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Only time will tell

Chapter Text

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

However, all the comfort in the world was of no use to Bilbo Baggins as soon as night fell. The beauty and warmth of his house seemed to fade away as chill made its way in his bones and nightmares caught him in their grip. As a child Bilbo dreamed of fire raining down a mighty mountain, of desperate screams and anguished cries. He saw the look in the eyes of those who were dying and the tears in the eyes of those who were forced to flee their homes. His heart clenched in fear as he saw the mighty scales of the dragon that killed many and claimed a home that was not its own.

As a child Bilbo Baggins often woke up in the middle of the night, sheer terror etched on his face as the remains of the nightmare still plagued his mind. Sometimes his terrified screams would wake up his mother who would wrap her arms around his shivering form and whisper sweet nothings in his ear until he calmed down. Other times no one heard and he was left to brave the terror that came with his dreams alone.

What scared Bilbo the most was the vividness of those dreams. Occasionally he would have pleasant dreams of lush fields of green and cozy homes, of games of catch and laughter in the sun. However, these dreams would always be hazy, as if seen through mist or smoke. The nightmares would be vivid, their colors sharp and sounds clear.

In his heart he knew them to be true, even though his Baggins side tried to ignore them completely. In order to forget them he embraced his Took side and sought as many adventures as possible, their happy memory a shield against the frightful night. He chased elves and climbed trees, laughed and played, always ignoring the dark, ominous dreams that still plagued his nights.

As he grew, the dreams changed though remained just as terrifying. They turned in dreams of pain and blood, of mindless slaughter and unearthly cries. He saw creatures snarling and men dying, he felt pain and cried as the visage of the elves in his dreams contorted in pain and fear. He no longer sought out elves and dwarves, afraid that the faces of those he knew would appear in his dreams. With the death of his parents, the last true shield against the nightmares perished and Bilbo learned to deal with them as he could, by ignoring them. He embraced his Baggins side completely and dwelt little on the thoughts that plagued his night. He grew complacent, his most important thoughts turning towards food and his mother's silverware. Little by little the dreams started fading, as if knowing the one they plagued no longer believed in them.

However, a chance encounter with a wizard and thirteen dwarves would change things… for the better or for the worst.

Chapter Text

Hammers rise in the deep, while molten gold shines with brilliance in the deep. Song and laughter echoes in the stone halls. A king proud and stern watches over his kingdom, his heirs at his side.

The scene changes and fire rains down a lone mountain. At its feet a city lays in ruins, burning viciously. A roar echoes in the air and the large lizard hurls itself towards the gates of the dwarven kingdom, smashing them with ease. Shouts of pain rise in the citadel, followed by eerie silence. Survivors run out of the citadel, burned, injured, with despair etched on their faces.

Bilbo shot up like an arrow, almost falling out of his bed. He struggled to regain his breath, while his heart beat with frenzy. So long had passed since he had last seen that dream. At that time he had been a wee hobbit lad. Why now? Why had it returned? Could it mean… No, the Baggins part of him shut the traitorous thought down. Dreams do not mean anything. It must have been something he ate last night. Despite the fact that his Tookish side was roaring angrily in his head, demanding an explication, Bilbo brushed it aside and prepared himself for the day. He would not pay any more attention to that foolishness.

The hobbit had decided long ago, soon after his parents had perished, that his youth had been misspent chasing idle fantasies and trying to hide from something that would most likely trouble him for the rest of his life. He had decided that it was time to push fantasies aside and become a respectable hobbit. He let go of his Took side and embraced the Baggins blood within him thoroughly. Unfortunately for him, things were about to chance, whether he liked it or not.

A good pipe always settled his nerves. Before breakfast, before anything else, Bilbo decided he needed to calm himself. Grabbing some dried, Old Toby leaves he stuffed them in his pipe and sat down on the small bench outside his house. Closing his eyes, allowing the smoke of the pipe weed to muddle his senses and calm his nerves, the hobbit wondered whether the sharp tug of his heart was because of the fright of the night or something entirely different.

"Bilbo Baggins," a voice rumbled next to him and a tall figure shadowed his sun. "It has been too long."

Bilbo opened his eyes with apprehension. No, absolutely not! He would not deal with this now. Those years were long gone! Maybe if he acted like he didn't remember him? Oh, who was he kidding, that was Gandalf, he would not be fooled by such a ruse.

"Good morning," the hobbit mumbled.

"What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it to be or not or that you feel good this morning or that it is a morning to be good on? "

"I see you are still fond of riddles, Gandalf!" Bilbo grumbled in annoyance. "Very well, if you must know, I wish you a good morning as mine has been anything but."

"Well, at least you won't insult me by pretending not to know me as it has undoubtedly crossed your mind, dear Bilbo."

"Never crossed my mind," the hobbit lied through his teeth. He had left all that foolishness behind, why had it now come to torment him? "How may I help you, Gandalf?"

"I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure."

Chocking on the smoke of his pipe, Bilbo rose to his feet. He really should have seen this coming. After all, wasn't it what Gandalf was most famous for, besides his splendid fireworks? Luring unsuspecting hobbits from their homes, taking them on adventures to see the elves and the dwarves… years ago, the thought would have made his heart tremble in joy. Now it merely brought dread in his soul.

"An adventure," he mused, "Well best of luck with that! Nasty things adventures… wet, cold, make you late for dinner," rising to his feet, he moved toward the door of his beloved home. "Don't think you'll find anyone interested here. Good morning!"

"Imagine that, I have lived to be good morning-ed by the son of Belladonna Took, as if I was selling buttons at the door!" Gandalf huffed in annoyance. "You have changed, Bilbo and not for the better. Where is the hobbit that kept chasing elves and demanded stories whenever he saw me? The hobbit that arrived late at home and left dirty trails all over the carpet?"

"He's gone… he's been gone for a long time," Bilbo snapped stubbornly. "I have no wish for him to return or to partake in any adventures that you have planned!"

"And what of your dreams, hmm?" the wizard asked. "You never found out the answer to them."

"I find no need to answer riddles that herald death and despair. Good day, Gandalf! May you have more luck in Bree!"

It was a lie and he knew it, but Bilbo was afraid. Afraid to admit that it might be real, afraid to admit that outside the Shire the world was frightening and dangerous… afraid to admit that despite all that, he still yearned for something more than a peaceful life and a cozy home.

With a swift move and a sudden jerk of the door, Bilbo entered his home and collapsed in the first chair he saw. His heart hammered in his chest. With a dismayed cry Bilbo realized how close he had been to losing himself, how he had wanted to fall in that old pattern from his youth. Then the faces of his parents appeared before his eyes, their eyes darkened by fever and their faces flushed and he remembered with a lurch of the heart that he should have taken more care of them… he should have been there.

No, no more adventures would wait for Bilbo Baggins. He had sworn it and no matter what Gandalf said, no matter what promises he made, he would not change his mind. Besides, it was too late anyway… the wizard most likely already left.

Unknown to him, outside his home, a single rune was being carved on a freshly painted door by a meddlesome wizard. The adventure had only begun…

Chapter Text

Supper was usually a pleasant affair to one Bilbo Baggins. It was that moment of the day when he was sure he was alone, with no pesky relatives to bother him – and no wizards to meddle in his affairs. It was the time when he sat down in one of his late father's most comfortable chairs, grabbed some fish and cheese from his pantry and relaxed after the events of the day. Truthfully said his days were never taxing; sometimes they were annoying, especially when he met those dreadful Sackville-Baggins, but nothing out of the ordinary happened. That particular day, with Gandalf's appearance and mentions of adventures had rattled the poor hobbit badly, therefore if the food he set on the table was more plentiful than usual, no one could actually blame him. He always did find comfort in good food and a warm home.

Just as he was about to cut his first piece of cheese, the door of Bag End rattled. Someone was knocking at the door and rather loudly at that. Maybe Lobelia? No, there was no way in Middle Earth she would have the power to make her knocks that powerful. Annoying as she was and with a shriek unparalleled in Hobbiton, she had not the stature to hammer such knocks on his door.

Sighing in apprehension, Bilbo opened the door and came face to face with a hulky mass covered in fur. Were it not for the bald head and the distinctive large nose, Bilbo would have thought a bear had come to visit him in the night. Though, it probably would have been a nicer alternative.

"Dwalin, at your service," the stranger drawled in a gruff tone and pushed himself inside the house.

"Bilbo Baggins, at yours," the hobbit said with haste, tying his robes and trying to look somewhat presentable.

What in the world was happening? He had a dwarf in his home? A DWARF! His poor father would have fainted with shock, had he still been alive. This was all Gandalf's work, he knew it. While Bilbo stood confused in the doorstep, Dwalin had already made himself comfortable at his table, eating his supper.

By the time the second and third knocks at the door came, Bilbo was already fuming. His house was being overcome by dwarves who were moving his stuff, eating his food and dirtying his home. In that moment the Baggins side prevailed over everything else and by the time the dwarf count reached twelve he was too busy taking care of his cutlery, dishware and doilies, regardless of the fact that none of his parents, Belladonna especially, had not cared one ounce about them.

Blunt the knives, bend the forks
Smash the bottles and burn the corks
Chip the glasses and crack the plates
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!

Cut the cloth, tread on the fat
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat
Pour the milk on the pantry floor
Splash the wine on every door!

'There's a whole lot more that Bilbo Baggins hates!' the hobbit muttered furiously under his breath. 'Including pesky dwarves that overrun his home and meddling wizards.' Seeing Gandalf he quickly made his way to the wizard. "Gandalf, what is the meaning of this? My house has been infested by dwarves?"

And everything went downhill afterward…

Bilbo considered himself a good, sensible hobbit. Therefore, as any good, sensible hobbit would have done, when he heard of an adventure, he turned the wizard's offer down ( a rather pointless move, but a sensible one nonetheless ). When dwarves intruded in his life he tried to cope with the fact that his house had been turned upside down and his pantry had been demolished. However, all sensible notions flew out the window when Thorin Oakenshield first stepped inside Bag End. The wizard's knowing smirk did nothing to settle Bilbo's frayed nerves that were jarred by the fact that he had recognized the sharp, blue gaze.

A proud prince, overseeing a mighty kingdom… A fearless warrior, locking gazes with the enormous fire drake and living to tell the tale.

Bilbo understood part of the reason why Gandalf wanted him to be a part of the quest. The wizard had known about his dreams for many years and had always stated that dreams were nothing else that splashes of reality wrapping themselves around one's consciousness at night. However, too many years had passed since Gandalf had last set foot in the Shire. Too many things had been lost and Bilbo did not want to return to what had been. He had too many regrets already. No contract promising treasure – or a gruesome death! Really now, incineration? No, thank you! – would be able to ruse his Took side that easily. It would simply not be done!

When night finally came and all fell in oblivious slumber, Bilbo felt the claws of his nightmares grasp him tightly once more. They knew he had rejected the offer of the dwarves and knew that he was the only one able to change things. So, more powerful than ever before, they attacked mercilessly.

Dwarf brothers, one fair, one dark were laughing joyously around a fire sharing tales of their adventures. The same brothers were fighting hoards of orcs and wargs, back to back, their blades moving in sync, protecting each other. The fair haired one was laughing, while his younger brother was making a fool out of himself after drinking too much ale.

Blue eyes were gazing with longing at a solitary mountain. With fire in his eyes, mirroring the one surrounding him, the dwarf prince attacked a foe Bilbo could not see… A half smile, rare and precious, flared on the prince's face as he gazed at those who would follow him no matter what.

Then the dreams turned sour… death and despair echoed in the night. Shrieks and howls rang under the moonlight as blood soaked the ground. Elves, dwarves and men alike fell under poisoned blades. A wizard, wounded despite his power, gazed at the scene with sadness in his eyes. The dwarf brothers stood laid on stretchers, their bodies crushed and bloodless, together in death as they had been in life. Blue eyes, bereft of any light were closed as a stone was laid on the king's chest, his tomb closed for all eternity.

"NO!" Bilbo cried out and jumped out of bed, tears streaming down his cheeks. "No!" he whispered softer, but harsher, with a steely undertone in his voice.

Chapter Text

As soon as his treacherous heart calmed down and the tears stopped marring his cheeks, Bilbo decided to look back on his dream. It was a new one, that much was sure. For many years the hobbit had seen men, dwarves and elves dying during an unparalleled slaughter. However, never before had he been able to see the faces of the dead. They had always been a blur to him. But now, now he knew… or did he? Were dreams foretelling of things to come or were they merely images spurred by the events of the night before? Perhaps the wine was to blame or maybe the lack of?

Stepping down from the corner where he had fallen asleep, stretching in order to quiet his protesting muscles, Bilbo gingerly made his way around the house, trying to see whether his unwanted guests were still around or not. Seeing neither hair nor hide of them, the hobbit let out a small whoop of joy and smiled to himself. Gone, they were gone and he had his house back – which was curiously clean if he were to be honest with himself.

"This is as it should be," Bilbo whispered to himself. "Peace and quiet."

Why then was his soul so uneasy? Why did he keep seeing the pale faces of Fili and Kili as they lay on stretchers, bereft of life and laughter? Why did his heart clench at the idea that the dwarf prince who had showed him nothing but scorn the night before would not get to see his kingdom long?

"You are a foolish hobbit, Bilbo Baggins," he chided himself. "What if your very presence there will make things wrong? You are not a warrior neither are you a soldier. At most you will be a liability."

As he mumbled thus to himself he noticed an odd piece of parchment lying on the table, next to a forgotten contract.

Thorin and Company to Burglar Bilbo greeting!

Thinking it unnecessary to disturb your esteemed repose, we have proceeded in advance to make requisite preparations, and shall await your respected person at the Green Dragon Inn, Bywater, at II a.m. sharp.

Trusting that you will be punctual.

We have the honour to remain

Yours deeply

Thorin & Co.

Making up his mind on the spot, Bilbo signed the contract. Grabbing the first cloak he came across and a small pack he always had ready in case he decided to visit his relatives across the Brandywine river, the hobbit dashed out the door, running as fast as his feet could carry him. Behind him, his beloved Bag End remained unlocked and silent.

"Wait!" Bilbo cried out seeing the dwarven party preparing to leave. "Wait! I signed it!" he added waving the contract up and down. Coming to a stop besides Balin, the hobbit handed the contract to the old dwarf.

"It appears to be in order," Balin nodded, smiling at Bilbo.

"Give the hobbit a pony," Thorin snapped from the front of the column, annoyance plastered on his face.

Sturdy arms hoisted him on the back of a pony, despite his reassurances that he could walk and Bilbo soon found himself riding next to Gandalf. All around him bags of gold flew from one dwarf to the other. With amusement and an ounce of annoyance, the hobbit learned that bets had been placed on whether he would arrive at the meeting point or not.

"I never doubted you my boy," Gandalf smiled brightly as he too caught a bag of gold mid-air. Bilbo glared sullenly at the wizard, noticing his smug attitude. Truthfully said he had not joined the adventure to embrace his Took side or to return to the long past years of his youth. The only reason he had chosen to leave his home was the fact that he was a foolish hobbit. He might not even be able to change anything, but he would not risk seeing these new companions of his dead if he might be able to stop it.

"Perhaps you are wrong then," Bilbo gazed squarely in Gandalf's eyes. At the wizard's confused "Hmm?", the hobbit continued. "You know Gandalf, we hobbits are very simple beings. Fate, destiny, Higher Powers, these matters mean little to us. Simple folk do what they need to do regardless of consequences, because they are unable to think about grand schemes."

With these words Bilbo allowed his pony to fall behind Gandalf's larger horse, leaving a stunned wizard in front of him. Bilbo might not have known it then, but his proclamation had caused a shift in the flow of fate. Something changed; a stream of destiny that should have flown straight bend at an angle that led it to the unknown. Gandalf felt all that and understood that Bilbo may had been right and that he may had been wrong. Still, maybe, just maybe, he was also right and this change would prove to be for the best. If not, well, his task on Middle Earth was far from over and the time for him to answer to his actions had not yet come. He merely hoped he would still be welcomed in the West after everything that would transpire during this journey.

The first two days passed quickly. The rolling hills of the Shire remained behind, giving way to the wilderness east of Bree. All taverns were gone from the road and Bilbo found himself using the cold, hard ground as a bed for the first time in his life. They had made camp at the edge of the Weather Hills, but Bilbo found himself restless, unable to sleep. A rock kept pocking him in the ribs no matter how he shifted and Gloin's snoring was enough to keep even the horses awake. Shrieks rang in the night and the hobbit jumped to his feet in fright. Kili and by association Fili had taken the first watch so Bilbo turned to them and asked:

"What was that?"

"Orcs," Fili answered calmly, puffing on his pipe. "Throat-cutters… There are dozens of them in the mountains. The Lowlands are crawling."

"They strike when everyone's asleep," Kili added. "leaving nothing but rivers of blood behind."

Closing his eyes, the hobbit remembered parts of his last dream. The same shrieks were echoing then in his ears, unreal, yet almost tangible as he saw the dead and the wounded littering the ground.

"Do you think it's funny?" Thorin rose from his place, thundering at his nephews. "You see this as a joke?"

"We meant nothing by it," Fili tried explaining himself, while his brother remained silent, cowed by his uncle's rebuff.

"No you didn't! You know nothing of the world," Thorin snapped at them once more, before turning his back and walking towards the edge of the camp.

"Don't mind him, laddie," Balin placed a reassuring hand on Fili's shoulder. "Thorin has most cause than most to hate orcs. After the dragon took the Lonely Mountain our people were forced into exile. We wondered here and there, laboring in human villages, seeking work where we could. But King Thror was restless… his heart kept longing for The Ancient Dwarf Kingdom of Moria."

Bilbo stood in silence and listened to the tale of the Battle of Azanulbizar. In his mind he believed he could imagine the pain on Nar's face as he saw the head of his beloved King rolling in front of him with the name of Azog branded on his forehead. Bilbo could see the way Nar fled back to his kin, bringing news of their King's death. He followed the army as it gathered and marched in the valley of Azanulbizar before the East Gate of Moria. He saw their pain, their loss and their victory. He saw Thorin face Azog with nothing more than an oaken branch as a shield and emerge victorious.

"But there was no feast, no song that night," Balin continued with clouded eyes ", for our dead where beyond the count of grief. We few had survived and I thought to myself that day: There is one who I could follow! There is one I could call King!"

As he lay with his eyes closed that night, awaiting his much needed sleep, Bilbo knew he would dream. He knew his nightmares would catch up with him once more and knew he would see the Battle of Azanulbizar as if he had been there on that exact day.

Chapter Text

As a child, Bilbo had had few restful nights throughout the years. The nightmares that plagued his dreams often held him in their clutches until the morning and it was only the youthful exuberance of a fauntling that kept him going through the day. The idea of elves hiding in the forests of the Shire, of bird nests and fairies were the only thoughts that moved him through from place to place, giving him strength and energy to leave behind the fright of the night. Truly, at the end of the day he was a tired hobbit, but a happy one nonetheless.

However, at fifty years old he was no longer a hobbit child and the weariness of traveling had caught up with him swiftly. That fact, coupled with the orc shrieks that still rang in his ears and the death cries that flashed before his eyes even after morning came, made Bilbo Baggins one sluggish hobbit the following day. Moreover, riding a pony was proving to be most tiresome. His arms were stiff, his back hurt and his thighs were aflame with cramps. The sorrowful look on the hobbit's face went unnoticed as the company trekked on in the wilds.

The day seemed to pass in unnatural silence; the tale from the night before seemed to hang over everyone's hearts and no one dared make conversation, not even the youths of the group. Only, later, many hours later, when the sun was almost setting, did Kili and Fili shoot a glance at Bilbo and apparently made up their mind about something. Allowing their ponies to go slower, they fell behind until they flanked the hobbit on both sides. Bilbo threw them an aggravated look, still upset for the night before when they had made fun of him.

"Master Baggins," Fili started with a frown on his face and looked to his brother.

"We hope you bear us no hard feeling for the night before," Kili piped, much more enthusiastic than his brother. "We were simply jesting!"

The looks they were shooting him were so earnest that Bilbo felt unable to continue being mad at them. They reminded him of his younger nephews from the Took side who would climb his apple trees, steal apples and then look sorrowful when he caught them. Usually those little fiends ended up with a basket full of apples and some cookies when they felt. With a half-hearted sight, Bilbo nodded and assured them:

"It's all right. I knew it was in jest!"

Well, not really, but he wasn't going to admit that now. The identical smiles that broke on the brother's faces, however, worried him more than a horde of orcs could. Oh, no, what had he gotten himself into?

"Sooo, Master Baggins, we were wondering…" Fili started with a grin.

"What makes you look so sullen this fine day?" his brother continued. "Poor Myrtle here is sensing all the bad feelings that you are sending."

Bilbo glanced at his pony that looked like it had understood what the brothers were saying. Glancing square into the hobbit's eyes, she snorted with pony-like annoyance and turned her nose in the wind.

"It's nothing," Bilbo answered. "I was merely thinking."

Seeing the two so happy and full of life, he could easily shake the foreboding feeling that passed over him. He could not imagine his dream coming true, nor could he imagine their lives so easily sundered.

"A dangerous occupation," Kili piped.

"Of course," Fili added, "my brother never seems to undertake it. Everyone blames it on his youth, but I know he's simply addled."

"Oi! Addled? Youth? You're barely five years older than me! Like your 82 is a venerable age!" Kili snorted in mock annoyance and shoved his brother playfully over Bilbo's head.

Musing over the things he knew about dwarven culture from his books, Bilbo narrowed his eyes ever so slightly. If Fili was 82 years old, that meant Kili was 77; both were still considered youngsters if what his books told him was true. He wondered how in the world they had been allowed to join such a perilous journey.

"Say, how old are you, Master Baggins?"

The question almost flew past Bilbo's ears, caught as he was in his thoughts. However, upon seeing the expectant looks on Fili and Kili's faces, he struggled to find out what had been said to him.

"Oh, I'm 50 years old."

Shocked looks were thrown at him as the brothers exclaimed in one voice:

"You're so young!"

None of the three participants of the discussion noticed that some of the other dwarves had fallen behind to listen to the conversation. Bofur was now riding directly in front of Bilbo, whereas mere minutes before he had been at the middle of the column. Ori, also curious had fallen in pace with Fili, while Nori kept shooting curious glances at the three. Even Gandalf had fallen behind from his place at the front of the column.

"Not so young in Shire reckoning," Bilbo shrugged absent mindedly. "We hobbits live up to about 100-110 years old and reach our maturity at 33 years old. For a hobbit I'm very much middle aged. Old Took was the only hobbit to reach an age past 120 years old. Why, he actually lived to see 130 years old! However," Bilbo's voice turned dark at the sour memory, "there are cases when hobbits die earlier than expected. My mother, Old Took's daughter, only lived to see her 82nd birthday, whereas my father died at 86 years old."

The discussion ended as abruptly as it had started. Everyone sensed that Bilbo would not share anything else so they hurriedly moved back to their places, leaving the hobbit with his sorrow. Fili and Kili frowned a little, unhappy that what had started as a simple conversation ended on a sour note. Only Gandalf remained behind; placing a comforting hand on Bilbo's shoulder he whispered.

"Your mother was dear to my heart. She was an extraordinary woman. One day, if you feel up to it, I should like to know what fate befell her, making her die so young."

"One day, Gandalf," Bilbo whispered back with sad eyes. "Just not today…"

Bilbo knew he would rather keep the last memories of his parents buried deep within his soul, next to the guilt he felt whenever he thought about them. That one day he promised Gandalf would be many years from then, if he had a choice in the matter.

Soon afterward the company stopped for camp at the under the shadow of a small forest. Trying to keep a hold on his courage, Bilbo walked over to Bombur and asked to be allowed to help with the meals. Needless to say the stew no longer tasted like soup afterward. Although everyone had observed the change in the quality of their meals, it was Kili and Fili who had approached him, fake tears in their eyes, thanking him most profoundly for a decent meal. Needless to say, Bombur had not been pleased.

~~~***~~~***~~~

In the dark of the night, Bilbo kept fidgeting. A root or a rock kept pressing into his sides, making him unable to sleep. A few paces from him, Gandalf and Thorin were keeping watch, unaware that the Halfling was watching them with curious eyes.

"Your burglar's sleep is restless, Gandalf," Thorin mentioned in a cold voice. "If he is plague by nightmares only by thinking "what if", what will happen when he meets the true perils of the road, like orcs or wargs? How will he react upon seeing the dragon? He will most likely faint as he did in that hobbit hole of his."

"Bilbo's dreams have nothing do to with your quest, Thorin Oakenshield," Gandalf cut him off, sternly. "He has had them since he was a small lad. They are splashes of reality that get woven in his dreams and show him life as it is. Though they are mere dreams, Bilbo has seen as much death in them as you have seen in life."

"You mean to tell me he is a seer?" Thorin asked with doubt lancing his voice.

"No, at least not as far as I know. Bilbo sees the past not the future. If you ask him what he dreams, you might just be surprised. From what he has told me when he was young, seeing Smaug in reality would be no different than the times he has already seen him in his dreams."

"Why would a hobbit dream of a dragon?"

"I have my thoughts on the matter…" Gandalf left the matter hanging, making it clear that he would continue the discussion no longer. From what Bilbo could see the wizard was giving Thorin the chance to find out for himself.

With a sharp intake of breath, Bilbo tried his hardest not to give into the urge to tell the wizard he was wrong. Too many years had passed since Gandalf had last seen Bilbo. He did not know that the dreams had changed their course. He did not know that Bilbo saw something else now, apart from the fire raining down the mountain. Bilbo felt the dreams of his youth that showed what had passed had slowly given up their place to dreams that his heart told him were yet to come to pass. Yet, he was no seer! Or was he?

Sleep claimed him and Bilbo had no time to continue his musings. The next day brought more peril for him in the form of trolls, wargs and orcs, so the poor hobbit had no time to wonder about his past or future. Yet, the dreams kept nagging at the back of his mind…

Chapter Text

After almost being roasted by trolls and barely escaping blood thirsty wargs, Rivendell was like a breath of fresh air for Bilbo ( not that any of the dwarves agreed with him ). Having the possibility to spend a night under a solid roof without fearing an attack from orcs or wolves was more than the hobbit could ask for at that particular moment. In addition he finally had the chance to see elves. As he roamed the halls of the city, his eyes strayed everywhere trying to memorize as much as he could before they had to leave. All his childhood he had dreamed of meeting the fair folk and now he was in one of their cities.

Even the dwarves' constant grumbling and snorting could not put a damp on his happiness. He partially understood the dark looks they shot anytime an elf was in the vicinity, but for a simple being like a hobbit, blaming an entire race for the acts of few was beyond his understanding. It would have been similar to him ignoring the whole Shire folk just because Lobelia Sackville-Baggins was an obnoxious woman.

He thought about asking one of the dwarves more about this matter, but something stopped him. He did not want to antagonize anyone and most of the them barely accepted him anyway. Apart from Kili and Fili, only Bofur and Ori looked kindly upon him, the others seeing him as a nuisance at most. As a result he kept to himself, away from the others and partially hidden by the shadows of the hall where they had made their temporary camp ( the dwarves had been adamant that they did not want to request anything else of the elves, especially rooms, a fact which Bilbo lamented profoundly ).

"Why so glum, Master Baggins?" a voice interrupted his thoughts and Bilbo saw himself face to face with a smiling Bofur. "From what Gandalf told us you should have been the only one in the group glad to see the beauty of Rivendell."

"I'd rather steer away from Thorin's glares and grumbles," the hobbit sighed pathetically. "Every time I look at something remotely elvish I feel his glares burning in the back of my head."

"Well, Thorin has reason to distrust elves, more than all of us," Bofur said softly and sat down next to the hobbit, "Yet, I think not even he can deny the charm this place has."

"I cannot pretend to understand," Bilbo frowned, "this hate and distrust between dwarves and elves. It must be more than just what the Woodland king did otherwise not all elves would be held in such dislike."

"The distrust goes back to the First Ages of this world and it never disappeared. It wavered and faded at times when the need for it to be cast aside grew, but friendship between elves and dwarves was mostly unheard of. The only who were rumored to be friends were Celebrimbor of Eregion and Narvi of Durin's Line and even theirs was a secret friendship and frowned upon."

"This is all too much a simple hobbit like me can handle," Bilbo admitted wryly. "Hobbits see things one a smaller scale. For us distrust means not letting one's relative in your house after she stole your silver spoons."

Bofur grinned at Bilbo and let a short laugh. He imagined the hobbit chasing a furious female hobbit from his home and laughed even more. In a way Bofur was glad the Shire folk had never known the meaning of hate and pain; they were gentle folk and would likely not be able to handle such feelings.

"Well Master Baggins, if I ever come back to your Shire, you must show me this relative of yours."

"I'm not sure you want that," Bilbo gave a forced laugh. "Lobelia is as fierce as a dragon when something unhobbitish happens around her. She might just hit you with her wooden spoon."

With another laugh the two continued their conversation. Bofur wanted to know more about the Shire and its inhabitants, while Bilbo was curious to learn about dwarfish history. When night came, the dark mood that had settled over the company the day before had all been forgotten.

Bilbo had hoped that the peace surrounding Rivendell would have swept into his dreams as well, giving him one night of much craved rest. However, as often, fate had other plans and not long into the night darkness caught him in its clutches with ease. The dream was a new one, yet oddly familiar. However, for the first time, Bilbo was not just a witness, but a reluctant participant at the happenings of his dreams. He felt everything and it frightened him…

The night is clear, a pale, full moon lighting the crisp sky. Some would say it is a good night to die, yet Bilbo thinks otherwise. No night or day is good to die, no moment perfect to see his friends – dare he say his family? – perish. He stands next to Thorin, Fili and Kili, clad in soft mail, almost a warrior and yet still a would-be burglar. He stands in the darkness and awaits the massive horde…

Shrieks and howls fill the sky. Heavy, iron clad boots stomp the earth mercilessly. He hears them long before he can actually spot them. He is afraid, the terror runs through his veins, yet he stands his ground seeing no other choice.

A pause comes, anticlimactic, as all wait in silence… Quiet from all sides and then a sharp battle cry…

In the ensuring madness he tries to stay as close as possible to the others, but it's almost impossible. His sword flashes blue in the darkness hacking and slashing, wielded by a being too small to be actually noticed by the orcs yet big enough to be seen by the wargs.

He tires, yet he keeps fighting, knowing that it is the only way to remain alive. The others look out for him, but the foes are too many and they cannot be in more than one place at once.

It's almost dawn when he sees Thorin fall, injured by the great mace that once belonged to Azog and was now wielded by his spawn. Kili and Fili quickly protect him with their bodies, their blades moving in sync, keeping the large orc at bay. Still, Bilbo knows it is not enough. He sees the sweat glistering on their brows, the blood sweeping from their wounds and notices how they react slower and slower.

Suddenly, with a cry, Kili falls to his knees, the bone in his sword arm shattered by the mace. His brother moves forward to protect him, but he is injured and weary.

Bilbo acts without thinking. With his sword clutched in his hand, he runs forward and thrusts the blade in Bolg's back. With a roar the orc turns around, shaking the hobbit off and tossing him to the ground. Bilbo feels cold bite into his chest and needs not look to see the blade embedded in his chest. He looks however and sees Bolg's head fly of his shoulders and knows Fili got the opening he needed.

"Bilbo?" the blonde dwarf cries out and looks around, but his only answer is a soft whimper. Darkness sweeps at the edge of his vision and Bilbo slowly falls into oblivion.

"Hobbit! Hobbit! Bilbo!" a deep voice called gravely, but Bilbo barely saw anything around him. His eyes still held the darkness of death and despite the flames roaring in the fireplace, at first he did not know where he was. Thorin almost recoiled in shock seeing the haunted look in the Halfling's eyes. What could the hobbit had dreamed that had frightened him so?

"Bilbo!" he snapped once more, harsher this time, trying to shake the other out of his stupor. With a frightened yelp the hobbit jumped to his feet, a fist clutched to his chest just above his heart.

Several minutes passed during which Bilbo's erratic breathing got slower and quieter… minutes during Thorin stood silent and merely watched.

"The wizard told me of your dreams," the dwarf prince spoke after he had assured himself that Bilbo had partially calmed down. "What did you see?"

"Death…" Bilbo said with an odd reflection in his voice. "Or paths, choices…? I do not know."

"You speak in riddles, burglar!"

"I do not understand the nature of my dreams nor do I know why they have been given to me, Master Oakenshield," Bilbo snapped in annoyance, his nerves still strung from the dream. "All I know is that sometimes they show the past."

"And other times?" Thorin inquired with a gentler voice this time.

"I do not know. As I said, I think they are choices."

None of them saw the shadow that quietly left their halls nor did they see an old man, his face marred by worry. Gandalf had always prided himself with the fact that he was almost always right. Having roamed Middle Earth for so many centuries he had learned to see in the souls of those he met and his intuition had mostly guided him on the right track. Yet, now, as he walked down the halls of Imlandris and felt the ripples of fate, he wondered whether this time his choice had truly been the right one.

He had not expected Bilbo Baggins to be an enigma. Having known the hobbit as a lad, Gandalf had been sure that nothing could surprise him about the son of Belladonna Took. However, the conversation he had just witnessed had rattled his nerves. Bilbo might had seen the future… choices he had called them and it appeared the path diverged in more ways than one.

What resonance would such a choice have for the fate of the world? The wizard did not know and he was not sure he cared to find out.

"The world has changed," a voice came from the shadows announcing the arrival of the Lord of Imlandris. "Fate itself has changed its course. You did not tell me the Halfling had the gift of foresight, Gandalf."

"I did not know," the wizard closed his eyes, hit with a sudden bout of weariness. "His dreams used to be about the past. He calls them choices now."

"Then he is wiser than most," Elrond remarked, "and unlike many of his kin. Choices they are indeed and only he can make them for better or for worst. His fate is no longer in your hands."

"I know… perhaps this is exactly what I fear."

Nobody truly slept that night. In a hall lit only by the merry flames in the fireplace a hobbit pondered his fate and wondered whether he would ever return to see his home and his books.

Chapter Text

Had someone asked Bilbo for his opinion he would have said that nothing would have made him more happy than remaining in Imlandris for another month or two. The week the company had spent in the Elven City had replenished everyone's forces ( despite all their grumbling about elf food and elf music ), but for Bilbo the time had seemed much too short. He had managed to see a bit of the famous library and even dragged a reluctant Ori with him. The young scribe had soon forgotten his reluctance when he had seen himself surrounded by books on all sides most in Sindarin or Quenya, but some in Westron or Khuzdul. Moreover, his excitement was so great, that the youngster of the group started chattering happily with Bilbo, telling him stories of old. By the time they had left the library Bilbo's head was swarming with tales of Yavanna and Aulë – Mahal as the dwarves called him -, the seven fathers of dwarves and even tales of the first ages such as the Battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

The hobbit felt a strange kinship to Ori, who was just as passionate about books as himself. The young scribe had told him there were not many among dwarves who preferred books and quills to axes and swords, but those that existed were the ones who recorded the history of their race. Ori also admitted that he had barely finished his apprenticeship so he had much to learn. Thus, the possibility to see books as old as the ones in Lord Elrond's library had been an unexpected occasion.

However, time had passed swiftly and soon they found themselves back on the road. They would pass the Misty Mountains through the High Pass, a place that could not be reached with ponies and Bilbo had been more than glad when he had found out. Although he had gotten attached to poor Myrtle – who had been lost when the wargs had attacked – he preferred his own feet as opposed to riding.

The mountain pass was steep and the rocks sharp; even though the skin of Bilbo's feet was as thick as they came, he still felt every stone. It did not help that he was weary and at times barely able to keep his eyes open. Ever since that first night in Rivendell, his dreams had grown progressively worse, often waking him up in the dead of the night and keeping him up till dawn. Some he understood, while others were mere rapid flashes in an unintelligible succession. Many times Bilbo found himself woken up by one of the dwarves, usually Thorin and his nephews. Kili and Fili would cast him anxious glances, but ask nothing – probably at the order of their uncle – while Thorin would wait in silence and accept whether Bilbo wanted to share something or not.

Three dreams occurred more often than others, their outcome the same, even though the choices presented in them would be different. One dream was the one he had seen during his last night at Bag End… men, elves and dwarves dying, felled by orc sword, his companions slaughtered on the battle field. Sometimes he saw Kili, Fili and Thorin dying, while other times Bofur's unseeing eyes stared at him, his body drenched in blood or Ori shot him one last smile, before collapsing in a heap on the ground, a sword sticking out of his throat. In the second dream, no matter what he did, it was he who died sometimes alone, sometimes surrounded by the others – he had come to think this was the more pleasant alternative. However, what he feared most was the third dream, for something told him it would come to pass soon enough whether he liked it or not. The third dream was also the one plaguing him during their first camp in the High Pass…

All around him fire blazes powerfully, turning the forest to ash with each tree it touches. Pained howls echo in the night as wargs run away, tortured by their burning fur. In the tree they had taken refuge in it appears everything will be alright even if a pale orc astride a white warg is following them with malice.

However, not all wargs are wounded and they do not give up their assault. Jumping higher and higher they try to reach the wolves and the force of their assault bends the wood and uproots the tree. For one moment everything is still and then it all comes crashing down. The tree tumbles over the edge of the hill, held only by a flimsy root in the soil where it grew until now.

Noticing their desperate situation, with a steely resolve in his eyes, Thorin leaves the relative safety of the tree and charges the orc. Orcrist steady in his hand, he faces the white orc with no fear, only unflinching determination... The warg jumps and Thorin's blade meets it in meet air, but does not wound the cursed creature. Huge jaws clasp the dwarf prince in a deadly grip and toss him to the ground like a rag doll.

The white orc approaches, sword held high… the blade falls….

With a jolt Bilbo jumped to his feet, not even knowing when he had fallen asleep. Dawn was yet a few hours away and he was once more awake, frightened and confused, trying to settle his raging heart and his rattled nerves.

"Rhaich!" he cursed in Sindarin – something he had learned from the twin sons of Lord Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir. "Pe-channas, Bilbo!" he muttered to himself, still in Sindarin, unaware of the identical looks shot in his direction from another pair of brothers, this time dwarven, as he paced up and down in the camp.

"Kili?" the older brother said.

"Yes, Fili!"

"For all that I dislike elves, I pride myself for being able to swear in at least four different languages, one of them being theirs."

"I fail to see what you want," Kili frowned looking at his brother with suspicion painted on his face. "Surely you don't mean…"

"Our esteemed Master Baggins is cursing quite furiously in elvish right now."

Both brothers watched the pacing hobbit in confusion. It was the first time they had seen the hobbit as mad and rattled as he was at that moment. Even though they had promised Thorin not to pester their burglar with questions, they had noticed his disturbed sleep and could not help but wonder what was he dreaming that made him look so dreadfully lost at times.

A few paces away, in a different part of the camp, Thorin was seeking some answers as well. Both he and Gandalf had witnessed Bilbo's restlessness on numerous occasions.

"Is there nothing you can do about his dreams?" the dwarf prince asked, a frown etched on his face. "They are wearing him down. Soon enough he will be overwhelmed by fatigue."

"Bilbo's dreams are his and only he is able to deal with them," Gandalf answered, lighting his pipe. "The moment he chose to embrace them, he gave them life and strength. As a child Bilbo saw them merely as dreams, manifestations of the tales he heard throughout the day. After his parents died I believe he ignored them altogether, choosing to cast them aside as mere fantasies. However, at some point between your appearance and our arrival in Rivendell he dreamed something that made him believe they were real. He started believing in them, thus giving them power. They will only stop when he will decide what he wishes to do about them."

"He calls them choices," Thorin paused, "yet I think these choices are far from pleasant. Sometimes, when he wakes up, his eyes are dead as if he had seen The Halls of Waiting themselves and turned back from them. Other times he is haunted, more haunted than any of us in this party. Yet, he never talks about what he sees. He makes cryptic comments about choice and future paths, but that is all."

"I believe, in his heart, Bilbo must first understand what he wants… and what he is willing to loose in order to gain that which his heart desires. Only then will his choices be clear."

Another curse in Sindarin echoed from the edge of camp and several pairs of eyes turned to see a miserable hobbit, sitting alone on a flat rock, his fists clutching at his hair and his eyes rubbed red. With a soft smile, Bofur went to his new friend and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, while Balin shot the hobbit a kind look and muttered an:

"All will be well, laddie, you'll see!"

After night had fallen they had found themselves without shelter, caught in a raging storm and with no Gandalf in sight. The wizard had mentioned needing to go ahead to check the area and had not returned. The rocks were slippery and Bilbo barely managed to keep his pace and not fall in the abyss at his feet. The rain was biting into his flesh, the cold sending shivers through his entire body. For a fleeting moment he thought about Bag End and the warm cozy fireplace he would always light during stormy night, but he shook the thought away. There was no use dawdling on such ideas. He had made his choice – one out of many to come – and he would live with it. He would consider it to be the right one as long as he would be able to see his companions – friends? – alive and whole and happy, bursting with energy even on stormy nights as the one they were facing.

Out of the blue a loud crack rang in the air and for a fleeting moment Bilbo swore he felt the mountain move – which was of course silly since mountains did not move. Lightning cracked in the air above them and the hobbit threw Bofur a worried look to which his dwarf friend answered with a forced smile.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, boulders started flying in the air, crashing on the mountain and almost knocking the Company off its feet.

"Hold on! Keep close to the mountain!" someone cried out in front of him, but Bilbo could not see who. All he knew was that he had to clutch the wall next to him as tight as he could, least he met his untimely death crashing into the stones below his feet. Rock and debris fell down the mountain in waves. In front of him Kili and Fili moved close to each other, hands clutched together over the slippery rock.

"This is no thunderstorm!" Balin called out. "It's a thunder battle!"

Peeking from behind the crest of the mountain, Bilbo managed to see rock giants moving in the rain, throwing stones at each other with amazing force. Out of the blue he knew…he could not tell how, but he knew! Images flashed before his eyes, some too fast to comprehend, but some just slow enough to make him understand. He did not stop to ponder on why he was seeing them while awake, he just cried out as loud as he could over the pouring rain.

"DOWN! NOW!"

All thirteen members of the Company heeded his call just in time, for mere moments later a huge boulder flew above their heads, narrowly missing Bombur who was the last in line and smashing next to the mountain. Amazed glances were thrown at him, but there was no time for questions so they moved on, trying to escape alive. Fear was coursing through his body, but Bilbo ran aware that he had a small advantage that he had to pursue. He could not let the others down!

"I never believed the legends were true," Bofur gasped in shock next to Bilbo as they all dashed forward. "Heard about 'em as a lad, but never believed!"

"Well, now you get to see them!" Bilbo glared seeing Bofur's exited grin. The wind picked up and howled dreadfully around them, but all they could do was move and hope.

'Oh, Valar, what have I gotten myself into?' Bilbo thought to himself as he jumped over a small opening in the rock. 'Why did I not remain home?' More images, faster this time, assaulted him and he barely managed to pick one up before crying out:

"DUCK!"

The dwarves pressed next to the wall seeing another giant rise from the stone and throw a punch at the first one, sweeping past them into a frenzy of rock and water.

Suddenly, everything stopped making sense and it was all a maddening rush to take cover when the stone they were sitting upon came to life and started moving. Rock parted and everyone was jumping from one place to another, trying to keep together, trying to move one, trying not to be smashed to pieces.

"Kili!" Bilbo heard Fili cry out in front of him when the mountain split itself in two, separating the brothers for a few moments, before it crashed back in place and everyone was able to jump from one side to the other. The mountain rose even as they ran and Bilbo found himself next to Fili, Kili, Bifur and Bofur. Solid rock turned into stone knees and started moving, balancing them precariously from one side to another, while their companions cried at them from the other side to jump.

The giant they were all clinging to received a great blow to the face sending it lurching forward. Bilbo yelped in fright seeing as they were hurled toward solid rock. With a foreboding feeling, but no image to guide him this time, Bilbo grabbed Kili's arm and pulled him forward, away from the sharp, rock edge that was sprouting out of the mountain and into the relative safety of the small opening in front of them. The movement made him loose his balanced and he was launched forward into solid rock, his breath knocked out of him. The water on the mountain made him slip backward and he fell, barely grasping the edge of the mountain, his feet dangling above the stone abyss. His arms ached, but Bilbo Baggins was a determined hobbit. He was not going to die on that mountain; he would not abandon the others so easily.

"Bilbo!" Bofur's voice cried out and appeared at the edge of the mountain. The dwarf tried to reach him almost desperately, but his arms were too short. "I can't reach…"

For a fleeting moment the hobbit pondered letting go of one hand and meeting Bofur halfway there; however, he knew that given his fatigue, he would most likely slip and fall to his death. Suddenly, Thorin swung down and grabbed him. The dwarf prince looked fiercely determined and almost worried as he hoisted Bilbo up to Bofur's waiting arms. His legs turned to jelly and the hobbit collapsed into a heap on the solid ground just as Dwalin swung Thorin back up.

Strong arms hoisted him up and Bilbo saw himself flanked by both brothers, identical looks of worry on their faces. With a relieved sigh Bilbo saw that they were all there… thank Eru for small mercies.

"Bilbo… you… I…" Kili fretted anxiously, not knowing how to put into words what he felt. "I thought we lost you," he gave a nervous laugh and embraced the hobbit with tears in his eyes. "Thank you!" he whispered in Bilbo's ear and the hobbit petted his hair reassuringly as he had often done with his young Took cousins whenever they had been frightened.

"Do be careful, Bilbo," Bofur placed a hand on his shoulder. "We don't want to go losing our favorite burglar now do we?"

They moved onward until they found a cave in which to take cover from the storm. Although not very wide, the cavern was big enough to host the Company, but at the same time not long enough to host unwanted neighbors hidden in its shadows. Everyone started settling down in a flurry of movement: Bofur sat closest to the entrance of the cave. Fili and Kili placed their packs down next to the wall in the back of the cave, huddled together, still too rattled to leave the other out of sight. Bilbo decided to simply slide next to the wall, near Bofur. He was shacking like a leaf, still terrified by the night's event. Nothing had scared him as much as knowing that his life was not in his own hands; wargs, orcs, even trolls he could deal with because in the end they blend and they could be injured like any other, but stone giants moving and throwing rocks around was too much for him. Dangling in the air, hundreds of feet above the ground and knowing that a slip kept him away from a painful death was more frightening than any of his nightmares.

An arm was placed on his shoulder, with unusual gentleness, but Bilbo still flinched and looked up in fright. His gaze met the blue eyes of Thorin Oakenshield who appeared to be going through a hundred emotions at the same time.

"Thank you!" he said earnestly sparing a quick glance at the place where Kili and Fili had already fallen asleep. "For your insight… Gandalf was right."

"Not much of a grocer, am I?" Bilbo asked wryly and Thorin let out a short laugh, settling down next to the hobbit. For a moment neither spoke, until Bilbo gathered his thoughts and started slowly. "The first time I had a "real" dream as I called them then I was but a fauntling of six. I dreamed of a dragon and fire more powerful than that of any oven in the world. I told my mother, but she merely blamed Gandalf for telling me too many stories. I had just met the wizard then and pestered him all day. She said they would pass, but they didn't. They got worse! The dragon took shape and the fire seared a kingdom built in a mountain. I heard dying screams … The dreams changed through the years… I get glimpses of choices now sometimes… sometimes I see the whole path winding from beginning to the end. But I can't say more about this, not now at least…"

Thorin nodded in understanding… as silence fell over their camp and most of his companions fell prey to slumber, Bilbo thought that maybe, in the end, there was a chance for things to turn right. That day he had made the right choices; his heart would lead him down the right path.

Of course, everything came crashing down when the ground opened under their feet and they fell down the goblins tunnels…

Chapter Text

One moment Bilbo was asleep, the other he was tumbling down twisting tunnels next to his companions, wondering where in the world where they falling and praying that the blue light shed by his sword in those moments was wrong. However, he knew, because Gandalf had told him that his letter opener, as the dwarves called it, had been forged in Gondolin in the days of old and there was no chance for it to ever be wrong. As splinters bit into his limbs and dust clouded his eyes, Bilbo realized with a pained sigh that he had been relying too much on his dreams to tell him when something would be wrong. There had been no warning this time and he would be lucky if he lived enough to see another one.

Suddenly they were all dropping into a makeshift trap of some sort. Bilbo felt all the air leave his lungs when Oin landed on his chest, followed by Kili and Ori. Before any of them could have the time to jump to his feet they were swarmed by goblins. Hundreds of the foul creatures had surrounded them, taking their weapons and focusing mostly on his dwarven companions. Had someone asked, Bilbo would not have known what made him duck at that exact moment, but the movement made the goblins lose focus of him as they carted the dwarves away. Nori saw him free and shot him a worried – albeit hopeful – look. Pressing a finger to his lips to shush him, Bilbo tried following the others in silence standing a few paces behind, his sword glowing blue in his hand. However, luck was not on his side that day…out of nowhere a straggler jumped on him, snarling and waving its sword madly. Out of instinct – or maybe sheer dumb luck – Bilbo managed to meet its hits with his sword, until the goblin launched himself at him and they both toppled in the darkness beneath.

Rocks bit into his body as he rolled down the innards of the mountain, but he was lucky enough to fall on some mushrooms that probably saved his life, or a couple of ribs at the very least. In front of him the goblin was wheezing, clearly the more unlucky of the pair. Bilbo was just about to gingerly sit up and try to make his way out of the cavern when a twisted being all grey skin and bones came up to the goblin and dragged him away in the darkness, bashing him in the head a couple of times until the creature stilled and Sting's light dimmed.

Bilbo got up from his hiding place and quietly followed the creature. If it lived in the depth of the mountain, surely it knew a way out as well. As he walked forward a glimpse of gold caught his attention and he bent down to see what the shine was; it was a ring, simple and unadorned made of pure gold from what it seemed. Echoes whispered at the edge of his mind, whispering seductively words no one could understand, beckoning him… The ring was dark, Bilbo felt it in his bones, yet he could not resist the temptation. He knelt next to it and touched it, picking it up.

As soon as his skin came in contact with the cold metal, a huge pressure built up in his mind and images flared at the back of his consciousness.

Flash… a great eye, lidless, covered in flames overseeing a barren wasteland. Orcs filling the charred and black fields at the feet of a dark tower… A mountain erupting in flames in the distance…

Flash… darkness and cold, echoes of distant pasts, shadows of men long dead yet still enslaved riding dark horses and winged beasts, their shrieks making his ears throb…

Flash… a great war… men, elves and dwarves fighting on the plains at the feet of a dark tower. A man, valiant, with a broken sword cutting a golden ring with runes etched on it from the black hand of a great evil.

"Enough!" Bilbo whimpered to himself and dropped the ring in his pocket, wrenching himself away from the images that were still assaulting him, images of grey, twisted beings whose lives were sad tales, of death and despair, of the future, of the past and of the present. His head was throbbing painfully as he clutched to the wall in order to remain steady, trying to wrap his mind around what he had seen and what he had felt. His whole body was shivering with chills; he felt as if the cold had settled into his bones and veins, turning them to ice. He pressed forward, unsteadily, trying to see where the tunnel led.

Soon he found himself next to an underground lake face to face with the creature that had killed the goblin. It looked as terrifying as it did the first time with its huge eyes glowing in the darkness. Within moments he found himself locked into a game of riddles with the creature – Gollum? Smeagol? Which name was it, the one the creature uttered or the one whispered by the golden ring? –that would end up with his freedom or his death.

--------------------

Voiceless it cries,

Wingless flutters,

Toothless bites,

Mouthless mutters.

--------------------

How long had it been, Bilbo wondered as he gave the answer "wind", since he had last played a game of riddles with his cousins? The Took children used to gather in Tuckborough Hall often when Bilbo was young in order to play games. In his youth Bilbo had been a master at riddles, often besting even Old Took.

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A box without hinges, key, or lid,

Yet golden treasure inside is hid.

--------------------

Now, his favorite game had been turned against him, a mockery of the joy it used to be when he was small; yet, Bilbo felt nothing. No anger, no worry, no confusion, nothing. The chill that had settled in his soul made him numb to everything else. He couldn't even sense the fear that had been ever present during his journey.

"Eggses, precious, crunchy eggses," he heard dimly before the creature said another riddle.

--------------------

This thing all things devours:

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats high mountain down.

--------------------

He knew the answer to that riddle. It was the exact thing he needed, the thing he did not have… time. Yet, something made him stall. He could not say what; it seemed that down there, in the cave next to the underground lake time had ceased to exist. That twisted creature had lived down there who knew how many years without actually feeling the passing of time and something made Bilbo feel the same. But, he had to get out, he had to. In that exact moment he could not even remember why he had to get out, but he knew staying there was not possible.

"Time!" he called out before offering a challenge of his own. For a moment his hand strayed next to his pocket and he could feel the foreign shape under the fabric of his waistcoat. He almost asked 'What is in my pocket' before shaking the thought from his mind and asking:

--------------------

No-legs lay on one-leg, two-legs sat near on three-legs, four-legs got some.

--------------------

"We don't know precious, no we don't!" the creature whined and wailed, muttering furiously under its breath. Bilbo knew that Gollum would most likely go back on his word, so he backed away, watching with horrified fascination as the creature talked to itself again and again, crying that it had lost a Precious, before gazing at Bilbo with fury and prowling near him. The hobbit dashed away, not knowing where he was going, but sure that one way or another he had to get out and that goblins were probably the safest choice between them and Gollum.

Finally seeing an opening in the rocks, Bilbo forced his way through, mindless of the brass buttons he lost on the way and fell to the ground on the other side. The golden ring somehow jumped from his pocket and in its descend landed on his finger. For a moment he saw grey and shadows swirling around him, Gollum screeching in fury and not being able to spot him although he was lying on the ground right in front of the creature – the ring granted him invisibility? – and a soft ray of light coming from somewhere, before he felt the same pressure building in his mind, but this time increased tenfold. The images were not longer snippets now, but complete paths winding in the future and the past, telling him more than he wanted to know.

In the depth of a fiery mountain a ring was being forged… a simple, gold band with elvish writing engraved on it. Its owner, someone who looked as fair as an elf, but was in fact dark and twisted took the Ring from its fiery home and cooled it, before placing it on its finger. All around Middle Earth the echo of this deed rang in the hearts of the three races; the elves moved quickly and hid their rings where no one else could find them. The dwarves retreated in their stone homes and took care of the Seven, knowing that although they could not be enslaved by the rings, they could be affected. Men, greedy, lusting for power, used the Nine and fell under the power of the One.

A great battle took place on a deserted plain in front of the fiery mountain. Men, elves and dwarves met orcs and trolls in combat and fought fiercely. An Elven Lord fell in battle next to a King of Men. The King's son cut the ring off the hand of the Enemy and kept it for himself.

Water… great stretches of water falling continuously over the Ring as it waited and waited for someone to finally acknowledge it. A hand, a fight, whispered names of Deagol and Smeagol and finally the Ring had a new master…

Years and centuries stretching endlessly in the depth of the Misty Mountains as the creature, now Gollum, no longer Smeagol, kept the Precious to itself, whispering words of love and hatred to it. Rumors of shadows, whispers of nameless fears in the forest of the world… the sign that the Ring had to leave Gollum and seek its Master.

Bilbo shivered in the darkness, the coldness sweeping more strongly in his bones, loud shrieks of winged beats echoing in his ears again and again. All around him the world was grey and dark, the edge of the shadow world, a place where he had no reason to linger.

Flash… the dream changes and it is no longer a dream of the past, but of the present and future. A great dragon lies asleep on a pile of gold, surrounded by the treasure he had stolen from a dwarf King. A great cry in Khuzdul rings inside the mountain as thirteen dwarves appear from the stone and surround the great lizard, attacking it from all sides. The dragon wakes up, enraged and attacks the Company.

Flash… another dream of the dragon, but this time it is attacking a settlement of Men set on the banks of a lake. Flames lick at the houses of Laketown, turning them to ash, killing men, women and children alike. An archer aided by an old raven prepares and arrow. He knows he has but one choice, else everything is fated for doom.

Flash… trees burn everywhere around him and wargs howl in the night. The moon is hidden by the clouds, as if not wishing to witness the slaughter that is bound to happen. Blue eyes lock with red and the dwarf prince raises Orcrist high in the air. Next to him his nephews approach the other orcs with a steely resolve. Bilbo sees their eyes in his dream and remembers why he must leave the tunnel, the mountain, why he must get rid of that accursed Ring that is dragging him further and further into the spirit world.

With a gasp and a sudden cry, Bilbo took the ring off his finger and stuffed it into his pocket. His whole form was shivering and nausea was forming in his throat. Stumbling almost half blindly, still seeing the grey shadows of the other world, he leaned on the stone and dry heaved. A few rays of light were reaching him faintly and Bilbo embraced their warmth and color, letting them guide his way. Gollum was nowhere to be seen, but the entrance of the mountain was in front of him. Gathering his withered strength, Bilbo sprinted outside and found himself going down a mountain path and entering a familiar forest. He ran until he heard voices in front of him, moment when he stopped to peek and listen.

"How could you have lost the hobbit?" Gandalf's voice rang with annoyance in the woods. "When did you last see him?"

"I saw 'im after the goblins caught us, Mr. Gandalf," Nori's voice said with a hint of panic. "The goblins didn't see 'im and he was trying to trail us. But at some point he disappeared."

"Do you think he's still in the mountain?" Kili asked.

"We can't leave him there!" Fili added with determination.

"There's no need to." Bilbo finally revealed himself, happy to see his friends, but so very tired. Fourteen pairs of eyes shot amazed, relieved and worried glances at him.

"Bilbo! You got away! How did you escape?", happy voices rose around him.

Without prior warning Bilbo found himself tackled to the ground by two very enthusiastic and very happy brothers and their scarf-kitting friend…

"Umph!" Bilbo grumbled as he patted the younger dwarves on the head. "Kili, Fili, Ori not that I'm not glad to see you, but I can't breathe."

Muttering apologies the three rose to their feet and hauled to hobbit up. Fili hissed in surprise and shot Bilbo a worried look.

"Your hands are so cold! And you look terrible! What in Mahal's name have you been up to?"

It was true… the longer the dwarves checked the hobbit out the more they witnessed the changes he had gone through in the mines. His usually flushed cheeks were pale white and dark bags had formed under his eyes. His hands were shivering without his notice and his whole body was swaying as if under severe strain. Before anyone had the time to ask the hobbit what had happened howls echoed in the air.

"Wargs," Gandalf spat, "Out of the frying pan…"

"… and into the fire," Thorin nodded. "RUN!"

Kili and Fili each grabbed one of Bilbo's arms – swearing not to lose him again – and all three of them broke into a run. The ground shook behind them as clawed paws were heard approaching closer and closer. Razor sharp teeth snapped somewhere behind Bilbo – too close for his comfort – and the hobbit ran faster, still held by Fili and Kili, trying not to tumble down the hill. One of the beasts jumped in front of them, cutting their path. The brothers took their swords out and felled the beast.

Bilbo's sword was out before he could even make the conscious choice to use it. Everything seemed like second nature to him now. He ran forward, following the brothers, getting closer and closer to the edge of the mountain and seeing no escape route in sight. A warg bit close to his shoulder and Bilbo twirled in place, embedding the blade in the creature's head.

"Up in the trees!" Gandalf shouted. "Quickly!"

Grabbing his sword from the corpse of the Gundabad wolf, Bilbo ran to the nearest tree and realized in dismay that there was no chance to climb it. He was simply too small! Before he had time to ponder what to do, Nori jumped to the lowest branch and swept Bilbo in his arms with surprising ease.

"Not letting ya of my sight again, Master Baggins!" the dwarf grinned. "Who knows where you'll get lost!"

Mere moments later, wargs swarmed the ground under them, howling with fury and trying to reach their prey. Then, besides the orcs that followed their mounts of choice, another being stepped into the clearing.

A pale orc astride a white warg… with a sharp intake of breath Bilbo understood exactly what he was seeing and shouted in his mind at the unfairness of it all. It was too soon, he had no idea what to do, how to help them, NO! The orc was exactly how he had seen him in his dreams, pale white with blood red eyes and a body littered with scars.

He spoke in a harsh and guttural language that sent chills down Bilbo's spine. From his pocket he felt soft whispers answering in a similar language and he froze, knowing that it was that blasted ring answering the call of the orcs though they could not hear it.

"Azog!" from somewhere to his left Thorin said in a strangled voice. "It's not possible!" In a tree next to him Fili let out a loud growl and Kili cursed in Khuzdul.

It was possible and Bilbo knew it better than most. Part of him felt guilty for not sharing his belief that the orc who had killed Thorin's grandfather was alive, but he had had his reasons.

Suddenly, following a harsh order issued by Azog, the wargs started attacking the trees. Bilbo barely managed to keep hold of the branch he was sitting on, before the tree lurched forward and started falling.

"Seems like we'll be jumping, Master Baggins," Nori said grimly as the tree started falling and crashed into the nearby tree. Bilbo found himself flung from his branch and barely caught another one before that tree too started falling. The process repeated two or three more times – Bilbo lost count – before all the company found itself perched in the tree where Gandalf had taken shelter. The attack halted for a few moments as Azog laughed something in that vile tongue of his, before it got renewed with even more strength than before.

Gandalf started lighting pine cones and tossing them at the wargs. The beats' fur caught fire and soon the flames spread in the entire forest as all of them grabbed the flaming cones the wizard was making and tossed them as accurately as possible. Just when things were starting to look brighter, the tree they were sitting in started toppling backwards, barely hanging above the abyss that spread at their feet.

Then, everything seemed to move in slow motion. Bilbo saw Thorin, fire blazing in his eyes, move from the safety of the tree and charge with a mighty cry. The hobbit wanted to shout out a warning, to tell the dwarf prince to turn back, that no victory could be found in such an endeavor, but the words got stuck in his throat. Instead he watched in horrified fascination as the white warg leapt towards Thorin, its claws almost grazing the dwarf prince's back. Azog turned his mount around and raised his mighty mace that got met by Orcrist in mid air. However, the orc's strength was greater and Thorin was sent falling backwards. The warg growled and its huge jaws closed around the dwarf's body.

Fear built in Bilbo's soul even as Thorin managed to free himself from the jaws of the beast; he knew what he could do! It was the only path he had not seen, the only path not taken and just as Dwalin cried out "Thorin" in the night, Bilbo decided he would make that choice no matter what.

Jumping to his feet, Bilbo scrambled out of the tree and on the ground just in time to see the last bit of strength leave Thorin. A second orc was approaching him, sword raised high in order to deliver the fatal blow. With a desperate cry Bilbo sprinted forward, his sword clutched in his hand.

'I WILL NOT LET YOU DIE!' he vowed and made the first step down one of the main paths of fate. As he flung himself towards the orc, knocking him down and stabbing him, Bilbo made another choice, to disregard his safety in favor of others. The hobbit stumbled off the now still orc and placed himself between Azog and Thorin. He knew he had no chance to face the Pale Orc if Thorin had been defeated by him, but the Valars help him he would try. He could not stand still and let death take his leader.

"Akashuga!" Azog growled in distaste. "Time to die!"

The white warg prowled closer to Bilbo, its fangs bared in a growl. Bilbo swung Sting wildly in front of him, but the wolf like creature swiped a paw at him, as if batting away an annoying insect. Razor sharp claws bit into his chest, tearing his flimsy waistcoat and drawing blood. Bilbo fell to the ground, pain flaring in his body, as the huge Gundabad warg moved closer and placed a massive paw on his chest. Pain flared inside him as a few cracks rang in the night. Fighting to stay conscious, Bilbo brought Sting down and stabbed the creature in its paw. The warg howled and reared back.

Bilbo fought to rise to his feet, but the pain was too powerful and the pressure in his chest made it hard to breathe. Just as he was about to give up a shrill cry echoed in the night and a pair of massive claws caught him gently and lifted him in the air. He was in a huge eagle's grasp and he was glad to see that all of his companions had been rescued, including Thorin who was still unconscious.

The eagles finally reached a rock plateau where they gently set their charges down. Bilbo barely managed to stand on his feet, his breathing labored and harsh, yet desperate to see whether Thorin would be all right. Gandalf quickly rushed at Thorin's side and muttered strange words, until the dwarf's eyes started to flutter open.

All gave a sigh of relief in one breath as the dwarf prince slowly began to stand.

"The Halfling…?" he asked looking around. "Where?"

Gandalf moved a few paces left, bringing Bilbo into full view. Thorin's blue gaze met Bilbo's worn and tired one and the dwarf prince's face morphed into a frown as he moved forward. Bilbo flinched, barely and prepared for the harsh words that he knew were soon to come. However, in his soul, his Took side was roaring powerfully, ready to be unleashed at the first sign.

"What in Mahal's name were you thinking charging Azog like that, brandishing that letter opener of yours like a half-crazed maniac? You could have died!" Thorin's words were laced with concern as he looked the hobbit over, noticing his wounds and his wheezing breath. He did not expect Bilbo to give a half-crazed, almost mad laugh that sent chills down his spine and to break down in both tears and laughter, his usually calm eyes blazing with fury.

"You!" Bilbo cried out, whether in anger, relief, or both he did not know. "You stubborn, maddening DWARF!" he spat as if it was the biggest insult he could come out with. "Do you know what I've seen these last days?" Tears started leaking at the corner of his eyes and he tried to wipe them away, but they kept falling. "Choices, choices and again choices! Each one starting with you charging Azog like a mad man and each one ending with you dead, sometimes followed by all the rest…. And every time I would be left alone, because there would be no crueler move on the orcs' part than leaving me alive while the rest of you lay dead." With a sob he broke down crying and managed to gasp, "And I thought I would be too late again and this time when it mattered most."

The final burst of strength left Bilbo and his eyes rolled at the back of his head. He started falling, only to be caught in Thorin's strong arms. Only later would the words actually register in the dwarf prince's mind and he would realize that the Halfling had known Azog was still alive.

At the moment, though, he gazed at the one who saved his life with a gentle look in his eyes and understood that even the smallest of being could change the fate of the world.

Chapter Text

For a moment Thorin had been shocked by the viciousness and the almost palpable madness in the hobbit's voice. It was as if Bilbo had entered the mountain and someone completely different had left it. Then he heard it, the admission of Bilbo's dreams, the pain of what had been plaguing him, and the guilt that had been wearing him down when in fact he had done nothing wrong. Thorin felt his heart clench in his chest when the truth came tumbling out.

"And every time I would be left alone, because there would be no crueler move on the orcs' part than leaving me alive while the rest of you lay dead."

The possibility of such a path almost sent Thorin reeling backwards. He now understood the pain in Bilbo's eyes each time he woke up. He remembered the hobbit's countenance – so incredibly sad and utterly lost – and the way his fists clenched at his curly hair. Thorin knew then why the hobbit would glance at him or his nephews every moment or so, as if reassuring himself that they were indeed there, why he moved closer to Ori and Bofur whenever they disappeared from his sight. The vividness of the dream was too palpable for the hobbit to be reassured easily that his friends were still alive and well.

Then that heart wrenching sob that seemed to have come from the depth of Bilbo's soul left his body and he was suddenly toppling forward, pale and unconscious. The only thing that Thorin had been able to do was catch the hobbit in his arms and watch with growing concern as the red stain marring the green waistcoat seemed to be growing with each passing moment.

The hobbit felt like deadweight in Thorin's arms and the dwarf could not help but notice the awful state his burglar was in. Bilbo's skin was as white as chalk, marred only by the fresh blood seeping from his wounds; his whole body was cold as ice and the Halfling was shivering, moaning in pain in his unconscious state. In his heart Thorin felt something was unnatural about the chills that were racking the hobbit's body.

"Gandalf!" the dwarf cried out and gently placed Bilbo on the rock plateau. "He's freezing!"

The wizard rushed to the hobbit's side, hands moving in an intricate pattern above the Halfling's head, while strange words were muttered in a soothing voice. However, the blue that was tingeing Bilbo's lips was persistent and Gandalf's muttering had to grow in intensity until warmth started sweeping back in the hobbit's limbs. Slowly Bilbo's cheeks started gaining some color, moving from the grey-white of near death to an unnatural pallor.

"What happened to Master Bilbo?" a soft voice asked from behind Thorin. Ori stepped in sight, a frown marring his usually carefree features.

"Some kind of magic took hold of him," Gandalf answered, weariness in his voice. "A magic that is dark and old, almost as old as I am. I know not how he came across it, nor if Bilbo is in any position to answer our questions. This magic is familiar to me, although I cannot place it at the moment. It was draining our hobbit's life force. Had more moments passed before I intervened we would have lost him to the shadow world. Now that the danger had passed his other wounds need tending to. Yours as well, Thorin," the wizard added with a meaningful glance thrown at the dwarf king.

"My wounds are mere scratches," Thorin said darkly, despite the fact that his whole body was aching and he felt as if he had been chewed on by a warg – which he supposed in a way, he had been. "The armor took the brunt of the hits. The hobbit did not have such a luxury."

"Our packs are gone," Oin muttered darkly. "I would have been able to treat our burglar had I had my pack and my ointments, but with it gone, what can we do? There are no herbs or bandaged on this piece of rock."

"I may be able to aid you here," Gandalf smiled and produced two packs out of nowhere."These were the only ones I was able to rescue from the Goblin Town. I believe you will find all that you need in them."

If anyone felt something was suspicious with the fact that only – and precisely – Thorin and Oin's packs had been rescued, they stayed their tongues and said nothing. They needed the medicine that was kept in Oin's pack and were glad that their leader had not lost his possessions.

With precise movements, Oin removed Bilbo's waistcoat – mostly thorn up by now – and cut up the useless piece of garment underneath. With a hiss of surprise, the dwarf uncovered the hobbit's chest and glared as he saw four, deep gashes with filth and mud scattered in them, still bleeding viciously. Bilbo's sides were turning a dark blue and careful probing, on Oin's part, revealed two cracked ribs and several deep bruises.

"Kili, Fili, go fill my waterskin and bring it here," the dwarf ordered and, for once, the two brothers made no comment and ran to the Anduin in order to bring fresh water from the River. Once the two returned with the fresh water, Oin carefully washed the hobbit's wounds until none of the grime from the warg's claws was left inside them, and then applied his special ointment on them. Grabbing fresh bandages from his back, he bound Bilbo's ribs as tight as he could without making it hard for the hobbit to breathe.

"This is all I can do for now," the dwarf grumbled. "The rest is up to the lad! He has to will himself to wake up."

The others nodded grimly and settled down on the plateau. They would remain there for as long as it would be needed until their burglar woke up.

Gloin placed a reassuring hand on his brother's shoulder. He was sure Oin had done all that had been possible for the Halfling. Despite his stature, the hobbit was resilient and as courageous as Gloin's son, Gimli. He was sure that, no matter, what Bilbo would return to them.

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

A dull, grey, dead world… the only things that surrounded Bilbo in the threshold he was currently sitting on were the shadows gliding everywhere, muttering in foreign tongues, weeping and snarling, cursing and howling. He felt the chill that had accompanied him since the cave settling in his bones with each passing moment he spent in their presence.

"Bilbo, Bilbo", a soft, female voice called softly, but he could not see her and, in a way, he was glad she was not stuck in such a grey world. "Go back, son, your time has not yet come. Live, Bilbo, the Halls of Mandos will wait for you many years from now."

Her voice seemed to install some warmth in his body and with each soothing word she uttered, he felt the ice in his veins leaving. A sudden jolt dragged him away from the shadow world, but he found himself in a place as terrifying as before.

He stood in darkness, the only light being the glitter of the gold pieces in the cave. A massive dragon was sleeping in the pile, his breath blowing smoke in the cave, making it unnaturally hot. Bilbo tried to move away as stealthily as possible; he toyed with the idea of using the Ring in order to become invisible, but as he searched his pockets he found no familiar golden band there. He moved slowly, edging away from the dragon until a wrong step made him slip on a silver cup.

With tremendous noise he fell forward in the pile. The dragon opened his eyes in anger and saw the intruder. With no prior warning he let out a roar and fire erupted from his mouth.

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

Kili and Fili flanked their favorite hobbit – well actually their only hobbit – and stood as close to him as possible, protecting him from any possible threat with their own bodies. Bilbo had become, to them, what only their mother, Thorin and each other had ever been – family. It was frightening how easily the hobbit, with his soft voice, gentle nature, confusing mannerism and frightening dreams had wormed his way into their hearts, filling a gap that they did not even know existed. But now that he did, Bilbo had become family, had become theirs and although they were young and naïve, unversed in the ways of the world, they promised they would never abandon him as they had in the Goblin town when fleeing for their life had been the most important thing in the world.

Seeing Thorin face Azog when the odds were against him had made a stone drop in their stomach. They remained rooted to the spot, almost afraid to react and watched horrified as sweet, gentle, small Bilbo hurled himself with the strength of a wild boar at the foe that was about to end their uncle's life. Shame filled them and propelled them into moving and they jumped from their tree, hacking and slashing at orcs and warg alike, not waiting to see whether their hits landed before they made another one.

Dread filled them as they saw the massive, white warg step onto the small form of their hobbit and they charged forward, but before they could do anything, Bilbo had managed to escape and the eagles saved him and everyone else.

Safe was such a relative meaning, both brothers though to themselves as they stood next to their hobbit, their fingers entangled over Bilbo's chest, making sure his heart was still beating steadily. Bilbo was never safe, not since he had left Bag End. In dreams or reality he was always plagued by war and death; Fili and Kili could not understand why someone as gentle as Bilbo deserved to suffer so much.

"And every time I would be left alone, because there would be no crueler move on the orcs' part than leaving me alive while the rest of you lay dead."

The hobbit's words still echoed in their ears. They knew part of them should be glad that Bilbo cared about them as they cared about him, but they could not get past the fact that he had seen so much pain and death and said nothing, merely endured.

Fili's hand moved out of his own accord and brushed a few strands of hair from Bilbo's forehead. When his skin met Bilbo's forehead, his hand froze in shock. The hobbit was burning up with a fever.

"OIN!" Fili roared and his brother shot up next to him, looking around in confusion before he too felt the wave of heat rising from Bilbo's skin. The elder dwarf came running, followed by Bofur and Ori. "He's burning up!" Fili cried out and moved away, giving Oin easier access to the hobbit.

The healer quickly undid the bandages on the hobbit's torso and checked the wounds. Although they were redder than normal, they were not infected. Something else was ailing the hobbit, but he could not tell what.

"His fever is too high!" Oin grumbled.

"How can we bring it down?" Kili asked with worry, glancing everywhere as if expecting the answer to spring from the stone.

"The river," Ori gasped and all looked at him with astonishment. "Once when we were small Nori got very sick and his fever spiked. Ma' ducked him into a basin filled to the brim with cold water and his fever broke."

"The lad's right, it's our only chance in this situation."

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

Bilbo felt the heat of the fire on his skin, but instead of death and blessed oblivion, his suffering continued as the dragon breathed fire over him. His body shook with each renewed attack on the dragon's part, but he could not move, could not do anything but stand there and suffer. It seemed as if his entire strength had left him.

The scene changed and he was standing inside a mountain, next to a fiery chasm. Lava erupted everywhere and molten rock surrounded him. Echoes of whispers started getting louder and louder and he noticed the Ring was once again in his possession, getting heavier and heavier by the minute, glad to be back to place where it had been forged. The whispers only grew in intensity, here and there, Bilbo's name echoing in the depth of the mountain. Seductive words filled with darkness entered his mind, but he could make no sense of them, only understanding that they promised power and happiness until the end of time. His heart told him to take the Ring and toss it as far as possible in the fire beneath his feet. He had no need for wealth or power and he was as happy as one could get. No Ring would be able to give him his heart's desire. Yet, try as he might, he couldn't throw the Ring away. Something or someone was stopping him, forcing him to use the Ring instead, to give in to its whispers. He almost placed it on his finger and then…

 

COLD! Freezing cold was once again taking over him, but this time it was a natural cold, chilling his body.

"Cold…" his teeth chattered as he spoke to no one in particular; he could not even see anyone through the haze that had settled over his sight. "So cold…"

"Easy, laddie, it'll do ya good!" a gruff voice said in his ear, but he did not know who it was. He only knew that he had been cold, then hot and then cold again and suddenly something soft was surrounding him and he felt right.

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

Thorin placed his fur cloak over the hobbit, wrapping him in it in order to still the chills of Bilbo's body. He had been half asleep when he had heard his nephew call for Oin and had seen the hobbit's flushed face and still form. The graveness with which their resident healer had rushed Bilbo to the rapids of Anduin had let Thorin know that the situation was dire.

Now the would-be burglar's face was once again a normal color and the chills wracking his body had subsided. Bilbo had passed into a natural sleep and the dwarf king could not be gladder. Still, questions echoed at the back of his mind, questions that demanded answers and he vowed not to allow the hobbits elusive answers this time. Something had happened inside the mountain, something that had allowed magic to take control of the hobbit. He needed to know what. He also needed to know how long the hobbit had been aware that Azog was alive and how long he had kept all that information to himself, despite the torment it was causing him.

As he glanced at Bilbo's face, Thorin noticed, with surprise, a tiny smile twisting the burglar's lips. He had not seen the hobbit sleep restfully since that first night in Bag End when he had fallen asleep in the corner of his home, while the rest of them were singing their song. That time the hobbit had had a peaceful expression on his face, though it came only briefly and disappeared rapidly. Now the same expression was adorning his face…

A sense of peace and fulfillment shoots through Bilbo's body as he watches the great kingdom of Erebor being rebuilt. A flutter of activity fills the mountain as dwarves run from here to there, repairing the damage made by Smaug, creating new works and polishing the old ones. Outside the city gates the town of Dale is being rebuilt, slower and with more caution, but with the same enthusiasm.

Somehow, Bilbo is able to see all this, to sense the joy and tranquility that fell over the home of his friends. He sees Kili and Fili embraced by a dark haired dwarf woman and when her eyes sparkle dark as her sons' in the sun, he understands that she is their mother, Dis, Thorin's sister. His gaze settles on Ori who is huddled deep inside Erebor's library, perusing old manuscript and writing his own account of the tale they had created together. In a tavern Dwalin, Bombur and Bifur are gulping down entire tankards of ale, laughing merrily as they had not been able to in way too many years. Somewhere, close to them, but still a bit part, Bofur is smiling peacefully, his eyes following the form of a red haired dwarf woman who is serving at the tables.

Sitting on an imposing throne, deep inside the mountain, Thorin is overseeing his Kingdom, his home reclaimed at long last. His smile is fleeting, but there and no one can mistake the light that can be seen in his eyes. He has managed to do what he had promised, managed to win back their home and bring his people from exile. His family can finally enjoy the stability they deserve. For once, all is well…

When Bilbo started waking up he felt as if his entire body had been trampled by Oliphants. His chest ached terribly and his sides stung like blazes. Every breath he took was a chore, sending new waves of anguish down his battered body. He opened his eyes and tried to blink the haze away from them. It was night and the stars were glittering in the sky, giving just enough light for Bilbo to see two pairs of arms encircling his waist and two heads, one dark, and one fair buried in his sides. At his feet, another dark haired dwarf, wrapped in a knitted scarf was snoring lightly. With a soft sight, he moved his hands to gently caress the brothers' hair. Despite being fierce warriors, sometimes they were so much like children it ached. As his eyes closed once more and slumber caught him into its web, Bilbo did not see a pair of blue eyes gazing at him with a relieved look.

Chapter Text

The second time Bilbo woke up it was already dusk and the ache of the day before seemed to have multiplied tenfold. He was surprised to see that the brothers had not left his side, nor had Ori. Through fluttering eyelids he noticed Kili, a few paces away, playing with the string of his bow, his brother by his side muttering something that had the youngest bark a laugh every now and then. Close by them stood Ori, yarn and knitting needles in hand - how in Eru's name had those escaped Goblin Town? -, creating something that looked like a misshaped sweater.

Bilbo tried to rise to his feet, but as soon as he made the slightest move, pain shot through him. With a gasp and a strangled yelp, he fell back, alerting the others to the fact that he had woken up.

"Bilbo!" Fili cried out and jumped to his feet, knocking his brother down in the process. "Thank Mahal you're awake!"

The blonde haired dwarf rushed to his side and gently helped Bilbo into a sitting position. The hobbit hissed in pain as the claw marks on his chest stretched with the movement and his ribs ached in protest.

"You gave us all quite a fright, Master Bilbo," a softer voice added and in the next moment Ori was also sitting next to him, a hand pressed on Bilbo's shoulder. "You nearly died, twice!" Bilbo almost flinched hearing the serious tone in Ori's voice. He had not wanted to mar the young dwarf's carefree disposition.

"I…" the hobbit tried to rebuff the accusation that he had almost died, but found that he couldn't. He remembered the shadow world as vividly as any part of his adventure and the ghost of his mother's whisper still echoed in his ears. "What happened?" he settled for asking instead.

"What is the last thing you remember?" Kili asked plopping himself at Bilbo's feet.

"Umm… trees burning," Bilbo frowned trying to remember the events of the previous day, "Me being a foot cushion for a white warg, the eagles and …"

Suddenly the hobbit paled, then blushed and with a groan hid his face in his hands. The brothers gazed at each other with curiosity before remembering what exactly had happened after the eagles and how their sweet, soft-spoken Bilbo verbally tore Thorin to shreds for attacking Azog like he did.

"Please tell me that did not happen, that I've been imagining it?" Bilbo mumbled in his hands.

"What, my dear hobbit…" Fili started.

"You calling our dear uncle, how was it brother?" Kili added.

"I believe the exact phrasing was 'a stubborn, maddening DWARF'."

Both of them broke out in laughter seeing Bilbo's dismayed look. Even Ori had trouble hiding the smile that broke on his face.

"That's enough you two," a deep voice grumbled and Thorin appeared next to his nephews. "You've made enough fun of our injured hobbit. Go and fill those waterskins, Oin will be needing them. Take Ori as well."

Before leaving to do as Thorin bided, Kili leaned down and hugged Bilbo gently, careful not to injure him further, then jumped to his feet and followed his brother, leaving a bewildered hobbit behind. The questioning glance Bilbo threw was ignored by Thorin who sat next to the hobbit. The winch of the dwarf king did not go unnoticed…

"Did you get your wounds tended to?" Bilbo asked knowing full well that Thorin may have chosen to disregard them altogether.

"They were mere scratches and bruises. Painful, but not life threatening… Your situation was much more dire than mine, Bilbo. My nephews and Ori were not lying when they said you were on the threshold. Gandalf barely brought you back the first time."

"I know," Bilbo admitted, his eyes clouding over with sorrow. "I heard my mother. She was the one who sent me back."

The dark look that settled over Thorin's eyes was enough to tell anyone that he was not at all comfortable to find out how close his burglar had been to dying – and since when is Bilbo, his, he wondered -, but he refrained from pushing the matter.

"Gandalf said there was magic in your body," the dwarf king remarked and in the dying light of the day he noticed how quickly Bilbo stiffened. "He said it was dark magic, very old dark magic, almost familiar to him and yet not so. He could not understand how a hobbit could have been subjected to magic. Bilbo," Thorin asked in a stern, yet gentle voice and brought two fingers under the hobbit's chin, making Bilbo face him, rather than look at the rocks at his feet. "What happened in the mountain?"

"I managed to escape the goblins and tried to follow you, but a straggler got to me first," Bilbo tried recalling the event. "We fell… there was an underwater cave there and a creature. It called itself Gollum, but once it was one of the river folk. His name was Smeagol then, I think?"

The confusion in Bilbo's eyes was enough to tell Thorin that even had he asked, the hobbit would have been unable to tell him why and how he knew all that.

"I think he lived there alone a very long time… he was broken by the time I met him. Even time seemed to cease to exist there."

Bilbo's story was disjointed as if someone else was trying to remember it and tell it to him through a filter. He told of his riddle game with Gollum and the awful frost that had settled into his veins, but kept silent about the Ring. The hum from his pocket had subsided, but the whispers still lingered at the edge of his consciousness, telling him that he could not trust anyone with the Ring yet no matter how much he wanted to.

As Bilbo talked, the others started returning from wherever they had been. Fili and Kili plopped themselves at Bilbo's other side, not letting him out of sight, while Ori started knitting a few paces away. Bofur remained standing next to a boulder, while his brother and cousin made a fire in order to prepare supper, helped by Dori and Nori who held several rabbits – hunted most likely by the eagles. Oin grumbled about needing to check Bilbo's bandages, while his brother whispered something in his ear in order to calm him down. Even Gandalf had made an appearance and listened to the tale with carefully veiled curiosity.

"I saw things in that cave," Bilbo admitted with a soft shudder, "things I was not supposed to see. These dreams I've had were always in some way or another connected to all of you, except for one that I had a long time ago and ignore. I noticed in Rivendell that no matter what I dreamed, may it be the past or the paths winding at my feet, they were always about you. But there in that cave I saw things that I know I should not have seen. There was a battle before a great, dark tower… and fire inside a mountain… a dead King and a dead Elf Lord and so much pain…" Bilbo's eyes glazed over and only the hand Thorin placed on his shoulder was able to root him into place and keep him from going down that dark path.

"You saw the Last Alliance?" Thorin asked cautiously, noticing that Bilbo had Seen and not Dreamed in the cave. "The battle of Dagorland?

The name rang hallow in Bilbo's ears, despite the many maps and books he had read. With a confused look he asked for explanation.

"The Last Alliance formed at the end of the Second Age in order to fight against Sauron. The final battle took place on the Dagorland plains where the army of the Enemy was annihilated and his Ring taken by Isildur. However, casualties were heavy on both parts. Elendil the King of Gondor fell in battle, alongside Gil-Galad the High King of the Elves and many of their kind. Also many dwarves of Durin's line perished in that battle," Balin interfered.

"What Ring?" Bilbo asked and Thorin found it curious that of all the questions the hobbit could have asked this one had been at the front of his mind. The elder dwarf of the Company once more answered the hobbit's question.

"During the second age Sauron came to the elves of Eregion under a disguise and helped them forge the Rings of Power. Celebrimbor forged three for the elves that were untainted by the hand of Sauron. Seven were created for the dwarves and given to the Seven Dwarf Lords and Nine were gifted to Kings of Men. However, in secret, Sauron created the One Ring with the power to control all the others. It is this Ring that Isildur cut from Sauron's hand during the battle of Dagorland and later was lost when the King of Gondor was felled by orcs while trying to escape them by crossing the Anduin swimming."

Bilbo paled and his hand moved out of its own accord to the pocket of his waistcoat where a simple, golden Ring laid hidden. If it was… no, it couldn't be! How would it even come into Gollum's possession? But Smeagol was of the River folk and Isildur died in the Anduin… With a small gasp, Bilbo's eyes clouded…

A contingent of men rode down a path winding alongside the Great River. They laughed and joked, sure of the fact that no harm would befall them. With them rode the King of Gondor, a golden ring hanging at his neck. From time to time the ring would be touched as if the King wanted to reassure himself it was there. Suddenly shrieks of orcs echoed in the air…

Bilbo wretched himself from the vision and gave a shaky breath. He noticed his hand was exactly over the golden Ring, only the fabric of the waistcoat separating them. With a jerk he moved his hand away and glared at his surroundings.

Thorin had been aware of every move made by the hobbit. He saw the way his hand lingered over the pocket; the dwarf king wondered what exactly the hobbit was hiding and whether there was more to the tale than he had been told. However, another matter was pressing on his mind and he wanted to find the answer.

"You knew that Azog was still alive," his voice was colder and held a hint of accusation in it. He instantly regretted it when he saw Bilbo flinch and noticed the sorrow that reappeared in his eyes, but held his ground.

"Yes," Bilbo held his head high, but gave no other answer.

"Yet you told us nothing! Why? We could have prepared!"

"Prepared for what?" Bilbo gave a dry laugh, humorless and cold. "I wish I would have been as useful as that, but my dreams do not tell me when and where something might happen. The more paths I see, the more choices I am presented with and making a choice means assuming it no matter where it takes you. There is no telling what might happen when you call upon a choice before it has to be made…" Bilbo sighed in pain and closed his eyes. "Sometimes it ends in pain even if you do not believe in it. I cannot risk it!"

"Bilbo…" Bofur said softly, reaching for his friend and grasping his arm with a tight squeeze. No other words were needed between them, because all members of the Company knew what Bofur had tried to say for them… 'You are not alone, you have us!'

Howls echoed in the night in that exact moment, howls of wolves not wargs and whereas Thorin and the others relaxed their stances knowing that it was not their enemies pursuing them, Bilbo's body tensed and shivered.

"You face wargs, yet fear wolves?" Fili asked curiously, trying to steer the conversation from the matter of Azog that still hung over all of them like a shadow. The anguished look on Bilbo's face, however, surprised him.

"I fear what they bring…Memories of cold, pain and death. My parents died during the Fell Winter …"

The dream had come to him sporadically ever since he had become a tween. He dreamed of snow falling over the Shire and of hobbits huddled together for warmth inside their houses. He dreamed of blizzards strong enough to knock down trees and wolves prowling in the darkness. He dreamed all that, but believed nothing, not even when the first snow fell and the Brandywine Bridge froze over. He did not believe when his soul told him to stay inside, instead of venturing out in the cold to meet with cousin Paladin. He did not believe and he lost what he treasured most because of it.

The wolves came when dusk fell, while he was still outside, not far from Bag End, but far enough to reach shelter. Howls rang in the air and his blood froze in his veins when he saw eyes glittering in the darkness, hunger etched in their eyes. There was no stick, no stone close to him and had it been it would have been futile. He tried running, but made only a few steps before the surrounded him, white as the snow they stepped on, with glistering fangs and hungry gazes.

He knew he would die and felt scared, yet nothing was more frightening for him than seeing his mother and father rushing out of Bag End, throwing precious pieces of china at the wolves and banging pots to scare them away. More hobbits rushed outside their houses, armed to fight the beasts that had tried to claim their land.

Bilbo felt hope surge in his soul… but the winter was merciless and the wolves hungry. Not all returned home that night and many more perished the days that followed.

“My parents were both bitten by wolves during the Fell Winter,” Bilbo admitted, not adding the silent ‘In order to protect me,’ that hung over his soul even after so many years. “The wounds were not fatal, but they were stricken by fever and died not even a mere fortnight later, because I did not know to stay put, believe and make the right choice.”

The bitterness that rang in Bilbo’s tone was enough to quell any questions, even those Gandalf may had had. The howls continued ringing in the night and in Bilbo’s soul, remembrance of a past yet unforgotten.

~~~***~~~***~~~

They remained at Carrock for two more days, until all were well enough to be able to travel. Gandalf had promised them lodging in a friend’s home nearby where they would receive food and new travel packs, yet the spirit of the Company was still down. Since the admission that had startled even him during the first night on Carrock, Bilbo had shielded away from all members of the Company. He spoke only when spoken to and even then it was only a couple of words. Fili and Kili were upset by the realization that their hobbit was pulling away, yet they still trailed him wherever he went and made sure he did not upset his wounds.

Thorin also kept away, mulling over what Bilbo had told them and over what he merely glossed over. The dwarf king knew that something else had been at work in that cave apart from the creature Gollum, but could not figure out what. Why had Bilbo been so interested in the Rings of Power? And what did he mean about that expression about time?

“Even time seemed to cease to exist there.”

There was a connection there, one that was tied closely to the riddle the creature Gollum had uttered. Why did time mean so much in that place? A short laugh startled him out of his musings and he glanced at his Company to see Bofur telling some sort of ridiculous tale accompanied by hand signs. What amazed him most was that Bilbo was also laughing and smiling along with the others. It was good to see him back in his usual spirits, although Thorin could not tell why.

"We are getting near," said Gandalf. "We are on the edge of his bee-pastures."

After a while they came to a belt of tall and very ancient oaks, and beyond these to a high thorn-hedge through which you could neither see nor scramble.

"You had better wait here," said the wizard to the dwarves; "and when I call or whistle begin to come after me - you will see the way I go-but only in pairs, mind, about five minutes between each pair of you. Bombur is fattest and will do for two, he had better come alone and last. Come on Mr. Baggins! There is a gate somewhere round this way." And with that he went off along the hedge taking the frightened hobbit with him.

What happened next would make Bilbo wonder whether Gandalf would be able to charm the dragon himself if he put his mind to it. Gandalf’s friend turned out to be a skin-changer called Beorn who liked neither strangers nor a large company in his house. Yet, as Gandalf started spinning their tale and the dwarves entered in pairs five minutes apart, Beorn was so engrossed in their story that he did not bid them leave. Instead he listened, made occasional comments and from time to time glanced at Bilbo as if he were an oversized rabbit meant to be cuddled. The fact did not go unnoticed by Fili and Kili who moved as guardians at Bilbo’s side and looked frighteningly serious every time the skin-changer glanced in their direction.

By the time Gandalf had finished his story, Beorn was in high spirits and allowed them to remain in his house.

"A very good tale!" said he. "The best I have heard for a long while. If all beggars could tell such a good one, they might find me kinder. You may be making it all up, of course, but you deserve a supper for the story all the same. Let's have something to eat!"

As the sun set over Beorn’s house, all of them lay content and with full stomachs. Their host had prepared soft mattresses for them to sleep one and had afterwards left, warning them not to leave the house during the night. Bilbo felt the fatigue and ache of the previous days catch up to him and he curled on the smallest mattress and huddled himself under the woollen blankest. He was not surprised when he saw the youngest members of his company huddle close to him, as had become their custom the last days ever since they had almost lost him nor did he blink an eye when Bofur grinned at him and moved closer by as well. It appeared that despite the courage he had shown facing Azog – and living to tell the tale – the dwarves were more determined than ever to protect him – even in the queer, but safe lodgings they now had.

Chapter Text

For the first time in many years, Bilbo had a restful and calm night. He dreamed of laughing friends and kind relatives, of hobbit children running in a field during a party and dwarves partaking into drinking contests alongside his Took relatives. The haze that surrounded the dream told him it was not “real”, but it was happy and made him feel warm inside. Therefore, if he woke late that day and cuddled longer under his woolen blankets no one could fault him. From time to time one of the dwarves would cast an indulgent look at their grocer –turned burglar- turned warrior – seeing him content for the first time and leave him to his sleep. No one had the heart to wake Bilbo up so it was almost noon when the hobbit stretched as a cat and blinked trying to make his eyes settle with the light pouring through the windows.

“Welcome back to the land of living, lazybones,” Bofur grinned at him. “You missed breakfast – and second breakfast I should say -, but woke up in time for elevensies. We have decided to follow the hobbit way as long as we are in Master Beorn’s house and eat as much as we can. There’s no telling what awaits us in Mirkwood.”
Bilbo gave a short laugh and rose to his feet gingerly. His wounds still bothered him, the cracked ribs that were still mending more than the half closed claw marks on his chest, but he chose to ignore them for the moment. His stomach was singing to him in different languages, demanding food right away so Bilbo allowed himself to be lead by Bofur to the table. The bread smelled delicious as if it had just got out of the oven so Bilbo helped himself with as much honey, butter and bread as he could until he was stuffed and was certain he could eat no more.

“Where is Gandalf?” Bilbo asked with curiosity, noticing their resident wizard was nowhere to be seen.

“Left in the morning,” Nori said between mouthfuls. “Said he had something to do.”

Their host was nowhere to be seen either, but Bilbo did not worry. Something told him that Beorn was to be trusted, a deep ingrained feeling in his soul. Taking advantage of the beautiful weather outside, the hobbit left the wooden cabin and settled on the green grass outside. With a wistful sigh he thought about his pipe – lost with the rest of his possessions – and of the great Longbottom leaf that he could not smoke at the moment.

“You look to be in high spirits today,” a deep voice came from behind him, but Bilbo had no need to turn around in order to see who it was. Thorin sat down next to him and the smell of Longbottom leaf drifted into the air. Bilbo gave a long suffering sigh when he noticed he had been the only one to lose his pipe, but said nothing.

“I lost hope somewhere along the way…” Bilbo said cryptically. “Last night I found it again, though not in the way I would have expected.” The side-along glance he gave to Thorin’s pipe made the dwarf chuckle. The pipe was handed from one hand to the other, fingers barely brushing, but sending a jolt at the slight touch nonetheless and Bilbo inhaled the Longbottom leaf deeply, before returning the object to its owner.

“You are as fond as riddles as Gandalf…” Thorin remarked then grew solemn. “I never apologized for doubting you during those first days, nor did I thank you for saving my life.”
“You were right to doubt me,” Bilbo said simply. “You did not know me and only knew what Gandalf said. But Gandalf was wrong though he did not know it at that time…”
Another pass of the pipe took place between the two, but Bilbo had grown silent and Thorin still sought some answers.

“I do not think Gandalf was wrong,” Thorin pointed out. “You definitely showed your skill and bravery. Not many would charge Azog the Defiler with such little regard to their safety. I don’t think people change overnight.”

“No they don’t,” Bilbo hummed in agreement. “But things might happen overnight to change them. I grew up listening to the Took part of my blood that led me adventuring as it led my mother before me. I wanted to see the world and was not afraid to show it, despite the fact that I was considered queer, unhobbitish. Then, one night, my parents died and I changed and became the Bilbo Baggins that you met. The hobbit that cared about doilies, dishes and cutlery, because they were the only remembrance of the people he loved most and lost because of his own folly…”

Thorin closed his eyes when the hurt in Bilbo’s voice passed over him. He knew the Halfling blamed himself for his parents’ deaths, just as the dwarf king blamed himself for his grandfather and his brother’s death. The years had not washed Frerin’s features from his mind… he remembered the brown eyes that sparkled with mischief every time they were together, the lopsided grin that was ever present on his brother’s face… he also remembered his brother’s broken body, spear embedded in his chest and blood polling under him near the Dimrill Gate.

“What changed?” Thorin asked, his voice barely shaking, the memories were still there, at the front of his mind.

“You sang and it echoed in my dreams,” Bilbo answered with another riddle. “I think I would have followed you even without the dream, because at that moment I desperately wanted to help you take back your home. The dream was just the nudge I needed to get out the door. I think my Took blood also had something to do with this. We always strive to scandalize the entire Shire. If you were to believe Gandalf one of my ancestors fought goblins and invented golf in the same day. Apparently he was also tall enough to ride a horse. Too bad he was long dead by the time the Fell Winter came…”

It was the second time Bilbo had mentioned the Fell Winter. Though the dwarves had also suffered through the Fell Winter, their sturdy homes and burning fires in the Blue Mountains kept them protected. However, it appeared that the gentle folk of the Shire had had their share of grievances during the winter.

“The Brandywine River froze you see,” Bilbo shrugged casually as if talking about something that was not related to him, but the pain of loss was vivid in his eyes. He did not know why he had chosen that day to tell his story and why to Thorin of all people. However, the dwarf king made him safe and the warmth of Beorn’s home had settled into his bones, casting away some of the darkness of the previous days. For the first time since the death of his parents he felt that he could admit his feelings without being weighted down by guilt.

“Brandywine Bridge is too narrow for enemies to attack using it and the Rangers usually protect it, but with the River frozen the Shire was ripe for the taking. White wolves and goblins came down from the mountains and attacked. The Rangers protected us as best as they could, but even they could not be in all places. The hobbits took up arms and fought…” with a shudder Bilbo remembered the blood coating the white snow and the haunted looks on his kin’s faces as they buried their own. He remembered the blood on his mother’s clothes and the way she smiled when he bound the bite mark on her arm promising it will be all right. He remembered his father’s casual affirmation that ‘They are mere scratches, my boy,’ before the fever took them.

“Then the hunger came…suffice to say that March was a blessed month that year.”

Silence once more stretched between them, as both mulled over the things they remembered and the loss they suffered. When noon announced the arrival of luncheon, Bilbo rose to his feet, dusted the grass off his garments and threw one last look at Thorin.

“I promised myself then that I will not lose another person dear to me if I can help it.”

With that declaration he marched inside the house leaving a frowning dwarf king behind. Thorin knew that there was no way he could dissuade the hobbit from leaping into the fray if one of his companions was in danger – in a way he did not even want to -, but he could at least make sure Bilbo knew how to use that letter opener of his. Sheer dumb luck could not support someone forever.

Just then Gandalf appeared in sight and all closeted inside the house to learn what news the wizard brought. The news that a bear gathering had taken place the night before did nothing to ease the Company’s nerves and even Bilbo who placed the most trust in Beorn could not help himself and asked.

"What shall we do, if he leads all the Wargs and the goblins down here? No one is in any position to fight them again!”

Gandalf brushed all their concerns aside, but after night fell and the darkness echoed with howls and growls, Bilbo felt anything but safe. He wondered what made the house they slept in so special that wolves, warg and goblins would not dare enter it. As he fretted under his blankets, eyes wide staring into the darkness and wolf howls echoing around him reminding him of another night from long ago, a hand settled on his shoulder and a voice grumbled in the darkness, close to his ear.

“Sleep, burglar, they are mere shadows. They cannot hurt you.”

With Thorin close by and the dwarf brothers pressed into his sides, Bilbo finally felt safe. Moments later he was asleep…

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

When morning came again it was Beorn who woke them up, a huge smile stretched on his face. Bilbo barely had time to open his eyes and blink the sleep away when he found himself picked up. He panicked briefly, as he felt his wounds ache and remembered another time he had been picked up – by trolls, who wanted to rip him apart – but stilled immediately when he saw the flash of panic and barely veiled anger that appeared in Thorin’s eyes. Next to him Fili and Kili were unable to show the same restraint, as the elder frowned darkly and the youngest clenched his fists.

"So here you all are still!" Beorn said and laughed: "Not eaten up by Wargs or goblins or wicked bears yet I see. Little bunny is getting nice and fat again on bread and honey," he chuckled at Bilbo, keeping him suspended in the air like a cat might with a newborn kitten. "Come and have some more!"

“Do be careful with our hobbit, Beorn,” Gandalf said brightly placing a reassuring hand on Thorin’s shoulder, warning him silently to keep his anger in check. “He is not yet healed.”

Beorn merely laughed and placed the hobbit gently at the table where breakfast had already been prepared for all of them. The Company ate and when all were full they were led outside by the skin-changer who showed them an orc head impaled on a stake and a warg skin nailed to a nearby tree. Bilbo paled and shuddered seeing them, but held his ground firmly and made no step backwards.

"It was a good story, that of yours," said Beorn, "but I like it still better now I am sure it is true. You must forgive my not taking your word. If you lived near the edge of Mirkwood, you would take the word of no one that you did not know as well as your brother or better. As it is, I can only say that I have hurried home as fast as I could to see that you were safe, and to offer you any help that I can. I shall think more kindly of dwarves after this. Killed the Great Goblin, killed the Great Goblin!" Beorn chuckled fiercely to himself.

Beorn promised to give them ponies to lead them to the edge of Mirkwood and enough supplies for them to pass the forest without problems. However, they were warned never to drink water from the streams in Mirkwood and never to leave the pass. At midday they ate their last meal at Beorn’s and made their way to the edge of the Great Forest. From time to time the great shape of a bear appeared in their line of sight and they knew it was Beorn looking out for them and making sure his ponies would be returned.

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

A couple of days later they found themselves face to face with Mirkwood, one of the greatest forests of Middle Earth who was called Greenwood in kinder times. However, the darkness that lay like a heavy cloak over the forest foretold nothing of the greatness it once treasured and made it clear that danger was ever present in the woods. Their spirits dampened at the sight and with reluctance they sent the ponies back and camped at the edge of the wood. Come morning light they would venture in its depth and Bilbo was none too keen on facing whatever peril haunted Mirkwood.

His sleep was restless, the Ring weighing heavier in its pocket, as if drawing power from the darkness that lived in the forest. He saw snippets of his earlier dreams mingling together and drawing a terrifying portrait of death and despair. However, the last dream was his undoing, a dream he could not comprehend, for surely Drogo and Primula would never be so foolish to venture on the Brandywine river in a boat. With a silent yelp he opened his eyes and curled in to a ball on his blanket, muttering soft prayers under his breath for the dream he had seen to not come to pass.

When morning came they found out another distressing fact… Gandalf would not be accompanying them. His business led him someplace else so he was leaving them to their fate. They made their way inside the dark forest in silence, all weighed down by fear and almost desperation – even the younger ones. The forest was suffocating, smelling of decay and mold; more than once Bilbo had the uncanny feeling they were being watched, yet said nothing, merely ventured forward.

“Can anyone see anything?” Fili asked from somewhere at the back of their column, tripping once more over roots and holding hard on his brother’s hand, not letting him out of his sight, however dim that may have been.

“Stay together and keep hold at least one another,” Thorin told them in a no-nonsense voice and soon the shuffle of feet echoed in the darkness. Dori and Nori grabbed their youngest brother and help him close. Gloin and Oin stood together, shoulders touching, while Bofur and Bombur grabbed their cousin and ignoring his furious muttering in Khuzdul, held him close. Bilbo felt a calloused hand grab his wrist firmly; the only thing he could see in the darkness were Thorin’s eyes glittering like sapphires and he felt safe.
They path seemed to stretch endlessly in the darkness and they walked for hours. The fire refused to kindle so when they made camp they were cold and miserable; they took watch in pairs of two, even though they were all blind in the darkness surrounding them.

It was no surprise that sleep brought nightmares with it… Bilbo dreamed and felt hopelessness catch him in its clutches again. Although the haze of uncertainty was there, making him feel the dream was not all real, there was also vividness to it.

The Shire burns… Bilbo sees everything from somewhere above and he cries out in anguish seeing the orcs and bandits cut his kin down mercilessly. In front of the Green Dragon Hamfast Gamgee lies dying, his throat cut. Next to him, his very, very young son Sam cries brokenly begging his father to wake up. Inside the Green Dragon, many hobbits huddled in fear, trying to protect themselves from the tainted blades that cut them down.

Tuckborough is set ablaze before his very eyes. The Thain fights viciously, protecting his large family, but he is no match for the bandits that have overrun the Shire. A well placed slash brings him to his knees and the swish of a blade sends his head flying. Behind him, Esmerald Took cries brokenly, valiantly trying to still her shaking hands enough to send a knife flying at the enemy.

Bag End is deserted… nobody can be seen inside it, but the bodies of Otho and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins lay on the doorstep. Amidst everything a shrill cry echoes in the darkness and hundreds of miles away a huge eye burns viciously, glad that its thirst for revenge had been satisfied.

“Bilbo,” a hand shook his shoulder and the soft voice made him understand it was Kili who was waking him up. “Bilbo, it’s a dream, wake up.” His voice was small and uncertain, as if trying to convince himself that what Bilbo was seeing was indeed just a dream and not some sort of premonition. Thorin had told the Company about Bilbo’s Sight soon after they had been saved by the eagles. Yet, Kili wondered whether Bilbo wasn’t putting too much heart in these dreams…

“Yes, just a dream,” Bilbo answered brokenly and started shaking in silence, mindless of the tears that now marred his cheeks. No matter what his heart told him, no matter what he felt, seeing the Shire burning and his kin slaughtered was more than just a dream for him. It was a reality they could have faced during the Fell Winter and it was a reality they were likely to face in the future if darkness spread over the land once more. It was something that had stolen his parents and now threatened to steal his cousins.

During this time, inside his pocket, a golden Ring understood that he had to lay dormant a while longer and curled some of its power inside him. It would not do any good to have his Bearer out of his mind, now that he was so close to achieving his goal. There was still time and his Master was close… he had to wait as he had waited for thousands of years. Soon… very soon…

Chapter Text

Eyes followed them in the darkness; huge, glittering eyes that reminded Bilbo of the creature Gollum and had him flinching in fright anytime they came too near. The eyes surrounded the forest path, yet never crossed it a fact which Bilbo attributed to the elven magic Gandalf said protected the travelers that ventured in Mirkwood. As a lad Bilbo had been told tales about Greenwood the Great and had always yearned to see it; now that he was actually braving the paths of the forest he wanted nothing more than to get out of the forest sooner. The atmosphere was damp and had all of them struggling for breath with each step they made forward.

Their packs were getting lighter and lighter as their food dwindled and nothing edible crossed their path. Kili had tried shooting down some of the dark squirrels that made their homes in the dark trees. When they finally managed to catch one – after using many arrows, despite the fact that Kili was an excellent shot – they roasted it and nearly gagged on the smell it spread. Even Bombur who was able to stomach just about anything announced loudly that he would not try food that gave such an awful smell. Therefore they tossed it in the bushes and tried to ignore the rustle of leaves that echoed around them and the clik-clak of claws ripping meat apart that rang just to their left.

That day had left them miserable and in low spirits. The darkness of the forest did nothing to ease their worries and even Fili and Kili seemed to be in low spirits. Bilbo hated to see the youths with such frown on their faces – it was unnatural. Therefore, after Ori flinched the twelfth time in the last half an hour – Bilbo had been counting – when the clik-clak of the shadows became too much to bear, the hobbit decided to do something for them. Usually hobbits were two things: good storytellers and decent singers. While he did not have any stories worthy of the Company with whom he traveled – Bandobras Bullroarer Took’s deeds were the only ones worthy of renown -, he did have some songs that might be able to lift their spirits.

“Bilbo?” a voice came from the meager fire they had kindled and Fili threw him a worried look. “What has you looking so determined?”

“What?” Bilbo asked confused, “Nothing, nothing at all. Just remembering some songs from back home.”

“Songs?” Ori piped in. “What kind of songs, Master Baggins? Will you sing some?”

“Yes, Bilbo,” Kili added. “We sang for you, remember? Twice actually!”

Bilbo winched remembering his mother’s Westfarthing dishes soaring through the air.

“The first time doesn’t count, Kili. I was too worried about my dishes to think about your songs. But, oh, very well, I guess it’s only proper to return the favor.” Giving a long suffering sigh, as if he had not been stringing them along, Bilbo started his song.

“Upon the hearth the fire is red,
Beneath the roof there is a bed;
But not yet weary are our feet
Still round the corner we may meet
A sudden tree or standing stone
That none have seen but we alone.”

One by one, all dwarves stopped what they were doing and started listening to Bilbo’s song. Bofur started clapping along, not knowing the lyrics, while Dori and Nori took out their flutes to play along.

“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.”

Kili and Fili started relaxing, the frown on their brows disappearing and a content smile appearing on their faces. Dwalin’s booming voice started humming in rhythm to the music of the Shire song, while next to him Balin was trying to stifle his laughter seeing his brother sing such a domestic song.

“Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We'll wander back to home and bed.”

By the time the song had finished, everyone was smiling and feeling better than before. If anyone noticed the smug look on Bilbo’s face, they did not say a thing. Moreover, the grateful look Thorin had shot in the hobbit’s direction had been enough to rise Biblo’s spirits considerably.

Perhaps, things would start looking better in the future…

Days later, when they finally managed to find the enchanted river, they gave a sigh of relief, confident that their journey was almost over. No one expected to see Bombur fall in the river when they were almost on the other side nor did they expect the disaster that befell them all that night.

Only one small hobbit, terrified and shivering, felt that something was wrong and cursed the Powers that Be who gave him no prior warning.

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

Bilbo felt something moving in the shadows, constantly watching, eager to find a moment of weakness and catch them all. He did not know what it was that watched them nor how they could scare the creatures away, but their mere presence gave him chills. Those were not normal animal eyes that watched them and the hobbit found himself pondering Radagast’s words.

“There is a sickness in the Greenwood… the spawns of Ungoliant have been seen…”

Ungoliant… who was Ungoliant and who were its spawns? Never had he come across that particular name in his books and the idea annoyed him. Not even his dreams could give him any answers because the darkness seemed to stifle them as well, turning them into mere flashes of light and dark. The Ring no longer whispered and Bilbo thought that must be a good thing, had it not been for the fact that for the first time in his life he actually craved the understanding that came with his nightmares.

“What has you so unsettled, laddie?” a kind voice came from his left and Balin smiled at him reassuringly. “The darkness has to end at some point.”

“It’s not the darkness,” Bilbo admitted. “It’s what Radagast told Gandalf before the wargs attacked. Remember? He said something about the spawns of Ungoliant appearing in Mirkwood. I have this feeling that we are being followed by them, whatever they are. Have you ever heard of Ungoliant, Balin?”

“Can’t say I have,” Balin said, looking deep in thought. “Mayhap I heard the name but in another form.”

That was the end of the discussion and Bilbo did not ask any other questions. If Balin who was well versed in the tales of old had not heard of Ungoliant then it was clear no one among their Company would know the name. He sighed, wishing for the hundredth time that Gandalf was still with them.

So, he stood and watched cautiously, flinching anytime a branch moved from its place and the clik-clak of claws echoed in the darkness for he felt that soon the shadows would descend upon them.

Looking back, he understood that it had been a silly mistake on their part. After all, how many times had Beorn cautioned them not to leave the forest path? But, honesty, who knew that Bombur’s foot touching the grass just outside the mountain path meant ‘leaving the path’? The moment when Fili, Kili, Dori and Nori put the fat dwarf down on the ground – after many hours of carrying him while he stood limp and slept -, his ankle and foot just outside the mountain path, a white sticky substance shot from the darkness and caught the dwarf’s ankle, dragging him in the darkness.

“Bombur!” Bofur cried after his brother and rushed off the path, into the darkness, followed closely by Bifur who would not leave his cousins alone in danger.

Soon Bilbo found himself alone, on the forest path, while the others had all entered the darkness.

“Confound and bebother all dwarves!” the hobbit snapped in the still forest. “What in the world were they thinking?”

They weren’t thinking, Bilbo’s mind supplied… they were all tired, hungry and almost at their wit’s end with this forest. When Bombur got caught and Bofur followed him the only thing the others could do was to follow them in depth of the tress.

“But did they really have to forget me?” Bilbo groaned as he unsheathed his sword and stepped inside the thickness of the trees, following his friends. “Fili! Kili! Bofur! Ori! Nori! Thorin!” he cried out in the darkness and echoes of ‘Bilbo’ and ‘hobbit’ came to him although from very far away. With an annoyed sigh, Bilbo tried to follow the echoes, but found himself more lost than ever. He leaned on a tree, ignoring the muck that seemed to slide off the bark and closed his eyes briefly. He knew what he had to do, he knew what his only option was, yet he was afraid to do it… afraid of the whispers in the shadows and the chill in his bones. Before he could move his hand to the pocket, before he could feel the coldness of the Ring under his fingers, he sensed something touching him… it was a sticky substance, dribbling down his left hand and Bilbo rose to awareness in a moment. His sword was still clutched in his hand so he looked around trying to see where his foe stood. In the darkness he saw it… first a pair of gleaming eyes, then a furry body and last numerous legs slithering down the tree. A huge spider was trying to catch him as a fly in a web, but Bilbo would have none of that. With precise movements he cut the webs that kept him partially bound to the tree and rapidly struck the spider in the eye. The beast fell, but still twitched so Bilbo drove the sword in its stomach one last time.

“Sweet Eru!” the hobbit gasped horrified. “Giant spiders!?”

His sword was coated in black blood and even glowed a very dim blue in the darkness. Orcs were there, somewhere, in the forest and giant spiders scurried everywhere in the shadows. He had to find his friends and they all had to leave those accursed woods before it was too late.

“Sting,” Bilbo called loud, knowing the name of the sword from his dreams, but only naming it in that moment. “You have earned your name, Sting, spider’s bane!”

As he wiped the blood of the blade of the sword and stared at the darkness, he felt different, stronger and bolder than before. The forest was grim and silent and Bilbo walked very carefully, minding not to make any unwanted noise. In the end it was luck that guided his feet and brought him to a tight patch of trees, bundled in spider webs and filled to the brim with those ugly beats.

Knowing well that the darkness could not hide him from their gazes he took the Ring from his pocket and placed it on his finger, disappearing from sight. The shadow world engulfed him once more and he felt the familiar pressure in his mind, but this time it was less powerful, though just as terrifying. The visions flashed at the back of his mind, but he forced himself to push them away, though it made his head hurt. He had to get to his friends first…

He realized horrified that the creatures were able to speak, their voices a thin hiss that made him shiver.

"It was a sharp struggle, but worth it," said one. "What nasty thick skins they have to be sure, but I'll wager there is good juice inside." "Aye, they'll make fine eating, when they've hung a bit," said another. "Don't hang 'em too long," said a third. "They're not as fat as they might be. Been feeding none too well of late, I should guess." "Kill'em, I say," hissed a fourth; "kill 'em now and hang 'em dead for a while."

"They're dead now, I'll warrant," said the first.

"That they are not. I saw one a-struggling just now. Just coming round again, I should say, after a bee-autiful sleep. I'll show you."

That was when Bilbo saw them… a dozen or so bundles clinging to a tree branch and in each bundle a dwarf tied up in spider webs. Bilbo could make out Bofur’s hat sticking out of one of the bundles and even the handle of Bifur’s axe cutting through some of the webs. One of the spiders pinched the biggest bundle – Bombur most likely – and the dwarf’s foot flew – it was not bundled up – and kicked the spider from the tree. Apparently during the struggle with the spiders, Bombur had woken up from the sleep induced by the Enchanted River. Bilbo understood that he had to act fast so he crunched to the ground and grabbed the smoothest rock he could find.

As a child, he and his mother had often walked down the forest paths in Hobbiton. There Belladonna Baggins nee Took had taught her only child how to throw rocks and turned him into a decent marksman. Remembering his mother’s teachings, Bilbo allowed the rock to fly directly towards one of the spiders, knocking it off the branch. Another rock followed, then a third, by which the spiders had grown enraged, seeking the culprit.

“Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Attercop! Attercop!
Won't you stop,
Stop your spinning and look for me!

Old Tomnoddy, all big body,
Old Tomnoddy can’t spy me!
Attercop! Attercop!
Down you drop!
You'll never catch me up your tree!”

 

Thus Bilbo sang, throwing rocks and stomping feet, drawing the spiders as far from his friends as he could. Since they could not see him, the creatures fell for the ruse and left their prey behind, dangling in trees, allowing Bilbo easy access to his friends when he returned to free them.

Taking his Ring off, Bilbo hurried up the tree branch and started freeing his friends. However, his heart froze in his chest when he did a count and found there were only twelve dwarves perched in the trees as opposed to thirteen as they should have been. Who was missing? Heart thumping maddeningly in his chest Bilbo cut at the spider webs and revealed Fili first and then Kili who was swaying on his feet and looked green in the face. The youngest dwarf almost fell off the tree branch when his brother hauled him up and only Fili’s steadier arms kept him up. Balin and Dwalin were next, followed by Bofur and Bifur who was cursing in Khuzdul. Just as Bilbo helped Ori up the branch, the spiders returned and cried out in their hissing voices.

“We see you, nasty creature! And we’re going to eat you! But first we’ll leave you hanging.”

The dwarves quickly started rescuing their friends – the spiders had been stupid enough to leave most of the weapons stuck in another bundle tied to the tree – and Bilbo climbed down the tree and started waving Sting cutting and slashing, killing the spiders as soon as they got close. When finally Bombur was hauled on the tree branch, the Company climbed from the tree and started aiding Bilbo. Most of them had their sword back, but those that didn’t had sticks and stones that they shot at the spiders. Many of the spiders fell, but they were all tired and could hardly fight any more.

They spirits were down, especially since they had noticed that Thorin was not among those who had been captured by the spiders. Bilbo tried not to focus on the hollow feeling in his soul or on the despair that threatened to engulf him knowing that one of those he cared most about was nowhere to be seen. Thorin was strong; he would be alright and he would find his way back to them.

“I’m going to disappear,” Bilbo told them seriously and all thought back to what Gandalf had told them about hobbits being able to avoid being seen and not about a magic Ring which held dark powers. “Move forward and don’t stop no matter what. I will lure them away! The forest path is in that direction.”

With those words Bilbo disappeared and another song rang in the air.

"Lazy Lob and crazy Cob
are weaving webs to wind me.
I am far more sweet than other meat,
but still they cannot find me!
Here am I, naughty little fly;
you are fat and lazy.
You cannot trap me, though you try,
in your cobwebs crazy."

Had the situation been less dire, Fili and Kili would have joked about their resident hobbit’s ability to invent songs on the spot, but in light of the danger they face they pressed on, leading the Company in their uncle’s stead. All of them were sick and weary; they moved slowly and many times had to turn and slash at the spiders that good too close. However, Bilbo’s singing and stones kept the creatures at bay. Moments afterward the hobbit appeared at the back of their line, slashing at the spiders and urging everyone forward. When things finally seemed hopeless they stepped inside a fire circle and noticed with amazement that the spiders were unable to follow them. Instead, the creatures hissed angrily and turned around, leaving the weary Company.

“Must be elven circles…” Bilbo muttered and sank to his knees, weary and worn down.

All fell asleep, confident of the power of the circle and too weary to keep watch. Bilbo knew it was not wise, but the others were wounded and poisoned and the power of the Ring had drained his forces too much. So they slept and when dawn came they wondered what to do and how to find Thorin again. They did not even have time to start wondering where the forest path was when suddenly they found themselves surrounded by archers. Bilbo quickly slid the Ring on, hating the necessity to use it and kept a few paces away as the newcomers – sylvan elves – carted his friends away.

His heart froze though, when just paces away from the edge of the fire ring, his foot collided with something hard and he saw the hilt of Orcrist, almost fully buried under leaves and dirt, lying at his feet.

Chapter Text

Legolas Greenleaf, son of Thranduil, King of Mirkwood was strolling down the corridors of the Palace, fuming silently. He admitted that switching his father's Dorwinion wine with red tinted fountain water might have been a rather tasteless joke, especially since said wine had been served to the newly arrived delegates from Lothlórien – though it would not hurt Marchwarden Haldir to unwind a bit -, but to assign him dwarf guarding duty was a cruel and unusual punishment even for his father. It was, for lack of better words, degrading for prince of Mirkwood to act as guardian to a dozen dwarves! Where in Eru's name could the dwarves go? It wasn't like an invisible being would appear out of thin air and whisk them away from their cells.

He had tried arguing that fact with his father and the only conclusion they had both reached that Legolas was to guard the thirteenth member of the dwarven company as well if overseeing only twelve dwarves was too simple for him. His father's logic rarely made sense!

As he climbed down the stairs that led to the dungeons, Legolas could not stop the sigh that escaped his lips. Why had he chosen Marchwarden Haldir to play that particular prank on? And who in the world had poured water from the Enchanted River in Rumil's cup – that was one prank that he had not been able to best yet, even though the blame had fallen on him.

As he reached the dungeons he noticed that the twelve dwarves were all hosted in the lined up cells, one after the other, in no particular order. They could not see each other as all cells faced the same direction and the ones in the back could not even hear the ones in the front due to the gap that existed between each cell.

Legolas knew most of them were angry, some even cursing furiously in their secret language whenever someone entered the dungeons – the others had told him about that particular habit-, but as he looked at them he noticed that some – the three youngest he supposed from their looks – were looking awfully subdued. The blonde haired dwarf had a deep frown etched on his face while he played with the beads in his hair, while the dark haired one with no beard – probably the youngest – had a sorrowful look in his eyes. The last one was twisting strands of yarn and creating intricate braiding with them without even having the proper tools, while his eyes gazed far away. Legolas stood a while under the arcade that led to the cells, knowing that he could see them, but they could not see him.

"I wonder if Master Baggins is ok," the yarn knitting one sighed, looking nowhere and everywhere at the same time. "It's the second time we've lost him. It's becoming quite an unfortunate habit."

"Bilbo will be fine," the blonde said with conviction in his voice. "He faced Azog and giant spiders, remember? He'll surprise us as always. Right, Kili?"

"Right," the youngest said, his voice a mere whisper.

Legolas wondered who this Bilbo Baggins was. A being that had faced orcs and giant spiders had to be brave indeed, yet the name reminded Legolas of the Halflings from the distant Shire. Surely it could not be such a being. They cared only about their homes and their comfort. Knowing he could not delay any longer, least his father found him standing in the archway when undoubtedly he would come to see whether his youngest had obeyed his orders, Legolas squared his shoulders and marched inside the dungeons.

"Well, well," a red haired dwarf muttered angrily just as Legolas made the first steps inside the dungeon. "Looks like we're getting a royal visit, lads!", the dwarf said mockingly and added a few more words in Khuzdul that had the others barking in laughter. With another sigh – he was probably reaching a record by now – Legolas took the chair opposite the cells and prepared for three harrowing hours of dwarf guarding duty. He was going to stay out of Marchwarden Haldir's way for the rest of the Galadhrim's sojourn in Mirkwood.

"Lovely as a lass that one," another dwarf mocked from a farther cell. "Might as well be a princess instead of a prince."

"Aye! Especially with that wreath of flowers in his hair that he had the day before," the red haired one laughed gruffly. "And the green glittering tunic. Or was it a dress?"

'Sweet Eru give me strength, three more hours,' Legolas though, feeling the need to bang his head on the stone wall. Things did not get better when the red haired dwarf and his companion from the farther cell started singing off-key a bawdy ballad about golden haired lasses.

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

Bilbo on the other hand was more fortunate than his friends. When the others had been brought before King Thranduil he had followed them, hidden by the magic ring and managed to enter the palace safely. Once inside he knew he had to work on getting the others out, but he had no idea where to start. Going out the front gates was out of the question as they were magical and closed behind the elven guards that patrolled every day. Moreover, even if he could manage to bring the others outside, he would not be able to help them find the forest path. He had tried once to follow the elven patrols and almost got lost in that endeavour He dared not try such a stunt again.

As each day passed on, Bilbo felt more and more wretched. The constant presence of the Ring on his finger made his head throb with pain. As if that was not enough, his sleep, however scarce that was out of fear of being caught, was constantly plagued by roaring dragons and erupting mountains. Every time he fell asleep he saw fire in one form or another, therefore before the third day was over he had given up on sleep altogether. He felt constantly cold and he knew it was not because of the chill in the Elven Palace. Something else was at work there, he could feel it coiling in his soul, but he was powerless to do anything. He had to get his friends out.

The only thing that anchored him to sanity was the feel of Orcrist strapped to his back – the only way he could carry the sword around unseen until he would be able to give if back to Thorin ( because give it back he would no matter if he had to trek the entire Mirkwood by foot in order to find him ). The weight of the Gondolin blade somehow balanced the coldness in Bilbo's veins and grounded him to reality, making sure the hobbit did not slip into the shadow world that was becomig more and more visible as each hour passed.

During the third day he managed to make his way to the place where his friends were kept and back to the main hall without getting lost. A blonde elf had been guarding the Company, an elf that looked remarkably like Thranduil and was being mocked by Gloin. Hidden by the Rig and watching the banter, Bilbo felt like smiling, yet was unable to feel the joy he wanted. As it had happened in the mountain he felt numb, but this time the numbness was caused by the cold and the sleep deprivation and not fear. So he left as quietly as he had come and started looking for ways to get out of the Elven Palace.

Days passed, blurring into each other and soon Bilbo found himself unable to tell how much time had passed. Had it been a week? Two maybe? He had not had the courage to show himself to his friends without a plan to escape and little by little he felt the last remains of hope leaving him altogether. The shadow world was getting stifling around him and sometimes he could even make out the words said by those who passed the threshold. Some even saw him and beckoned him to come to them, but they were tall and frightening, wraith like. At times like those he always ran into a hidden cranny and took the Ring off his finger for a few moments to chase the shadows away. Whenever that happened the multitude of emotions that rushed over him at once would almost being him to his knees and make him feel sick. The longer he kept the Ring on, the worse the onslaught was whenever he took it off. He had been a fool to not tell Gandalf about the magical trinket and now he was paying the price.

The only bright spots in his solitude were the moments when he entered the dungeons and saw the elf prince, Legolas, guarding his friends. At some point, between mocks and jeers, a remark had been made about pranks and the prince had admitted why he had been assigned dwarf guarding duty as he called it. The brothers had been mighty impressed with the prank and even Gloin begrudgingly gave up on his song about the 'fair lasses with golden hair' and told the elf about the pranks his own son, Gimli, had pulled over the years – many times aided by Fili and Kili.

"One day we decided we wanted to prank Thren, one of the blacksmiths from the Blue Mountains," Kili would start the tale – most of them involving said Thren and some mighty embarrassing pranks, "and we needed someone to look out for Balin who was supposed to teach us Dwarven History that day. Some Gimli came up with the idea to …"

And so the tale would continue and Bilbo would stand in the archway, clear of the torches that shed light everywhere and that might reveal his shadow, and listened as the brothers, Gloin and occasionally Ori would partake in the story telling.

Luckily for him, hope came soon after, in form of one of Legolas' pranks gone wrong. Bilbo had been trailing the prince for quite some time, hoping to be lead to an exit of some sort, when a booming 'LEGOLAS!' rang loudly in the hallway and an enraged Thranduil emerged from the shadows, something dark and sticky dripping all over him.

"Ai, adar, ummm," Legolas stammered and with a 'That was meant for Sellion,' the prince dashed away from his enraged father in a completely undignified manner. Having nothing better to do, Bilbo followed him and soon found himself in a previously unchecked part of the Elven Palace.

Bilbo spotted a steep, stone slope that led somewhere downwards and ignoring the prince for a while, decided to see where it led to. As he moved forward, Bilbo passed a few archways similar to those where the dwarves were held and reached a narrow tunnel. Step by step he made his way forward until he reached another set of cells. The sight in one of them made his entire being freeze, before an unexpected bout of warmth passed over him. There, in front of him, stood Thorin Oakenshield, alive and hale, not captured by orcs or giant spiders as the whispers in the shadows kept tormenting Bilbo.

"Thorin…" the hobbit whispered and the dwarf king's head snapped in attention, looking everywhere for the source of the voice.

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

Of all the things Thorin Oakenshield had expected when he had followed the others in the darkness of Mirkwood, giant spiders were not among them… then again neither were haughty elf Kings who appeared out of nowhere and managed to capture him, making him lose Orcrist in the process. As soon as the enchanted doors had closed behind him, Thranduil had demanded to know where his Company had been heading and why they were in his forest. The only answers he had received were in Khuzdul, words mingled with poison and vindication, reminding of long forgotten times, of shattered alliances and betrayals of the words kind. Had Thranduil known the secret language of the dwarves he might had been surprised by the bitterness poured in Thorin's words when he spoke of the days of old. As it was, the elf King did not know Khuzdul and the answer he had so craved had not been given to him. As a result Thorin had been closed in a damp, underground cell with only hay and a flimsy mattress to keep him warm.

As days passed he had often wondered how long it would take until he would be carted back before Thranduil for questioning and made plans for such a day. He had not expected to be saddled with the elf King's youngest as a guardian, nor could he understand why Thranduil had chosen Legolas for such a task. It wasn't until boredom had gotten to the prince, that Legolas had started telling the dwarf king of his pranks – begrudgingly Thorin had even admired the one in which Thraduil had lost his prized Dorwinion – and the reason why more often than not he had been sent to act as guard, despite his status.

Thorin listened in silence, never commenting on anything, even when Legolas had let it slip – intentionally or not – that the other twelve members of his company were safe – but where was Bilbo and why had he not been mentioned? – or when the prince had admitted to sharing tales of pranks between himself and some of the other dwarves – Gloin, of all the dwarves in his Company, it had actually been Gloin cozying up to an elf? He was not surprised to find out that Kili and Fili were budding up to the elf, but Gloin? And honestly who was this Tauriel that kept being mentioned and what was her connection to Kili?

After almost two weeks had passed Thorin Oakenshield was nearing the limit of his patience. He worried for their burglar of whom he had not heard any mention in Legolas' babbling and craved freedom more ardently than ever. He wondered what would happen if he were to tell Thranduil the real reason they had passed through Mirkwood, if he were to promise a small part of their treasure if they were set free. Durin's day was swiftly approaching and would not wait for them to escape from prison. If they lost it, they would have to wait another year before attempting to take the mountain.

He was therefore unprepared for an unexpected whisper in the darkness. When he heard his name, whispered in the Halfling's voice, Thorin wondered whether he had gone mad. There was nothing to be seen in the dimly lit surroundings of his cell.

"Thorin," the whisper came again, closer this time and soft footsteps echoed in the silence, "I know you can't see me, but I am here."

"How?" Thorin asked as he moved towards the bars of the door. "Why can't I see you?"

"It was…" Bilbo started stammering, wondering how to admit that he had been partially lying all this time. "I didn't tell you the entire story… when… in the mountain cave… I found a ring, a magic ring I guess. It makes me invisible…"

A sense of dread washed over Thorin as he heard the word magic. He remembered Gandalf's words vividly as the wizard had struggled to bring the hobbit back from the threshold, somehow keeping him anchored to the living world.

"Some kind of magic took hold of him. A magic that is dark and old, almost as old as I am. I know not how he came across it, nor if Bilbo is in any position to answer our questions. This magic is familiar to me, although I cannot place it at the moment. It was draining our hobbit's life force. Had more moments passed before I intervened we would have lost him to the shadow world."

"Bilbo, was this the magic Gandalf was talking about?" Thorin asked with a steady voice, despite the fact that he did not really want to know the answer. Nay, he actually feared it…

"Yes," Bilbo answered and his voice was still small, as if lacking its usual force. "I know there's something wrong about it or about me, but the others were captured as well and this is the only way to get everyone out. I can't stop using it… not until I can get you out. I know what I'm doing," he added with more conviction than he felt.

Silence settled between them, marred only by the sounds of footsteps in the stillness of the dungeons and the sounds of small hands grabbing the bars of the prison cell.

"I thought…" Bilbo said with a choke and a tremble in his voice. "There were giant spiders and Sting was blazing blue and you weren't with the others and… I found Orcrist…I thought, I feared...no matter... I'm so glad you are safe!"

"And I am glad to hear that you are safe, though less than glad you have to use that wretched thing," Thorin said with a sigh. "I knew from Thranduilion that the others were safe, but no mention of you was made and I worried."

"Legolas and your nephews are exchanging prank stories," Bilbo chuckled. "Also apparently Kili is receiving advice on how to woo a certain Tauriel, though I cannot be sure if that is true or not. Dwalin was making fun of him."

"He'd better hope it's not true," Thorin grumbled. "Tell me everything that's happened until now!"

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

After another week had passed inside the Elven Palace, Bilbo felt more than worn down. He had barely closed an eye since finding Thorin in the second dungeon, being constantly busy sending messages between the leader of their Company and the other dwarves – whenever Legolas or any other guard was absent from the post – and trying to find a way out.

Out of luck – of which Bilbo seemed to have plenty – one day he found the king's cellars that were used for storing the fabled Dorwinion wine among others and for trade with the men of Laketown. The trapdoors in the cellars led to the Great River on which the barrels were sent tumbling down in order to be later collected by the men of Laketown who would fill them with wine and food.

It was then that Bilbo had his idea. If he would be able to steal the keys to the cells from the Chief of the Guards, he would be able to hide his friends in barrels and they would escape the palace through the trapdoors. It was not a stellar plan, but it was a plan nonetheless.

Several minutes later, the hobbit was back at Thorin's dungeon revealing what he had seen. Although the dwarf king was less than pleased with his burglar's idea of a plan, it was a plan nonetheless and they had no other. They had to get out of the prison as soon as possible and it was possible that Bilbo's idea was the only one that held any chances of success. As he leaned against the bars of his cell, thinking about barrels and trap doors his hand came in contact with Bilbo's fingers who were placed against the door. With a hiss, Thorin gazed in the general direction of his invisible companion.

"You're as cold as ice," the dwarf king reproached. "There's no one here. Thranduilion already hid from his father once today, I do not think he will return. You told me that you had to take that that thing off from time to time… you can do so now."

A small form started materializing in front of him and Thorin frowned with worry. The hobbit was pale as a sheet, gaunt and with dark circles under his eyes. His entire body was shivering and his hands were unsteady as he fiddled with the golden ring.

"You're wasting away because of it," the dwarf king said sternly. "When was the last time you slept? You look as if slumber was far away from your mind."

"I couldn't sleep… there was fire, always fire and shadows, whispers in the shadows, calling constantly, beckoning me over."

Bilbo suddenly felt as if something had snapped inside him, as if a coil that was keeping his emotions tightly bound was broken and he was left to face the brunt of them all. Anger, pain, distress, hopelessness, loneliness, bitterness, all surged inside him, bringing him to his knees and making him lean on the cold steel bars. He had not been able to remove the Ring from his finger every since he had found Thorin. He had been constantly moving from here to there, trying to find a solution to their problems that he had not noticed how much an effect the magical trinket had over him until now when he was finally able to take it off.

It was like the last week had been but a freeze in time and everything came rushing suddenly. He had been careless, he had known that he had to be careful with the ring. The first weeks he had always been careful to hide somewhere and take it off for a while.

His hands gripped the bars to steady himself as he faced the onslaught that roared in his mind… In the beginning he did not feel another pair of larger, calloused hands moving over his, keeping him steady nor did he heard Thorin Oakenshield's voice trying to anchor him to this world as the sword strapped to the hobbit's back had done the past weeks.

When the shacking subsisted a little, Bilbo managed to rasp out a:

"I'm alright…I kept it on for too long… silly me…" the words were almost incoherent, but slowly his mind started relaxing and he merely slumped down next to the cell's bar.

"I do hope you are right about Legolas," Bilbo said when finally he had his emotions in check once more. "I'm rather unable to move at the moment…"

Thorin watched him in silence, his gaze concerned. Just as he was about to ask the hobbit why in Mahal's name was he affected in such a way by a ring that at first glance only granted invisibility to its user, he saw a shadow move in the archway and a blonde elf made his way inside the dungeons.

"Oh, bugger it all," Bilbo cursed. Legolas' timing couldn't have been worse…

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

Legolas Thranduilion thought he had seen everything there was to see inside his father's Halls. He believed he knew every nook and cranny of the Palace. He was sure that nothing could surprise him… as he learned that day, he was incredibly wrong. As he hid from his father's rage once more – twice in a day had to be a record and this time it hadn't even been his fault. He had no idea who had lost Thranduil's favourite circlet - his feet brought him towards the cell of Thorin Oakenshield, making him wonder once more what his father hoped to accomplish by keeping the dwarves locked. It was clear they would not talk. Even if they were heading – as Thranduil suspected – towards Erebor to reclaim their home, there was no stepping between a dragon and his gold. The only result of such endeavour would be death by incineration.

At least, the presence of Thorin Oakenshield in their dungeons gave Legolas a place to hide from his father's ire. Thranduil had no more a desire to talk with the exiled dwarf king than Thorin himself had to share the details of their quest.

As he entered the place where the small number of cells were placed, Legolas did not expect to see the shivering form of a Halfling, pale as a spirit and gripping the bars as a lifeline. Also, he did not expect to hear the Halfling curse with annoyance at his presence in the dungeons, nor did he expect to see the concern and trepidation present in Thorin's eyes, eyes that had been cold and stern for as long as Legolas had known the dwarf king.

Only later would Legolas remember the large hand of the dwarf King keeping steady a smaller, shivering hand...

Chapter Text

Never in his life had Bilbo Baggins imagined he would be sitting in the chambers of the prince of Mirkwood, sipping from a mug of hot tea and bundled up in the most wonderful blankets he had ever come across. They were soft as silk and warm as furs; Bilbo could not tell what material they were made of, but they were exquisite. For some unknown reason, Legolas had been rather gleeful at the prospect of someone being able to remain unseen inside his father’s halls and had even promised Bilbo at least a warm meal and some tea for his feat. Now, as he stood in the prince’s chambers, Bilbo could not help himself from thinking there had been some ulterior motive fuelling the prince’s decision – a desire to escape dwarf guarding duty perhaps?

“I must admit, master Baggins,” the elf prince looked at him with curiosity, “when I overheard your companions talking about someone who had fought orcs and giant spiders, I was not expecting that someone to be a Halfling.”

“Hobbit, if you please,” Bilbo interrupted, grimacing at the name. “Halfling is like telling us we’re only half-good, half beings, lesser than others.”

It had been something his mother has said when he was just a tween when one of the Big Folk had called them Halflings. The man had been surprised to hear the vindication in Belladonna Baggins’ voice, but had merely smiled and apologized. Later Bilbo had found out he was one of the Rangers protecting the Shire.

“Hobbit, then,” Legolas said with an inviting smile, wanting to hear at least part of the story. However, Bilbo was in the mood to be cryptic so he merely answered.

“You do what you have to do,” the hobbit shrugged beneath his blanket. “I wasn’t too keen on becoming spider food or seeing my friends die. As for the orcs, that was temporary insanity.”

As Bilbo watched Legolas he noticed there was a different air surrounding the elf. In Rivendell most of the fair folk had been grave, with haunting shadows in their eyes and a timelessness to their bearing. Lord Elrond especially had looked as if he had seen much and suffered through much more. Even his sons had the same look in their eyes as their sire: anger and bitterness mingled with something akin to grief. The elves from Mirkwood however, were determined, stern, always on the edge. There was a certain coldness to them that kept others at bay. They had lived in the shadows for too long and had seen their home fall prey to darkness.

Thranduil’s son on the other hand resembled a ray of sunshine piercing darkness; there was certain lightness to his bearing and his eyes held less shadows. It was as if he had learned to chase the shadows away or somehow embrace them and make them his own. As he watched the prince gaze at him with thinly veiled amusement, Bilbo found himself wondering why he was so sure that this particular son of Thranduil was destined for greatness.

”You must be full of surprises, Master Baggins,” Legolas smiled charmingly. “I know of none who would be able to remain undetected for so long in my father’s halls. I believe that had you been well, we would have found ourselves thirteen prisoners short being none the wiser how they disappeared.”

“As it is you still might find yourself thirteen prisoners short and being none the wiser how they escaped,” Bilbo shrugged. “Hobbits can avoid being seen if they wish and should you find yourself inclined to take me to your father in order to be gifted a nice cell next to my friends you would find yourself with one hobbit short for I would simply disappear.”
Legolas’ brows shot up in surprise hearing the determination in Bilbo’s tone. He had heard of the Shire folk in children’s tales, but those stories painted them as gentle and meek folk, hiding from Men and Elves alike, keeping only to themselves. Here was a being made of steel that had faced spiders, orcs and wargs despite his small size, a being that was bent on setting his friends free and aiding them in their quest that most likely ended in a dragon’s den. The courage of the hobbit surprised him, yet Legolas had no way of knowing that many years from that day hobbits would once more surprise him with their strength and determination.

“Peace, Master Baggins,” he said in a soothing voice. “Although I cannot and will not blatantly disobey my father’s words as he is both my King and my Sire, I cannot be held accountable for what I have not seen. It will not be me who will reveal your presence in this halls.”

Furrowing his brows, the elf prince glanced at the door, making sure it was closed well and said in a lower tone.

“I love my father dearly, but sometimes the darkness of Mirkwood weighs too much on his mind. There was nothing to be gained from imprisoning the dwarves. Had we let them go on their way we would have lost nothing and gained nothing. There is too much ill blood between our races… we need not add more fuel to the fire.”

“Were you there,” Bilbo asked before being able to stop himself, curiosity gnawing at the edge of his mind. “When Erebor fell?”

“I was there and I was not of my father’s opinion at that time,” Legolas sighed. “It may have been the reasonable way, but it was not the right way. Elves have been through much during the ages of this world, father more so than others. I believe at that time he relived the fall of another great Kingdom and felt it was only the world’s way of restoring balance…”

The elf prince trailed off and said nothing more on the matter. Bilbo had no idea what Legolas was talking about, but from what little he knew, he grasped that it may have had something to do with what Bofur had told him of elves and dwarves and their numerous grievances. Silence fell between them and Bilbo found nothing else to do but finish his tea. He felt warmer and better than before and took the warm blanket off his shoulders. He could not spend his time idly while his friends were still in the dungeons. Legolas gave him a small smile and nodded, understanding the hobbit’s determination.

“You wish to engage the dragon, do you not?” the elf prince asked and Bilbo frowned not knowing how to answer. “There are not many things that would take all three of Durin’s heirs so far from the Blue Mountains and through unnumbered perils. Erebor is one of them.”

“Perhaps,” Bilbo answered vaguely, not really denying or admitting anything.

“I cannot aid you, Master Baggins,” the elf suddenly grinned in a mischievous way, “but I can give you information for a price.”

“What price would that be, your Highness?”

“I have heard that hobbits are able to spin beautiful tales. Should you see your mission to its end and return to Mirkwood, I would very much like to hear your story. In return I will tell you how to get your hands on the keys you need.”

“A just price, your Highness,” Bilbo smiled, “and one I will be glad to pay should I live to see this adventure end on a happy note.”

“It is a deal then, Master Baggins. My father is hosting a party tonight and the Chief of Guards sometimes likes to indulge. “ Grabbing a small vial from his bedside table, Legolas gave it to Bilbo and added. “This is water from the Enchanted River. With two drops you will be able to get the keys you need. The way you use them is up to you. Oh and I would ask something of you, Master Baggins, if you will; please tell master Gloin that I would like to meet his son one day. Some of his pranks were real wonders.”

Nodding his thanks, Bilbo pocketed the vial and slipped the Ring on his finger, unnoticed. Legolas made a startled sound seeing his temporary guest disappear into thin air, but otherwise made no move to follow the invisible being that opened the door and slipped down the corridors. He rather hoped he had made the right choice… if not, well then, no one would know that he had met the little Halfling – pardon, hobbit.

~~~***~~~***~~~

As soon as the merriment of the feast made itself heard in the halls of the Elven King, Bilbo hurried to the cellars, where just as Legolas had told him, he found Gallion, the butler and the Chief of the King’s guards indulging in some of Thranduil’s special wine. With extreme care, the hobbit poured two drops of water from the Enchanted River in both goblets. As soon as the two drank from their cups, they fell asleep next to each other. Wasting no time, Bilbo marched to the farthest dungeons and opened the door to Thorin’s cell. He took the Ring of his finger, not needing it anymore, especially with a dwarf in tow and all elves at the feast and smiled feebly at Thorin who appeared thorn between shock and amusement.

Suddenly, without expecting it, Bilbo found himself engulfed in a tight hug. Thorin seemed somewhat smaller without his armour on – the elves had taken it – but his strength was still the same and Bilbo found his newly healed ribs protesting in pain.

“Gandalf couldn’t have been more right about you,” Thorin said gently, “You are truly full of surprises, little burglar.”

Next thing he knew the warmth of Thorin’s embrace left him and they were moving to the other cells and letting the other dwarves free. Once Kili and Fili saw each other they flew in the other’s arms and held close. They had never been truly apart and the sojourn in Thranduil’s cells had been not entirely pleasant for them. Poor Ori was also pressed flush between his two brothers, Dori and Nori agreeing on one thing: keeping their brother safe.

They were on the move again, keeping to the shadows and slowly making their way to the cellars. Luckily for them, Bilbo had found out their gear was kept in that place as well, therefore their weapons would not be lost. Once they were down in the cellars, Bilbo briefly outlined his plan and waited for the uproar that was sure to follow. The dwarves did not fail to disappoint…

As he stood and listened to almost everyone roar around him about how that was such a bad idea – but no one seemed to be able to come with a better one – Bilbo started growing angrier and angrier by the minute. He had spent the last three weeks hiding, eating scarcely, barely sleeping, made invisible by that blasted Ring and always searching for a way out just to hear them moan and whine now that they had to be stuffed in barrels in order to escape. Well, he was having none of that. His Took side reared powerfully and he snapped at the Company.

“Very well then!” his eyes flashed with anger and some of the dwarves took a few steps back when they saw, “Very well! If you think my plan is so bad you can go ahead and spend three weeks hiding from the elves, sleeping on stones, eating only a few crumbs a day and then you find a better plan. During this time, I’ll be sitting in your cozy cells, warmed by a blanket and enjoying at least three meals a day. Oh, and don’t forget about convincing Legolas to give you water from the Enchanted River to drug the Chief of the Guards again. What do you think about this plan?”

Bilbo stamped his feet to the ground, greatly resembling a petulant fauntling, and gazed at each of them waiting for an answer.

“Enough!” a deep rumble came from Thorin who looked exasperated, but also amused with the hobbit’s annoyance. “If anyone else has a better plan which can be enacted now, then I eagerly await it. Otherwise we will get in those barrels.”

Moving quickly and quietly they found about two dozen barrels spacious enough to store the dwarves inside. There was much grumbling, especially on Dwalin’s part who complained that he was stifling inside, but soon enough all thirteen dwarves and their respective gears were hidden in the barrels. Of course, it was only afterward that Bilbo noticed there was no one to help him inside a barrel. Soon afterward several elves descended in the cellar and started pushing the barrels down the trapdoors singing merrily.

“Oh, confound this!” Bilbo grumbled to himself, hidden by the Ring, as he barely managed to grasp the last barrel that had been sent in the river. The hobbit found himself submersed in the cold water, with the barrel on top of him and momentarily panicked. Hobbits and water never mingled well and unfortunately Bilbo’s rudimentary swimming skills seemed like a forgotten memory. However, just then, the barrel rolled and brought Bilbo above the surface of the water, spluttering and clinging to the wood like a rat. They only thing he could do was hold the barrel as firmly as possible – getting on top of it was out of the question.

“I hope the lids are tightly shut,” Bilbo thought with worry, before focusing on staying above the water and not submerging anytime soon. Hobbits really were not made for rivers…

~~~***~~~***~~~***~~~

When finally the barrels were pulled next to the banks of the river, Bilbo gave a relieved sigh. His heart had been hammering in his chest for being in water – rivers frightened him as they did any hobbit, therefore if he kissed the ground when he felt solid earth under his feet no one could blame him – and the fear of drowning had been ever present in his mind. Not even the now familiar throb that came with the use of the Ring was able to shift his attention from the waters and the currents that in another river from another place in Middle Earth had lured many hobbits to their death. Once he was safe, however, he waited for the cover of darkness in order to free his friends and become visible once more.

He did not expect anyone to be in very high spirits after travelling in such a manner, but Thorin’s grumbling and growling once he was helped out of his barrel made Bilbo snap in annoyance for the second time that day, especially since the dwarf king had been the only one not averse to the plan.

“We need to get the others out,” Bilbo tried reasoning, but hearing what he perceived to be the third curse in Khuzdul in a matter of minutes, he said crossly. “Do you think I had fun? Hobbits fear water Thorin, we drown in it and all I had was a barrel that kept trying to duck me under water with each movement I made. It was no walk in the park,” he added showing his bruised hands that were littered with splinter wounds “, but the others need to get out and if you will not help me I shall do it myself.”

Not even pausing to see whether his little speech had any effect, Bilbo moved back in the shallows and tried finding another barrel that had a dwarf inside. At the corner of his eye he saw Thorin, still grumbling, but at least on his feet, backing his every step.

Soon, working together, they managed to help their twelve companions out of their barrels. Some had travelled rather comfortably, while others were soaked to the bone. By far the most wretched was Fili who had been forced to smell apples the entire trip.

"I hope I never smell the smell of apples again!" said Fili. "My tub was full of it. To smell apples everlastingly when you can scarcely move and are cold and sick with hunger is maddening. I could eat anything in the wide world now, for hours on end-but not an apple!"

Fili's wretched face made everyone, even Dwalin crack a smile. Suddenly they were all laughing… they were free and away from the darkness of Mirkwood. They had not been eaten by spiders or captured by orcs, they had managed to leave the dungeons of the Elven King behind… at the same time Erebor was closer than ever and the end to their quest seemed closer than ever.

“I do believe the worst is behind us,” Ori smiled briefly from his place on the ground – they had all dropped to the ground and stretched on the muddy banks, glad to be away from waters and barrels. The others nodded in agreement, yet Bilbo found himself frowning. He was certain the dragon was still alive and nothing short of a miracle would be able to get them unscathed through that adventure.

But everything could wait until the next day; he was tired and he ached in places he did not know he could ache. Slumber took over the entire Company and they drifted in the world of dreams.

A mountain of gold lays abandoned inside the massive dwarven halls. The chamber appears to be empty and Bilbo makes his way cautiously inside. Suddenly the pile of gold starts shifting and a huge eye with slit pupils opens in front of him. The dragon cannot see him, but its nostrils flutter and Bilbo knows he is caught because even though he cannot be seen, he can be smelt.

“Where are you thief?” the dragon rumbles, yet he does not move and Bilbo wonders why in the world it does not shoot a burst of fire in his general direction. The dragon moves to his feet and looks around unaware that Bilbo is just next to one of its large claws. The hobbit’s eyes can see the lizard’s belly that is covered in gold and gems almost in its entirety… however a gap remains near the dragon’s heart, the only gap that makes Smaug vulnerable.

The dream ended, but Bilbo smiled in his sleep content…all he had to do now was find the perfect opportunity to use that information.

Chapter Text

The first night they had spent in Laketown had seemed almost blessed to one Bilbo Baggins. After three torturous weeks hiding in the shadows and sleeping on the hard concrete, a soft mattress was a luxury the hobbit had not hoped to come across very soon. The men of Laketown had arranged a hobbit sized room for him on the ground floor – probably a former pantry from the pleasant smell the room spread – and had given him a thick mattress filled with hay and warm blankets. The night had passed in blessed oblivion, no dreams of any nature marring his slumber and Bilbo could have said he was content. He knew his peace of mind would not last long – soon they would be heading towards the mountain and a dragon awaited them. Bilbo knew for sure that no matter what his dreams had shown him, the lizard was more terrifying in reality and yet, a small part of his soul, felt thrilled. He had never been a vain hobbit, but he prided himself with the fact that he was able to outwit many of his kin. If his dreams told the truth then a moment would come when the dragon would engage him in a game of wits and Bilbo looked forward to the idea – though it also made him tremble in fear at the same time.

By the time darkness fell again during their second day in Laketown came, Bilbo felt feverish and understood his means of transport had not sat too well with his health. A wheezy cough started taking over him and a sneezing fit soon followed. He sat huddled in blankets in the sitting room, next to the fireplace, a sullen look on his face as he glared at the broth he had been given – the only thing he could eat with his sore throat.

“Next time I’ll take the barrel,” poor Bilbo grumbled and Bofur, who had heard him, snorted and tried to hide his laughter with a fake coughing fit.

One at a time, his companion started retiring to their shared rooms, but Bilbo remained near the fireplace, trying to gather as much warmth in his bones as possible – surely their road would not offer such a cozy fireplace soon – and lagging behind, for what he did not know. Ever since escaping Mirkwood the Ring had weighed on his mind heavily and although he could not tell the entire truth, Bilbo felt like sharing something about the dark treasure he had come across. Thorin had asked nothing more, yet it was clear from the looks the dwarf king sometimes shot in his presence that he expected some answers.

Without even noticing, the room had almost emptied. Bilbo watched in surprise as Fili whispered something in Kili’s ear, who in turn shared something with Ori and the three left together, not heading towards the stairs that led to their rooms, but rather in a different direction. With that it was only Bilbo and Thorin in the room and the hobbit gave a loud sigh. What could he tell? What could he not tell?

“I would hear the thoughts that trouble you, Bilbo,” Thorin said softly, “if you wished to share them. And I’d also hear the story of that magical trinket that both aids and thwarts you so.”

Bilbo gave another sigh and collected his thoughts.

“I fear the worst is not behind us, as Ori believes,” the hobbit admitted. “My choices barely make sense anymore and I think it’s because of the ring. It twists them, makes them incomprehensible. I think it’s no ordinary trinket and I feel that I should have told Gandalf about it. But now it is too late. I found it in Gollum’s cave and at some point it was his I think. But the ring broke Gollum…”

Thorin frowned in surprise; how could a ring break a person? The only instance of such a feat he knew about was the Nine and they were lost to the world, forever in the power of the Dark Shadow from the East.

“What do you mean it broke him?”

“This Ring is almost alive… sentient… it whispers and promises, calling in the shadows,” a haze filled Bilbo’s eyes as it usually did when he talked about his dreams and his voice appeared to come from far away. “It’s seductive, but it’s also twisted, like the ivy in my garden. I think Gollum did not feel the darkness so he used the Ring until he became twisted as well... he cares about two things now, the Ring and himself. And he is old, so very old…”

Bilbo closed his eyes and shuddered, remembering the huge eyes glittering in the darkness and the back and forth talk between the two personalities of the creature by the underground lake.

“I saw my cousins in a dream,” Bilbo changed the subject so abruptly that Thorin wondered what had prompted the change. “They got married two springs ago… in my dream they were falling from a boat and drowning, leaving a young son all alone in the world. I saw the Shire burning and falling under the swords of orcs and ruffias, but that did not feet real… I saw war… I cannot be sure what’s real and what isn’t anymore, because the vividness of my dreams has been twisted, but I know this: the dragon is alive, Thorin and he’s waking up.”

Thorin nodded, humming in agreement. He had expected that much; dragons were practically immortal if no one slew them and it was no surprise that Smaug had not abandoned the horde of Erebor.

“I also think he has a weakness, a soft spot on his chest. I saw it…” Bilbo added quietly. “,but I may be wrong… I don’t know for sure.”

“Dragons usually sleep on the treasure they steal in order to protect their soft underside,” Thorin nodded, “if Smaug was careless, there is a chance that a spot remains uncovered. However, first we must find the secret entrance…”

In a way, getting closer to the mountain, filled Thorin Oakenshied with both joy and dread. He was getting closer to his home, closer to reclaiming what was rightfully his, but at the same time the moment would come for Bilbo to enter the mountain and face Smaug, alone. The idea terrified him. Even with a magical Ring the feat was almost folly, but there was no other choice and no turning back.

The Ring… Thorin had seen it when Bilbo had played with it in Thranduil’s dungeons. It was a normal, gold band with no stones adorned to it. It was unlike Thrain’s own Ring and unlike what he had heard about the Rings of Power that were all set with jewels. But it was magical and that meant more than surely it had been made in the Second Age in Eregion. For a moment it had almost felt as if the Ring was whispering something to him, making promises, before it quieted as Bilbo placed it in his pocket.

“Bilbo, that Ring of yours,” Thorin said and the hobbit glanced in his direction. “Be careful…”

“I only use it when the utmost need comes. When and if Gandalf returns I will seek his advice on how to deal with it.”

The dwarf king nodded knowing that this was the only compromise that could be made. They needed the power of the Ring to keep Bilbo safe in the mountain, despite the darkness it brought with itself.

“You should sleep,” Thorin said softly, “you are still ill and our time in Laketown grows short. You will need your strength back.”

Bilbo nodded and rose to his feet. Leaving the blankets where they had fallen, he headed towards his room, stopping in the doorway for a few moments. The light of the fireplace cast shadows on Thorin’s face, but in that moment the dwarf king looked almost at peace. His eyes looked far away and he hummed under his breath the song they had played that night in Bag End.

“Far over the Misy Mountains Cold…”

Upon returning to his room, Bilbo was surprised to see three more mattresses had been dragged inside it, surrounding his bed on three sides. Fili and Kili were flanking the smaller mattress on the left and right as they did when they camped, while Ori had neatly arranged his place at the feet of the hobbit’s makeshift bed. The three youngsters were not yet asleep and before Bilbo was able to utter any question he might had had in mind, Fili answered for all of them.

“We missed our hobbit,” he said simply ignoring Bilbo’s sputter at the “our”. “We’ve spent two weeks inside those damned cells wondering what might had happened to you and one more wondering what might happen to you should you be caught. You’re family, Bilbo and we take care of family.”

Bilbo’s features morphed into a gentle smile; they were family for him as well, all thirteen of them and sometimes he felt closer to them than to any of his remaining hobbit relatives. The hobbit said nothing more, merely caressed the youngsters’ hair softly and moved in his own bed.

“You’re family too, boys,” he whispered to them in the darkness. ‘And I’ll do my best to protect all of you!’ he added silently in his mind.

~~~***~~~***~~~

The day they had to leave Laketown soon came and Bilbo sighed while contemplating his soft bed and a week’s worth of good food. His cold had passed and now he was mostly able to talk without feeling a screechy itch in his throat, but all of it would soon go to waste in the wilderness surrounding Erebor. As he looked in the mirror that had been placed in his room, Bilbo had a hard time remembering the hobbit that had left the Shire all those months ago. The natural roundness of his cheeks faded somewhat and his face gained a more angular form. His eyes, still framed by dark circles, held a fire in them that had not been seen since the death of Belladonna Baggins nee Took.

He no longer wore the clothes he had set out with for they had been damaged beyond repair. Instead, the clothes that he had been given in Laketown strongly resembled the gear of his dwarven companions and for once, the sheer strangeness of it all did not make Bilbo uneasy. Instead, it made him glad to fully fit in, even if he would lament the loss of his beautiful waistcoat for a long time. Sting hung at his waist, waiting to be used once more; the Ring was hidden under his clothes, hanging on a chain around his neck. He did not dare lose the Ring least it fell in unsuspecting hands and dealt far more damage than in could deal in the hands of a hobbit.

The only thing that bothered Bilbo was not the way his appearance had changed or the fact that he resembled a dwarf more than a hobbit. No, it was his blasted hair that had grown quite long and always fell into his eyes. There had been no time to cut it and now that they were leaving the chance would not present itself – there was no way he would allow anyone to cut it with a dagger.

“How did that poor mirror wrong you, Bilbo, that you glare at it so fiercely?” Bofur’s chuckling voice came from nearby and the hobbit jumped in surprise. The dwarf was all packed, with his gear on his shoulders and his faithful hat on his head. Frowning Bofur came closer and started inspecting Biblo’s hair.

“I know, it’s long and gets in the way,” Bilbo answered the unspoken statement. “It’s just, with my cold I couldn’t even leave the house so there was no way to have it cut.”

“You could braid it,” Bofur said checking the brown locks. “It seems long enough…”

“Braid it?” Bilbo exclaimed, “Only hobbit lasses braid their hair in the Shire.”

“Aye, but you’re not in the Shire, are you?” Bofur grinned and grabbed a few locks of hair, twisting them expertly. “Ye’re in the company of dwarves and we take great pride in our braids. ‘tis fitting since you are a member of the Company that you should ‘ave braids as well.”

“What do they mean?” Bilbo asked, “The braids, I mean. Each of you has a different pattern and way of braiding them.”

“Braids have different meanings based on the way they are woven and the person who weaves them. They can be made by yourself and they can show your trade, your hierarchy in the family or the house you belong to or they can be vowed by others – a master for an apprentice, between siblings, a lover for his or her intended. For example Gloin’s braid has been woven by his wife. Bombur’s beard was also woven by his wife and symbolizes his large family and numerous children. Ori’s braids have been woven by the Master Scribe of Ered Luin. Thorin’s braids of course symbolize the fact that he is King and Durin’s heir. As for Nori, who knows his braids mean in the rank of thieves?! It’s most likely better not to know. Ah, there you are!”

Bilbo glanced in the mirror once more and was surprised to see that Bofur’s braids kept all the extra hair out of his eyes. There were three braids, one on the left and two on the right, interweaving somewhere at the back of his head. Their pattern was simple and made Bilbo wonder what exactly did they mean.

“Bofur, what exactly does this pattern mean?” the hobbit asked with suspicion lacing into his tone. He remembered seeing a familiar pattern when Fili had braided Kili’s hair in his sleep, before the youngster had woken up and quickly untangled the pattern, sputtering in outrage.

“They are the braids woven for a younger brother!” Bofur grinned with unabashed amusement and left a sputtering Bilbo behind as he moved towards the door of the house. The hobbit huffed in outrage, but made no move to remove his braids. They really kept the hair from his face and it was nice to think that Bofur saw him as family as well. Grabbing his pack and making sure he was all set, Bilbo too left the cozy home of Laketown and set for the journey… they had a mountain to reclaim and a dragon to slay.

Of course, Bilbo thought ruefully, the brothers could not pass the chance to snicker at him and when they saw the braids they fell in fits of laughter. Throwing an arm each over Bilbo’s shoulders they claimed that since the braids pegged Bilbo as their younger brother, he could no longer tell them what to do and glare at them when they misbehave. The raised eyebrow and silent dare the hobbit had thrown them was enough to quell their enthusiasm.

As Laketown became smaller and smaller behind them and Erebor started looming closer, Bilbo touched his braids and felt reassured that if he were to become dragon’s food at least he did it for his family – although he rather hoped the event would not come to pass.

“You truly look like one of us now,” a deep voice whispered in his ear and a warm hand squeezed his shoulder.

With a smile on his face Bilbo felt that tides were truly changing for the better…

Chapter Text

They followed the line of the River Running as soon as they left Laketown and saw Erebor looming in front of them, both enticing and forbidden. The younger dwarves who had never seen the splendor of the mountain were becoming more and more eager as each step was made – even shy Ori – and started pestering Balin for tales of Erebor and the days of old.

However, at the end of the second day, they moved from the green banks of the river and stepped on the black and charred lands that marked the start of the Desolation of Smaug. There was no grass left and all paths had been destroyed when the dragon had come. Yet, as Bilbo watched the ground with the keen eyes of one who had grown surrounded by greenery his whole life, he noticed that the land did not appear dead. It was possible that the land, like all others, awaited the death of Smaug in order to be able to bloom once more. Something told the hobbit that come spring, should the dragon be slain, the former fields around Erebor would be in bloom once more.

They reached the skirts of the Mountain without seeing any signs of the dragon, but no one was surprised. If the dragon was still alive, it was most likely asleep and would only wake if someone threatened his domain.

“Balin, take Fili and Kili and scout the land to the South. Do not stray too close to the Front Gate,” Thorin told the scouting team. Bilbo tagged along eager to see the Front Gate and what remained of the once famous city of Dale.

"There lies all that is left of Dale," Balin said. "The mountain's sides were green with woods and all the sheltered valley rich and pleasant in the days when the bells rang in that town."

From the Front Gate steam and smoke poured outside; the dragon was still alive as they had expected him to be. They returned to the others and announced what they had found out. Looks of dismay flared on some faces, but none had really hoped to find the dragon dead. They had been prepared for such news ever since they had set off from the Blue Mountains.

As soon as the next day came they moved their camp to the western slopes and started their search of the hidden door. It was Bofur and Ori who came back with grinning faces and announced that they had found a grassy ledge of stone protruding from the mountain. There they believed and the others agreed, the hidden door would appear on Durin’s Day.

All they had to do know was wait another week until Durin’s Day came…

~~~****~~~***~~~***~~~

The week spent against the mountain, waiting for Durin’s Day to come had been perhaps the most wretched one in Bilbo’s whole life. The weather had turned even colder and drizzles of rain drenched them to the bone every day. Their packs had been moved to the small ledge of stone in front of the hidden door and all, save Bombur who feared climbing such heights unless absolutely necessary, took watch or tried to find a way to reveal the hidden passage. Their spirits dampened and even Bilbo started despairing that Durin’s day would pass and they would remain there hopelessly waiting for a door that would never open.

It was that despair to which the anxiety that the dragon would wake up was added that prompted Bilbo to try and seek answers from the magical Ring he carried around his neck. He had left the object in peace, as he had promised and so far its darkness had not troubled him further. He knew he was tempting fate in putting the Ring on, but his nights had been dreamless and the answers the dwarves sought from Thrain’s map failed to reveal themselves. Making sure no one was nearby and keeping an eye out for Thorin, Bilbo huddled into one of the niches in the stone and slid the chain off his neck. The Ring seemed heavier somewhat as he held it in his palm and the whispers at the edge of his mind rekindled powerfully. It appeared almost as if the Ring was calling to the darkness inside the mountain and expecting an answer. Ignoring the fact that his entire being yelled at him not to put us the magical trinket, Bilbo slowly slid the golden band on his finger and bared his mind to the foreign presence.

Bilbo sees himself inside the mountain, stumbling over a golden goblet and falling to his knees in a mountain of gold. He lets out a small yelp and almost stops breathing as he waits for the dragon to appear out of the treasure and turn him into ash. Yet, he hears nothing and as much as he looks around he cannot see the dragon anywhere. He rises to his feet and takes a few shaky steps. He calls in the darkness, but nothing answers back and with a relieved sigh Bilbo understands that the dragon has left the mountain for the first time in who knows how many decades.

He makes his way through the treasure and calls to his friends to let them know that everything is safe. Suddenly, his foot hits something round and Bilbo bends down to pick whatever the object is. It is a jewel, round as an egg, spreading colored light in every direction. The hobbit thinks it must be the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes on and understands this must be the fabled Arkenstone, Thror’s precious gem. His mind tells him he must take it to Thorin, but his hands act out of their own accord and hide the jewel in one of his pockets.

“Bilbo, where are you?”

Voices come from the entrance and he turns in that direction and moves to his friends. At the back of his mind a dark voice tells him he has finally become the burglar he set out to be.

Flash… Bilbo makes his way in the darkness, as stealthily as he can, hoping not to rouse any suspicion. The Ring is on his finger and he knows he cannot be seen, but that does not mean he cannot be heard. The Arkenstone weighs heavily in his pocket, but before he can doubt his decision he is in front of the Woodland King’s tent. He cannot allow his friends to die in a pointless war between elves and dwarves, cannot see them perish just after they recovered their home. When he gives the stone to the human Bard and the elven king Thranduil and tells them to bargain it for his share of the treasure, Bilbo hears dry laughter in his head and knows the Ring is one step closer to claiming him.

Flash… "You! You! You miserable hobbit! You undersized-burglar! By the beard of Durin! I wish I had Gandalf here! Curse him for his choice of you! May his beard wither! As for you I will throw you to the rocks!"

Thorin’s eyes flash with fury as he shakes Bilbo. The hobbit knows he must pay the price for betraying his King, but if he can save his family’s life by forfeiting their love and friendship then that is the path he must take. He does not quiver or beg for mercy. Instead, he accepts whatever punishment befits him. Gandalf’s voice saves him as it rings loudly in the human and elf camp, but Bilbo thinks it might had been better had he been thrown against the rocks. The look of pure and unadulterated hatred in Thorin’ eyes is more than he can bear.

A small whimper escaped Bilbo’s lips as he saw the scene at the back of his mind and understood that there was a chance he would lose what he cherished more than anything in the world: Thorin’s trust and friendship.

‘Why should you care about him?’ a voice echoed in his mind and Bilbo felt the Ring pulsating on his finger. ‘He cared nothing about you in that vision. You tried to help him and he forsook you for a pretty gem. He will betray you. You are only a hobbit, a small, weak, powerless Halfling… what use would a Dwarf King have for you? Why should you brave the dragon for him? He will abandon you, they all will. Why bother at all? You don't belong among them! You do not deserve them!’

All of the sudden Bilbo found himself forgetting everything and wondering… why had he left Bag End? Why was he risking everything? He had a Ring, he could walk away unseen with everyone none the wiser and go back home. They did not need him, he was not that important. Why even try? As sudden as the thought came it went away and Bilbo glared at the shadows swirling around his body, trying to draw him in.

‘They are my friends, my family! I may be weak and I may be only a hobbit, but I will protect them and no Eru forsaken Ring will thwart me.’

With a powerful lurch he pulled the Ring free from his finger and collapsed on the soft grass in front of the hidden door. His stomach lurched powerfully and his head felt like it would split from the pain. Moving to the edge of the stone he heaved and spilled the contents of his stomach, meager as they were against the mountain. When his stomach settled he moved back to the hidden entrance and leaned against the cold rock, trying to sooth his throbbing head. He did not fully understand what had happened in that moment, why his mind had been more vulnerable to the Ring than before. He feared what would happen should he use its power near the dragon. Yet, despite what he had said, doubt edged him at the back of his mind… was he truly one of them?

It was there that Thorin found him a few hours later, still lying limp against the cold stone, the throbbing in his head quelled to a dull ache. The dwarf King’s eyes looked at Bilbo with worry, but when he spoke the deep rumble of his voice was enough to send spikes of pain in Bilbo’s head once more.

“What happened? Are you ill?”

“More like addled,” Bilbo answered truthfully, “I was stupid and tried to find answers in the wrong way. Unfortunately it backfired.”

“Did you…”

Neither had time to find out how the question would have ended, because in that exact moment a thrush arrived and sat next to the hidden entrance. Peering at the members of the Company who were slowly making their way up the stone ledge, he took a snail and started knocking it against the door, with sharp and precise movements. It did not seem at all preoccupied by the fact that it was being watched by a band of dwarves and one lone hobbit who peered from time to time at the horizon, watching the sun set. Moments after the sun had disappeared behind the line of the horizon, a single beam of light burst from the clouds and hit the door, making a small gap in the stone appear.

“The key!” Bilbo cried out, but before the last word had been uttered Thorin had already drawn the key from its chain and pressed it into the stone slot. A soft clack let them know that the door could now be opened; half of the Company piled against the stone and pushed until the door gave away and opened into darkness. The road into the mountain was covered in shadows and seemed to go downward. However, the corridor was narrow, much too narrow for a dragon to make its way through it. It was clear that the winged lizard would not pose a threat in the tunnel.

Bilbo knew his moment had come at last. It was what he had been brought along for, a burglar to walk undetected under the nose of the dragon. However, he did not dare use the Ring so soon after the last debacle. His heart hammered in his chest as he checked the all engulfing darkness inside the mountain. He made his mind on the spot, when he dimly heard Fili and Kili , somewhere behind him, arguing who would go inside the mountain.

“I will go,” he said calmly, despite the tremor in his limbs. Before the dwarf brothers and their yarn kitting friend could object he spoke again. “It is what I was brought along for, is it not? The dragon knows the smell of dwarf, but a hobbit will surprise him. He will not know what to expect. I will move swiftly and will return before you know it.”

“I’ll came with you laddie,” Balin said softly. “At least as long as I can without rousing the dragon’s suspicion…”

Bilbo gave the elder dwarf a thankful smile and glanced at Thorin who looked thorn between doing what was expected of him and doing what his heart told him. Moving towards the dwarf King, Bilbo smiled reassuringly and said in a clear voice.

“I got away from Goblin Town did I not? What’s a dragon compared to that?,” lowering his voice in a whisper he added. “There’s a gap on the dragon’s belly that is the size of a small rock just above his heart that he was not able to cover with gems… I’m almost certain of it, I've seen it again since we arrived here. If he finds me, well at least you'll know how to slay it.”

Thorin nodded tensely and watched as Bilbo turned around and stepped into the darkness, Balin a few paces behind him. The tunnel was steep and Bilbo found hard to maintain his balance in the darkness. He crept as noiselessly as he could down in the darkness… the Ring hummed around his neck, begging to be used, but the hobbit had already decided against it. He would not use it unless it was absolutely necessary, unless Smaug was awake and he needed to hide from the dragon. As he moved onward the tunnel started growing hotter and hotter until the very air was stifling. At one point Balin had stopped advancing, yet Bilbo was not sure where.

A red light glittered at the end of the tunnel, spreading shadows on the walls and a sort of rumble seemed to shake the very foundation of the mountain. It was akin to the purring of a very large cat; Bilbo figured the dragon must be asleep… The hobbit soon came to the end of the tunnel that opened in the Grand Dwarven Hall under the Mountain. Gold, silver and precious jewels glittered everywhere he looked and in their midst stood a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke. Now and then, small flames would rise in the halls, making the jewels glitter even more powerfully in the darkness, but not damaging them in any way.

As Bilbo looked around he noticed piles of mail, weapons and helmets that he had not seen before, small mountains of coins and even a column of precious objects like golden cups and silver plates encrusted with sapphires. Careful not to make any noise in order not to wake the dragon, Bilbo grabbed a small cup – the closest thing to the entrance – and dashed away in the darkness of the tunnel. When Balin appeared in sight, he finally allowed his feet to slow down and almost fell into a heap, the rush of adrenaline fading away replaced with the idea that:

‘I stole from a DRAGON!’

Balin picked him up as if he weighed nothing and they both stumbled outside the tunnel, Bilbo still clutching the cup hard and the dwarf grinning madly under the starlit sky. The hobbit allowed one of the other dwarves to take the cup – which one he did not know – and fell to his knees, breathing the fresh air and wondering how in the world he had managed to steal from a dragon without being seen. Once he was sure his nerves were calm again he rose to his feet and glanced at Thorin who watched the Company pass the cup from one to another with glee. His face spoke of past sadness, guilt, hope and even gratitude.

“It’s all there,” Bilbo whispered, moving close to the King. “It’s there and we’ll take it back along with the mountain.”

Thorin’s eyes shone like the very sapphires hidden inside the mountain when his gaze fell upon the hobbit. His arm went around the hobbit’s waist and he gently pulled Bilbo against him. The hobbit smiled softly and leaned in the embrace.

“Yes, we’ll get it back,” Thorin nodded. Pressing a soft kiss to Bilbo’s forehead, the dwarf king added with a hoarse voice. “Thank you!”

Suddenly, Bilbo froze and his eyes glazed over for just a second, before the color drained from his face.

“We have to get Bombur and Bifur up and get inside the mountain! Now!” he cried. “The dragon is coming!”

Chapter Text

They all stood huddled inside the mountain, mere paces away from the stone door that was still partially open and waited with trepidation for the disaster that Bilbo was certain would come. They had gotten Bombur and Bifur plus most of their supplies inside just in time, because mere moments after they had closed the door a loud grumble shook the mountain to its core and thundering came from the outside. Rocks fell from the ceiling and the hidden door was buried in debris as the dragon viciously attacked the mountain.

"THIEF!" the dragon called menacingly, "THIEF! I KNOW YOU ARE THERE, THIEF! I CAN SMELL YOU AND YOUR COMPANY OF DWARVES! I WILL FIND YOU AND DESTROY ALL OF YOU! COME FACE ME THIEF! COME FORTH AND BRING BACK WHAT YOU HAVE STOLEN OR I WILL RIP YOU ALL TO SHREDS!"

The dragon fell silent, and the rattle of the stones stopped as Smaug probably returned to his hoard, but Bilbo's heart still hammered in his chest madly. He had to return and face Smaug, had to stall for time and give his friends time to come with a plan. There was no other option… even inside the mountain pass they were not safe. The dragon could bring down the mountain over them or could send tongues of fire up the tunnel until the flames scorched them.

'Think a furnace with wings,' Bofur's words from Bag End came unbidden. Silence had fallen over their group and it was clear no one really knew what to do. They all looked at one another with dread in their eyes, not wanting to voice any options. It was clear that as soon as Bilbo put forth his plan they would protest loudly and try to stop him from going. He had no time to convince them and would most likely have to disappear under their very eyes.

"I'm going," Bilbo said rapidly and took up the cup from where it had been placed on the ground. "I'm going to stall for time, keep him occupied, try to distract him," the words come tumbling down and he gave the others no time to protest or distract him from his thoughts. "He won't see me and he won't risk melting the gold. I'll disappear and keep him occupied, make him unable to notice you."

Turning to Thorin, Bilbo knew his eyes most likely reflected the terror he felt in his soul and was surprised to see, for a seconds only, the same fear mingled with worry in the King's blue gaze.

"Remember what I told you," the hobbit added hurriedly. "I'll have him bare that mark, but make sure Kili's arrow flies true. It won't be enough, not by a long shot, but it's our only chance."

Without any other words, he slid the Ring on and ran down the tunnel. Cries of 'Bilbo, come back', followed him, but he could not turn back, not now when all their lives were at stake. The weight of the Ring pressed on him and he felt the coldness of the shadow world more acute than ever, making him shiver as it slowly took over him. The darkness of the dragon was probably fuelling the Ring, but there was no choice for him in the matter. He merely hoped he would not be brought to his knees by another vision when in the presence of the dragon. It would be most unfortunate should he find himself dragon food without being even conscious to try and defend himself.

As soon as he reached the end of the tunnel, he heard the rumbling voice from before, beckoning him forth.

"I can smell you, thief," Smaug called. "Come forth!"

Bilbo, hidden by the Ring, made his way to the mouth of the tunnel and let the golden cup drop in the pile beneath its feet. Smaug stood mere feet in front of him, fully awake and blowing smoke on his nostrils. He looked very much as he had in Bilbo's dreams, yet he appeared fatter and perhaps less determined. There was a feral glint in his eyes, but also curiosity and anxiousness. Bilbo hoped to be able to play on that curiosity if he were to escape alive.

"Although I cannot see you, I know where you stand thief," Smaug said reaching his head towards the entrance in the mountain and sniffing the air. "You are truly a small thief; the heart hammering in your chest barely makes more noise than a hummingbird. You are not a dwarf, though you have their scent all over you, nor are you a man. Elves I have not smelled in centuries without counting, but you are not among their race. Come now, thief, come closer and tell me what you are."

The dragon turned around and his tail slashed against the mountain. The stone under his feet trembled and Bilbo found himself careening face first into the gold below. He scrambled to his feet and moved quickly from the spot he had fallen on, but knew that the dragon could hear and scent his every move.

"I said speak, thief!" the dragon growled and Bilbo, hidden in a small opening in the rocks, answered with a trembling voice.

"I am the clue-finder and the spider's bane," Bilbo called from his hideout. "I live at the end of a bag, yet no bag has ever caught me. I am he who walks unseen and escapes even from closed cells. I am a child of the West and the setting sun."

"Worthy titles, thief," the dragon rumbled and Bilbo understood the winged lizard was laughing. Smaug was circling the place in which Bilbo was hidden, taking his time and playing with his food. "Yet, none answer my question. You smell of earth and the Sea thief so I can only assume that you tell the truth and indeed hail from the West. I have not been in the West for a long time; last I was there I found nothing that smelled like you."

Bilbo quickly dashed from his hideout when Smaug's head started seeking him out.

"I am a hobbit of the Shire," Bilbo called out, trying to stall Smaug, knowing that the dragon would not know what hobbits were. The Shire had never seen dragons and it was likely no dragon had ever seen the Shire. Most had been killed long before the hobbits started their first homes across the Brandywine river.

"I have never heard of a hobbit before, little thief," the dragon paused his chase and sniffed the air with even more eagerness than before. When the dark whispers echoed even more powerfully in his mind, Bilbo understood the dragon had recognized something else. Smaug's eyes bore into him even without knowing where exactly where to look; there were cruelty and dark humor in the dragon's gaze, and Bilbo wondered what exactly brought it forth. "I smell darkness, Shireling, coiled all around you like a rope, twisting and bending. I know the power which hides you for it has been there at my birth and I would recognize it anywhere. The power of Mairon is all over you, thief, yet it is not in your strength to wield it. It will bend you and break you. It will devour you and leave your mind withering in the darkness, naked in face of he who is its true wielder. You will be able to do nothing, but succumb to its will."

The dragon approached him and Bilbo found himself rooted to the spot. There was truth in Smaug's words, yet there was also something else. Not a threat, but an eagerness… as the Ring called further, Bilbo understood that mayhap the dragon wanted the power to himself.

"You will suffer in endless torment until the end of time, thief, and none shall know your fate, for you will be lost in this world and caught in the shadows." Smaug laughed again. "Perhaps it would be kinder to eat you now and spare you the misery."

With a sudden bout of courage and strength that Bilbo had no idea where it came – and with the conviction that no matter what the dragon could not have the Ring, could not be given access to such power and also a thought that whispered in the darkness 'The Ring is mine, my own', although he knew full well he would never own the Ring – Bilbo unsheathed Sting in a flash and stabbed the dragon's nose with fury.

"You shall have to catch me first and I remain unseen!" Bilbo cried out and the dragon reared on his hind legs in pain and anger, revealing his underside that was coated with precious gems and gold everywhere except for a small gap above the heart, just as Bilbo had seen in his dreams. An arrow came from the tunnel and embedded itself straight in the dragon's belly.

The lizard gave a fearsome roar just as thirteen dwarves jumped from the tunnel, their swords flashing and with a cry of "Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!", surrounded the injured, but not yet defeated dragon. Bilbo quickly took off the Ring and with Sting clutched in his hand, watched the battle scene unfold, desperate to help, yet knowing there was nothing an untrained hobbit could do in order to defeat the dragon.

Kili's arrows flew everywhere, the young dwarf keeping just out of reach of the powerful jaws and razor sharp claws, but the steel heads merely bounced on the impenetrable hide of the dragon.

"Kili, shoot the dragon's eyes," his brother called, but in that exact moment both had to jump to cover, protecting themselves from the sweeping tail that sent Oin flying in the mountain. The older dwarf gave a cry of pain and cradled his shoulder, but seemed otherwise uninjured. A spike in the dragon's tail also caught Bilbo as he dashed madly to escape unscathed and dragged a long gash on his shoulder.

Hissing in pain, the hobbit moved to the side and watched with anxiety as Thorin climbed the dragon's back using the spikes and horns as support, then jumped down the winged lizard's wing, tearing it to shreds. Smaug gave another mighty roar and for the first time started swaying. The wound in his belly was bleeding, the arrow still pressed inside and the loss of his wing made him lose his balance. His jaws clamped in Bifur's direction, but the dwarf jumped to the side and brought his axe down with fury, smashing it to the dragon's muzzle.

"He's slower than before," Balin remarked over the roar of the dragon, while Gloin slid on a golden shield underneath the dragon's belly, slashing at the small patch of unprotected side and emerging on the other side. One of Kili's arrows finally managed to find its mark, blinding one of the dragon's eyes at the same time that Dori's sword stabbed the lizard's leg, somehow managing to cut through the thick hide. Smaug roared and reared back, knocking down both Nori and Balin in the process and sending Bombur careening in the wall. The lizard's mouth opened in fury, but he bellowed only smoke and hot air, still caring not to destroy his precious treasure.

Another arrow found its mark and this time the dragon fell to its knees, blinded and in pain. A bellow filled with rage shook the mountain to its very core, making half of the Company lose balance and fall in the piles of gold. Smaug lashed again, blindly, aided only by his smell and hearing, trying to clamp his jaws against the intruders that dared challenge him. His tail slashed madly in all directions and the Company had a hard time keeping away from the sharp spikes.

If pressed to remember, days later, Bilbo would not have been able to paint in vivid detail how and when exactly Smaug fell, but in that exact moment everything seemed to freeze. He saw Thorin, Orcrist helf firm in his grasp, charging the lizard and saw Smaug's jaws ramming towards the Dwarf King. What happened next Bilbo could not tell, but the next thing he saw was the Gondolin blade piercing the dragon's skull, its hilt firmly lodged in the inside of Smaug's mouth and Thorin winching in pain as he wretched his hand from the dragon's mouth, a fang embedded in his shoulder which he promptly pulled out and tossed aside. Then, the dragon collapsed in the mountain of gold and all knew he was dead…

Silence… the silence was almost deafening… the dragon lay dead at their feet and they were still alive – injured and in need of patching up, but alive – yet no one dared to say anything as if not to break the spell. It was only moments later that Kili let himself slid down the stone of the mountain, in a pile of gold, bringing his brother down with him, letting a whoop of relief. Oin leaned on his brother, his face a mask of pain as he reset his dislocated shoulder, while Gloin kept him steady. Balin's face broke into a smile and Dwalin clapped him hard on the shoulder, booming with laughter. Nori and Dori were checking Ori over, making sure their younger brother was all right, while Bofur and Bombur, still shaken after the collision with the wall, were keeping a growling Bifur in a firm hug.

As for Thorin, he was gazing at everything around him with something akin to wonder and relief. His eyes fell on Bilbo, who was shifting on his feet a few paces away from everyone, fighting to bind the gash on his arm with the tattered remains of his sleeve. Without saying anything, Thorin's hands moved over Bilbo's trembling ones and started tending to the wound. When the gash was properly bound the Dwarf King brought the hobbit close to him in a one-armed hug and they both leaned against each other.

"Not much of a grocer, hmm?" Bilbo smiled and a deep laughter rumbled in Thorin's chest.

"Never a grocer," Thorin agreed and added. "A kind soul, a sneaky burglar and a fierce warrior all wrapped in one perfect package."

"Not perfect…" Bilbo countered wearily. "Flawed, weary and bruised… with weird dreams and hobbit sized at the same time."

"Perfect for me," the Dwarf King added and they smiled in the relative darkness of the mountain.

After Smaug was defeated they were all much too weary to do anything; one by one, they returned to the tunnel where they had left their things, tended to their injuries and huddled in their blankets. If they slept almost the entire day and following night, no one could blame them, because felling a dragon was no easy feat.

When dawn broke once more they returned to the Great Hall and joy unlike any Bilbo had seen before on their faces shone in their eyes. The young dwarves were able to see where their real home was for the first time, while the others breathed deeply the air inside the mountain and smiled to themselves, thinking it was good to be back.

"We need to send word to the Iron Hills and the Blue Mountains," Thorin said, "Let them know Erebor has been reclaimed! Dwalin, Gloin, bring the ponies and whatever supplies we have left behind. See if you find any of the ravens at Ravenhill and beckon them to come."

Mere minutes passed until the two dwarves returned with the ponies in tow and an ancient looking raven perched firmly on Dwalin's shoulder.

"Hail, Thorin son of Thráin, King under the Mountain," the raven called and all around understood him, because he spoke Westron, "I am Roäc son of Carc, who was well known to you once. I am now Chief of the ravens of the Mountain and all of us still remember the true kings of old. Long have we awaited your return and now you have come and slain the dragon. May the memory of this day be everlasting! Most of my people are abroad as news came from the South both good and bad. A great darkness has been banished from the old fortress, but it has not perished, merely moved. However, few as we are, I have sent messengers to Dain in the Iron Hills and your kin in the Blue Mountains. We ravens should like to see the Line of Durin return to the Mountain once more."

"Many thanks Roäc son of Carc," the Dwarf King replied with the formal answer. "You and your people shall not be forgotten."

"A word of advice, Thorin Oakenshield, if you will listen to it… Your home and treasure is yours for the moment, but thirteen is no army to guard it. Many are gathering beside the birds. The news of the death of the dragon has already gone far and wide, and the legend of the wealth of Thror has not been forgotten. There are many who would be eager for a share. Already a host of the elves is on the way, and carrion birds are with them hoping for battle and slaughter. In Dale men are stirring and soon they too shall learn the dragon has perished. The Master is not to be trusted, but there is one among them who I would counsel you to seek. His name is Bard and his is from the line of Girion, a man of Dale in his soul."

"I thank you for your counsel, Roäc," Thorin said, but there was a certain grimness that had seeped back in his countenance.

"Good or bad, that is the counsel I could give. Not I must return to my kin and beckon them hurry with their messages."

As soon as Roäc left, Thorin turned to the others.

"Tomorrow we shall need to start fortifying the entrance, if we are to find ourselves besieged. There must be tools still in the mines; today we are all too weary."

They returned to the Dwarven Hall; the treasure was also beckoning them, the gold calling to them, therefore Thorin knew nothing would be achieved until the dawn of the next day. The Company spread in all directions and dug in the heaps of gold and jewels, reminiscing when and where a certain piece had been made. Now and then they would stop, lower their head and murmur something in Khuzdul, when a certain piece was the work of a craftsman no longer among them, lost either to Smaug or to the Great War with the orcs.

Bilbo wandered aimlessly, the treasure leaving him completely uninterested – his silver spoons were more than enough where a hobbit was concerned – and trying to keep away the memory of the vision shown to him by the Ring. He had no doubt that should he stumble across the Arkenstone one of two things would happen: either he would give in to the vision, make those choices and suffer the consequences should worse come to pass or he would challenge fate once more.

It came as no surprise to him when his foot stumbled over something round and Thror's gem glittered at his feet. Making up his mind on the spot, Bilbo picked up the stone and placed it in his pocket. Something told him he might need it. Before the end, that jewel might play an important role; if the worst scenario would come to pass he would barter the Arkenstone as long as it meant that his friends would not be in danger. However in his heart he felt that his vision would not come to pass… something made him feel that for better or for worst the importance of the Arkenstone would diminish if fate continued its course.

"Bilbo!" Kili cried out in glee and the hobbit glanced at the youngest dwarf who sat next to his uncle and brother, bouncing with excitement. "Come and see!"

The hobbit frowned, unsure whether such an excited look on the youngest Durin Heir's face was a good thing, yet came as he had been beckoned. As he approached them, he noticed something shimmering and silver in Thorin's hands.

"Bilbo," Thorin said with a happy undertone in his voice that the hobbit had not heard before. "Here is the first part of the payment!"

As soon as Bilbo's fingers brushed against the mail coat – for that was what lay in Thorinn's hands – a vision took over him with enough power to drive him to his knees and double over from the pain in his mind. It did not feel dark, like the visions from the Ring did, but it was powerful nonetheless and Bilbo was swapped in it, no longer hearing the shots of worry of his friends.

Deep, inside the Misty Mountains a gathering takes place. Rows without count of orcs scream and jeer as they watch their leader, a fearsome orc with metal clasped to his face, cry outcalls of war and death. At his feet lays a huge black warg who growls in answer to his master's cries.

The rows of orcs start moving and head towards Erebor. They have heard the dragon is dead and move now to claim revenge on the Line of Durin who slew many of their kin. Half of the orcs ride on wargs, as ready for the slaughter as their masters.

At the edge of Mirkwood they meet another party of orcs, smaller, but just as ruthless. Some of the wargs have burnt coats and their eyes are bloodshot with fury. They wish to taste Dwarven flesh and get revenge on the ones who set fire to their fur. Leading them is Azog the Defiler, his eyes glancing towards the horizon with eagerness. Soon he will reach the Mountain… soon the Line of Durin will perish…very soon…

Flash… Inside Mirkwood, the elven army is moving swiftly. Archers and swordsmen are led forward by Thranduil and his sons; next to them walks Gandalf, his face a mask of worry and his countenance troubled.

Flash… Bard the Bowman receives news of the death of the dragon and the upcoming orc army from the ravens. He frowns, knowing that should Erebor be attacked, Laketown would also be a tempting prey for the orcs in their return to the Mountains. He sends news to the Master of Laketown and gathers as many men as possible – most descendants of the people of Dale – in order to prepare them to march towards the mountain.

"Bilbo, Bilbo," Thorin's voice called with worry. He frowned when the hobbit's blue eyes met his and he saw the raw, unadulterated fear in them.

"Azog… Azog is coming… he's bringing an army!"

Chapter Text

On hindsight, Bilbo wondered why had he expected Thorin to be anything else than the epitome of dwarven stubbornness. Of course the Dwarf King had no reason to trust Thranduil's motives – especially after the whole dungeon debacle, as if the betrayal part had not been enough – and of course Bard of Laketown was not seen with kind eyes when he arrived with Thranduil next to him, but there was a furious army coming their way and no matter what Thorin thought Dain's forces were not enough to fend the orcs off. They needed the elves who had been beckoned to come by Gandalf and needed the humans Bard had brought. If the only payment they wanted for risking their lives was help to see Dale rebuilt, then why in Eru's name were they still arguing when death loomed over them all? Erebor needed Dale, as much as Bard and the descendants of the men from Dale needed their home back, but why couldn't Thorin understand this?

"I will not parley, as I have said, with armed men at my gate. Nor at all with the people of the Elvenking, whom I remember with small kindness. In this debate they have no place. If you would speak with me again, first dismiss the elvish host to the woods where it belongs, and then return, laying down your arms before you approach the threshold. I need no help from those who did not think twice about betraying me in the past, even in face of the upcoming war." Thorin had told Bard when the man and his people had approached the Front Door of Erebor.

No matter what Bilbo had said and begged Thorin to reconsider, saying the horde marching towards the Mountain was too grand for the dwarves to handle it by themselves, Thorin would not be moved.

"We defeated them once at Azanulbizar, we will defeat them again. Dain's forces will come! The armies that wait on our doorstep are vultures that stood idle and waited to see the dragon dead. You say that Gandalf called them, but why should they listen to the wizard unless they have no ulterior motives? Thranduil had never cared for anything else but his forest in all his life, surely he will not listen to the demands of a wizard now."

The hobbit had tried, Eru knew he had tried, and for a moment Bilbo thought he had seen Thorin's pride and arrogance – that had increased tenfold after the dragon had been slain and Erebor recovered – leave his eyes when he had asked, with a certain edge and worry in his voice.

"Do you know anything, Bilbo? Is there something else to know about besides Azog and his army?"

But in that moment, when he could have said what he knew, when he could have used his trump card and make Thorin see sense, Bilbo had gotten scared. What if sharing those choices made them change? What if by telling Thorin he was actually choosing another path, one that led him down a darker and more dangerous road? One that ended in heartache and pain? So he had remained silent and tried that use reason and numbers, instead of choices and dreams to convince Thorin. He had failed; however, he knew that things could not be left standing as they were. He needed help…

As a result, Bilbo waited until no one paid any attention to him and slid the Ring on, disappearing from sight. He had to find Gandalf and ask the wizard for guidance; the only place where he could do so was in the joint camp of the elves and men where the wizard had taken residence after arriving with the elvish army in tow.

"A plague on the stiff necks of the dwarves!" Bilbo growled to himself as he stumbled on the rocks and felt the presence of the Ring in his mind – telling him that no one would listen to him, that nobody cared what a pathetic halfling thought though the whispers were weaker now that its power was no longer fuelled by the darkness of Smaug. "Confound them and their pride!"

As Bilbo wondered aimlessly in the camp, searching for Gandalf who no one seemed to have any idea where he was except to say that 'Oh, the wizard was around somewhere' and glance at him in surprise as if wondering where he had sprung from, Bilbo found himself cursing the stubbornness of dwarves, elves and mankind. The hobbit knew what was coming and knew that there was no way they would make it out of that mess alive without the aid of the two camps that had stationed in front of the doors of Erebor. But, how in the world could he make Thorin understand that? Part of him urged him once more to share his dreams, to tell the Dwarf King exactly what was going to happen, but another part was scared stiff to do so. Sharing dreams of the past was one thing, but sharing dreams of the future might turn everything into a disaster. Hobbits had never had the gift of foresight; no matter what the ancient tales said about Tooks having elf blood in their veins, Bilbo was quite certain that it was too diluted by now to actually give hobbits any abilities the Fair Folk might have. It made him nervous to think of what might go wrong if he shared his dreams, but knew that he would do so if it meant making Thorin see reason. He would just have to be close by and make sure the price paid would not be too high.

As occupied with his thoughts as he was, Bilbo did not see the tall form in front of him until it was too late and he collided with him. Steady, nimble hands caught him before he could fall and the blue eyes of Legolas gazed at him with concern, replaced soon by wonder and amusement.

"Master Baggins," the elf called with glee and Bilbo gave a smile in return. A familiar face was a good thing among the sea of unknown people. Perhaps Thranduil's son would be able to pinpoint Gandalf's general direction for him.

"Well met, Prince Legolas," the hobbit gave a small bow as soon as he regained his feet.

"Well met, indeed, Master Baggins, though during not so kind times," the elf said and beckoned Bilbo to follow him to a small, wooden bench. "It seems your quest is far from over, despite the fact that the dragon is dead."

"Indeed it is so," Bilbo sighed, "and I find myself wishing ardently for the simplicity of the life in the Shire, especially when faced with the stubbornness of both elves and dwarves. No offence meant, of course…"

Legolas smiled and the kindness in his eyes let Bilbo know that no offence had been taken. Again the hobbit was reminded of the difference between the younger Thranduilion and his father and wondered what fate awaited the elf in years to come.

"Thorin has no reason to trust us or even spare us a kind thought. It is as I have said back in Mirkwood, Master Baggins, the logical choice is not always the right choice. My father's imprisonment of the dwarves led to nothing else but more scorn between our races."

"Perhaps it should have been you to lead the negotiations," Bilbo pointed out. "After all, they think much kinder of you than of your father."

"Perhaps it would have been so, yet I doubt it. Alas, no one would have ever let me handle such affairs," Legolas smiled with a touch of sarcasm. "I am still seen as too young and unpredictable among my kin. My brother and my father have the impression that I am still the squabbling babe they held in their arms all those centuries ago. It is a wonder they allowed me to partake in this war at all."

As it had happened before, in the Halls of the Elvenking, Bilbo had more of a flash than anything, a fleeting feeling that pertained to the young Prince. War would follow Legolas, of that Bilbo was sure, but the Prince would rise above all expectations and live to achieve renown across the lands of Middle Earth.

"Do not be so quick to welcome war, prince," Bilbo cautioned in a voice not quite his own, still being in the grasp of the not quite vision, "It will welcome you in the future whether you wish for it or not."

Legolas watched the hobbit with a curious glance. It was not the first time he had the impression that something was different about Bilbo Baggins. The strength he had seen in the hobbit's eyes coupled with a wisdom mixed with fear and grief which had no place in the bearing of such a gentle folk made the elf prince wonder what exactly it was that made Bilbo Baggins so unlike what he had read about hobbits. It was probably the exact same thing that had spurred Gandalf to choose this particular Halfling for a perilous quest involving a dragon and thirteen dwarves.

"It may be so; a shadows is stretching over the Land and before long it might engulf all of us," Legolas declared into a steady voice, his eyes going back to Mirkwood and the fortress of Dol Guldur which could not be seen from Erebor. "But that time is not upon us yet, Master Baggins. Come now, tell me, for what reason what you sneaked away from your Company and entered the 'enemy camp'. Surely you must have had a reason."

"I had one, though no one in this confounded camp was able to help me. I was seeking Gandalf as I wanted to have a few words with him, but it appears that no one knows where he is," Bilbo said with annoyance.

"If it is so, here I can help you. Mithrandir is holding council with my father and Bard of Laketown. They should finish soon; just go two tents from here and you will find who you seek."

"Thank you," Bilbo answered and rose to his feet. "Take care of yourself in the war to come, Prince Legolas. I have yet to tell you a story about a dragon."

The prince's laughter followed Bilbo as he headed towards the tent he sought and arrived just in time to see Gandalf leaving it, a frown marring his features. However, upon seeing Bilbo, the wizard's face broke into a pleased smile and he called the hobbit over.

"Dear Bilbo, it is so good to see you!"

Gandalf's joy almost made Bilbo frown. Sure, the wizard was glad to see him after sending him to venture in Mirkwood, fight giant spiders, free his friends from the dungeons of a paranoid Elf King and kill a dragon, while the wizard was off gallivanting who knows where.

"Now, don't you give me that look, Bilbo Baggins!" Gandalf said sternly. "I had complete trust in your abilities and you have yet to let me down."

Bilbo raised an eyebrow, as if saying 'Really?', but ignored the wizard's remark and returned to his own business.

"Gandalf I need you ask you something," his voice was as serious as possible. "About my dreams… I need advice!"

They entered the tent and sat down in silence. Bilbo was trying to gather his thoughts as much as possible. What to tell? What not to tell? These questions swirling in his mind and he had no answers to them.

"Ever since we first met when I was a child and I told you about my dreams you never told me to disregard them," Bilbo started, fidgeting in his place and kneading his fingers nervously. "You told me they were splashes of reality and I almost always heeded them. When they turned into something else, when the past and the future started entwining and you took me on this mad quest I continued embracing them and heeding their warning. Yet, I never spoke of them, never told another what happened in the paths that keep stretching at my feet or shared the choices that I could make. But now, now I don't know what to do. Everyone's being stubborn and it might lead to disaster and I have a chance to change everything, but do I dare take it? What if everything turns out worse?"

Gandalf contemplated what Bilbo had told him in silence. His discussion with Elrond back in Rivendell came back to him; it was true what the Elven Lord had said then, these were Bilbo's choices and for better or for worse only the hobbit could make them. What impact they would have on the future, Gandalf could not say.

"Bilbo Baggins," the wizard started softly, placing his hands on the fidgeting hobbit's shoulders and steadying him. "You have made it so far without my counsel and you do not need it now. No matter what I feel or think, in the end this choice belongs to you. Only you can choose the path you walk. Let your heart guide you; it has yet to lead you astray. Have courage, my dear hobbit, not all is as bleak as it appears."

Bilbo nodded; it was true, these were his choices to make and he could not place the burden on anyone's shoulders. The decision was his and his alone. In that moment Bilbo knew what he had to do. It was not what his dreams had shown him and it was not what his mind told him to do. It was what his heart counselled him.

"Thank you, Gandalf," Bilbo said. "I must go now, before the others worry."

Slipping the Ring on his finger, he vanished from sight and headed back to the mountain.

Never in his life had Kili seen his uncle show fear; not in face of death, not in face of the Goblin King or of Azog, not even in face of Smaug whose memory still send chunks of ice rushing through the younger Durin heir's blood. As a result, the look of his uncle's face when Bilbo Baggins came marching in the Halls of Erebor, his face set in a frown and his eyes blazing with fury, had rattled Kili's nerves. Between the anger in their hobbit's eyes and the apprehension in Thorin's gaze, Kili knew the upcoming discussion would not be a pleasant one. Showing restraint for the first time in their lives both he and his brother kept the other members of the Company from eavesdropping when Thorin and Bilbo retreated in one of the many undamaged rooms of Erebor.

"You know, Fili," Kili pointed out. "Remember back in Bag End when Gandalf said that Bilbo could be as fierce as a dragon in a pinch?"

"Yes," his brother answered, "What of it?"

"I think he was right. The look on Bilbo's face right now would have sent even Smaug scurrying to safety. It was positively murderous! Poor uncle!" he shuddered.

Meanwhile, Thorin was torn between shock and worry seeing the hobbit in such a mood. Only rarely had Bilbo Baggins expressed such annoyance and usually in was directed in another direction such as his dreams, the quest in general or Smaug. Never had Thorin seen that particular look directed at him; in a way it made him mad – what right did the hobbit have to judge him? – yet at the same time it made him apprehensive – Bilbo had tackled on orcs, spiders and a dragon with that specific determination.

"And where have you been?" Thorin asked when it became clear that Bilbo was fully content with glaring at him furiously and not uttering a word.

"I've been trying to make a sense of the mess we are in, the mess you have placed us in, by the way." Bilbo answered tensely. "I've been trying to make a choice… I went to see Gandalf for aid and even he could not help me. Thorin, you need those armies! You've trusted me when you had less reason! Trust me now! Dain will not be enough!"

"How can you be so sure?" Thorin said with a hint of fury in his voice. How dare Bilbo disregard his kin that easily? Why did he keep insisting that those flighty creatures might be needed in the upcoming war? "How can you know that Dain's forces, my kin, will not be enough? You said it yourself that your dreams were twisted by that object that you found in the cave. How can you know it is not lying to you now? How can we trust the elves when they did nothing but betray us in the past?"

"Gandalf was the one who sent them here! He has never led us astray. He knew Azog was coming just as sure as I know it," Bilbo snapped. "And I'm sure because I've had this dream for years even though I did not know who it featured them. I dreamt it in Rivendell and again in the Misty Mountains before the Ring came to me! Will you refuse their aid simply because of the slights of the past? If it were so in the past then Middle Earth would have fallen under the Shadow all those centuries ago. I am owned a fourteenth of the gold, am I now?" Bilbo stood his ground. "If the fact that they ask for aid and gold in return for their help is the problem, give it to Bard to let him rebuild Dale!"

"Why in Mahal's name would you do that? You have earned that gold many times over!"

"What would I do with all that gold?" Bilbo asked incredulously. "I am a hobbit and hobbits are beings of comfort and simplicity. We have no need for gold. All that I've done was to help you reclaim your home, not for the gold! Dwarves are no farmers; your city was dependant on the trade with Dale in the past. You will need allies on your steps, not enemies!"

"Your gold is yours to do as you wish with it, but I will not put my trust in those who sell their swords like mercenaries!" Thorin thundered.

"Oh, confound your stubbornness and pride, Thorin Oakenshield. Are they so important to you that you are willing to risk the lives of those in this Company? Will you rather see Fili and Kili die than accept the aid of those who wronged you in the past?"

The color drained from Thorin's face and his anger faded swiftly from his eyes. He looked incredulously at Bilbo who was shaking like a leaf in the wind, but his tirade was far from over.

"The full reason I left home, the reason why I risked everything and abandoned my former life is because I saw Fili and Kili die in the dream I had when you came to Bag End. They were so lively and happy in my home, laughing and singing and then the dream came and they were still and bereft of life. That dream came again and again, but sometimes it was not just them, sometimes it was you as well and Ori and Bofur. I had to watch your deaths so many times in my dreams and during the day I stood pondering how I could save you… and the answer was always out of reach because no matter what path I saw something else happened and someone else lost his life."

The anguish and fear in Bilbo's eyes was so palpable that in that moment Thorin understood something else. He remembered the haunted look in Bilbo's eyes back in Rivendell, the deadness of his gaze and the way it looked as if he had wretched himself from the very Halls of Waiting to return to reality. He remembered and felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. Moving towards Bilbo, he grabbed the hobbit's shoulders hard, not enough to hurt him, but enough to rattle him.

"You're not telling me everything. You know much more than you share," Thorin grit his teeth and the only thing stronger than anger in his eyes was the worry he felt. "I remember Rivendell perfectly, Master Baggins and I recall the look in your eyes. It was not only us you saw perish in your dreams, if was yourself as well."

Bilbo gave a chilling laugh; the smile that appeared on his face was twisted and full of despair. The ring started whispering once more, reminding him or his worth or lack thereof. It preyed on the insecurities of the hobbit; his current Bearer was smart, too smart to fall under its power and the Ring hoped to fall in different hands, weaker hands that would lead it to its master… perhaps one of the approaching orcs… but for that his Bearer had to disappear and only death would make Bilbo Baggins give up the magic trinket he had found in the caves because it knew so much more about his power than he was supposed to.

"And what if it was, O King?!" Bilbo asked chillingly, "What if forsaking my life is the only way I can save those dear to me? I'm just a hobbit of no importance. There's no family waiting me home and no grand scheme for me in the flow of fate. Even in the Shire I was branded as weird and eccentric. I belong nowhere!"

Thorin flinched almost imperceptibly under the bitterness lanced in Bilbo's voice. This was not Bilbo talking; this was not their brave, loyal and caring hobbit, the one they saw as a member of their family. This was a being that was being twisted by a magical artefact - a fact which made Thorin remember Thror and the vacant look in his grandfather's eyes as he played with his own Ring and danced in a chamber filled to the brim with gold -, that was being pulled into darkness and despair, and Thorin would be damned if he allowed another member of his family be ensnared by magic.

Suddenly, Bilbo found his air supply caught off as he got engulfed into a tight embrace. The madness that took over him snapped as rapidly as it had started and Bilbo found himself sagging in the embrace, wondering what in Eru's name had come over him to utter such words. He had never felt out of place in the Shire, there were always his Took and Brandybuck cousins to turn to if life got dull and nobody truly listened to the Sackville-Baggins' ramblings.

"You're a fool Bibo Baggins, for listening to that thing because I know it was the one whispering in your ears all that you've told me." Thorin said, his voice down to a gentle whisper, and released Bilbo from the embrace, but still held his arms on his shoulders, "You are the biggest fool I know, if you believe it and think you have no family that would mourn you should you pass and if you think no hearts would be broken should you leave us."

Fiddling with Bilbo's braids and binding them tightly again, Thorin added.

"Do these braids mean nothing to you? Bofur would not have given them idly and he would be heartbroken should his little brother perish. We all would be! You have a family right here with us, whether you like it or not. I will not hear more foolishness about you dying on us, understand? Talk to Gandalf and stop listening to ITS whispers!" Thorin growled the bit at the end and Bilbo nodded, wiping the tears that had started falling. Whatever insecurities might have been spurred by the Ring and its dark whispers were lost in that precise moment.

"Now, I believe I might have to arrange a meeting with Bard," with a grimace of disgust Thorin added. "And Thranduil…"

"Thorin," Bilbo called just as the dwarf King turned around to leave the room. Placing his hand in his pocket, Biblo took out the Arkenstone and wordlessly gave it to Thorin. He had no reason to keep hold of it now… Thorin would do what he needed to do and Bilbo's vision would never come to pass. Such was the path that had been taken.

"The Arkenstone," the King under the Mountain said, picking the gem up almost reverently. "Were you planning to blackmail with it if I did not see reason," he asked in a strained voice, glancing almost wearily at the stone, remembering the days before the fall of Erebor.

"No!" Bilbo shrugged and his eyes gazed far away, as if piercing through mountain and stone. "I just wanted to see if I can change fate."

"I think you already have, Bilbo Baggins," Thorin answered turning the Arkenstone in his hands and not feeling the calling of the stone as his grandfather had in the days of old, "many times over."

As Bilbo watched Thorin go to meet with Balin, he figured the King did not really understand what Bilbo meant by his statement about changing fate. It wasn't about running away from his dream, the one shown to him by the Ring. It wasn't even about the war. It was something else, something the hobbit felt more keenly, but was unable to explain. It was about a shift, a ripple in the flow of fate that he could feel deep inside his bones and knew that things that weren't supposed to happen had come to pass. It was about knowing that one day or another there would be a price to pay for all of this.

Later that day Balin could be seen in front of the Gates of Erebor, beckoning Bard of Laketown and King Thranduil of Mirkwood to leave their weapons at the gate and attend a war council with Thorin Oakenshield, King under the Mountain. The end of the call sounded thusly:

"Gandalf Tharkûn is also invited to bring his meddlesome self to the council as well, since he will most likely attend either way, invited or not. So sorry, Master Gandalf, but I am just the messenger."

And so the leaders of the three armies gathered together to decide their strategy for what would later be called The Battle of Five Armies. When Dain, son of Nain, arrived with his kinsmen from the Iron Hills he too joined the others as the fate of Erebor was decided.

Chapter Text

It was alike and unlike anything he had seen in his dreams; the vividness of the moment, the sharp claw of fear firmly etched in his chest, his wide eyes gazing at the horizon and seeing the massive hoard approaching… all of these had been seen and felt in his dreams, yet nothing could have prepared Bilbo for the actual moment. Replaying every dream in his mind, he looked for loopholes, for choices and paths untaken that would allow all of them to see the next day alive and hale. Despite what Thorin had said he knew that he would not stand idle and see them die in front of him. If by his life he could save them, he would give it gladly, despite knowing that it would break their hearts to see him die. Better in mourning and alive, than lost to this world for eternity.

Bilbo looked around him, taking in the way the elves, dwarves and men were positioned in order to fend off the approaching army. The elves had taken the Southern spur and Gandalf stood with them, Glamdring, the sword of the King of Gondolin, blazing with fury in the wizard's hands. Next to him Bilbo saw Legolas whose face was grim and determined; his hands clutched the wooden bow tightly, the only sign that the prince was troubled. On the Eastern spur both men and dwarves had taken their position, bows ready and sword unsheathed. Bard of the line of Girion stood among them, grim faced and stern, gazing at the massive horde that was coming closer and closer.

Most of Dain's men from the Iron Hills were spread on the valley; no matter the fact that they had come now and they would be of tremendous help in the war to come, Bilbo could not help the bitterness he felt towards these trained warriors that had chosen to deny their kin's call for help the first time it came. They were all steady and fearless in face of the massive orc horde, yet they had sent toymakers, miners and scribes to face a living, breathing dragon.

In front of the massive Gate of Erebor the Company stood in silence and waited. Their battered travel gear had been changed with hard glittering mail and each held a single dragon scale fashioned in the form of a shield strapped to their arms. Fili, Kili were both clad in mithril that had once belonged to a young Thorin; Ori, sweet, gentle Ori looked almost lost with the iron helm and the heavy mail framing his form, yet his eyes gazed determined at the amassing army. Thorin towered over them all in his golden mail, a true vision of the Kings of Old.

Next to them stood Bilbo, his hand clutching Sting hard, the Gondolin steel blazing with as much fury as its more famous counterparts, looking nothing like the hobbit that left Bag End all those months ago. The last part of the army, elves, men and dwarves alike, stood behind the Company, ready to attack from the shadows of the Gates and take the orc armies by surprise.

"It's a good night to die," someone said around him – Bilbo figured it might have been a man from Dale, but he was not sure – and the hobbit glanced at the starlit sky and the pale moon illuminating it.

"It's an even better night to live," Bilbo said just as jeers and howls started echoing in the air. The orcs had come at last and war was about to start.

"Stay close," a hand pressed on Bilbo's shoulder and the hobbit's blue eyes met the blazing gaze of the King under the Mountain. "Stay safe."

Nothing else could be said for nothing else was certain; they could only hope all of them would last the night.

And then it started… a shower of arrows sprung from the elven archers and felled the first line of the orc vanguard. From behind the archers, a thousand of their spearmen leaped out and charged, their weapons glittering with fury under the light of Elbereth's stars. Cold and bitter was the hatred elves had for the wretched creations of Morgoth and their wrath shone in the deadliness of their weapons. The stones darkened with orc blood as the elven soldiers charged forward.

The orc vanguard fell easily; the rest of the army started regrouping, but just as the elf army halted its attack a loud cry rose from the valley. With shouts of 'Dain' and 'Death' the dwarves of Iron Hills sprung from the Valley, brandishing their axes, followed closely by the men of Laketown with their swords. The earth and stone saw more orc and goblin blood that day than ever in its past, yet the orcs did not halt, merely pressed forward, others always reinforcing the ranks of those who had fallen.

Then he came and the Company knew it from the way the orcs halted their furious attack. Astride a white warg, Azog watched the slaughter with his red eyes and a cruel smirk etched on his face. Behind him, on his midnight wolf, stood his spawn, Bolg, a bloodstained mace held in his grasp.

The two orc leaders charged and around them elves, men and dwarves alike fell to their maces. It was then the Company and the army behind them charged, cries of 'Thorin', 'Erebor' and 'Baruk Khazâd!' falling from their lips as they felled both orc and warg in their fury. Thorin drove into the sea of enemies, Orcrist gleaming in the darkness and nothing seemed to give him pause as he moved straight towards Azog.

"To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!" he cried and Dain's dwarves along with some of Bard men rushed to his side. From the other spur Bilbo saw Legolas leap into the fray, twin knives moving viciously fast in his hand, his quiver having been spent a long time ago. For only a split of a second, Bilbo had a vision, more of a stray thought than anything, of a red haired dwarf greatly resembling Gloin, fighting fiercely at Legolas' side, their weapons moving in sync similarly to those of Fili and Kili. The hobbit quickly banished the thought – where in the world had it even come from? – and returned his attention to the battle.

Somewhere, not far from him, the hobbit was able to see Bofur swinging his axe madly and grinning as his foes fell to his feet. Curious was the fact that it was Nori who was protecting his back and not his brother or cousin. The thief wielded both knife and mace with a weird gleam in his eyes and a small smirk on his face.

As he rammed Sting in the stomach of a foe, Bilbo got to see Dwalin cutting down a warg that was just about to attack Ori. Dori was also there, a few paces away from his younger brother and Dwalin, cutting down orcs with deadly precision.

Soon Bilbo got surrounded and in the ensuring madness all he could do was fend off the orcs as best as he could, making sure none of their blades found him as a target. Sting flashed brightly as he slashed and stabbed left and right, his small height making him almost invisible to the orcs, despite the absence of the Ring from his finger. One of the wargs saw him and the beast crouched low, preparing to leap on the hobbit. Bilbo met the wolf's gaze squarely and held his sword tight, but a knife caught the beast in mid leap and the warg fell to the ground in a heap.

"Careful, Master Baggins," Legolas' voice rang near him and Bilbo nodded his thanks to the elf before returning to the fray. Slowly, he tried to make his way towards one of his companions. It was dangerous to remain on his own and he had a mission to take care of. Kili was closest to him so Bilbo slipped the Ring on – just for a moment he told himself, ignoring the cold and the pressure – and reappeared at the youngest dwarf's side. A few paces away Fili was fighting one of the larger Gundabad orcs and winning, though not easily. Content that two of the three Durin heirs he had sworn to protect were by his side, Bilbo focused on the horde that was pressing down on them on all sides.

Suddenly a roar erupted in the midst of the chaos and Bilbo saw Thorin engage Azog. The Dwarf King was fuelled by more than revenge this time; he was led by the desire to protect his newly reclaimed home and his family. Azog fought back viciously, his strength undiminished by the battle, but even the large Gundabad orc was no match for the might of the Gondolin blade and the fury of its wielder. With a clean slash Azog's head flew off his shoulders in the mud, next to the corpse of his warg that had been felled only moments ago. Thorin stood victorious in front of the Great Orc's corpse, wounded, but not gravely so.

Roars of anger came from the orcs and Bolg charged forward, his mace held high, moving towards Thorin, while his dark warg attacked Fili and Kili who had found their way back to each other.

'This is it,' Bilbo thought to himself as he watched the battle unfold, now and then slashing and hacking at the orcs that swarmed around him. 'Life or death, here it is decided.'

Just as in his dreams the midnight warg fell to its knees, a guttural sound leaving his throat as it choked on its blood and died. Not too far away, a sharp cry left Thorin's lips as the huge mage wielded by Bolg slammed into his chest and knocked him to the ground. Fili and Kili ran at their uncle's side both engaging the Gundabad orc, but Bilbo remained behind, trying to find a way to make it all work.

Noticing a small, round rock on the ground, his mind took him back to the shadows of Mirkwood and helped him shape his plan. He needed to grab the orc's attention, turn it to him, but manage to stay alive at the same time. He had promised to at least try… He clutched the rock hard in his hand and slipped the Ring on again for the second time that day.

When Kili fell as well, his arm shattered and a long gash extending from below his eye to his chin bleeding viciously, Bilbo did not wait anymore and launched the rock with accurate precision. The stone hit the Gundabag orc's temple hard, making him stagger and turn in anger. Red eyes narrowed in anger as the orc searched for its enemy, but Bilbo remained unseen. The hobbit wasted no time and thrust Sting in Bolg's side, moving away quickly and leaving the blade embedded in his enemy. Bolg snarled in Bilbo's general direction and moved to follow him; the hit, though painful would not be more than a mere hindrance. However, the snarl died on his lips, because just as his uncle had done moments before, Fili's sword cleaved through flesh and bone and Bolg's head flew from his shoulders.

With a sigh, Bilbo removed the Ring and took his sword from the corpse at his feet. Grinning he turned towards the prince and moved next to him to help him protect the two they both cared most in the world. Although the leaders had died, the war was not over yet and the orcs still pressed forward. Soon Bilbo and Fili found themselves outnumbered.

"There's no end to them," Fili cried as his sword gutted an orc that came too close.

"There is an end," Bilbo panted, his hand shaking with weariness, yet still cutting viciously in the flesh of the enemies. "There has to be."

Suddenly, bird calls rang in the valley and majestic, winged shapes appeared at the edge of the horizon just as the sun started rising. The eagles had come; Manwë's birds swooped over the field and grabbed both orc and warg in their powerful talons, then let them smash against the stone.

"Fili, the eagles!" Bilbo cried out and his call got picked up and spread all over the valley. "The eagles have come."

Another huge shape loomed across the fields, a bear running faster than any warg and felling any orc that crossed his path. Beorn, too, had come to their aid… the war might just be won. That moment of carelessness cost Bilbo; a large rock came hurtling from somewhere above him and hit him with force. He fell, knocking his head to the stone ground and knew no more…

~~~~***~~~~***~~~~

The camp of the three allied races was drenched in silence; the wounded were many and the dead even more so. Although the orcs and warg had been defeated, the cost had been high and their victory was drenched in blood and loss. Inside the healing tents old prejudices were cast aside as men, elf and dwarf healers worked tirelessly together in order to patch up those who still stood a chance and make those who were on the threshold comfortable before they slipped to the Halls of Mandos.

Inside the King's tent four cots had been placed. On one stood the only person awake; Thorin Oakenshield, King under the Mountain could not keep the worry out of his eyes as he spoke with Oin. His armor had been long cast aside and his chest had been wrapped in bandages that helped stifle the blood flow from the cuts where the King's armor had bit into his chest and also bound his broken ribs. Next to him, on cots that were practically glued together, stood his two nephews. Kili's arm was set in a cast and the cut on his face had been stitched together. The youngest prince's brow was furrowed in pain even in sleep and his hand held that of his brother tightly.

After eagles had arrived, Fili had kept protecting his family till the end. He had received several cuts and gashes as a result, that were luckily not life threatening, but would most likely scar in the future. The Heir under the Mountain was also asleep, but his slumber was not marred by pain or nightmares as that of his brother.

On the last cot, between the two princes and the King, Bilbo Baggins had been laid, his head bound tightly with white bandages that were already stained red. Thorin had demanded that Bilbo be placed nowhere else than their tent and had taken to watching the hobbit, afraid that he would slip where no one else could follow. What Oin told him had not reassured him in any way.

"There is nothing we can do?" Thorin asked with a pained sigh. "He could have escaped this battle unscathed. He could have made a different choice. He is wounded now because of us."

"There is nothing we can do," Oin answered grimly, "Head injuries are fickle things and he hit his head twice. The second injury cracked his skull… even if he heals, he may never wake up. And even if he wakes up he might not be the same. We saw what happened with Bifur."

"The elves," Thorin asked with a bitter grimace. "Their healers, what do they say?"

"I asked them, but they were bloody useless," Oin growled in his throat. "Thos flighty creatures probably never hit their pretty little heads because they knew much less than the other dwarven healers about head injuries. Even Gandalf said that all we could do was hope."

Thorin's gaze moved from the form of the hobbit – so small and still on the cot, furrowed under blankets and fur – to his nephews. Kili gave a pained moan in his sleep and grasped his brother's hand tighter.

"And Kili?"

"It'll be hard work getting that arm to move properly again," Oin admitted. "The bone snapped in three places and it was gruesome setting it back. But he'll get there in the end. He's a determined lad, he won't give up."

"Dís is going to kill me," Thorin sighed wearily. "What of the others?"

"Ori snapped a bone in his leg, but the break was clean and the healers set it back with ease. Bombur got his arm slashed from shoulder to elbow and Balin has several broken ribs," Oin's face clouded with worry and he continued in a pained voice. "The worst are Nori and Bofur. Nori's chest was almost slashed open by a poisoned blade. He lost much blood and with the damage brought forth by the poison I don't know if he'll make it past the night. Bofur protected him till the end. One of the wargs managed to give him a nasty bite that got infected quickly. The rest got away with cuts and bruises."

"They're strong," the dwarf King said with conviction. "They might just surprise us."

Thorin's eyes returned to the other tree cots. All they could do now was wait and hope…

The shadow world was cleared than ever before; not even the last time when he had almost stepped over the threshold had Bilbo seen the world around him with such clarity. He saw men and dwarves enter the shadow world, promptly disappearing into a beam of light. Bilbo figured they must have been those who had fallen during the battle. However, he could not understand why he kept lingering in the in-between. What awaited him further? Life or death?

"Twice you have come to the doors of my Halls, yet neither time had you been summoned to enter them," a grave voice echoed in the shadow world and a door appeared from out of nowhere, giving a glimpse of high columns and vaulted ceilings. An ethereal being with long, dark hair and black eyes that held all the wisdom of the world in them regarded Bilbo critically.

"It seems that despite my desire to keep away from them as long as possible, your Halls beckon me, my Lord and I can do naught but appease them," the hobbit replied with a tired and scared voice. He had read about the Doomsman of the Valar, named Namo and called Mandos after the name of his Halls; there was a certain dose of fear coursing through Bilbo's veins as he quivered in front of the Vala.

"You have changed the very course of fate, Bilbo Baggins," Mandos gazed at him sternly. "Those dreams of yours were supposed to never be heeded. By the time Thorin Oakenshield's Company arrived at your door you were supposed to disregard them altogether and peg them as idle fantasies. Yet, you did not and now the river of destiny has changed its direction. Those you care most about were supposed to die, you know this…"

Bilbo knew it; he had known it ever since the dream had first came to him and had fought with all his being to prevent it from coming to pass. He had known there would be a price to pay at some point, but he had not cared.

"You knew it, but you did not care; you were selfish and you changed the very fate of Arda. The Ring you carry is not yet awake, but is stronger than it was supposed to be. You know what it is… your dreams and the dragon Smaug all but revealed its origin to you," the Valar's voice was harsh as he regarded the hobbit with an icy gaze.

"The One Ring," Bilbo whispered in a choked voice. Admitting it made it real and he did not want to believe he held in his possession the Ring of a Dark Lord. He did not want to believe that he was putting everyone in danger with his mere presence.

"You changed much, Bilbo Baggins. A day will come when fate will demand payment for altering its course. However, that day is not upon you yet. Listen and know this: some things cannot be changed. The time of the elves is fading… the world of men is changing. A king must be tested in fire and battle, a friendship must be forged in war and the smallest being must engage the deadliest foe and learn it is strong. You have a stout heart, Ring Bearer and your role in the story is far from finished. For a while you shall know peace, but a time will come when Darkness will rise and new choices will have to be made. You will know when such a time will come and you will make the right choice. Seek the answers in your dreams and trust your heart. It will not lead you astray!"

The shadows started dimming around Bilbo and the door was slowly disappearing from sight. Before darkness claimed him once more, Bilbo heard one last advice.

"Do not listen to the whispers in the darkness."

~~~~***~~~~***~~~~

A week had passed since the Battle of Five Armies; the dead had been buried within the stone, their memories never to be forgotten and the wounded had slowly started healing. The men of Laketown had started talking of rebuilding Dale, while the elves of Mirkwood thought of going back home. The eagles had left long ago and Beorn too had returned to his home, content that the orcs had once more been decimated.

Inside the healing tent of the King under the Mountain a hobbit slept on, oblivious to the flurry of activity that went on around him. Next to him stood Kili, guarding him with determination, not once believing the hobbit would not wake up.

"Come on, Bilbo," the prince muttered, his left hand playing with the hobbit's braids that had been remade after the war had ended. "You're stronger than this. Wake up!"

As if he had heard him, the hobbit gave a pained moan and his eyelids fluttered…

Chapter Text

Months later…

In the old fortress, a shadow rises from the depth of the rock and glides effortlessly over forests and hills. It is unsure where it is going, being driven only by faint whispers at the edge of its consciousness. The shadow is only able to hear a pale murmur that leads it forward, towards the newly reclaimed Kingdom under the Mountain. There something is hidden… there something waits to be found…

Formless and unseen, it glides over rock and stone and enters the Mountain leaving only an unnatural chill in its path. It sees the Spymaster of Erebor, blending in the shadows, ever vigilant, despite the pain that twists his features and the slight sluggishness of his movements.

The shadow moves past the miners that work in the depth; there is a faint whisper there, but not the one it is seeking so it does not even glance in the direction of the two Broadbeam dwarves that lead the excavation, one older and with an axe embedded in his forehead and the other younger, wearing a funny hat and limping at every step.

After the mines, it sees the library, but there is nothing there to call it, so the shadow moves forward; behind it the Head Scribe shivers, whether in cold or unnatural fear, he does not know and plays with his mittens to cast warmth back in his hands.

There is a faint murmur in the training grounds, as if something had been there and had left an imprint. The shadow pauses ever so slightly to find its path again and looks in contempt at the two Durin heirs that still stand strong despite the war they had taken part in. Next to them the Head of the Guards is training recruits for the new army of Erebor; the coldness spread by the shadow gets stronger at this sight for it abhors the sight of the heirs of those who fought against its Master during the Last Alliance and lived to tell the tale.

After a few moments the whispers starts again and the shadow allows itself to be lead towards the Throne Room. There it sees The King under the Mountain, Thorin Oakenshield, darting glances left and right as if he too can hear the seductive lull at the back of his mind. However, the Throne Room is not the last stop so the shadow moves forward.

In the end it arrives in the treasure room; there, forgotten under piles of coins and baubles lays a small silver ring with a red gem encrusted in it. It is a trinket, nothing more, from the days before the fall of Eregion and Ost-in-Edhil, but for the shadow it turns into a tool; that ring, one of the many Minor Rings of Power had been touched by the hand of Sauron. The Curse of Durin already hovers above the heads of the King under the Mountain and his Heirs. This ring could hasten the fate that already awaited them.

Still, the whisper does not come from that particular ring, rather it is spread everywhere in each coin and golden goblet. The treasure remembers it. Something strong had been used around it and left an imprint Under the Mountain, something other than the power of the Dragon, something that the shadow's Master needed. Something that was no longer there…

Silently snarling in fury the shadow turns and heads back to Dol Guldur. One day the object that whispers will return…

THE END

Chapter Text

In years to come, minstrels will sing of the Battle of Five Armies. They will remember the powerful alliance forged in war between the dwarfs of the Erebor, the elves of Mirkwood and the men of Esgaroth.

Some will tell how the army of orcs, goblins and wargs darkened the fields around the crumbled city of Dale. How in their cursed tongue they cried "Death" and "Blood" loudly in the night and how Azog the Defiler and his spawn Bolg vowed to destroy the line of Durin.

Storytellers will enchant children with the story of Bilbo Baggins, the cunning hobbit who left the rolling hills of the Shire in order to help thirteen dwarves reclaim their homes. Some will say how said hobbit sometimes acted as if he had the gift of foresight, saving the lives of those of his Company.

At last, the story will end with the recount of the Battle of Five Armies. Deeds of great valor had been done that day. Songs will be woven about the courage of Thorin Oakenshield and his defeat of the great Gundabad orc, of Fili's stubbornness and bravery as he protected his fallen kin. Bofur, the dwarf with the funny hat who protected his friend Nori till the end, almost dying in the process will also be remembered, as well as all those who formed the Company of Thorin Oakenshield.

However, the story does not end with the Battle of Five Armies and the reclaiming of Erebor. It continues, seventy-eight years in the future until the fateful Council of Elrond.

This story, told only among the dwarves of Erebor, speaks of the rebuilding of the kingdom, of bringing it back to its former glory. The wounded struggled to recover and by the time spring had passed all were hale once more.

The members of the Company had been given their shares of the treasure. Balin officially became the Royal Advisor. Seeing as he had been fulfilling this role for decades now, the new title did not surprise him in the least.

Dwalin had been appointed Head of the Guards of Erebor. He often clashed with Nori, the Royal Spymaster, whose cunning and vigilance helped unearth many assassination plots against the line of Durin. Young Ori became Head Scribe and Librarian. His desire to put the tale of the Company in writing gave birth to a book in Khuzdul that would later be studied by all young dwarfling alongside the Red Book of Bilbo Baggins.

Dori used his share of the treasure to open a teashop. It quickly became famous in Erebor and the newly repaired Dale. Dwarfs from the Iron Hills and Blue Mountains came all the way to Erebor just to taste the fantastic tea and cakes created by the eldest 'Ri brother.

Bofur and Bifur were given charge of the Western Mines until the destruction caused by Smaug was repaired. When all was working in order once more, Bifur returned to what he loved best: toy making. His toys enchanted dwarflings and human children alike.

Bombur became, of course, the Royal Chef. With proper ingredients, good venison and a few special recipes given to him by certain hobbits, the large dwarf became the delight of the entire Royal Family. His cookies and cake were second to none and his pies were challenged only by those made by Bilbo Baggins.

Oin was appointed Royal Healer. He settled in his role with ease and enjoyed taking care of those he had come to cherish as much as his family. His brother, Gloin, was ecstatic to see his wife and son again. Both he and Gimli joined Dwalin's guards, eager to slay any orc that dared attack their newly rebuilt Kingdom.

As for the cunning thief and seer who had helped the dwarfs reclaim their Mountain… Bilbo Baggins became the unofficial adviser of the King (after all, the stuffy lords of the Council would never accept a hobbit in such a prestigious role, no matter the fact that he saved the current King and his heirs ). He was the King's confidant and always lend an ear when the stress of leadership became too much ( and if he became more than a friend as the years passed, the stories do not tell ).

He was the one Fili and Kili ran to for pie and cupcakes when Bombur denied them… the one who was always there with a kind word and a cup of tea when things went wrong.

Bilbo Baggins became hailed as both Elf and Dwarf friend, doing much to mend the bridge between the two races. He spent half his time in Erebor and half in the Shire, his heart being unable to give up on the place of his birth.

When his cousins Drogo and Primula died, despite Bilbo's attempts to prevent such a fate, he became the guardian of their small son, Frodo.

When Balin, Oin and Ori left to reclaim Moria he watched them go with a heavy heart. No vision foretold their fate, yet Bilbo felt deep in his heart that he would never see them again.

In all this time, he kept the identity of his Ring secret. He remembered Mandos' words and his dreams told him that it would not be him to destroy the Ring. He did his best to conceal the Enemy's weapon and keep it dormant. It worked until Gollum was captured and the words "Shire" and "Baggins" were wretched from him under torture.

In that moment, foretold by his visions, Bilbo knew the time had come to pass the Ring on. He sent a raven to Gandalf and sought his aid. A Council gathered and the Fate of Middle Earth was decided… with tears in his eyes Bilbo did the hardest thing in his life and allowed his precious nephew – beloved son – to go to Mount Doom and destroy the Ring.

But that is a tale for another time…