still young. We need not rush to be like them. Though... perhaps you could make your tricks more subtle? Chickens in the barracks, really?"

"It was to be a ruse! A distraction! So that I could borrow one of their maps of King Thranduil's woods! You know he trusts Lord Tyrion more than he trusts us," Kíli complained, and Fíli laughed.

"So that your next prank would be in Thranduil's halls? Though Thorin would surely approve, Frerin might just have your head, dear brother. Best to lay low for a while, anyway," Fíli chortled.

Kíli stayed silent, before he shoved at Fíli's side. "Why must you be so wise? Oh king," he said sarcastically, and Fíli smirked at him.

Then they both froze when a horn sounded, with several more horns blaring in quick succession. The loud calls sang in triumph and celebration, ringing in the same tones over and over, announcing to the entire nation -- the return of the king. Fíli and Kíli stared at each other for a beat, then took off running down the hall, elated grins erupting on their faces.

"Thorin has returned!"

~

When Thorin sighted the front gate of his home, he sighed so deeply that his pony snuffed in surprise. Thorin patted its neck and nudged the animal forward, smiling to himself when he heard the horns again. They had bypassed Dale, as Thorin would take his time to meet with Lord Tyrion later, after he had rested and seen to his kingdom. Erebor stood tall and glorious as always, the statues of his ancestors standing guard against any whom might think the Dwarves easy prey.

They had passed Ravenhill almost three hours ago, and Thorin had smiled when one of the ravens flew off toward Erebor. An hour later, he had heard horns in the distance. The sounds had spurred him, urged him forward, and his small company began to ride faster. From there, it was only a short ride, until they had come to Erebor's Front Gate, standing tall in the mountain. The sun was setting to his side, but Thorin took no heed of it, as his gaze was fastened on the five figures striding out of the Gate.

His brother, Frerin, just a step behind his sister Dís. His nephews, Fíli and Kíli, ran past them toward Thorin, and Dwalin, his closest friend, strode behind the four royal family members, while guards and citizens followed in their wake. Thorin felt a grin taking over his solemn expression, and he pulled the pony to a stop and dismounted, striding forward.

Kíli reached him first, grabbing onto him and not letting go, and Thorin hugged him back tightly, feeling a burn in the back of his throat.

"I've missed you, uncle," Kíli whispered in his ear, and Thorin nodded.

"You as well," he murmured back, his chest warming as he pulled away and looked over his nephew. Taller, but still no beard -- and yet Thorin could not care. He cupped Kíli's face and rested their foreheads together for a moment, then turned to see Fíli beside him.

Fíli exchanged a happy glance with Kíli, who stepped back, and Thorin wrapped his arms around his heir, gripping the back of his neck and looking over Fíli's face.

"You are older," Thorin said roughly, and Fíli laughed.

"Still younger than you," he returned fondly, and Thorin smiled.

"Move aside, sons of mine! I want to see my brother," came a stern voice that Thorin had greatly missed, and he smirked when Fíli shuffled aside quickly, looking upon his sister who scowled at him. Then the dark expression melted into a bright grin, and Thorin quickly pulled her into a hug, holding her close for several moments, relishing the feel of her.

A strong arm wrapped around his shoulder, pushing Dís closer, and Thorin looked up to see his brother, who was smiling with joy in his dark eyes. Dís shifted to make room, and the three siblings embraced tightly. Thorin felt the years of weariness begin to seep away, knowing that he was home, that his family was safe, that the danger to his most precious people was gone. He had been away for too long!

Dwalin clapped him on the back, smiling widely at him. Beyond his friends, Thorin's citizens were laughing, crying, and smiling as they beheld their king's return. As Thorin separated from his siblings and nephews, the large crowd parted, every Dwarf bowing low as Thorin began to stride forward. Above them, the horns rang out, and Thorin held his head high.

He had no crown on his head. His clothes were worn and tattered. He was exhausted, dirty, and aching. Yet Thorin Oakenshield was welcomed as the King of his nation, and everyone he passed felt joy at the return of their King.

~

Miles and miles south of a celebration for the return of a king, two Orcs huddled close and muttered to each other in a small, dingy hallway, deep in an ancient stronghold.

"We need to tell him! He asked to know immediately if we found it," one Orc whispered harshly.

The second Orc hit the first upside the head. "He is with the Necromancer! We cannot interrupt," he growled, and both Orcs flinched when they heard a shrill scream from beyond the wall beside them.

They waited, until at last the door to the room beyond opened, and a wave of malice passed them, though they only saw a flash of darkness. They rushed into the room, immediately halting before Bolg.

"Strongest of the old lines! We have news, great Bolg!" the second Orc said, ducking low, and Bolg turned, his mouth twisting in a snarl.

"I am busy," he said, then turned back to the small, pallid body on the stone table, which shook in pain and moaned shrilly. Bolg lifted his whip again and struck, metal spikes dragging through thin, greyed skin. The creature shrieked in agony.

The two Orcs hesitated, until the first Orc pushed forward and cried, "We have found the pain-bearer! He rides from the green-land and travels east!"

Bolg froze. Slowly he turned, his whimpering prey forgotten, and his pale eye flashed as he fixed a glare upon the two Orcs. "Where is he now?" he demanded, and the Orc flinched back.

"Three weeks past, the wretched pain-bearer was riding toward Moria. He must seek the halls of your great father! Accursed halfling! He rode with a wizard and a dwarf, and more halflings with him! Then he went to the hall of elves, where we could not follow," the Orc simpered.

Bolg sneered at them. He glanced at his victim, then shoved past the smaller Orcs and stalked out of the room, following in the path that the tall, thin man with gleaming eyes of fire had walked. He reached a great room where the form of his master lingered, halting behind him.

"Master," Bolg called.

"What is it?" the tall creature murmured. None of the Orcs knew his true name. They only knew him as the Necromancer, or as the Dark Lord, and addressed him as their master. He was unlike any other creature in the world, save that accursed hobbit, in that he knew the secret language of the Orcs, taught to them ages ago -- by him. He had created them.

"I want to leave and hunt the one who murdered my father," Bolg said, in a barely civil tone. He was only so respectful -- could not help it, as he hated being someone's slave.

"No," the Necromancer replied, not bothering to turn around, and Bolg growled.

"I must! He taunts me even from here -- after what he brought into my father's halls, into the mountains of my people, your servants! He must die by my hand," Bolg snarled, and the Necromancer turned slowly to face him.

He stood in the shape of a Man or Elf, but so much taller, broader, with piercing eyes that burned and twisted in blazing red and orange. Just one glance upon his form brought malice and hatred into one's heart, and even from several feet away, Bolg could feel the heat of his body, as if he would erupt in fire. His right hand was completely black.

In this fortress, the Necromancer often wore little more than a tunic and cloak, for all that he was surrounded by the vilest of monsters of Middle Earth. In the blink of an eye, though, he could shift, change, the magic coursing through his body enough to encase him in ancient armor, or to turn him into fire, or into darkness itself. He seemed completely comfortable in his own skin, and his mien was calm and relaxed. This was a creature who knew his own power. This was a creature who held no fear.

"It is your wretch that lies in my dungeon, holding the secret of the location of my One. Torture holds no sway over his head, but your command of him loosens his tongue. You will stay here until he tells me where my One is. Then, and only then, may you go on your hunt," the Necromancer said, and Bolg found he could not move, the great aura of fury and enmity leaving him stiff with fear. "Am I clear?"

"Yes, my master." Not even Azog had commanded such power in his bearing. Bolg bowed and backed out of the room. Then he turned sharply and ran through the crumbling fortress, until he came upon the dungeon where the shivering creature lay in its shackles. The other Orcs had disappeared, and Bolg rushed to the wretch and grabbed its face, shaking it until large, pale eyes fixed upon his face.

"WHERE IS IT?" he roared, squeezing until the wretch coughed and hacked, and he loosened his grip. The creature began to laugh, wet, hacking noises that grated on Bolg's ears.

"Gollum, gollum... stolen it was, tossed in a room of gold. Nasty Orcs! Nasty Azog! Gone, gone, my precious is gone," the creature whimpered, and it began to wail, the caterwauling echoing across the fortress.

Bolg stared down at the wretch, the creature he had taken as his servant years ago, and cursed. Undoubtedly it was part of the treasure the Dwarves had taken when they had killed his father. Was it still in those dark caves? Or had it gone back to that damned mountain with the Dwarf King?

"Moria," Bolg heard, and he turned to see the Necromancer, Sauron the Great, staring at him from the doorway. Those brilliant eyes burned in the darkness.

"You will go and find it. Take the Riders with you." And my One will be mine again.

"Yes, my master." And his head will be mine.

~

Bilbo woke suddenly, his heart beating fast. Yet their camp was peaceful, the night dark with stars, Gandalf snoring against a tree while Bofur stared into the fire. Bilbo did not move, letting the soft noises of his cousins sleeping calm his racing heart. He felt -- disturbed. Wary. What had he been dreaming?

He heard a crow in the distance and shivered. After some time, he fell asleep again and did wake till dawn, when Otho quietly nudged him up. They set on the road again, so close now to the West-gate, only half a day away. Now the air was colder despite the season creeping toward summer, and it filled Bilbo with memories of a dark time.

Rory had gone quiet some days ago, and no amount of coaxing or teasing would bring him from his silence. Bilbo was quiet as well, but he took charge where he had to, pushing his cousins and pulling Rory along gently. He knew how Rory felt.

It was the same way he felt every time he looked up at the Misty Mountains.

When they reached the West-gate hours later, Bilbo stood and stared at it in silence, clutching Rory's hand and feeling dread creep into his mind. Oh, how much he yearned to turn around and run the other way. For a moment Bilbo felt hysteria seep into his thoughts. Had this all been a wonderful dream? Was he unconscious even now, and would he wake in Azog's clutches?

But then Drogo appeared at his other side, and he heard Otho complaining to Bofur about having to leave the ponies with the Dwarves at the outpost there. Bilbo saw then that there were Dwarves coming out of the West-gate, already opening to Gandalf's pleased look. The Dwarves went to take their cart, promising that their belongings would reach the central cave system via carts and rails.

Bilbo was dubious enough that he forgot, for a few minutes, that he was going back to the place of his imprisonment for seven years.

Soon, though, Bilbo stood still again, watching as Gandalf, Bofur, Rory, Otho, and Drogo walked into the shadows, following the other Dwarves. A shiver went straight up his spine as he felt warmth on his back, and he closed his eyes for a moment, imagining a moment almost eight years ago. But there was no one behind him to see his back, lit by the edge of the sun. There was no one to see him square his shoulders and lift his head in determination. There was no one to watch him take those steps into the darkness he had feared for so long.

There was no one there, yet Bilbo felt eyes on him all the same.

~

(Excerpt from Seven Years, Chapter 1)

The mountains in the distance loomed closer, taller, until they blocked the sky and the air grew colder. But instead of climbing the mountains, the Hobbits were led, wretched and shaking, into a small vale that held a sudden dip in the land, and at the bottom of this decline was a deep and sinister cave.

Oh, Bilbo did not want to go into that cave. He dreaded it -- he dug his heels into the ground and would not move. His cousin and mother followed his example, and other Hobbits as well, and Uncle Gordy stood in front of them when the Orcs turned back to bark at them.

"Rûmol!" one Orc snarled and stalked up to them, but Bilbo spat into his face. The Orc struck him, and he hit the ground violently, and he might have died that day -- had his mother not stepped in front of him and glared fury up at the Orc who had hurt her son.

"Don't touch him," he heard, Belladonna's once sweet and musical voice cold with hatred, and she might have died, too, if the Orc had not been pulled back by the one who had taken interest in them.

"Ulu-izub kulut," it snapped at the other, and in an instant it had pulled its great weapon and beheaded the Orc who had attacked them. Bilbo gagged when the Orc head rolled to the ground, retching on the dry grass, and then he was hauled up, their captor clutching him close and growling at the others. "Nargraurol!" it shouted, and the other Orcs backed off, hissing but leaving Bilbo and Belladonna alone. Past the crowd around them, Bilbo saw the pale face of his cousin, hazel eyes fastened to his mother and the Orc.

"Zaz akashuga kulut thrak Azog-tramurz-û," the Orc announced, but Bilbo understood none of it. The darkness of the Orc's tone and the cry the surrounding Orcs made was enough to make him shiver with fear.

The Orc yanked him up, and he cried out as his shoulder was jostled. He must have injured it in his fall -- but there was nothing for it, as the Orcs were already moving forward, and he was being dragged along with his mother.

"No!" Bilbo cried, and he pulled back against the rope. He would not go into that dark place! He would not go into that terrible abyss! He would rather die -- but then the Orc grabbed his mother and squeezed her until she screamed, and Bilbo reacted without thinking, rushing forward to her side. The Orc laughed and let go, and Bilbo was left shaking, enraged by the easy manipulation, and terrified for his mother, who was shivering from the shock.

"I'm sorry, mama," Bilbo whispered, but Belladonna only shook her head.

"You have nothing to be sorry for, dear heart. Whatever happens after this, we will be brave," she said clearly, her strong voice carrying above the growls and grunts of the Orcs, and the Hobbits around her straightened, taking her words into their hearts and believing them. Then she squared her shoulders and strode forward into the darkness, and the Hobbits followed her, tears trickling over dirty cheeks at the inevitability of their doom.

Bilbo stared at the line of her back, lit by the edge of the sun, until shadow was cast over them all.