In the beginning, there was Chaos.
That isn’t anyway near as terrible as it sounds, for Chaos is good natured, despite what her name might suggest to us today. She is a wild thing, yes, but also a neutral one, following the balance of the world by creating her own special brand of imbalance. When first there was nothing, only the vast emptiness, Chaos set about in the task of her own creation, for if she had been capable of feeling it, she would have been bored. Chaos brought forward the Earth, and the Moon and the Sun and the Stars, and from those first creations came all things after, some of which we know, and many of which we have forgotten.
There came Giants and Titans and beasts with all manner of wings, claws, horns and scales; roving eyes and an endless stream madness; formless creatures of the night and the dawn and the sunrise, of all things that we see and take for granted now.
Back then, they were more than they are now: they had thoughts, and feelings, and a mind of their own.
And Chaos looked down through time with her wide, incorporeal gaze, and saw only what could be.
Timeless, she watched that first sunrise over an earth she created, and the last sunrise too, in that very same gaze.
If she had had a mouth, she would have smiled.
Chaos sees promise, she sees possibility. And Chaos saw two formless potentialities, straining to exist, waiting for a moment, beacons of brightness in the darkness of the void.
They would be… unexpected.
It took just a gentle push to move them into reality.
Bilbo, newly formed God and recently installed ruler of a Kingdom that he did not understand, was having a bad day.
It had been easy enough when he had first burst into creation, for he had been a free thing then, brimming with laughter despite the war that had raged between the new creatures of the divine realm and the old: he had not played as much of a role in the war as others seemed to assume, but his habit of passing unseen through dark places had proved to be of some significant use. As such, when it had come to dividing up existence between them all, he had been allocated one of the greatest lots of them all.
The problem was, he didn’t really want it.
He had never imagined that he would end up the King of the Underworld, sovereign lord over souls both righteous and cruel. Master of the Dead, they called him now.
He still was not entirely convinced that it wasn’t some great elaborate joke, at his expense.
Well, if it was, he was not laughing.
“I really don’t know what you are complaining about,” Gandalf told him, stretched out in a way that seemed effortlessly regal that Bilbo was quite certain he would never accomplish. “You’ve ended up with one of the great three Kingdoms for the part you played in the war, any God would be happy with it.”
“Well, they are welcome to come and take it from me, then.”
Gandalf’s eyes twinkled.
“That isn’t exactly how Godhood works, Bilbo.”
Bilbo scowled at him. He was well aware of that fact – he would have tried to pass his role along to someone else if he hadn’t known that it was impossible. But he simply did not want this task, and not because he was unwilling to do the work.
No, that wasn’t the reason at all.
Truth be told, Bilbo just couldn’t understand why anyone would think that he was suitable as the ruler of this Kingdom – he certainly couldn’t understand it. The tasks he was expected to perform seemed impossible to him, and with each passing hour the queue outside his hall grew ever longer. The dead waited for no God, after all.
He struggled to punish the most hubristic and impious of mankind: worse, he did not know what gifts should be given to the good, even less how to speak them, how to comfort them. He didn’t know how to talk to the dead, what to say to them, how to give them reassurance or rewards, even less so how to mete out the punishments that he knew he was supposed to give to the most unworthy of souls. They seemed distant to him, and the more he tried to work out what to do, the harder it all seemed, and at the heart of it he wondered if he was simply afraid of allotting to these souls their lot in the afterlife, if he wasn’t just afraid of the weight of that responsibility, of that authority.
“Everything alright, Bilbo?”
The messenger God crossed his feet, the silver wings of his sandals catching the flickering light of the candles strewn about the room. Gandalf’s Godhood fitted him quite perfectly, Bilbo couldn’t help but think bitterly: always roving, lighting the way for travellers in the darkest of nights, including those lost souls who struggled to find their way down to Bilbo’s great halls. A tricky God to pin down, from Bilbo’s experience, with a terrible habit of stealing away mid conversation.
“Anyway,” Gandalf continued, ignoring Bilbo’s irritated expression when it became clear that he had nothing more to say. “I’ve invited a friend over today.”
Bilbo rolled his eyes. For a God of boundaries, Gandalf had never showed much interest in keeping to other people’s.
“I’m sure they will be delighted to come visit me down here. And despite my complaints, this is my Kingdom you know, it would have been polite of you to ask.”
Gandalf waved a hand.
“He won’t be put off by his place, he is far too stubborn for that. And I think the two of you will get on, you know. He’s going through a similar thing to you.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, as Gandalf fixed him with a knowing stare.
“It is obvious enough to anyone who would care to look,” Gandalf said, kindly, “That you are not adapting very well to your new role. And that isn’t your fault, you know. I hear stories, the messages passed between the worlds – you are not the only one who has struggled to fit into the new order. And this friend of mine, he also has not grasped what his gift means.”
Bilbo perked up, just a little, at that, though he found that the dark walls of his rooms had a habit of dampening his spirits somewhat. He glanced around, warily, as a knock sounded from the heavy doors that led out to the corridors that wound their way back to the great Gates of the Underworld.
A spirit popped his head through the door, hazy and a little unfocused as he smiled tentatively at Bilbo. The attendants had appeared on his first day, uncertain in shimmering in the dim light, waiting for his word to tell them what to do, and damn it all if he didn’t know how to command them.
“My Lord,” he said, dropping into a bow. “There is a visitor at the Gates.”
“Indeed,” Bilbo said, turning fully towards him. “I shall be there shortly.”
It still felt awkward, the way that the spirits that had been assigned to serve him bowed and scraped: he was not used to it, and it was discomforting. From behind him, he could almost feel Gandalf smiling.
“I would be very grateful,” Gandalf said, as if he were speaking on something inconsequential, “if you would try to make sense of his Godhood for him, and why it isn’t working. You’ve always been an astute thing, and I rather think that you might see what he is doing wrong better than anyone else.”
Bilbo did not deign to answer immediately, but eventually nodded his head, unsure if Gandalf could even see him in the dim light. The other God followed him down the twisting corridors, humming a little under his breath.
“It’s a bit dismal down here, isn’t it?” he commented, idly.
Bilbo scowled: he didn’t need any further reminder.
The Gates were huge things, pale and shining metal in the dark, giving off a strange and watery light that they seemed to cast themselves. Standing beside them, distinct from the souls with his firm form and the slight golden glow of earthly deities, was a tall and broad God, who was tapping his foot impatiently.
Gandalf drifted ahead of Bilbo, who had begun to slow his pace, unsure of how to greet him. New Gods seemed to be appearing left and right as their order took control of the dominions: their numbers had gone from a scant few to what felt like hundreds sometimes, though he supposed that the rarity in which he saw Olympus probably had something to do with that. Gandalf, however, seemed to have no compunction breezing up to the God, his arms outstretched.
The newcomer watched him warily, his arms folded.
“Hello, hello!” Gandalf called out, cheerily. “Thorin, good to see that you made it, I did assume that you would get lost on the way.”
The God simply glared, and didn’t say anything, until Gandalf clapped his hands together.
“Thorin, my lad. This is Bilbo – King of this realm, and all the souls that dwell within it, so on and so forth.”
It still sounded strange, to Bilbo, but to Thorin it seemed to be even more peculiar: he regarded Bilbo coolly, without the usual reverence that his position afforded him. It was, oddly enough, as gratifying as it was annoying.
“He looks more like a dryad than the Lord of the Underworld,” the newcomer remarked, coldly.
Bilbo raised an eyebrow, unimpressed.
“Nothing wrong with dryads,” he replied, irritated despite himself. “And you have some cheek to talk to the God of Hades like that. Who are you, anyway?”
“This is Thorin,” he answered, instead of the other God. “He is, as you have no doubt already astutely noted, a nature deity. Of flowers and new growth, that sort of thing, as far as I am aware.”
Bilbo raised an eyebrow, taking in the tall, solidly built man, his stern features and coarse beard, his thick, dark mane of hair, streaked with silver. He had met many other nature Gods in his time – had always gotten on with them quite well, in fact – and he struggled a little to reconcile his mental image of flowing drapery and pretty faces with the rather irritated looking man in front of him.
“Can’t say you fit your Godhood all that well either,” Bilbo said, in lieu of anything else to say, and to his surprise Thorin looked away, scowling, the faint pink of a blush on his cheeks.
Gandalf glanced between them, grinning cheerily, before he looked away, eyes suddenly distant as he listened to a call that only he could hear.
“Well, I do hate to run,” he said, his tone amused. “But you know how it is – messages to deliver, travellers to safeguard. I shall see you soon, dear friends!”
And with a wave he was gone, the flutter of steel-silver wings beneath his robes bearing him upwards into the unfathomable heights of Bilbo’s elusive Kingdom, to find his own way back to another realm. Bilbo watched him go with a little sigh, before turning back to Thorin.
“Look,” he said, quietly. “I am sorry if I offended you, but you’ve caught me during quite a terrible day. Gandalf said that you have a similar problem to I – that is, that no matter quite what I do, I can’t seem to get a handle on this whole God thing.”
Thorin glanced at him, and though his stony expression did not warm there was a flicker of understanding in his eyes, and he nodded, just a little.
Bilbo quirked a smile.
“I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.”
Thorin’s eyes widened in confusion-surprise, and Bilbo bit down a laugh as he turned, and took off on light feet down a corridor. After a moment, he heard Thorin following him, keeping pace with him, his footsteps steady and sure, as if he were more rooted to the earth itself than Bilbo was, which was probably quite literally the same.
“Well, not show you literally, of course. But, well.”
He glanced around them, making sure that none of his attendants were nearby, not wanting them to overhear his disappointment.
“You can see the place,” continued, waving his hand at the vaulted, dark ceilings, the dismal grey dust that seemed to settle on everything, the ash-grey sand beneath their feet, the perpetual twilight of the light that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. The place was not grim, nor frightening, as Bilbo had perhaps expected, but it was full instead of a deep and impenetrable stillness, a sadness that never seemed to shift in the muffled space.
It seeped into his bones, that sadness, left him feeling cold and uncertain, struggling to remember what the point of his role was, what the point of any of it was, when all he dealt in was unfamiliar death. But how to put that into words, how to explain to a stranger.
“I don’t exactly feel at home here, and to tell you the truth,” he said in the end, a little lamely. “I’m not sure that I am all that good at running the place.”
It felt oddly gratifying to say that out loud, even if it wasn’t the entirety of it. This whole place did seem alien to him, not his own, and he did not know what to say to the souls that passed before him, what to do with them, how to relate to their suffering, nor even to their contentment at a life lived. He felt shut away, unable to empathise or connect, alone and unable to deny the desire to lock himself away and pretend that none of this was for him.
What right did he have, to rule them?
They stopped in one of the small courtyards that littered the endless corridors, and he scuffed away the grey ash to reveal a dull earth underneath, dry and lifeless, before looking up at Thorin expectantly. Thorin stared back at him for a long moment, before sighing, and reaching down to touch the ground. That golden glow that suffused him seemed to shift beneath his skin for a moment – he pressed his fingers to the earth, and it seemed to light up in response to him.
But that glow disappeared almost immediately, and he pulled his fingers away, drawing a small shoot from the earth quickly. It was brown, and already dead.
“There,” he said, with a note of finality in his voice.
Thorin huffed, still kneeling on the ground, and soon it became clear that he was not going to say anything more. His expression was a stormy one, and Bilbo sighed, thinking back on Gandalf’s request.
“Look, plants aren’t that hard, at the end of the day. You just can’t rush them, that’s what I’ve heard. You have to look after them.”
It wasn’t much, he didn’t think, but then again he didn’t know all that much about plants either – he had spent some time among the nature Gods at his conception, watching them as he grew, and he had watched them coax their creations into the light of reality more times than he could count – and coaxing was the right word. It had always been done slowly, tenderly, with great patience, unlike Thorin, who had seemed to rush through the process as if he had already known that it would fail, and-
“You see, the thing is,” Bilbo said, a little hesitantly. “You have to believe that what you are doing is going to work, you know? And give it time to work, too. Because things need time, they need your patience, they need your, well, your love, I suppose.”
“But they’re just plants.”
Bilbo frowned, wondering if Thorin was being deliberately obtuse.
“What, they are not worth your attention because they are small? Everything starts out small, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important, you know.” He sighed as Thorin’s face fell, making him look young, and quite lost. “Come with me.”
He led Thorin down another passageway, making sure not to touch the walls, which still felt unnaturally cold to him. He shivered, despite himself, as the muted sound of a crowd began to force its way through the muffled air of the Underworld.
“You know what these are?” he said as the corridor let out on a balcony, looking out over a hall, packed full of the shimmering, barely-there forms of the waiting. Thorin did not answer him, but Bilbo continued none the less.
“Thousands upon thousands of souls, all waiting to see me. And I don’t know what to say to them or what to do with them, I don’t know how to judge them – let alone punish them – because what right do I have to cast any judgement on them? What power do I wield? What bearing do I have on this? But I have to do it, I know I do – because even though they are only little people, small and insignificant, they deserve my patience, and my attention. And plants deserve yours, too.”
Thorin blinked, slowly, but something flickered in his eyes, an unexpected humility, and he nodded slowly. Bilbo watched him, waiting for a response, but when none came he simply sighed. The souls below were waiting for him, after all, and he had little time to waste on a confused vegetation God who lacked any desire to converse. His great throne (too big for him, he thought) waited below, empty and accusing.
“This way,” he said, quietly. “I’ll show you back, or you’re apt to get lost – even Gandalf can’t always find his way down here, and that God seems to know how to get everywhere.”
Thorin trailed after him, his sandals scuffing the sand, glancing up on occasion to view the vaulted corridors critically.
“Bit dismal, isn’t it?” he said, after a while, and Bilbo bristled, even though his voice was neither hostile nor particularly critical.
“I’d thank you not to speak that way about my Kingdom.”
Thorin shot him a look that was almost apologetic, and Bilbo sagged, just a little.
“Although I will admit, it isn’t the cheeriest of places.”
Thorin blinked at him, the hard line of his shoulders unmoving.
“Why don’t you change it then?” he asked, and Bilbo scowled.
“I can’t just go around changing things.”
Thorin seemed genuinely confused by this response. “Why? It is yours, after all.”
Bilbo felt his mouth settling into a hard line. “It isn’t mine, not really. It belongs to the Dead- to all of them, as much as to me.”
Thorin made a low, considering noise.
“But you could still change it.”
“No!” Bilbo retorted, but Thorin seemed unwilling to drop the subject.
“Why not?” he asked, as they came upon the Gate once more, looking as threatening and strange as it always did to Bilbo.
“Because…” he trailed off, suddenly unsure of himself. He frowned a little, more to himself than to anyone else, but Thorin seemed to take his quiet as a dismissal, striding through the Gate with just a nod in Bilbo’s direction.
“Farewell,” he said, quietly, and Bilbo startled.
“Indeed!” he called out, but Thorin had disappeared before he had a chance to say anything more, called back to the realm of light and the living, to a brighter domain.
Bilbo couldn’t help but feel a little resentful at that.
“It was nice to meet you, too!” he called out into the emptiness, sighing as one of his spirit attendants appeared as if from nowhere, motioning back in the direction of the hall with some anxiousness.
“Bloody nature Gods,” he mumbled to himself, before he set off to continue his own, unending tasks.
It was several days before he felt the presence of a God at his Gates once again, and he wandered to see who had dared to visit him as soon as he was able to slip away. He was somewhat surprised to see Thorin there, expecting instead one of his psychopomps, or one of the great Rivers of the Underworld come to bother him with their concerns.
“What in Gaia’s name are you doing here?” he asked, but Thorin was frowning up at the Gates, which refused to open until Bilbo pressed a hand to them, at which point they swung inwards without hesitation.
“These gates are rather annoying," Thorin remarked. "Isn’t it inconvenient, to have to come here every time you need to let someone in?”
Thorin’s voice was conversational, but Bilbo scowled.
“The souls come through just fine. It is everyone else it keeps out, and I can’t say I get all that many guests down here,” he retorted, and Thorin glanced at him, his face expressionless.
Bilbo sighed, despite himself. “Look, you know who and what we keep in our darkest levels – it would just take one God bent on domination to release them, and you’ll all be thanking me when that one God is left waiting at my gate, plans unfulfilled.”
Thorin nodded, apparently appeased, but Bilbo was not done.
“Now, what are you doing here?”
For the first time, he saw some flicker of emotion in Thorin’s face, some pull at the corner of his mouth that spoke of a great and restrained excitement: Bilbo, despite himself, was intrigued.
“I have something to show you.”
But Thorin had already set off, heading down one of the many corridors that led from the Gates, and Bilbo started after him.
“Hey! Where are you going?”
Thorin ignored him, glancing around.
“It looks brighter.”
It was brighter. Bilbo had dwelled on Thorin’s words for some time before tentatively reaching out to shape the place – it had surprised him how malleable it was to his presence, to his touch. The light had changed, increasing just a little, though it was still more early evening than midday, and when he had asked it to the grey ash had lifted away, revealing bare stone beneath, laced through with veins of mineral, glittering with hidden silver, which had begun to appear in the drab stone of the walls when he expressed his joy at seeing something break through the dismal grey of the rock.
His attendants seemed happy enough with the change – several times he had come across one of them, staring with as much wonder as a formless face could come up with at the beauty of the stone, their hands reaching out towards it, never quite touching.
“Yes, well. I suppose you did remind me that I do, technically, have some authority down here-”
Bilbo pursed his lips.
“Alright, alright. Well, it turned out that it wasn’t actually all that difficult to change things, and no one seemed that upset by it.”
The corner of Thorin’s mouth definitely did twitch upwards, at that.
Bilbo folded his arms, stalking a little to keep up with Thorin’s longer stride.
“Anyway, where are you going?” he asked, but Thorin did not seem willing to answer, making a low noise in the back of his throat that explained absolutely nothing.
Thorin didn’t actually seem to have a clue what his destination was, Bilbo couldn’t help but think as he followed him – and nor should he. This was his domain, all twisting corridors leading to hidden places that the living – and the immortal – had no right to see.
“You know we didn’t go this way last time, right?” he said, after a few minutes of fruitless wandering. “So if you’re trying to get to somewhere we went before…”
Thorin glanced at him, a small frown pulling at his eyebrows.
“Mmhmm,” Bilbo said, and Thorin scowled, though it did not seem a particularly angry expression – more a reflective one, as if he were thinking.
“This way, then,” Thorin said, turning at random down a passageway.
“You don’t have a clue where you are going, do you?”
But Thorin had caught sight of a courtyard, a different one to that which they had visited before, the ash gone now, leaving just bare earth, though that was still as dry and barren as it had been before.
“Here,” Thorin said, with some determination.
“Alright,” Bilbo answered, coming to a halt. “What are you going to show me?”
But Thorin did not answer him, merely fell to his knees, both hands pressed into the dirt this time. He stayed that was for a much longer time now, and when he closed his eyes the glow about his skin seemed to increase more than it had the last time around. Bilbo forgot his irritation, eyes widening a little at the sight of a nature God working before him, for usually they were a private bunch, hiding away at the incursion of someone who was not one of their own.
“Oh that’s…” he started, when he saw green peeking through Thorin’s hands, but he trailed off as Thorin’s shoulders relaxed, and he pulled his hands away, much more slowly this time.
“Thorin, that’s wonderful,” he breathed, and when the other God looked up at him there was a pleasure in his eyes that had not been there before.
“Look at you, you’re glowing,” Bilbo told him, with a smile, because it was true – in his act of creation Thorin’s Godhood had flared to brightness, and the gold of his glow lit the small courtyard, bringing lift to the grey stone, catching of the pearly minerals and making the whole place shine.
“Yes, well,” Thorin said, looking away awkwardly. “Your advice…” he trailed off, but there was a gratitude in his eyes that Bilbo understood, even as it unfurled a frustration in his own chest at his inability to make sense of his own domain, after witnessing someone taking hold of theirs with such relative ease.
“It probably won’t survive down here, you know,” he said, though not unkindly. “There’s no sunlight, no rain – I can’t imagine that it will last.”
But Thorin simply shrugged, staring down at the tiny shoot with a tenderness that took Bilbo’s breath away.
It was a week until Thorin appeared at the Gates again, but this time Bilbo was not quite as surprised, though he could not put a finger on why.
“Back again?” he asked, as he opened the Gate, and Thorin nodded, stepping through.
“To check up on my plant.”
“Your… oh.” Bilbo felt a rush of guilt run through him. He had not thought any more on the little shoot that Thorin had brought forth from the earth – indeed, in the rush of work and endless tasks in which he found no pleasure he had entirely forgotten about it. “Well, in all honesty-”
But Thorin simply shrugged, as if he already knew the answer.
“You haven’t taken care of it,” he said, and Bilbo nodded, a little miserably. “It’s fine. It doesn’t need it.”
“How do you know that?”
And then a very strange thing happened – Thorin’s eyes warmed, and he strode away, down the right corridor this time, with Bilbo trailing after him, bemused.
“I can feel it,” was all he said, as he took each turn correctly, as if some link between him and the plant was guiding him. And when they came upon the courtyard, Bilbo couldn’t help but blink, for there was the plant, just where they had left it, only it was taller now, stronger looking, having grown far more than any plant should have done naturally. Its leaves were a darker, lusher green than before, and it came now perhaps to Bilbo’s ankles, but it looked so full of life that Bilbo’s heart ached for a moment at the sight of it.
“There we go,” Thorin said, kneeling before it and reaching a tentative hand to touch its stem. “It’s doing well.”
Bilbo swallowed, glancing up, half expecting to see the sky above them – but no, as always, there was instead in the vaulted stone that he had come to know.
“How is it doing that, with no light or water?” he asked, and Thorin simply shrugged.
Thorin’s response was threaded with a warmth, a contentment that had not been there before, and the corner of Bilbo’s mouth twisted up, despite himself.
“You’re good at this, aren’t you?” he asked, and Thorin shrugged, though there was some contentment about him that Bilbo could feel, even if he couldn’t see it.
“I am not a naturally patient being,” Thorin replied, after a moment. “But for something worth having – for that, I can wait.”
Of course he could – a God was given his powers for a reason, as many people had reminded Bilbo on numerous occasions. But it seemed to Bilbo as if a peace had fallen on Thorin’s agitation that had not been there before, as if he had found some comfort in something – and oh, how Bilbo wished to find something similar.
“I did not, perhaps, see the worth in it, until you reminded me of the value of living things,” Thorin said, quietly, his eyes still fixed on the earth.
“Is that so?” Bilbo said, and wondered for a moment if he would ever find such satisfaction in his own work.
“There is satisfaction to be had, in the act of creation.”
But what would Bilbo ever know of creation, when all there was down here was death?
“What is it going to grow into?” he asked, next time Thorin came to visit. The plant was up to his knees now, the stem thick, growing tall and straight. There was a proud smile around Thorin’s eyes as he looked at it, and something tender fluttered in Bilbo’s chest at the sight of it.
“I don’t know, yet,” the nature God replied, and Bilbo huffed a small laugh.
“I wonder if it will bear fruit.”
Thorin shrugged, sitting on the ground, broad shoulders rolling, bronzed dark from long days in the sun. Bilbo’s own skin, he couldn’t help but think, was silvery and pale in comparison.
“The fruit of the Dead,” Bilbo wondered aloud, still smiling just a little. “There will be songs sung in your honour for such a creation, I think.”
That warmth in Thorin’s eyes turned to Bilbo for a moment, and he did not seem displeased by the prospect.
“Can you really feel it?” Bilbo asked, after another long moment of comfortable silence, and he lowered himself to sit on the earth as Thorin nodded for him to join him on the ground, startling a little as Thorin reached for his hand, pressing it palm-down against the soil.
“See?” he said, quietly. “You must feel it, for this earth is your domain, and everything within it yours to command. I feel the growth of its roots, the strengthening of its stem – you would feel the pulse of its life within your soil, I think.”
Bilbo’s hand felt very warm, with Thorin’s pressing down on top of it – the nature God seemed far warmer than Bilbo. But he could feel it, now that he was searching for it – the slow throb of something that lived, surrounded by all the lifelessness of this domain, and he smiled at the feeling. Thorin was right, and despite the incursion in his domain, it was a comfort to feel that little plant.
“As it grows, it will get stronger,” Thorin told him, quietly. “Or at least, I think it will.”
He let go of Bilbo’s hand then, and Bilbo missed the warmth.
“What are you doing?” Bilbo asked, when he came across Thorin waiting at the Gates one morning (it wasn’t morning, time was irrelevant down here, but it gave Bilbo some pleasure to try and inforce its constraints on his domain none the less, and he found that the longer he did it, the more the natural light of the place seemed to shift as if following the phases of the day, growing just a little lighter throughout the ‘morning’ and then dimming again in the ‘late afternoon’. He took some pleasure in the small victory).
“Growing,” Thorin said, though that explanation was not exactly necessary – it was patently obvious what Thorin was doing, kneeling on the ground before the Gate, tiny sprouts blossoming from his fingers and skittering across the ground in long tendrils before reaching upwards. By that point Thorin let them be, and moved on to another, and they formed tall, white spikes of flowers on their own accord, some of them growing through the great Gate, spilling out on to the other side.
“Why?” he couldn’t help but ask, and Thorin shrugged.
“Cheer the place up.”
Bilbo frowned as one of the tendrils reached his feet, apparently unconcerned about the boundaries of his domain and crossing over them without any concern.
“It shouldn’t really be letting you do that, you know,” he remarked, shooting a rather baffled look at the Gate. Thorin followed his gaze, his mouth almost-smiling for a moment before he set back to his task.
“It must like me,” he said idly, and Bilbo did smile then, opening the Gate for his now quite-frequent visitor.
“I suppose so.”
The flowers were apparently named asphodel, and they continued growing with some fervour. By the time Thorin felt that day, they had already populated a large space around the Gates, both inside and outside. One of Bilbo attendants was staring at them, curiously, when they approached, and he patted its shoulder gently, his hand barely making contact.
“They’re allowed,” he told it, and the spirit bobbed its head, as if in agreement.
They were pleasant things, and strong too: they continued to grow with some fervour, and though they were not the brightest of plants, the feeling of life and beauty within his domain was a good one.
A day came, soon enough, when Thorin arrived agitated, his posture tense, his hands clenching and unclenching at his side, and Bilbo wondered for a moment why a God would come to the Underworld when he clearly needed cheering up. But his shoulders seemed to slump in relief as he stepped through the Gate, following Bilbo on their usual path to the courtyard that, somewhere along the way, Bilbo had started to think of as ‘theirs’.
“Did something happen?” Bilbo found himself asking, his eyes drawn despite himself to the way that Thorin caressed a line of crystal in the wall as they passed it by.
“You’re perceptive,” Thorin remarked, though his tone was almost too casual. The compliment was clearly meant as a diversion, but Bilbo had little time for it.
“Come on, what happened?” he asked again as they reached the courtyard, and when Thorin sank to sit beside the plant (now thickening quite remarkably, already taller than Bilbo) he sat beside him in the dirt – and was it his imagination, or was it not quite as dry as it had been before?
“Nothing, in particular.”
Bilbo made a low, disbelieving sound.
“I can tell when you’re lying, you know.”
It was one of the perks, he suspected, of always being asked to judge people’s souls: he had been given something of a gift in picking out deception. Thorin looked away, his fists clenching in the soil, before muttering something from behind the long wave of his dark hair that sounded remarkably like ‘nymphs’.
“Ah, I see,” Bilbo said, though he didn’t.
“They sing, a lot,” Thorin grumbled, after a moment. “And the Hyleoroi, they complain every time I try and grow new trees.”
The watchers of the woods, Bilbo had to remind himself, and he nodded, pulling a face in sympathy.
“Apparently I don’t grow them in the right place. The Pegaeae splash at me when I’m trying to use their spring waters, too. And the Dryades are always turning from trees to women, and dancing, and trying to get me to join in with them.”
Bilbo tried to hide his smile, though he wasn’t entirely successful.
“Sounds terrible,” he said, as comfortingly as he was able, and he pressed his shoulder against Thorin’s, for just a moment. The nature God’s skin was warm, far warmer than what he was used to, and he relished in it for perhaps a moment longer than he should have done before pulling away with a smile.
It was sweet, he couldn’t help but think, that the laughter and teasing of others would frustrate Thorin so, would result in him storming off in a huff – but it was an odd compliment too, to know that Thorin would come down here, to the place where so few Gods dared to tread, to find some comfort in a grey, dead place with a pale, lifeless God.
“Next time, give me a shout,” he told him. “And I’ll come and steal you away, save you from the horror.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Thorin replied, almost teasingly. The tension from his shoulders was all but gone now, the corners of his mouth twitching upwards in a smile.
Bilbo pulled a face.
“I’m the God of Death,” he protested. “It is about time I do something fearsome, isn’t it? Make everyone as afraid of me as they should be.”
Thorin looked for a moment as if he was going to protest, but his eyes were lighter than they were before – and a blue, Bilbo noticed for the first time, a blue that was all summer storms and approaching thunder – and in the end all he did was press back against Bilbo’s shoulder, briefly, so that the hurt buried deep in Bilbo’s chest seemed to lift, just a little.
“I might take you up on that.”
“Are you boys getting along?” Gandalf asked one day, when Thorin appeared as he chatted idly to Bilbo at the Gates. Thorin had not replied, and Bilbo had simply rolled his eyes until the other God had raised his hands in defeat and flown away, his task done. Thorin watched him go, his eyes narrowed in an expression that Bilbo had come to recognise as deep thought.
“Why does Gandalf bring you souls?” he asked in the end, and Bilbo shrugged, with a little smile.
“There are several Gods whose roles include leading the lost back to me,” he explained, in the end, nodding to the frightened looking little thing that Gandalf had left by the Gate. He reached out, and touched its shoulder even as its form wavered, uncertain. “There you go, my dear. Here, follow my friend, he’ll show you where to go.”
One of Bilbo’s attendants appeared, as if from nowhere, and led the new spirit away with a comforting, ephemeral sort of feeling.
“You’re good at talking to them,” Thorin remarked, with a casualness that seemed entirely too contrived, in Bilbo’s opinion. He shook his head, firmly.
“No, I’m not.”
Thorin frowned – he did not look entirely convinced, and Bilbo found himself steeling himself for an inevitable argument, one that he had had many times since he had first taken over his Godhood –that this was the role meant for him, that no one was better at it than he, that he should be proud of what he was able to achieve, even though he often felt as if he achieved very little.
“You seemed fine, then.”
Bilbo glanced after the souls, his shoulders slumping.
“I just… I don’t know what to say to them,” the admitted, after a long moment, and Thorin regarded him thoughtfully.
“It’s like you told me, isn’t it? You have to look after them.”
Bilbo’s mouth twisted, wryly.
“Look after them, yes. But I do not know what to say to them.”
Thorin’s persistent, his voice low. “You know what to say to me.”
Bilbo’s frustration welled up, unspoken and dark, and he stomped off down a corridor at random, Thorin easily keeping up with him. He found that, despite himself, he had ended up taking their usual route, and though a part of him did not want to, he led them back towards their tree – for it was indeed a tree now, small still, but growing with each passing day.
“But I don’t know what it is like to die!” he said, his voice louder than he meant it to be. “How do I speak to them of their deaths? How do I comfort them from something I know nothing about?”
He was not sure what sort of answer he had been expecting – if he had expected any at all – but what Thorin said stopped him short.
“Don’t,” he said, his voice quiet. “You don’t need to understand death to talk to them about life. Life is… life is a strange thing.”
“Aye,” Bilbo said, quietly. They had reached the courtyard now, and they drew to a halt, Thorin just a little too close for comfort.
“But I have not lived, to know its strangeness.”
Thorin shrugged, moving just a step closer.
“Neither have I, but still I know life. I put just a little of myself into plants, into shoots and roots and swelling buds, and they with flourish, and behind me I leave a path of plants that will grow ever stronger. And those plants will feed the hungry, but it will not keep them alive forever – and my plants, too, they will die soon enough. But I know the gift of that now, now that you have shown me – that is life, Bilbo. A flicker in the great span of our time, but a priceless gift for that same reason.”
Bilbo smiled, just a little.
“I know you are right,” he answered. “But I wish you would not give me the credit for realising.”
Thorin shook his head.
“Before I met you, I thought myself a cosmic joke, for no plant would answer to me, no bounty on the earth would heed my call. But I was proud, and foolish, for I had thought that I deserved better than my lot. But through you I found humility, in seeing those vast halls of souls waiting for you, and I realised that the plants did not answer me because I did not show them the patience that they deserved. And for you – the souls in your halls look to you for mercy, for compassion, for love, and you give it to them, every day. Have you ever had any complaints, has any other God come to you and told you that you are doing it wrong?”
Bilbo blinked, for that thought had never even occurred to him before now, and under Thorin’s gaze he shook his head, slowly.
“And that is because you are already doing it right, every time. You speak to them as you would to me, because you should not speak to them as if they were any different. You doubt whether or not you are worthy of the role, and from that you have assumed that you must be doing it wrong – but you’re not, you never have been.”
“I don’t…” Bilbo started, before trailing off. “I still miss the light, though. I miss the living.”
“And it is only right, I think, for you to do so,” Thorin replied, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards a little. “I would have thought that a God who deals in the souls of the living has to miss the light – for if they did not, then they would not understand the grief of the dead, would not respect what they have left behind.”
“Ah,” Bilbo replied. “If that is the case then I must add that I am not surprised that a God of growing things should struggle sometimes – after all, does not the vegetation fight and struggle every day against the elements?”
Thorin’s eyes were warm, and his hand settled on Bilbo’s shoulder gently. For a moment he looked as if he were about to say something else, but then his gaze was caught by something over Bilbo’s shoulder, and his eyes widened in surprise.
“Look-” he said, his voice a little breathless.
On the tree, the tiniest clusters of grey-white shone out among the dark green of the leaves.
“What are they?” Bilbo asked, his eyes wide, and then for the very first time Thorin smiled, wide and true, and Bilbo felt something in his chest tighten.
“Flowers,” he replied, his voice full of wonder.
“The earth beneath the land is your domain, isn’t it?” Thorin commented sometime later, as they made their quiet way back to the Gate.
Bilbo nodded, and Thorin reached out to touch a thick cord of limestone in the rock.
“What of that which lies within the earth?” he asked, and Bilbo blinked.
All the metals of the earth, he realised now, and the minerals and the stones, too – this domain included all of that which came from the earth around them, and he had not realised, despite them showing themselves in his walls.
He spent that pseudo-night making twisted wire from gold, and small flowers from silver, the same shape as the ones on their tree.
It was some week before the flowers fell – they grew wide and fat first, opening up to reveal a pale red centre inside the petals that grew more and more vivid the larger they grew, until the flowers were entirely the colour of blood. When they fell, they left behind strange little buds, bright red against the monochrome of the Underworld, but the petals themselves turned to moths, fluttering away on silent wings.
Now and again Bilbo would see them, fluttering shapes darting quickly out of sight, and they made Bilbo smile – tangible life in a place full of death.
Thorin continued to visit, though the tree now was clearly healthy and did not need his attentions. It was far taller than either of them now, with great wide boughs that reached up into the vaulted courtyard, which seemed only to grow taller to accommodate its new occupant. Sometimes now Bilbo felt the pulse of it without even having to search for it, bright and living, and the feeling of it coming through his great, still Kingdom gave him a comfort that he could not put words to.
The buds would become a fruit of some kind, he was certain of it.
He couldn’t wait to discover what they tasted like.
“They will be sweet, I think,” Thorin said, when Bilbo raised the thought to him. “The taste of them blooming in the mouth. But they are a part of this place, just like you are – there will be repercussions to eating them. Anyone who does will be tied to this place, a bond that they will never be able to escape from.”
“That doesn’t matter to me, I think,” Bilbo replied. “After all, I’m stuck here forever, aren’t I?”
Thorin smiled, a small, amused thing.
“Is that so bad a thing?”
Bilbo raised an eyebrow: nothing seemed quite as certain as it had been all that time ago when first he had come here.
“Perhaps not,” he answered, as Thorin’s hand found his.
“The other Gods are talking,” Gandalf remarked, his fingertips tracing the veins of silver in the wall. “About how much time a certain nature deity is spending in a realm that is not his own.”
Bilbo rolled his eyes, not turning to look at the messenger: his mind was distracted by the vast scroll in front of him, the victims of a recent war who had been flooding through his Gates of late listed on the parchment. The great thing was propped up against a large skull that he had discovered in his first few days here, the huge thing the last remain of a great and monstrous creature long forgotten by man. It was a little macabre, he thought, but he was beginning to appreciate it none the less.
“I can’t say I particularly care,” he replied, when Gandalf began tapping an irritating rhythm against the wall. “What should it matter what they say?”
Gandalf shrugged, a languid thing.
“It doesn’t, of course. I suppose we are all just wondering what he is doing, coming here so often, growing flowers in the grey twilight of the Underworld.”
“We’re just friends,” Bilbo remarked irritably. “Now get lost, would you? You’re making the place look messy, and I’m sure you’ve got things to do.”
Gandalf laughed, and went on his way, but not before shooting Bilbo a wink in the doorway.
“He’s brought life to you,” he remarked, his parting words. “And you to him – I’m awfully glad to see it. But others may see only the death you hold, and deem it unsuitable for a God such as he.”
"I hold no death in my hands," Bilbo retorted. "I do not deal in that. I only care for what comes after."
"Aye," Gandalf replied, quietly. "But others may not realise that."
He should have listened to Gandalf, he would find himself thinking, eventually, with that particular bitterness felt only for things that you could never know to have done. He should have thought more on the impact of their friendship, of the attention that it had been drawing. But he had not: and it was easy enough to blame his isolation from Olympus, but he knew that his own self-imposed exile was as much at fault. He had not thought on the subject, had instead relished the company, their quiet conversation, though not as much as he would have done had he known that soon it would be taken from him.
And taken it was, one quiet afternoon, when Thorin, heavy with an unknown sorrow, brought the situation to his attention.
“You have an obligation to remain in your Kingdom, don’t you?” Thorin asked him, reaching upwards to touch one of the fruits of their tree, huge and heavy now, the skins thick and shining dark purple-red. They were about ready to eat, Bilbo was certain, though he had not yet tried one – he wasn’t quite sure why not, only that some part of himself was waiting for something, something unknown.
“Of course,” Bilbo answered, his eyes closed as he breathed in the life in the courtyard. “We all have a domain assigned to us, and we are all connected to it, and must be connected to it. That is the way of things – the way it has always been, even before our time.”
“Yes,” Thorin said, his voice full of grief.
Bilbo’s eyes opened.
Thorin had not needed to say anything more: he was no good at hiding his feelings, enough given away in his tone for Bilbo, after a moment, to connect the dots.
“This is why the other Gods are talking, isn’t it?”
Thorin smiled, a small, sad thing.
“They say that a God of living things has no place in the world of the dead. They say that I must cease to come to you in friendship, that I must stop coming here at all, or they will be forced to intervene – for our worlds, they tell me, should not cross.”
Bilbo shook his head.
“But how can this be so, when flowers bloom and trees bear fruit here? Life and death are not so far apart – I think we have learnt that, haven’t we?”
Thorin nodded, but it did not seem as though he was appeased. He turned to Bilbo, and for a moment it seemed as if he would do nothing, but then he reached for him, his hand cupping Bilbo’s jaw, his hands rough and dreadfully gentle.
“You are right,” he replied. “But I cannot convince them. They say it is wrong for me to have grown anything down here, that it spoils the balance of things. They say I must go, must cut off the tree from my strength, must let it die, and with it the friendship that we have grown between us.”
“Balance?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “What do they know of balance, when they only know one half of life and death? What they create, and nourish, must come to me in the end!”
His voice had risen in anger, against his will, and Thorin could only look at him, nodding.
“I know, Bilbo,” he said, almost a whisper. “But it is what they believe.”
Bilbo shook his head, but did not have it in himself to say anything.
Thorin’s hand was warm against his cheek: he swallowed, and did not move, for there was a terrible finality in the way that Thorin was looking at him.
But then the God of all things young and green turned away from him, removed that warm hand, and looked up at the tree. There was a small frown playing around his brow, and something terrible in the slump of his shoulders.
“I’m sad that you will not taste the fruit of it,” he said, and Bilbo’s breath caught in his throat. They walked back to the Gate together, in silence.
It still glowed: it shifted at Thorin’s touch now, though it still did not seem willing to open for him: he smiled up at it, a little sadly.
“Do you want to stay?” he asked, and Thorin’s gaze, when he turned it on Bilbo, was grey with sadness.
“I cannot,” he answered, and Bilbo sighed. A moth fluttered past them, brushing against Thorin’s hair, as if it recognised the progenitor of its life.
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
But Thorin still walked away, slowly, as if he were having to force himself: it seemed to Bilbo that the other God was carrying a great weight, one which he had never seemed to be weighed down with before now.
“Call for me, should ever you need me,” Bilbo said, quietly, as Thorin walked away. The God did not look back at him, but he did hesitate, as he reached the end of his asphodel, which had grown now into a field.
“I would come, at any time,” he whispered to the darkening Kingdom, but Thorin had already gone, disappearing back into the land of the living.
Winter came to the living: winter came to the dead.
Above ground, the plants withered. Thorin, tethered as he had never been before, grew nothing: it was not that he did not love the land anymore, but more that he could not bring himself to press his hands to the earth and bring life from it when his grief felt so heavy within him. Snow fell upon the grass and ice seemed to bloom at his touch, the strands of silver in his hair growing thicker. At first the other Gods were content to let him be, caring little for his actions, but as the land grew barren and prayers were offered to the other Gods in desperation they soon turned their eyes to him.
He looked away. He had nothing to say to them.
He slept long nights under the boughs of trees, none of which spoke to him in the same way that the one beneath the living had done before he had cut off his bond with it. In the morning he woke covered in fallen leaves, having died in the night.
Thorin did not control all of the land, but the earth is a far wiser thing than even the Gods: it felt his grief, and wept with him.
Beneath the ground, things were not much better.
The changes that had come to Bilbo’s Kingdom did not revert, but the light faded, until the place was darker than it had ever been before, and the souls within it found themselves shivering in the cold that emanated from the great Lord sat on his imposing throne, his gaze bleak as he looked around the place as it he was not really seeing any of it.
He did his job, as he always had, but something was wrong: he realised what it was soon enough. The life that had been fed into the earth, the link between their tree and Thorin himself had disappeared, and though he had never noticed it before he felt his absence keenly. Something vital upon which he had come to reply had simply been taken from him, and it was if there were a wound somewhere deep inside him, one which he could not find, or fix.
His attendants glanced around them, and seemed to shrink into themselves.
Bilbo ceased to speak, for there were none now left to hear him but the dead, and he could not bring himself to talk to them of their grief any more.
He did not visit the place where they had once grown a tree, though often he longed to: the thought of it dying, twisted and grey and dried to lifelessness was something that he did not think that he could carry around inside of him. The endless corridors were such that he had no need to even venture near the place: he could have avoided it for the rest of time had he been so inclined, and perhaps he would have been, had it not been for the distant pulse of life that he felt through the earth one day, when work seemed endless and everything felt more hopeless than it ever had done before. It came to him suddenly, weak and distant but undeniably there, and he started in shock at it, unable to believe for a moment what he was feeling.
But then it came to him: the tree lived, still.
Thorin no longer nurtured it, but still it grew.
He did not run to it, but went slowly, occasionally taking the wrong turn deliberately to delay his arrival, in case he was wrong – for he did not understand how it lived without Thorin. But soon enough the corridors took him there, knowing where he needed to go, and his breath caught when he walked through the vaulted entranceway to the courtyard beyond.
The tree was still there: it was tall, and beautiful, and heavy with fruit. It had not changed, not at all.
He pressed his hand against the bark, softer than it should have been, and felt that low pulse within it respond to him – to him, not to Thorin – and he realised with a sudden clarity that this tree was of his own land, of his own earth, and should he wish it to be then it would continue to be.
And it had: even though he had not expected it, it had continued to flourish.
He pulled a fruit from the boughs, and took a bite as a tear rolled down his cheek, falling to the dark earth. The juice spurted out across his tongue, down his chin, thick and beautiful and so different to anything he had ever known.
He caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye: a moth, sat on a branch, was watching him carefully, and he wiped his mouth with his sleeve before beckoning it closer, drawing himself upright, pulling within himself all the power of the earth, all the strength that it had always been willing to give him, if only he had thought to take it.
It came, without hesitation, landing on his hand: he brought it closer to his lips, closing his eyes as he thought of all that it would have to do to escape this place, and then return again.
“Tell him he was right,” he whispered to the silk soft wings as they brushed his mouth. “Tell him they are sweet.”
Moths creep through the silent places of the world unseen.
One, pale and made of things no mortal knows, made a journey, and found a God who still shone gold, even in the winter.
Everything changed, quite suddenly, when Bilbo felt his Gates open to a touch that was not his own: souls of the living passed through them with ease, but they should have opened to nothing but him, for only he belonged in this place, only to him should this Kingdom respond.
For a moment he was confused, and then he wondered, and stood slowly from his throne.
“I will return shortly,” he told and attendant, who was looking around them curiously, as if they could sense the change too. But when the attendant turned to him, Bilbo blinked, shocked to see that the thing was smiling, just a little.
This time he did run, and the corridors seemed to twist around him, taking him exactly where he needed to be. There was the entranceway, there was the earth, spreading out around him, and the dark leaves, the heavy fruit, the weighty boughs of a tree that they had grown together – one the seed, the other the land to grow it from, the space for it to thrive without disturbance. This was theirs: a thing of life and death, the two combined, a creation that had come from imbalance only to create balance in its wake.
For a moment it was all that he could look at, but then he managed to tear himself away.
And there was Thorin, red juice running down his hands, chewing slowly, a fruit of their labours tightly held in one fist, a large bite taken from it.
“I thought of a way,” he whispered, staring at Bilbo, as the room slowly grew lighter around them. “A way to be tethered to both lands.”
Then his arms were full of Bilbo, and for the first time since they had been separated, Bilbo felt warm again.
“How did you get in?” he asked, into Thorin’s shoulder, and the other God huffed a quiet laugh.
“It seemed to know that I belonged here,” he answered, his mouth pressed against Bilbo’s hair. “Those Gates let me in without a problem.”
And Bilbo laughed, remembering the way that they had tentatively moved under Thorin’s hands all that time ago, when last they had seen each other, wondering if, even then, his Kingdom had known the way that things were meant to be.