Banished. It held an air of finality to it. Certainly when spoken by a raging king, his voice bellowing for everyone to hear. Never mind that just a few days before, the same king had showered gifts with a smile, a smile meant for only him. Never mind that he’d given him the most precious gift Bilbo had ever been given before.
“You would make another exchange, Master Hobbit?” Bard was asking. The man seemed even taller and more imposing than before. He certainly looked angrier, a fire alight deep in his eyes. Thorin had much the same look now, Bilbo would wager. He pushed the thoughts away.
“I would. I come to offer you gold and treasure, a large sum of it, too, from the very halls of Erebor.”
“In exchange for the stone.”
Bilbo nodded. He could see it, on a table behind Bard. Oh, how he hated that stone. It was cursed. Doomed to ruin the line of Durin. Doomed to ruin Thorin and everything good about the dwarf. The way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, his deep chuckle, his steady hand on Bilbo’s shoulder-
“We already made an exchange. I’m beginning to wonder if there is any honor in hobbits at all.”
The words stung, but he tried to hide it. “There’s a great deal of honor; I’m offering you what Thorin kept from you, what you want your people to have. There’s a lot of gold here, more than enough to return your town to glory.” More than enough: a fourteenth of the treasure, which he hadn’t originally been intending to take. Maybe a few pieces, for a remembered token. But when Thorin had cast him out, he’d taken it all, already loaded onto several ponies, and headed straight for Lake-town.
Bard’s eyes roamed over the chests piled high behind Bilbo. Bilbo could feel his heart fluttering in his chest, anxiety pulling at him until he thought he wouldn’t breathe again. I just need the stone. Please.
Maybe…maybe it would change Thorin’s mind. Maybe Bilbo could get his king back.
Bilbo didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath until it came out of him in a relieved sigh. “I would have one more thing from you, hobbit,” Bard continued, and Bilbo slowly turned to look up at the man. He cut a terrifying figure, the fire roaring behind him, casting his vast shadow on the wall. His eyes bore holes through Bilbo’s very skin, and he resisted the urge to pull his jacket further around him.
“Yes?” Bilbo ventured when nothing else came.
Bard ‘s eyes slid from Bilbo’s face down to his chest. “That,” he said, pointing. “I want that as well. Then and only then will I release the Arkenstone.”
Bilbo stopped breathing again. Not his gift. Not the last thing he had of Thorin. “The pin?” he asked, aiming for a casual laugh and choking instead.
“Yes, the pin. Why, does it mean something to the king as well?” Bard asked, raising an eyebrow.
It did, once upon a time. When they’d been wandering in the fields, heading for Mirkwood, and they’d had a moment to themselves at camp, Thorin had gifted it to him. His father had given it to Thorin’s mother, he’d told Bilbo. His mother had given it to him before she’d passed on. “To be given to someone I called beloved,” Thorin had murmured, as he’d pinned the token to Bilbo’s vest. Two streams of precious metals, one mithril, one gold, were intertwined around each other until you couldn’t tell the difference between them, so joined were they. Bilbo had thought of Thorin as the mithril: strong, unbreakable, beautiful, and keeping the softer, lesser gold safe.
“Does it, Halfling?”
Bilbo hated that name. As if he was half of anything.
But Bard still had his eyes on the pin, and Bilbo wanted to push him away. It was all he truly had left of Thorin, the dwarf-lord, before he’d become King. Before he’d cast Bilbo out.
“It means nothing to the king,” he said quietly. “It’s…it’s just a trinket.” That’s all it was truly worth, now.
There was a triumph in Bard’s eyes, and Bilbo realized the man knew this pin meant something to him. He was being punished for asking for the Arkenstone back. It wasn’t Thorin that Bard meant to strike at, it was Bilbo.
“Then…” There was a pause as Bard let his voice hang in the air, his pointing finger becoming an open palm. Slowly Bilbo reached up and undid the clasp. The pin felt cool in his hands, and the light caught it, causing it to shine. It had shone the night Thorin had given it to him, catching the light from the fire. The sunshine had caught it, reminding him of its presence as they’d traveled. Thorin’s smile had been brighter, too, after he’d gifted the pin to him.
Banished. Cast out. Unwanted. Hated.
Bilbo laid it in Bard’s open hand. The pin was snatched away in an instant, so swiftly that Bilbo couldn’t help the sharp intake of breath. “Then the deal is finished,” Bard said. He stuffed the pin into a pocket as if it was nothing. Just a trinket that meant nothing to him. “You may go your own way now, hobbit. I will see that the stone is delivered to the King Under the Mountain.”
Bilbo nodded hesitantly. “I will have my men escort you to the edge of the forest, but that is all,” Bard continued, and Bilbo blinked.
“Now. Your presence in Lake-town is neither appreciated nor wanted.”
“Would you at least allow me to stay the evening?” Bilbo asked, his voice coming out more desperately than he’d originally intended. “It’s late. There is nowhere nearby that I can reach by the time the sun goes down. I know you have been generous and kind already, but I would ask this one last thing of you.” Just one night before he wandered out into the wilderness on his own, to make his way back to the Shire.
Bard paused, and the flint in his eyes seemed to fade away. “One night,” Bard granted, his voice almost kind. “Then at first light, you will be escorted out.”
“Thank you,” Bilbo said, letting out a sigh. “Just…thank you.” One night to get a decent night’s sleep. One night to pretend he wasn’t despised by the same person who’d held him so tenderly, had laid kisses on his brow, had loved him. Had given him a gift that now meant nothing.
Bard nodded, and Bilbo left. There was an inn nearby, and Bilbo had kept a few of his coins for making purchases. It was early evening, the sun already dipping down behind the mountain, and fires were being lit all over the city. They guided Bilbo as he found himself a room, pretending there wasn’t suspicion being aimed in his direction.
Even the Sackville-Bagginses would’ve been more welcoming.
The Arkenstone would be delivered to Thorin. Not that he had much hope of Thorin forgiving him, but he hoped, perhaps, that it would give Bilbo a peace of mind. That was all he hoped for.
Bilbo pulled at his hair and stood, pacing wretchedly in front of the fireplace in his room. “Stupid, stupid,” he mumbled. All he hoped for indeed. He wanted Thorin to forgive him, to beg an apology of his own for being so damn reckless and foolish, to kiss him fully as they’d never gotten the chance to, all because of that forsaken stone.
He didn’t realize he was playing with the golden ring he’d found until it was between his fingers, a golden worry stone. He cursed and, in a moment of spite, hurled it into the fireplace. “Damn him! Damn him, damn him, damn him!”
No one answered him. Bilbo sank to the floor, fingers tying knots in his curls, eyes burning with tears he refused to shed. “Damn me,” he whispered miserably. If he could just go back, undo what he’d done… But he’d feared for Fili and Kili and Thorin, the weird haze that had settled into their eyes, the anger Thorin had given into when Bard and Thranduil had come to him for gold.
Gold. The ring. Bilbo leapt up and raced to the fire. The ring sat in the middle, and he pulled it out as quick as he could, wincing as his fingers brushed against burning embers. The ring itself was remarkably cool, a testament to the pureness of the gold. Bilbo sat back on his heels, sighing. Of all the things that would get him home safely, it was this one, and here he was throwing it away.
It began to glow. Bilbo stared.
The writing that ran across the ring was unlike any he’d ever seen. Perplexed, Bilbo spun it around, wondering what it meant. Just as suddenly as they’d appeared, the words began to fade away. Hastily Bilbo raced for the table in the room, tossing the ring onto the wood and scrambling for paper and ink. He began to quickly sketch the random pattern of words he’d seen, trying to remember what it had been. It was no good: he couldn’t remember. He reached for the ring again. Perhaps if he put it back in the fire-
The instant his skin touched cool gold, it happened. A flash of fire, a terrible eye like Smaug’s blinking open, trying to pierce through the flames. Bilbo dropped the ring in his haste to get away from whatever it had been, and it landed like a stone on the floor. He could only stare at it now, fear slowly creeping into his heart. A magic ring that made you invisible, and Bilbo had expected it to be without power? Oh but he was so stupid, so foolish. Of course there was a power in it. A dark power, something evil that had felt like it was waking up. He suddenly wanted it gone, to belong to someone else. He’d had enough of gold and its evils for a lifetime.
A ring like this had to be recorded. Somewhere, someone had to have a record of it. Then he would know what it was, how to be rid of it. Carefully he reached for the ring again, wincing when he touched it. Only cool gold met him, no fire, no eye. He dropped it in his pocket, then quickly gathered up the poor sketch he’d done before leaving.
Finding a local library was easy, even more so when the scholars still there late in the evening were content enough to let him be. He wandered the shelves, not even certain what he was looking for. If there was anything a hobbit knew better than gardening and food, however, it was books. Scrolls, papers, books, all of which were a hobbit’s delight. They were treasures to be passed down through the ages from one generation to the next. Bilbo remembered several that he’d told Thorin about-
No, he admonished himself. He had a mission; he had a long journey back to the Shire where he could dwell on thoughts of the dwarf he’d lost. Not now. Not when he was in the middle of…whatever it was he was doing.
“Rings, rings, rings…” he muttered to himself, wandering down the next shelf aisle. Rings of the Ages caught his eye, as did the next two books beside it. He quickly pulled them down and went to find a spot to read.
Several magic rings were discussed, but none of them mentioned invisibility. One of the books mentioned a ring to make its wearer invisible, but it wasn’t made of gold, and it certainly didn’t have lettering on it. Bilbo tossed the book aside and reached for the last volume.
He’d not flipped through more than three pages when he saw a picture of a simple ring with bright lettering. Bilbo dug for the paper he’d sketched on and found the lettering the same. Eagerly he pulled the book closer and read the inscription beneath the image.
Sauron’s Ring: The Ring of Power, taken by Isildur, son of the King of Gondor
Bilbo froze. Sauron. Not the Sauron? The Sauron that Rangers wandering through Hobbiton had told stories of? The Sauron who’d all become a legend, a myth that couldn’t really have existed? Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor?
It was with more hesitancy that Bilbo turned his eyes back to the book. The next several pages put his stomach into knots.
Isildur had taken the ring from Sauron, and it had been lost in a raid of orcs who had come to reclaim it. Isildur had been mortally wounded, and when his men had pulled him from the river, the ring had not been with him. Lost…until somehow, that creature from the caves had found it.
River. Gollum was obviously an adept fisher. What if he’d found it, one day, and taken it away into the mountains? Only for it to be lost, and Bilbo to find it.
The Ring of Power, the Ring that had brought ruin and death to Middle-Earth, and Bilbo had it in his pocket. He fell back into his chair, his head spinning.
He couldn’t keep it. He didn’t want it. He wanted absolutely nothing to do with the vileness that was the Ring. He couldn’t believe he’d used it so willingly, had intended to keep doing so to get him back to the Shire before he’d seen the eye, and he felt as if he’d be sick. He had to, to bury it. Throw it down a ravine, give it away-
He stopped, the gravity of the situation bearing down on him even more. He couldn’t give it away as he’d wanted to. If it could take a great man like Isildur, and turn him into a man who thought of nothing but this Ring, then who knew what it would do to someone else? Gold lust. It had caught Thorin in its snare, and Bilbo prayed it wouldn’t lead to his death. To Fili and Kili and the company’s deaths.
And if he buried it or threw it away, another Gollum could find it. If ti hadn’t been safe in a riverbed, it wouldn’t be safe in the earth. No, there had to be something else he could do with it. Talk to Gandalf, perhaps. Though what the wizard could do, he didn’t know. He didn’t even know where Gandalf was. Probably in Erebor.
The pain that shot through his heart was so strong he reached for his chest. Erebor. He wanted to be there so badly, with Thorin, the dwarf’s arm pulling him in to rest against the King’s shoulder. To be cradled, loved-
He stifled the sudden burst of emotion, but only just. The last thing he needed was for someone to come poking around to see why a Halfling was crying in the back of the library. Or to see what he was reading and wonder why.
His eyes shot back to the page, a familiar name catching his attention. Elrond of the Elves came to Isildur amongst the smoted ruins of Sauron and bade him follow to Mount Doom, where the One Ring had been forged. There, Elrond spoke to the new King of Gondor and entreated of him to cast it in to the fires, for from whence it came, thus can it be destroyed. But Isildur refused, and so the One Ring passed to the kingdom of Gondor.
There was a name Bilbo knew. Lord Elrond of Rivendell had been there? He read the writing again.
…to Mount Doom, where the One Ring had been forged…from whence it came, thus can it be destroyed.
Mount Doom. “Where is Mount Doom?” he murmured. He flipped through the pages, but there were no maps in this book. He quickly gathered up the books he’d taken out, put them back to where they belonged, and made his way to the map charts.
On a huge map, he got his answer. With all of Middle-Earth laid out before him, Bilbo quickly found Mount Doom, then immediately wished he hadn’t. Orodruin was its name, and it lay over the mountains, far, far to the south in Mordor. It was the farthest from Hobbiton one could possibly get, still a terrible distance from Erebor. Worse yet, there was nothing but Wilderland between Erebor and Mordor. The Brown Lands.
When the Rangers had come to Hobbiton during the Fell Winter, Bilbo had begged for stories. As a cute young hobbit lad, he’d played his youth to his advantage, and many a Ranger had chuckled and told stories of the world, including Mordor, Gondor, Rohan, the Brown Lands. They’d spoken of orcs that would eat little hobbits up if they didn’t finish their supper, but Bilbo had seen the quiet fear in their eyes. The Wilderland was nowhere to be. If Rangers would not pass through it, Bilbo wouldn’t, either.
Then he stopped. Why would he travel through the Wilderland in the first place? What business would take him through the Brown Lands?
Even as he asked himself the question, his fingers went to his pocket. The One Ring. He had found it, he had brought it out into the world. He needed to dispose of it.
“From whence it came, thus can it be destroyed,” he murmured under his breath. He was insane, absolutely mad. This was the work of an army, of a king, who could boldly march into Mordor and drop the Ring in. This wasn’t for a hobbit, a Halfling as Bard had reminded him.
But he knew what gold did to a king. He could see what it would do to men, to a whole army of men. The gold ring had not ensnared Bilbo, though. Gold meant nothing to him. He glared at his pocket, thinking bitterly of the dwarves and their reaction to the treasure room. It had been all they’d wanted. Even Thorin had fallen for the treasure horde. In the end, his treasure had mattered more than Bilbo had.
He slowly rolled the map up. Gandalf would know what to do, but Gandalf was who knew where. No, Bilbo had to make the decision. And in his heart, Bilbo knew he’d already made it.
This was a new adventure. It would just be less of a company, more of a solo hobbit journey. He couldn’t destroy the gold in Erebor, or how much it meant to Thorin. But he could get the Arkenstone back, and he could destroy this gold. The orcs, the goblins, the spiders in Mirkwood, all of the dangers they’d faced, and Bilbo knew it was because of the Ring. Evil begets evil, after all. And as betrayed as Bilbo felt, the dwarves deserved peace. The Shire deserved peace. Even Esgaroth, the Lake-town, deserved to live and rebuild Dale in peace.
No. Bilbo would do this. He’d come this far, after all. It wasn’t proper for a hobbit to see a job half done.
He finished rolling the map and shoved it under his jacket after ensuring no one was watching. He walked as calmly as he could out of the library, then hurried his pace to reach the inn. He didn’t know what sleep he’d get tonight, but he knew it would be the last restful sleep he’d have for some time.
Far off, a swiftly approaching group of orcs came to a stop. The message they had long awaited from their Master and Lord had come.
The Ring is found. Bring it to me.
They changed course, abandoning their quest for Erebor. They would find the ring, instead. Many of the orcs grumbled about not tasting Man and Dwarf flesh.
That problem was solved when they stumbled across the goblin army, headed in much the same direction. The orcs feasted well for the night.
The next day, they hunted.