“Why did you do it?” Thorin asks him, later, when Thorin is taking first watch and Bilbo is too cold to sleep and everyone else is either asleep or pretending to be. “It was brave and very, very stupid. Why would you do such a thing?”
The fire roars around Thorin as he runs forward, and Bilbo can only cling to the tree, paralyzed with fear. Here, in Thorin Oakenshield’s eyes, in his upraised arm, in the coiled tension within his frame – to Bilbo, not a small frame at all – is something he had never dreamed of at home in the Shire, comfortable and warm and full in his armchair by the fire. He thinks that he understands now. It was worth it, all of it, the pain and fear and heartache, if only to glimpse for a moment the true bearing of a king. He does not know it now, but his own kin will find the same, and more, in Aragorn son of Arathorn, years and years from now.
Bilbo shrugs. “Heat of the moment?” he suggests half-heartedly. “Temporary insanity?”
He hears the thud of Thorin’s body hitting the ground and the agonized scream as the warg bites into him. He cannot bear it; not now when he has just found the reason for coming all this way, the courage and the honor he did not imagine. Not when he has at last found something in which to put his faith. He pulls the sword – not a letter opener after all – from its sheath.
“No,” Thorin says, looking at him as if he can see straight into his soul. His voice is dark and close to dangerous. “You had a purpose. Tell me, Bilbo Baggins. What incites a hobbit from the Shire to defend a dwarf-lord against a warg three times his size?”
For the first time in perhaps his whole life, he does not think about his own safety. He thinks about bravery. He thinks about devotion, or perhaps he does not think at all. He acts.
“It was…” Bilbo searches for the right words. A life such as the one he has known has not prepared him to speak the words that have filled a thousand oaths between vassals and kings, for the searing devotion that now fills his heart to bursting as it has, for time immemorial, filled the hearts of men before their true and proper lords.
He has not a hope of victory, and he knows it well. He knows, somewhere within, that this is the day he dies, and that it was always coming to this. He finds it does not matter so much as he once thought it would. This is a good death, Bilbo thinks, and his heart burns with love.
He falters, does not know how to speak the love that has consumed him. It is not the love that husbands have for their wives, but nor is it the love that two equals may share. It is not brotherly in the slightest.
He slices out blindly with his sword, and though his body bleeds fear from every pore, his mind is calm and his heart is joyful. He has, at least, died with something to die for.
And then he does not die. And now he is left with the tangle of his thoughts and feelings, with no knowledge of how to sort them. This does not happen in the shire, where neighbors trade produce and gossip and life is easy and comfortable. He understands now why twelve dwarves will follow Thorin into what seems certain death.
He struggles. He does not yet understand himself why he did what he did, only that he was inflamed with love. How can he, a hobbit, follow the dwarf king?
And that’s just it, isn’t it. He will follow the dwarf king, that is all. He, too, has become one of Thorin’s subjects. He would give his life for his king, and he would follow him anywhere. He does not understand, yet, that what he feels now is the reason men follow kings, that this devotion he has found has inspired men since man began. Yet he knows it, deep in his bones, and he cannot find it in himself to be afraid. He feels more himself than he ever has.
He cannot speak the words, so he goes down on one knee and bows his head. “I did, it,” he says, when Thorin does not speak, “because I found that there, at what seemed certain to be the final trial, I would follow you anywhere. That at the end of all things, you were and will be the one I will look to. My king.”
Thorin does not speak for a long time, and Bilbo’s heart races. Perhaps he has been too bold. Perhaps it is asking too much, to be one of them. Bilbo is not, after all, a dwarf. He has no right to the courage, the honor, the loyalty that are their heritage.
At last Thorin bends down and draws Bilbo up to his full height. Bilbo is shocked to see that Thorin’s face, usually so stern and proud, has softened into an inexpressible kindness. He feels tears rise to his eyes.
Thorin bends slightly and kisses Bilbo’s forehead gently. “I could have no more worthy subject,” he says roughly. “I am honored by your loyalty and courage. There is worse yet to come, but I have faith in you. Will you follow me until the end?”
“Yes,” Bilbo says firmly.
“Then be known as one of us,” Thorin says. With a squeeze of Bilbo’s forearm, he lets him go. “You have my trust, and my loyalty.” He turns then and moves off into the night, leaving Bilbo standing behind.
He thinks his heart may burst tonight.