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Through Shadow and Flame

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PROLOGUE

 

In the Shire, where the flowers bloomed and good things grew, there was a story.

That was not to say that it was the only story. Hobbits were nearly as fond of stories as they were of food, and a storyteller was held in the high regard reserved for a wise elder or a valiant soldier in other parts of Middle-earth. But this story was set apart from its fellows, for it was a very sad tale. No one liked unhappy endings -- hobbits least of all -- but the story spread nonetheless, passed in whispers over tankards of ale and told to naughty faunts to scold them for their misbehaviour.

There was a hobbit, it was said, who was born into plenty, the heir to a respectable smial. He was a clever, boisterous fauntling, adored by his parents and given every advantage the Shire had to offer. Alas, the lad was cursed with his mother’s wandering heart. She foolishly did nothing to curb it, letting him roam hither and thither as he chose. One autumn day the faunt ventured too far, into the gullet of Fornost where even the most reckless Stoor hobbit hesitated to go.

By nightfall, his mother and father were sickened with worry. A search party was gathered, and it wasn’t until dawn that they found him. He was unharmed, sitting by himself in a tangle of brush. His face was white as chalk and he shook like a leaf. They took him home, but their rescue had come too late.

In the ancient woods of Fornost the lad had seen something terrible, and he was changed. For a fortnight he neither slept nor ate nor spoke, and he grew thin and grey. His parents despaired. His mother, in her desperation, called on the aid of a great wizard, but his most powerful magic was useless. For madness had taken seed in the hobbitling's head -- he spoke to the empty air and saw things that were not there. He had become odd and unsettling, and the good people of the Shire began to fear for their safety. With many tears, his mother and father at last consented to send him away, and away the wizard took him. He never returned.

His fate differed according to the storyteller. Some said he grew thinner and greyer with each step away from the Shire until he drifted into the air like smoke. Others said that he went to live among the elves, who imprisoned him in a dungeon deep in their forest.  A few clucked their tongues and said that he had grown so wicked that the wizard had reluctantly drowned him in the Sea that he might be at peace. By far the most common ending was the least satisfying: no one knew what had happened to the foolish little hobbit -- not even his parents, who had died within a year of each other from shame and heartbreak.

Thus, the story would end. The wide, wary eyes of the listeners would turn toward the smial on the hill that now sat empty, its gardens withered and dead and its windows coated in dust. A pall lay on that hill, and no one wanted to claim the grand house, touched by death and grief as it was. It was cursed.

And that, the storyteller would say with great ceremony, was why proper, upstanding hobbits never abandoned the warmth of their hearths. Hobbits were not made for wandering, and starry-eyed fauntlings had best listen to their elders and content themselves with the green, rolling hills of the Shire.

For who, after all, would want to share the sorry fate of Mad Baggins?

 



 

 PART ONE


 

 

“DAMN AND BLAST, I’ve nothing left! Gandalf!”

“Your vest pocket, Master Baggins.” The low, gravelly voice issued from somewhere over his head -- it was too dark to tell exactly where, drat it -- and there was a vexing note of amusement in it. Another burst of white light spilled across the cellar, its beams bouncing off barrels of wine and hanging stalks of herbs.

Bilbo patted at his waistcoat with sweat-slick hands. “There’s nothing here!”

There was a pause. “How silly of me -- it is in my pocket. I quite forgot.”

A leather satchel dropped down in front of Bilbo’s feet, and Bilbo scooped it up and upended it in his palm. Grains of coarse white salt glittered in his hand. A cold draft fluttered across his back, lifting the hair on his neck, and he shuffled his feet in preparation.

“Bilbo,” Gandalf warned.

“I see it.” In the corner of his eye loomed a quicksilver mass, shifting and twisting like formless smoke. With one mighty heave, he tossed the salt over his shoulder. It struck its mark, and the wraith rippled and stopped, hanging in mid-air in evident shock.

Bilbo turned to look at it, outlined by blazing light as Gandalf came up behind him with his staff aloft. The wraith was much smaller than he’d expected. “Now that I have your attention,” he said sternly, “I’d like to talk to you, if you please.”

After a hesitation, the mist began to coalesce. Bilbo had watched it happen a hundred times, but it never failed to awe him as the form took shape, a blurred face and torso slowly emerging. It was a child, no mistake; the children of Men were distinctive. The wraith's eyes were a blank, foggy silver, but they blinked at Bilbo curiously.

“Do you see me?” Its voice was high and sweet -- a lass, then.

“Of course I do,” Bilbo said brightly. “My name is Bilbo, and this is Gandalf. I’ve not had the pleasure of your name, however.”

The girl looked at him. The corkscrew curls around her head were pallid grey, like the rest of her, but Bilbo imagined that they had once been a beautiful gold colour, or perhaps a charming red. There was a ribbon tied behind one ear. Her clothes were cut in a very old style. Very old. “Upon my word, sweetling, how long have you been here?”

The wraith frowned.

Gandalf’s staff prodded him in the side, and Bilbo cleared his throat. “Well, no matter. I have travelled a long way to meet you.”

“Your ears are silly,” the wraith observed. “Are you an elf?”

Bilbo could hear Gandalf chuckling under his breath; he graciously ignored it. “I am a hobbit. Have you ever seen a hobbit before?”

She shook her head. On her face was a wispy, flickering little smile, like a guttering candle.

“Well, now you have!” he said grandly. “I’m not surprised you’ve not seen a hobbit before, since our home is very far away from here. . . . as, I suspect, is yours.” When no response came, he pressed further. “Where is your home?”

There was a pregnant pause. “I don’t remember.”

“Who are your parents?”

The silence stretched even longer this time.

“Do you remember how you came to be here in the cellar? You have given Master Trygstad a fright by knocking about his house, sweetling, and he has a weak heart.”

The child’s chin jutted out, stubborn, but her eyes were lost. “I live here,” she said, and would say no more.

Oh, he never liked this part. It felt unkind, especially with one so young, but it was a trick that had always served him well. “Here, come and sit with me, won’t you?” Bilbo gestured to the linen sheet already laid out on the floor, set with his mother’s fine china and a light tea-spread: jam and bread, a small wheel of cheese, fat grapes and plums and apples. “As I said, Gandalf and I have been travelling long and far, and hobbits prefer to have a mid-afternoon tea. You may join us.”

She hovered for a moment, bewilderment smoothing down the harsh edges of her fear.

“I like to know the names of my guests,” Bilbo chided as the wraith settled warily across from him.

“Hilgë.” The vague hostility seemed to have left her; as her suspicion faded, her form grew more solid, her voice clearer.

“A pleasure to know you, Hilgë.” Gandalf sat next to Bilbo with a creak and a groan, tucking his long grey beard into his belt to keep it out of the way.

“Do you know how you came to be here?” Bilbo asked again.

“I was ill,” she mumbled. “I think I was. . . I was very hot. My head hurt. But I feel better now.”

“Hmm. Take whatever you like.” Bilbo heaped a few wedges of cheese and a plum on his plate, but he didn’t eat.

There was hunger in Hilgë’s face. She reached out with one pale hand to grasp at a shiny red apple, and her fingers passed right through it. She stilled and withdrew her hand, her head lowering, and thankfully did not try to take anything else. Bilbo’s chest ached in pity.

“Whatever is the matter, sweetling?”

She lifted her chin and looked at the spread of food sadly. “I cannot have any.”

“I believe you know why.”

The dawning awareness was never pleasant to watch. Hilgë’s empty eyes closed, her lips trembling, before she looked up at Bilbo and Gandalf again.

“Why have you not moved on, my child?” Gandalf inquired. “There is no reason for you to linger here.”

“I am afraid,” she said, and her voice was very small.

“Whatever you fear, it cannot be worse than the loneliness of staying here by yourself.”

The child was still. Bilbo stretched his hand across the cloth, palm up and fingers extended. “Your wandering will come to an end, but you must be brave now. We will stay here with you until you go. You shan't be alone.” After a moment, he felt a sting of bitter cold as her fingers touched his, as light and airy as a breath.

“Do you promise?” 

“I promise.”

It took a few minutes more of coaxing and reassurances before the wraith began to melt away into formlessness once more. Bilbo and Gandalf kept watch by the staff’s light as the shifting silver began at last to fade, dissipating into the air like rain into a river.

“Farewell, Hilgë,” Bilbo murmured as the last wisps of dim light vanished. It was as though a fire had been lit in the cellar -- the chill was gone and the floor felt warmer, the air fresher and sweeter. 

Old Farmer Trygstad and his sister were waiting anxiously outside the root cellar, and their eyes widened when Bilbo and Gandalf emerged unharmed. “Is the ghost banished?” the Man demanded.

“It is done,” Bilbo said wearily. He kept thinking of the ribbon in Hilgë’s hair and the sadness of her smile. Guiding the little ones was always the hardest. He would have an extra pint at the inn tonight, he decided -- the occasion called for it.

Farmer Trygstad thanked them profusely, offering up a fat pouch of gold for their services. When Gandalf refused, he offered it to Bilbo.

“You’re very generous, but I don't take coin,” Bilbo told him. The Man looked taken aback but allowed them to go without protest. Bilbo wished to leave this place as quickly as possible, and he did not look back as they passed through the gates of the farm to where their mounts were tethered.

Myrtle was chewing contentedly on the grass, but Fleetfoot tossed his dappled head restlessly as they approached. Travelling with Gandalf, who was always getting into some sort of trouble or another, it was little wonder the poor horse’s nerves were fragile, but Myrtle was cut from hardier cloth. She stood perfectly still as Bilbo checked the saddlebags to see that his herbs and potions had been left undisturbed before clambering up onto her back.

As they rode side-by-side, Gandalf lit his long-stemmed pipe. Bilbo accepted a few drags of the good leaf, letting the musky aroma curl in his mouth and soothe his nerves. “You did well today,” Gandalf remarked, watching Bilbo’s smoke-ring float above Myrtle’s shaggy brown head like a crown. “She is at peace.”

“I know,” Bilbo said shortly. With unusual tact, Gandalf said nothing, and embarrassment soon replaced Bilbo’s annoyance. “I’m sorry, I oughtn't speak so harshly. It’s only . . . . “ He trailed off helplessly, unable to put the feeling to words.

It was not a pleasant business, dealing with the dead. At times it was as simple as it had been today -- a poor frightened soul who only needed a moment’s warmth and a companion to see it safely on its way. Other times it was not so easy, and the wraith was belligerent or determined to make mischief. And very occasionally, they were violent. It had been a full two decades since Bilbo had encountered the wraith of Wryn Evar, and he dreamt of it still. The Gondorian had butchered his wife and children with a wood-axe before turning the blade on himself, and his wraith had terrorized their neighbourhood until Bilbo came, foolishly alone. It had been his first brush with a truly malevolent spirit, and although the madman had, in the end, faded properly, the sheer nastiness of the experience had nearly put Bilbo off the business entirely. No, it was not always pleasant.

“There is a hostel a few miles ahead in Nuroth called the Hound and Crescent,” Gandalf said, pointedly changing the subject. “The innkeeper is a good sort of fellow. We can rest there for the night.”

“Myrtle would appreciate a stable and some hay,” Bilbo ceded. “She and I have been sleeping on the road these three weeks. There aren’t many inns in the dells.”

Gandalf tutted disapprovingly, a puff of smoke emerging with each tut. “That may serve you well in this part of the world, but I would not make it a habit to camp in the open.”

“Gandalf,” Bilbo said, a tad impatiently, “I am fifty years old. I can look after myself with no trouble."

The wizard’s bushy eyebrows vanished into the brim of his hat. “And I suppose getting robbed by those vagabonds five years ago does not, in your mind, qualify as trouble?”

“Well . . . .”

“And I am sure that nasty business last autumn with those smugglers was an entirely cordial encounter, not to mention your tete-a-tete with the mountain trolls. . . .”

“They were already turned to stone when I came across them!”

“I only wish you would be more careful,” Gandalf said.

“That’s rather rich of you.”

"I suppose it is. Adventure is good for the constitution, but I cannot help but think---” 

“What my mother would think,” Bilbo finished, and Gandalf cut him a rueful glance. “She would have wanted me to do good, and I would like to think that’s precisely what I am doing.”

The wizard’s smile was still tinged with sorrow, but he looked away to tamp more leaf into his pipe. “You are,” he said, and they rode on in silence.

The village of Nuroth turned out to be nothing more than a handful of farmhouses, a hall, and the Hound and Crescent. Bilbo and Gandalf attracted many stares as they passed through the main road, and Bilbo suspected that this time it was not Gandalf’s absurd hat that was garnering such attention. Hobbits never went this far south if they could help it.

The inn looked disreputable, its bricks chipped and the sign so weathered as to be illegible, but Bilbo made Myrtle comfortable in the stable and followed Gandalf inside. The common room was blessedly warm and reasonably clean; there was no one there but a barmaid, a white-haired fellow wiping down the counter, and a pair of farmhands dozing over their tankards by the fire.

“Good evening, Master Dil,” Gandalf called, and the Man lifted his head, squinting.

“Why, well met, Master Wizard!” he exclaimed, coming ‘round the counter to offer Gandalf a creaking bow. “What brings you to Nuroth? It’s been a very, very long time, by my beard. Here now, have something to eat, and my Bess can make you up a room. Nasty weather we’ve had of late.” He peered down his long, crooked nose at Bilbo. “And what is this?”

“I am a who, not a what,” Bilbo said with great dignity. “Bilbo Baggins at your service.”

The Man had the good grace to look abashed. “Pardon, pardon, good sir. Will you take supper too? Let me fetch it for you.”

“If you please.” He had missed elevenses, luncheon, and afternoon tea -- his father would have been appalled -- and the stuff bubbling in the pot over the hearth smelled delightful.

Master Dil went about fixing their dinner, but he seemed more preoccupied with darting glances over his shoulder at them. Predictably, his curiosity soon overran his discretion. "Begging your pardon, sir, but I've not seen a hobbit in my life. Are all your folk like you?"

"As much as all Men are like you," Bilbo said.

"How does a hobbit come to travel with Master Gandalf?"

“Master Baggins's business often brings him my way,” Gandalf said, giving every indication of thoroughly enjoying Bilbo's discomfort.

“And what is your business, Master Baggins?”

Bilbo shot Gandalf a slight glare before two heaping bowls of stew and brown bread were set before them on the counter. “Merely a travelling apothecary. If you’ve an ache or a pain or a trick knee, I should be happy to sort it out for you at no charge.”

“Now that’s a mighty kind offer, but I’m healthy as a horse,” the innkeeper said, giving his ale-barrel chest a hearty thump. “Excepting this limp and the swelling, of course. And the cough.”

“Swelling?” Bilbo said, alarmed, and the lovely stew ended up going cold as he spent an hour instructing the Man on the preparation of a warm poultice for his congested lungs and the proper way to bind a gouty leg. By the time he and Gandalf went upstairs to seek their beds, Bilbo was hungry, tired, and very cross.

His good humour was somewhat restored to see that a hot bath had been drawn for them, steam scented with lemon rind warming the tiny room. “I thought you might like to wash the dust from your hair,” Gandalf said, making himself comfortable on the straw mattress nearest the window and pulling out a bound book from one of his innumerable pockets. “Mistress Bess makes the soap herself, I believe.”

Bilbo inhaled appreciatively and immediately set to peeling off his filthy clothes, setting them aside to wash after he was done bathing. He was old friends with the road now, but he had never learnt to be comfortable with its dirt and grit. It was liable to make one jealous of wizards, who could travel for weeks and never seem to collect even a speck of dust on their beards. “Thank you,” he said, sighing as he eased himself into the washtub. The heat soothed the ache in his feet and chased the lingering chill of Hilgë’s touch from his skin.

“Where shall you go from here?” Gandalf asked. “I have a mind to go to Lothlórien, and Lady Galadriel would be glad of your company.”

Bilbo leaned back against the rim of the bath, working a sliver of soap into a lather. “I suppose I hadn’t thought of it yet. I could travel with you for a little distance.” It was not unusual for them to part ways -- Gandalf was in the habit of disappearing to do secretive, wizardly things, though somehow they always managed to find each other on the road again.

“If it pleases you, we may go through the Greenwood to see if the wood-elves have any news to deliver to Lothlórien. Have you been to the Greenwood? No? I did not think you had. You shall find it to your taste, for the forest is renowned for its beauty.”

“Very well. I've nowhere else to be. I’ll go with you to the Greenwood,” Bilbo decided, satisfied to have the matter settled. “Perhaps I shall find something to interest me in the East.”

 

***

 

“And on the winding road I go,

Through heathered dell and blowing snow.

No fear have I, though ‘haps I should,

Of rapid stream and darkened wood,

Of cutting stones and snaring roots

For Travellers on weary. . . . foots. Drat.”

At Bilbo’s back, a low chuckle rent his concentration. “You will find your rhyme,” Gandalf assured him, drawing Fleetfoot up to keep pace at Myrtle’s side. 

Bilbo laughed. “It is not something I would sing at a tavern, let alone a proper table.” His poems had steadily grown worse, however kindly Gandalf denied that it was so. A full month now they had been riding east, and between the two of them they had had a week-long riddles contest and exhausted their supply of walking songs. One could only occupy oneself with conversation for so long.

“Hmm,” Gandalf said. “Are you still keeping that little book of yours? I should like to hear the poems you have collected since last we met.”

“Oh, there was a beautiful piece that I heard in the Havens last Halimath. Let me see if I can find it. . . .” As he turned to rifle through his pack-roll, a blur of black feathers swooped across the grass in front of them, startling the horses.

“Easy, easy,” Gandalf soothed. Bilbo tightened his hold on Myrtle’s reins, pulling her abreast as he looked for the source of the commotion. It was a raven, but Bilbo had never seen such a raven. It was twice the size of a common one, with well-groomed feathers and a collar of gold around its haughty neck. It fluttered its wings self-importantly before perching itself atop Gandalf’s knobby walking staff.

“Good morning,” Gandalf said, and to Bilbo’s amazement, the raven answered him.

“Good morning,” it said in Westron. “I am Droäc, son of Roäc, of the Ravens of Erebor.” He lifted one stick-thin leg, and Bilbo saw that a leather pouch was tied to it with string. “For the halfling.”

Gandalf untied the pouch and gave it over to Bilbo, who nearly fumbled it in his surprise. Inside was a letter, Bilbo Baggins written upon its front in an elegant hand. It bore a wax seal at the top, stamped with a helm ringed by seven stars. A fussy bit of ribbon was attached to the seal, and the parchment was thick and finely-pressed. It looked like a very important letter indeed.

 

To the Honourable Bilbo Baggins,

I beg your forgiveness for the presumption of writing to request your aid when our family is unknown to you, and I hope I have not given offense where none was intended. I write to you not as Princess of Erebor, but as a dutiful daughter.

Your illustrious reputation is known even in the East. I ask you to consider lending your particular talent to examine my father. I hesitate to write too freely though I trust in your discretion. He is very ill. I fear there is something unnatural about the sickness, and it worsens with every passing day despite the efforts of our best healers. Suffice to say I would not request this of you were the circumstances not so dire.

It is a great imposition, but if you would be so good as to come to Erebor, my brothers and I would be in your debt. We offer you lodging and every comfort you desire for the duration of your stay, and of course you will be rewarded handsomely for your aid. If you choose not to come, rest assured we bear you no ill will. Send your prompt reply with the raven Droäc.

In gratitude,

Dís, daughter of Thráin, son of Thrór, of the most noble line of Durin

 

“My goodness,” Bilbo breathed. He read it through again before passing it over to his friend. “What do you make of this?”

Gandalf hemmed and hawed at length before putting the paper on his knee and taking out his pipe. “A queer request, my dear Bilbo,” he concluded.

“Yes, yes, but what of it? I know nothing of Erebor or its king.”

“I know Thráin, King Under the Mountain. I crowned him at his Great Coronation some one-hundred and forty years ago.”

Bilbo looked up at him in astonishment, but Gandalf seemed reluctant to say more. He was puffing away industriously, but Bilbo knew him well enough to see that he was disturbed by the letter.

Droäc ruffled his feathers impatiently. "May I have your answer?"

“Give us time to confer.” Gandalf offered the bird a generous chunk of salted venison, which seemed to appease it. “This shall be a new experience for you. Erebor is not so far from the Greenwood.”

“Now wait a moment! I wouldn’t have a notion of what to do with a dwarf, let alone a king of dwarves,” Bilbo protested. “Besides, she says it is an illness, not a wraith.”

“You are an apothecary.”

Bilbo was peeved to find he had no retort for this.

“They appear to believe the illness's origins are not of the body, else why would she have written specifically to you? You have developed a reputation, Bilbo, and I am sorry to say that it is not for your excellent headache remedy. Or perhaps you have some other talent you have been concealing from me.”

“Not unless she happens to need someone who’s good at conkers.” Bilbo fiddled with the letter, his thoughts in disorder. He could not deny that his interest was piqued. He had heard stories of the magnificent dwarf kingdom, and Lord Elrond had spoken fondly of a King Thrór of Erebor. Bilbo had always meant to go someday, but his work had simply never taken him so far in that direction. There was a part of him still that was most curious to see the famed splendours of the mountain. And yet. . . .

“He must be gravely ill,” Gandalf murmured. “I wonder that they did not call for me or Elrond. Master Droäc, do you know the king’s condition? Have you anything to add?”

The raven had finished his meal and was preening his feathers indifferently. “He is ill.”

“Yes, thank you,” Gandalf said dryly.

“I always had the impression that dwarves do not care to have other folk involved in their business."

“They do not. I wonder what made Dís think of you. She was a child when last I saw her -- why, she could hardly have been more than thirty, hanging about her mother’s skirts. What a sweet thing she was, and her brothers as well. A fine family.” He plucked the letter from Bilbo's fingers and stuffed it into Bilbo’s coat pocket. “If we hurry, we may arrive at the mountain within the month.”

“Now?” Bilbo said weakly. Royalty of any race seemed to him to have more pride than they could comfortably bear, and if the noble family of Erebor wrote to beg for a stranger’s help, the situation must be dreadful. Bilbo had no liking for malignant forces. He left the wicked wraiths for Gandalf or Saruman, as he had learnt his lesson with Wryn Evar. Such things were far beyond his purview. He dealt with little things, little problems like a lonely wraith in a root cellar. The fate of a king had never been put on his shoulders before.

“If it is your wish to stay, of course I will press you." Though Gandalf was sincere, Bilbo could see that he was disappointed.

Oh, bother! “I don’t suppose it would hurt to take a look.” He turned to address their courier. “Shall I write back, or can you carry a message?”

It was not easy to tell when a bird was offended, but Droäc certainly seemed so. “Of course I can. Tell me your message for the Lady Dís, and I will see that she receives it.”

“Tell her that I thank her for her letter and that I am riding to Erebor in the company of Gandalf the Grey. Tell her . . . tell her I will try everything I can to help and that she must not give up hope.” The raven was still watching him expectantly. “That’s it then. Er, goodbye.”

Droäc spread his glossy wings and took flight, not bothering with so much as a ‘good evening.’

“Well,” Bilbo huffed.

“He will fly swift and true, and now we must as well.”  

Bilbo took up the reins and resigned himself to many more nights spent sleeping on the ground. “I’m dreadfully sorry, Myrtle,” he murmured to her, with no small amount of regret. “It may be some time before you see a stable again.”

 

***

 

They left for Erebor at first light, early enough that even the horses were blinking away remnants of sleep. Bilbo painstakingly packed up his syrups and tinctures, trading a few coins at a nearby farmhouse to refresh his supply of herbs, and strapped his little sword Sting to his side. Gandalf produced Foehammer from who-knew-where to sheath it at his belt, and away they rode.

They passed quickly through the dells and across the plains, though Bilbo would have liked to stop at Rivendell to visit Lord Elrond and his kin. There was, however, no time to linger, and Bilbo watched with some wistfulness as the cavernous passageway to the Last Homely House faded beyond sight.

The days passed as they rode hard toward Rhovanion. Through the Misty Mountains they climbed, braving the craggy peaks of the High Pass with watchful eyes (for goblins were known to make a gruesome meal of stragglers who stepped off the path) before following the lay of the land down into the gullies and the wide, sweeping banks of the River Running. They pushed through thick forests and well-kept pastures, pausing only long enough to eat and sleep and bathe in the shallowest parts of the water. The further east they went, the fewer folk they met on the road -- the air felt older, the woods wilder, and the nights seemed darker. They had well and truly left the kindly West.

By the time they arrived in the Greenwood, much wearier (and dirtier), Bilbo was not in the right humour to appreciate the old forest as well as he might have had he not had three weeks’ hard travelling behind him. Still, the woods of Thranduil Oropherion were beautiful, with greenery and flowers enough to please any hobbit. Though they were met by a guard of wood-elves upon entering, Gandalf declined to visit the Elvenking, citing urgent Istari business. They were thus left unmolested, though Bilbo often caught a glimpse of shining hair or the edge of a green cloak peeping out from the surrounding foliage.

From the Greenwood, it took only three days to reach Esgaroth. First they came upon the city of Men, built in the shadow of the mountain on the banks of a vast, glassy lake. Bilbo stopped for a moment at the crest of the hill, breathless with wonder at the view before him. The spires of Dale rose against the flatlands and the glitter of the water, and beyond them all, a pair of mighty stone statues were visible at the foot of the mountain.

“Oh,” Bilbo sighed, and he heard Gandalf chortle softly.

“It is a sight.” He clicked his tongue and gave the reins a twitch, spurring Fleetfoot forward. “Come, Bilbo. If we press on, we may be able to find you a proper elevenses. Do you have your ring?”

Bilbo’s hand flew to the pocket of his vest. “Of course.”

“Though I would prefer you not, you had best be invisible. I doubt a hobbit has been so far as Dale in recent memory, and the fewer questions asked, the better.”

Bilbo drew his cloak around him and slipped the gold ring from his pocket. As soon as it touched his finger, the world went grey and blurry at the edges, and Gandalf’s gaze seemed to slide right past him. It was a useful little trinket, his ring. “Lucky I have it, else I should have had to wear your hat to hide my ears.”

The peaceful calm of the valley disappeared as they drew nearer the city walls; there was the usual commotion of loud voices, braying animals, and rolling, creaking carts. Bilbo handed Myrtle’s reins over to Gandalf; if they wanted to avoid notice, it wouldn’t do to have leather straps floating about in mid-air. At the tall gates, they were stopped by a guardsman with a red plume in his helm.

“Ho!” the Man called. His spear was loose in his hand and the other guards on the parapet above were absorbed in a game of cards. An old fellow and a pair of ponies evidently presented no threat. “Halt and speak.”

“I am Olon, a merchant of Bree."

Bilbo watched the Man’s eyes sweep over the satchel on Myrtle’s back. “All the way from Bree?” the Man repeated, with some surprise. “Are you here to see King Bard? If you’re wanting an audience, you’ll need to be announced.”

“No, no,” Gandalf interrupted, “no need to trouble the Lord of Dale over a humble passerby. I will be on my way to Erebor after a hot meal and a night of rest.”

The guardsman cried out for the gates to be opened, and with a rusty groan, they were. Bilbo hunched low on Myrtle’s back and peered over her shaggy head as they went down the main thoroughfare. Dale was a fair city, the familiar trappings of Men marked with a distinctly dwarvish influence; the buildings and walkways were made for Big Folk, but there were smaller stalls and tables in the market as well, and the iron-work on the houses looked to Bilbo’s eye to be dwarf-made. Most strikingly, Bilbo found that the denizens of Dale were accustomed to avoiding smaller bodies in the crowd, as dwarf and Man alike mingled easily in the streets, haggling at the market stalls. Bilbo smiled to see a pack of giggling children climbing an oak in the square, wild-haired dwarflings sitting on the branches among them.

Gandalf led them to the far south of the city, closer to the lake, where the shining spires did not shine quite so bright and the faces of the Men were grimmer. Leaving the ponies and a coin with a stableboy, he went into a smoky alehouse, Bilbo at his heels. Inside it was crowded and rowdy, and there was a lingering odor of mildew clinging to the walls. Gandalf immediately singled out a pair of rough-looking Men sitting at a table, drinking deep and arguing bitterly. They were fishermen, perhaps, or sailors, for even from this distance Bilbo could smell the salt of the lake on them.

“Good evening, friends,” Gandalf called, hobbling on his staff as he approached the table, looking altogether feeble and harmless. “It is very crowded. Might I share your bench?”

The Men exchanged a look before gruffly waving him over.

Gandalf took a seat, and after a hesitation, Bilbo did the same, wary of being sat on by an oblivious patron. “Ah, it is good to end a long journey! I am to Erebor,” he said, in the manner of one confiding a tremendous secret. “I hope to secure a bit of trade with their folk.”

The bolder of the Men snorted. “If you’re looking to trade, you’ll get naught worth your time, old man.”

Gandalf affected a grimace of alarm. “Whatever do you mean? I have heard the markets of Erebor are the best markets in the East, and I would hate to have come so far for nothing.”

“What do you sell?” the other Man inquired.

“Why, pipeweed! Good Shire pipeweed. I do not suppose you two gentlemen smoke? You are welcome to try some -- no charge for friends.”

It did the trick. With bellies full of ale and a strong pipe to blunt the edges of distrust, the Men talked freely. Bilbo sat and listened and somehow managed not to laugh.

Master Athel, who had spoken so derisively about Gandalf’s chances, was more than eager to air his grievances to a new audience. He and his brother were fishermen, and a growing tension in the Mountain had soured relations with the tradesmen of Dale. “'Tis bad business. There’s been no open market in Erebor for two months now. The dwarf merchants still come, but everyone's profits are thinning. With the summer fading it’s a shame to lose any coin.”

“No market,” Gandalf sighed. “This is foul news indeed! Is it by order of the king?”

Athel snorted into his tankard. His brother Egrid answered for him. “How should we know? The mighty dwarf lords do not deign to come to Dale now. Lord Bard must travel to them instead.”

“Is that so?” 

Egrid fiddled with his whittling knife, a wooden swan on the table before him. Bilbo thought it quite pretty, and not badly done. “He came in the old days, though I never saw him myself -- Athel, do you remember? -- I did see Old Thráin’s wife come ‘round Lord Bard’s once with her sons.”

“That was his daughter, not his wife,” Athel interrupted.

Egrid frowned at his brother. “Either way, she weren't bad-looking for a dam.”

Gandalf waved over the hassled barmaid and slipped her a generous palmful of coin. “Another round, if you please.” He drank deeply with them when the ales arrived, and Bilbo wished for a swig himself. Perhaps the Men were in their cups enough not to notice a tankard tipping on its own? “I shall try my luck in Erebor regardless. Surely the merchants are still willing to trade if approached.”

“I wouldn’t wager on getting through the gates. I hear that Erebor is locked up tighter than a taxman’s purse on account of the jewel.”

“The jewel?”

“You ever seen an Erebor gem? They’re a thing to behold, and this one is more beautiful than everything mined from the mountain together. It’s white as starlight, with colours like a pearl.”

“No,” said Athel, “it’s as red as a smith’s fire, that’s what I heard.”

“Oh, sod off and let me have a word!” snapped Egrid.

"I had not heard of this jewel," Gandalf prompted. 

“'Twas found last year by their miners. Old Thráin had it set above the throne, and everyone wanted a glimpse of it.” Egrid hesitated then, casting his eye about the room before leaning closer. “They say there was a quarrel with the elves over it.”

Gandalf’s eyebrows rose. “With the wood-elves?”

“Aye. Not three months ago, Lord Thranduil came to see it, and Thráin knocked his poncy arse down the steps of the throne-room!” The brothers laughed uproariously at this, but Bilbo was appalled. “One of the princes had to hold the old dwarf bastard back, and the guards nearly came to blows. Thranduil stormed through Dale mad as a wet hen that day, and we’ve seen no elves here since. It’s not done our business any favours either, though elves don’t care much for fish.”

Bilbo was prepared to think the story nothing more than an alehouse yarn -- it sounded fantastical, and the brothers were well and truly drunk -- but the consternation on Gandalf’s face made him reconsider.

“Where did you hear this?” Gandalf asked.

“From the barmaid at the Grey Pigeon,” Egrid admitted, “but I trust her word. She keeps her ears open.”

“Ha! And her legs,” Athel said, and Bilbo and Gandalf barely made it out the tavern door before the first stool went flying.

Leaving the brawl behind them, they collected their ponies and returned to the centre square. They took an attic room at the nearest inn, and Bilbo went upstairs while Gandalf arranged for a meal. It was a relief to sit down and take off the ring. The charm had saved his hide a half-dozen times since he’d found it, but he still did not care to wear it for long, for it made him lightheaded.

Gandalf was very quiet that evening, and it was not until they were tucking into a hearty supper by the fireplace that he broke his silence. “I could go on to Erebor by myself.”

It was a kind gesture, but Bilbo was not in the habit of travelling so far for nothing. “I am not afraid of seeing the king, if that is what you’re asking. Though if that story is true, it does sound bad.”

“Doubtless it has been exaggerated in the retelling,” Gandalf said. “I wonder . . . .” 

“What is it?” Bilbo asked.

“We shall not know until we see him for ourselves. I confess it would make me feel better if you were to wear your ring tomorrow, at least when we have our audience with him.”

Now Bilbo looked up from his veal pie -- passable, for a Mannish meal -- to give his friend an incredulous look. “I don’t believe I am in any danger.”

Gandalf said nothing. In the light of the fire, his weathered face was pinched and troubled, and Bilbo reached over to pat his hand.

The night passed peacefully. The lanterns were doused as the moon rose high over the lake. Long after he should have been abed, Bilbo sat up at the window, gazing through the glass at the silver, solitary peak of the Lonely Mountain.

 

***

 

Bilbo had seen dwarves on his travels, but as a rule they tended to keep to themselves. Although Men and elves had asked for his services over the years, he had never had a dwarf approach him. In fact, he had never said more than a few passing pleasantries to one before, nor stared too intently for fear of being thought rude. Nevertheless, he found Aulë’s folk fascinating for their air of mystery and the astonishing arts they mastered. The craftsmanship of the dwarves was said to be unparalleled, and from what Bilbo had seen of it, he was inclined to agree. His lack of familiarity with their ways only made them more intriguing; he had no knowledge of dwarvish medicines, nor did he know any dwarvish songs or histories; he knew only that they jealously guarded their secret language, Khuzdul, and that they did not like elves. They kept their wisdom to themselves.

Now, by some turn of fate, here he stood in the very heart of Erebor, on his way to an audience with its princess.

The mountain kingdom was indescribable, a labyrinth of green stone and massive pillars. Walkways rose to the ceiling in ever-spiralling terraces, and the fathomless depths of the chasm below kept Bilbo close to Gandalf’s legs, lest he be pushed off a scaffold by an unsuspecting dwarf. Far from the damp, gloomy cave Bilbo had expected, the mountain blazed with the cheerful light of roaring furnaces and strings of crystal lanterns. Dwarves of all kinds swarmed about the terraces, loaded with trays and baskets and lumber and raw metal. A few were even herding goats and giant mountain rams, their harnesses jingling with tin bells.

The guardsman tasked with bringing them to Lady Dís was unresponsive to Gandalf’s attempts at conversation. He growled the occasional ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ as they ventured deeper into the mountain, his double-headed axe glinting wickedly where it was strapped to his chestplate. Bilbo kept to Gandalf’s other side, but he could not help but stare at the lines of indigo ink on the dwarf’s massive arms and on the crown of his balding head.

“In here,” the dwarf grunted, halting so abruptly that Bilbo ran into Gandalf's legs. He pushed open the towering, wrought-iron doors and let them pass.

“Thank you,” Gandalf said politely, and Bilbo scurried to get himself through before the doors were slammed shut behind them. As soon as they were safely alone, Bilbo took off his ring, blinking against a sudden barrage of sunlight.

The chamber was a receiving room of some sort, with a balcony that extended into the open air outside. Lady Dís stood at the railing, gazing out toward Dale. She was squat and bound with muscle in the manner of dwarves, and Bilbo thought her quite beautiful. Her dark hair, streaked with silver, was bound into intricate plaits over her shoulders. Ropes of gold chain hung from her neck and wrists, and jewels twinkled in her ears and dangled from her neatly-combed beard.

“Welcome to Erebor, Master Baggins,” she said, her voice deep and commanding, “and well met, Master Gandalf.”

“Well met, my lady,” Gandalf replied, coming forward to take her fingers courteously in his. They glittered with a half-dozen rings.

“I am very grateful you have come." She offered her other hand to Bilbo, who took it nervously and bobbed an awkward bow. "I am relieved to see you arrived safely as well. I hope your journey was not too uncomfortable.”

“Not at all,” Bilbo stuttered. Her eyes were a piercing, lovely blue. “I am at your service, Your Highness.”

“I certainly hope so.” She gestured to an end-table set with a pitcher and a set of gem-encrusted goblets. “Will you take wine? I can have some food brought for you if you are hungry.”

“We breakfasted,” Gandalf demurred. “Pray do not think me rude, but I would prefer news to food.”

The princess sighed, drawing her fur stole closer about her broad shoulders. “Of course. We may speak frankly here, since Dwalin is guarding the door.”

“Is speaking freely a concern?”

“There are unfriendly ears in the mountain."

They sat together on a cushioned bench next to the window. Lady Dís industriously arranged her surcoat over her lap, and they waited patiently, giving her a moment to collect her words. It appeared as though she needed it. For all her beauty, there was a hardness in her face borne of exhaustion, and Bilbo pitied her.

“My father the king is not well,” she said bluntly. “His decisions are unwise. Every suggestion is a mortal insult. He quarrels with his advisers and the wood-elves and the Lord of Dale. He neglects his duties to spend all day in the treasury. The production of the Guilds is suffering, and he will listen to no word about it. He hardly eats and talks even less. A fortnight ago, he disbanded the Advisory Council and sent them home in disgrace.”

“Good heavens, why?”

Despite her composure, it was plain enough to see that she was ashamed. “He wishes to retake Khazad-dûm.”

"What foolishness is this?" Gandalf’s face was like a thundercloud. Bilbo leaned away at the sight, a shiver passing through his flesh.

For a moment, the princess seemed almost angry. “You think we do not know it is foolishness? He has been talking of nothing else for months. My brothers and I have tried to reason with him. His councillors have brought strategists and military advisers to dissuade him, but he will not listen. Why, he threatened to cut Balin’s beard for insolence -- Balin, Fundin’s son, who has always been loyal to the throne!” She passed a hand over her eyes. “Oh, that is not even the worst of it. He has got it into his head that we must delve further into the mountain. He demands that our miners produce more gems and metals, that our tunnels be widened and more levels be excavated, and he wants it done quickly. All of our best minds have counselled against this -- if we cut as deep as he wishes to go, we risk collapsing the higher levels. If the tunnelers obey him, it could bring the entire mountain down on our heads.”

Bilbo swallowed, the lofty, pointed arches of the ceiling now appearing rather sinister.

“Our chief miners are trying to stall for time, creating false obstacles and diverting what work they can, but Father grows impatient with the delay.”

“When did you first notice these changes in him? Was it sudden? Gradual?”

“It came on slowly; none of us saw it until his behaviour was beyond reckoning. I would have to speak with my brothers." She hesitated. "By last Durin's Day, at least, I had begun to notice that something was amiss. It is his favourite festival, but he was so strange that day -- he would not leave the throne to feast in the hall with us, and he grew angry and shouted and cursed at us.”

“About a year then, correct?” At the sound of Bilbo’s voice the other two startled, as though they had forgotten him.

“It will be Durin’s Day again in a fortnight.” Lady Dís turned to look at him squarely, assessing, and Bilbo did his best not to squirm under her scrutiny. “I will be honest: it took some convincing to reach an agreement to call upon you. My advisers doubted that the stories about you were true, and those that did not doubt objected on other grounds. Our chief healer in particular was very opposed.”

“May I ask why?”

Lady Dís cast a glance over at Gandalf, as if for permission. “I mean no insult to you or to your gifts, whatever they may be, but Master Óin says. . . . well, he has heard tell that you are a necromancer.”

He, a necromancer -- of all the scurrilous poppycock! “I most certainly am not,” cried Bilbo indignantly. “I am an apothecary, not a witch.”

“You’ve no magic?” She seemed both relieved and disappointed, and Bilbo’s annoyance shrivelled up. It was not the princess’s fault, after all, that this brick-headed Master Óin had been spreading detestable rumours. Necromancer, indeed! . . . . He should like to give that insolent dwarf a piece of his mind!

“It is not the sort of magic you imagine,” Gandalf said, a hint of a laugh in his voice. “But hobbits are natural gardeners. They excel at sniffing out rot and disease, and Master Baggins is better at it than most. If there is something unnatural shrouding your kingdom, he will find it. I have the utmost faith in his abilities.”

Lady Dís was appeased, though a shade of wary distrust lingered in her face. “Forgive me, Master Baggins.”

“No harm done,” Bilbo assured her. “He is your father. You are entitled to some suspicion on his behalf.”

“You are very kind. But I sought you for a purpose, and I would not say this to anyone else even on pain of death. I put my trust in you, in both of you.”

“You have our discretion,” Gandalf assured her.

“My father is mad. He claims to see things that we cannot see. He hears things that we cannot hear. He believes that he is being told to retake Khazad-dûm, that someone whispers to him to dig deeper into the mountain to find gems to adorn the new kingdom. He thinks it is the call of our ancestors, that Durin himself is instructing him. He can hardly sleep for the voices, and he has exhausted himself. Yet every day he has such passionate fits, and his fury burns so hot . . . . oh, I fear that he may hurt someone, or himself.”

“I see,” Bilbo said quietly.

Gandalf looked pained. "I am sorry, my dear, that I did not know of this sooner."

Lady Dís only shook her head. “We have worked to conceal it. My brothers and I try to keep the worst of his rages from our people, and every day it is harder. He puts us all in danger. Were it to come to light, there would be unrest, for my father has enemies enough who would be glad to spread the rumour of a tainted bloodline. The mountain would fall to chaos, and if Erebor falls, so too falls Dale. So much depends upon us. There is no one now who can sway him, but I will be damned if I do nothing.”

Bilbo lifted his face toward the window, letting the sun warm his skin, and pondered this for a moment. “Forgive my ignorance, my lady, but I do not know much of dwarves. Is it common for your kind to have visions?”

“We are of the stone, and in the stone we live and to the stone we return. Visions and waking-dreams are the purview of elves.”

“And dwarvish ghost stories, do they never speak of those who linger beyond death? Or of possessions, and things of that ilk?”

“There are no dwarvish ghost stories.”

Well. “Is there a particular chamber or area in which your father's behaviour seems to worsen? I would like to observe him in it, if there is.”

“You don’t truly think he is seeing something,” Lady Dís exclaimed in disbelief. “There is nothing there. I have been there myself when it happens. It is only in his head.”

“I beg your pardon, but if you believe these visions are of his own imagination, I wonder why you called me.”

Lady Dís shifted awkwardly on the bench, her gaze flitting down to her lap. “I admit, I was not easily convinced of the wisdom of it,” she said, “but we have exhausted every other option. It may not be our way, but we would be blind fools to deny the presence of powers beyond our comprehension. ” Here she nodded respectfully to Gandalf. “Perhaps foul magic can even pull the dead from their Halls of Waiting. But this world is for the living. The Maker -- may he ever craft in glory -- would not leave a soul behind to linger alone here, exiled from the Hall of the Fathers. It would be the worst kind of sacrilege.”

Bilbo bit his lip and said nothing.

“A dwarf of the Blue Mountains, kin of mine, told stories of you. She said you were reputed to be a healer of folk who had troubled minds. She said that you cured a mad elf in Rivendell. We had hoped that you might work similar miracles in Erebor.”

“I. . . I am afraid that’s not quite what happened.” It was a long story better left brief, and Bilbo dithered, frustrated. First he was a necromancer and now he was a balm for insanity! “The elf in question was not mad. What she saw was as real as I am, sitting before you."

The dim light of hope that had sparked in the princess's eyes seemed to die then, extinguished like a snuffed taper. “I know things are different among Men and elves, but here we trust in rock and earth. We trust in things we can see and hold and measure. Dwarrows do not believe in spirits.”

“Neither do hobbits, Your Highness,” Bilbo said, offering her a thin smile.

Her eyes widened.

Having apparently decided that he had let Bilbo struggle along himself long enough, Gandalf interjected himself into the conversation once more. “Regardless of our differences in opinion, will you not let Bilbo do his work? He has come a long distance to assist your father. It could hardly hurt, for you have said yourself that you have attempted everything else at hand.”

“Do not misunderstand me. I do appreciate your coming, Master Baggins, but I find it harder to keep faith these days."

“I do understand, my lady,” Bilbo told her. “Truly, I do. I cannot guarantee that I have your answer, yet I will try.”

“That alone has earned you my sincerest gratitude.” Lady Dís rose gracefully from her seat and stood straight and determined. “I will endeavour to arrange an audience for you tomorrow. Father can still be persuaded to hold court every so often. I am afraid you will have to stay here in my rooms; I would prefer to keep your presence hidden for now, lest anyone realize why I have invited you.”

“Of course,” Gandalf said. “But there is one thing more. Bilbo and I heard of a jewel that caused trouble with the wood-elves, though we presumed it careless tavern talk.”

The embarrassment on her face was answer enough. “It was a shameful day, and Thorin fears that relations with Thranduil will never be repaired. The jewel is called the Arkenstone. It was uncovered by the diamond miners, down in the southwestern caverns.”

Gandalf’s fingers were tapping restlessly over the stone in his staff, his expression contemplative. “Does Thráin much admire it?”

“It is beautiful beyond compare. Anyone would admire it.”

“I am sure,” Gandalf said. “He has hung it above the throne, has he not?”

“Yes, of course.” She looked over at Bilbo for an explanation, but he could only shrug and offer her a commiserating smile. Gandalf would share his thoughts when he chose and no sooner.

"I see. Enough of this unhappy talk. Come, my dear, tell me of happier things for a while. How fares your family? I hear you have young ones of your own.”

Now there was no false cheer in Lady Dís’s smile. “Not so young anymore,” she said warmly. “Fíli is eighty-two, and Kíli likes to believe he is as well. His beard is not coming in so thick and fine as Fíli’s, and it vexes him endlessly.”

“They must keep your hands full. I do hope your brothers are helping you with them.”

“Frerin has been teaching them goldsmithing, and Thorin trains them on the field. They work the lads hard and spoil them with too many sweets.” Her smile brightened, and she propped her hands on her wide hips with a sigh. “Thorin is called Oakenshield now.”

“Indeed? I know you both well enough to assume there is a good story behind the sobriquet.”

“And so there is. Two winters ago he drove off an entire pack of wolves by himself. They caught him while he was out smoking out on the northern pasture, and he did not have so much as a mace with him, the dunce. He beat them all dead with a fallen oak branch.” She laughed merrily, and Bilbo did his best not to shudder. “It seems the name is to stick. Frerin has not stopped teasing him yet.” She fell silent and the welcome breath of levity ebbed; her face was drawn and tense once more. “I only wish to have my family whole again.”

They were the words of a heartsick daughter, and to Bilbo they stung as sharp as nettles. He was relieved to feel Gandalf’s presence at his back, for it gave him the courage to offer Lady Dís his hand this time, which she took with no hesitation.

“If I find nothing tomorrow, I will keep looking until I do," he said. “You may have my word on that, and a Baggins always keeps his word.”

 



 

Chapter Text


 

PART TWO

THE KING’S JEWEL



 

 

BILBO AWOKE with a start and the unfamiliar bristle of fur against his cheek. It took him a breath to recollect where he was, curled up on a chaise by the hearth in Lady Dís's private dressing-room. Pushing off the heavy furs, he sat up and yawned. Gandalf’s pile of blankets was abandoned already, cushions stacked at one end.

With another yawn, Bilbo rose to bathe his face in a stone basin by the fire and dress. Just as he was buttoning his waistcoat and pondering the wisdom of leaving the room on his own, a knock sounded on the door. It was followed by a tentative, “Master Baggins?”

He opened the door to a wee red-haired dwarf on the other side, his iron helm too large for his head by far. His eyes widened as he took Bilbo in properly, and it took a gentle throat-clearing to get the lad to remember himself. “Gimli, son of Glóin, at your service, Master Baggins! I am to escort you to breakfast with Lady Dís.” His voice was full of childish pride at having been assigned such an important task. “Come with me, if you please.”

There was a look in the lad’s eyes that reminded Bilbo very much of the awe in the eyes of the little ones who were privileged enough to see Gandalf’s whizzing firecrackers. He bit back his smile and followed Gimli silently, not drawing attention to the fact that his young guide kept catching his boots on uneven tiles because he was so absorbed in sneaking glimpses at Bilbo.

Gimli led him through a series of doors (the personal quarters of the princess, it seemed to Bilbo, were larger than Brandybuck Hall altogether) to the same receiving room in which they had convened the day before. Bilbo thanked his guard for the excellent escort, and the lad’s ears flushed as ruby-red as his hair.

“Ah! There you are, Bilbo.” Gandalf was seated at the table with Lady Dís. Next to him was a tall, lean dwarf, who rose politely as Bilbo joined them.

“Good morning, Master Baggins. I trust you slept well? Frerin, this is Bilbo Baggins.” Dís gestured for Bilbo to take the chair at her left. “Master Baggins, this is Frerin, my brother and second-born son of Thráin.”

“A pleasure,” Prince Frerin said warmly, retaking his own chair. “Come, Master Baggins, have something to eat.”

Bilbo sat, and as he filled his plate with slices of cold ham and sweet-breads, he studied the siblings furtively. The creases in Prince Frerin’s face suggested that he was older than Dís, but the chestnut-coloured braids draped over his shoulders had no grey in them. His eyes were as dark as Dís’s were light, and his smiles came quicker. He looked quite a merry fellow, less touched by the pain that seemed to have hardened his sister.

The prince seemed fascinated in turn, for he stared at Bilbo unabashedly. “I have heard tremendous tales of you," he said. "I can only imagine what marvels you have seen in your travels and what deeds you have done! It must be exciting, to wander the wide world.” The frank wonder in his voice made Bilbo blush.

“Don’t be rude,” Dís chided, though it was said with an indulgent sort of fondness. “Let our guest have his breakfast in peace.”

Her brother was undeterred by the scolding. “Perhaps you could be prevailed upon to tell us a story or two? Thorin would like to hear them as well.” As if suddenly remembering something, he made a face. “Ach, I was to tell you that Thorin sends his apologies, Master Gandalf. He could not join us this morning, as Father keeps him close at hand.”

“Your brother has his ear?” Bilbo asked hopefully. It would help if Thráin’s children had some sway over the king, for he still might be reasoned with.

Frerin laughed, but it was not a cheerful sound at all. “I wish it were so. Will you take some tea?” he asked, and he began to fill a cup before Bilbo could answer.

Lady Dís sighed. “He believes his counsellors have turned against him, and of late he has taken to hiding his thoughts from us as well.”

“Father still confides in me,” Frerin added, dropping a fifth lump of sugar into the tea; Bilbo was careful not to grimace and accepted it with thanks. Sweet begonias, dwarvish tea was ghastly.

Gandalf accepted a cup for himself, a knowing glint in his eye. “Because you look like your mother?”

Frerin stared fixedly down at the sugar-bowl. “Aye,” he said. “I think it is the only reason.”

“If Mother lived, none of this would have happened. She would never have let him fall into disgrace.”

“Have heart,” Gandalf told them. “Perhaps his mind is altered, but I do not think the same of his character. Your father loves you.”

“He did,” said Dís, very bitterly.

Frerin looked as though he meant to say something before he thought the better of it. He refilled Bilbo's teacup instead, radiating quiet unhappiness. Bilbo shifted uneasily in his chair and found that he was no longer so eager to savour the excellent breakfast before him.

This was not a very auspicious beginning.

 

***

 

The Great Promenade stretched from Erebor’s front gates to the yawning chasm that splintered the heart of the mountain. It was, Lady Dís explained, the central base of the entire system of roads and terraces, as they all branched off from the massive mainway. It served as marketplace, meeting hall, and public square, as dwarves of all classes and kith mingled on its marble-tiled pavement.

It was noisy and busy and utterly intriguing. Bilbo longed to explore the stalls and walk among the curious, colourful dwarves, but there was no time for idle sightseeing. He kept near to Gandalf, dodging burly dwarvish bodies as best he could and clenching his fist to keep his ring securely on his finger. (Frerin had exclaimed in delight when Bilbo vanished, declaring it a “marvellous halfling trick,” and Bilbo was not inclined to correct him.)

Dís and Frerin led the way, moving through the crowd with ease. The unusual sight of a tall Man accompanying the prince and princess resulted in many second glances, but Gandalf was known and highly-regarded enough in Middle-earth to earn no more than a few respectful whispers.

“There he is,” Dís muttered, before raising her voice with a hearty “Thorin!” The cry garnered no alarm at all in the rowdy crowd.

The eldest prince wore a blue coat, a gold coronet, and a fearsome scowl. Bilbo could not help but stare as they approached the terrace where he stood, for he looked so very serious. Perhaps the impression was heightened by the sharpness of his nose and the thick, dark brows that shadowed his eyes, or perhaps it was the wide collar of wolf fur that made his shoulders look twice as broad. He was not young. Like Dís, there was grey gathered at his temples, threaded through the black strands like ribbon; there was silver too in the long, intricate beard that tapered down to his chest. Had it not been for the richness of his clothes, Bilbo might have thought him a blacksmith or a soldier, for there was nothing soft about him.

As they reached the relative privacy of the alcove, Gandalf put his hand to his heart and made a cordial bow. “Why, Thorin, you are much changed since last we spoke. I see before me a fine dwarf lord, and I wonder where that curious dwarfling who could not pester me enough about the mechanisms of my fireworks has gone.”

The prince’s face lightened enough for a small smile. “You are not changed at all, Master Gandalf. I remember your fireworks, and they are still unequalled in the East.”

“Well!” Gandalf said, sounding pleased.

“While I am pleased to see you,” Thorin shot a questioning glance over at his siblings, "I had understood from Dís that we were expecting a halfling.”

“Ach, he’s invisible,” Frerin whispered, beaming, and his brother gave him such a look of dry disbelief that Bilbo had to stifle a laugh in his fist.

“Master Baggins and I are at your service,” Gandalf said, in careful undertones. “Thorin, I would see your father as soon as possible.”

“Frerin!”

This time many heads did turn, and the crowd parted like a particularly hairy wave as a massive dwarf in mail armour swept up the walkway, a quartet of guards standing firm around him. At Bilbo’s side, Lady Dís uttered a heartfelt oath under her breath.

“Adad,” Thorin began as the king and his retinue came to a halt before them, but he was silenced by a sharp gesture.

King Thráin was stout and strong, his face striped with ink and his eyes a keen and unclouded blue. His white beard was a magnificent sight to behold, glittering as it did with innumerable beads of gold, and his crown was in the shape of a diamond-eyed raven. He looked like what Bilbo had always imagined a dwarf king to look like, but under the mound of gems and furs and mail, there was a sickly pallor to his flesh.

Gandalf came forward to bow, but Thráin’s haughty gaze seemed to pass right through him. “Frerin,” the king said in tones of cold dignity, “you are wanted in the treasury until I have dealt with this nuisance.”

Forgetting that no one could see him, Bilbo shuffled closer to Gandalf, offended on his behalf. He was a nuisance, make no mistake, but that was a fine way to treat a friend indeed!

“Am I not allowed to speak with my brother?” Thorin asked lowly, but King Thráin appeared not to hear, or not to care.

“Frerin, you will go!"

With an anxious glance for his siblings, the prince obeyed. The stare that the king then turned upon his eldest son brimmed with such ugly vitriol that Bilbo found himself reaching for Sting, sheathed at his hip. He needn’t have worried; Gandalf stepped forward again, planting his staff calmly between the two dwarves.

“Thráin,” he said jovially, indifferent to the tension in the air and the mountain full of uneasy eyes fixed upon them. “My old friend, this is a welcome reunion. Long has it been since I have had the pleasure of wandering the halls of the Lonely Mountain.”

“And long shall it be before you wander them again, for I will have you thrown from the parapet if you do not leave.”

There were shocked intakes of breath from the mouths of the onlookers. Refusing hospitality to an Istari was an unthinkable act of disrespect, not to mention very bad luck. Gandalf’s pleasant expression did not falter, but Thráin’s children looked horrified.

“Adad, please,” Dís protested. “Master Gandalf has travelled far to visit you. You have spoken so often of your friendship---”

“See that he goes soon, or you may join him.”

The crowd stirred again. Lady Dís seemed somehow very small then, her face awash in humiliation, and Bilbo silently railed against the unfairness of it. Thorin looked angry too. He said a quiet word in Khuzdul to the king but was pointedly ignored. The prince’s eyes shuttered then, and he took his sister’s arm and escorted her from the hall.

Gandalf remained for a moment, his face impassive, before turning heel gracefully and walking in the opposite direction, down toward the great entrance. Bilbo followed, feeling the heat of Thráin’s glare at their backs.

“Wait, wait,” Bilbo whispered, tugging as subtly as he could at Gandalf’s robes. He was nearly running but was still unable to keep abreast. Big Folk had such unnecessarily long legs! 

The wizard turned into the hollow of a doorway, deep enough to shelter them from any onlookers. “It is worse than I feared, Bilbo,” he said. “I shall be back before nightfall. In the meantime, take advantage of Dís’s hospitality. Warm yourself by the fireside, eat your fill, and have something hot to drink.”

“Where are you going?” Bilbo demanded.

“Dale. I promise, I shall not tarry.” His hand nudged Bilbo’s shoulder before giving it a reassuring press. “Stay hidden.”

With that, he left. Bilbo stood at the balcony to watch him go before reluctantly returning to the promenade, his heart heavy and troubled. The bustling market no longer held his interest. Instead he made his winding way back to the wing that housed the royal chambers. It did occur to him to find Lady Dís and offer her a word of encouragement, but as he slipped through the crowd, he saw it was not necessary. By a pillar brother and sister stood together speaking in hushed voices, their dark heads bent together. They looked defeated, and Bilbo knew then that he would not leave the mountain until they had their succour.

 

***

 

Someone was playing the harp. The melody was unfamiliar, but its sound was very sweet, piercing the door that separated the dressing-room from the rest of the princess's chambers. Bilbo rubbed the sleep from his post-elevenses nap and stretched as he surveyed the room. Gandalf still had not returned, and the fire had gone out. He rose to stoke it, and with nothing else to do, he crouched down next to the door that he might hear the harp better.

A low, rumbling voice picked up the tune, humming wordlessly; Bilbo leant closer and wondered to whom it belonged. It was one of the princes, most likely, or perhaps one of Dís’s sons. The answer came with the sound of an opening door and Lady Dís’s distinct tones. “There you are, Thorin.”

The music stopped. Bilbo was absurdly disappointed.

“No, no, keep playing. I would prefer the harp over more quarrelling.” There was a sound of crinkling fabric, followed by a creak. “I left Fíli in the library, and Kíli is with his father at the forge. It is better that they keep away from the apartments tonight. I asked Víli to stay at his mother’s and take the boys with him.”

“They're clever lads,” Prince Thorin said. He began to play again in a more subdued manner, the song’s wistfulness turned melancholy. “They will wonder why.”

“I am sure they already know. After today, everyone will.”

“You should not have approached him in public.” There was no accusation in the words, despite their bluntness, but Dís made a noise of bristling outrage.

“How was I to know that he would leave the Treasury today of all days? I thought us safe enough!”

“And now our best hope has gone back to Dale.”

“Oh, lift your chin before your beard sweeps the dirt. Master Baggins is still here, and his halfling ways may help after all. Give him but a chance. In any matter, Gandalf will return to us, surely. He has called Adad his friend all these years; I do not think he would abandon him now.”

“What do any of us know of halfling ways?” Thorin asked. Bilbo frowned, feeling himself insulted without knowing precisely how.

Something slammed against the wall, rattling the floor underfoot. Bilbo jumped in fright. Clutching his breast, where his heart pounded like a rabbit's, he bent his head warily to the door again. 

“Adad,” Dís said, with clear surprise. Bilbo pressed his ear against the wood shamelessly. “Join us, please! Have you had your supper? I will have something sent up for you.”

“I will not take supper. I expect you both to be at the gates tomorrow at dawn's first light.”

“The gates?” Dís repeated.

“I am sending a caravan to the Iron Hills. Two battalions, no less than one-hundred of our finest warriors, and we shall send them off tomorrow with ceremony -- a full procession.”

The Iron Hills? It took Bilbo a moment to recollect where that particular place resided on his map of Middle-earth. It was no tremendous distance to travel, but those parts of the world were hemmed with high slopes and deep ravines, if he remembered correctly. Why soldiers? By his inexperienced reckoning, one-hundred was a considerable force.

“Two days ago," said the king, "I had word that a resurgence of roving orc-filth trouble our kin there. This army will be sent to the stronghold for their aid.”

There was a tense silence. “This is . . . sudden,” said Thorin slowly. “Who sent word? How many orcs? By what pass are they going?”

Something struck the wall again.

“I do not tell you so you can interrogate me and cast doubt on my decisions," Thráin roared. "They will go tomorrow, and Frerin will lead them!”

For a moment no one spoke.

“I beg you reconsider." There was alarm in Thorin's voice now. "Frerin has never seen war, not on this scale. If you would permit one of us to go with him, or Balin  . . . .”

“Frerin will go to the Iron Hills, and only Frerin. I give this task to the child I trust.”  

Bilbo winced.

“Be that as it may,” the prince replied grimly, “you put him needlessly at risk.”

This statement was met by a great, indrawn breath; Bilbo could only imagine the king puffing up with indignation. “You dare reprimand me when you have brought meddlers and interlopers into my mountain, to interfere with my rule! How dare you bring that wizard here!”

“How dare you turn him away,” Dís cried. “To say such things in a public market, before all our people -- to show such disunity! It puts a black stain upon our house.”

Shazhad! There is no stain upon our house, save for the pair of you. You think I am past my prime, too old to listen and too feeble-minded to understand, but I know betrayal when I see it.”

Dís and Thorin cried out against this accusation. Bilbo bit back his own exclamation of dismay. Oh dear, oh dear, what was he to do? Should he show himself and intervene? He had Sting, but he did not dare threaten the King Under the Mountain, mad or no. If only Gandalf were here!

“You are talking nonsense,” Thorin said. “All three of us are loyal to you. We stood at your side when you took the crown. We swore fealty to you as king and sire. We are your own blood!”

The loud, unmistakable crack of flesh against flesh made Bilbo flinch. “I know when my get are colluding against me,” Thráin hissed. “You have always been against me -- you and your snake of a sister. I would cut your beards if it were worth the effort.” There came the sound of glass shattering against the floor. “Keep your counsel to yourself while I lament to the Maker that your mother ever birthed you.”

Bilbo covered his mouth. The closing of the door juddered the stone underfoot, and there was a terrible silence.

Oh, sweet begonias.

Someone was sobbing. Footsteps crossed the floor, and the door creaked open again. “Dwalin, Hur,” said Thorin hoarsely. “Stay close. Be certain that no ears are listening.”

There was a muffled murmur of assent, and the footsteps came back. “Sister, come."

“He is lost to us,” Dís wept. “He is lost.”

Bilbo’s chest throbbed in sympathy. He wiped the sweat from his brow and bent his head against the cool stone.

“We left it too late. I should have written sooner.”

“Oh, Dís.”

“I will send Víli away with my sons.” The declaration was thick with tears, but there was anger and iron too, beneath her grief. “They are not safe in the mountain.”

“It would be wise,” said Thorin. “Let them stay in Dale for now, that you might still visit them. Bard owes me a favour. He will see that they are kept well-hidden and in comfort.”

“I hate that it has come to this.”

“As do I. Come here, mizimith.” There was rustle, followed by another soft sob. “Kíli and Fíli will be safe. Whatever happens here, we will not let them be touched by it. I swear it.”

“But Frerin will be. Everything about this is wrong. Why will he not let us go? Why do the Iron Hills ask for aid? Why such haste?”

“I cannot disagree. But if the Iron Hills call, we must answer.”

“You know Dáin’s pride. He is too clever to let orcs run wild in his kingdom.”

“But he respects his council. They could have recommended reinforcements.”

“Ach, it does not matter why! Frerin must not go. You know him, always at the forge when he should have been at the armoury. He never paid a whit of attention to Fundin’s lessons. If he has to lead a force on his own . . . .”

“Now whose beard is sweeping the dirt?”

Dís let out a watery laugh, and Bilbo relaxed to hear it.

“I do not believe it will come to a fight, Sister. If there were massing orcs in the Iron Hills, we would have heard of it by now from the traders, if not from our cousin himself. There is something else at play.”

“If Frerin could refuse ----”

“He won’t.”

“If he could lead the troops away and then stall ----”

“It was a direct order from his king.”

“Then countermand it! There must be some rule, some provision----"

“You are speaking of treason.“

“Do you think it gives me pleasure to do this to my own father? Mahal’s blood! If we do nothing, he will be the death of us all.” 

Thorin was silent. The sound of pacing began again, heavy iron boots against the tile. Bilbo wondered fleetingly whether it was possible for dwarves to sneak anywhere, what with the way they stomped hither and thither. At length, there was a grunt of frustration. “If there were some way to remove him from the mountain temporarily -- some way to convince him to travel ---”

“He will never leave now. He sees usurpers everywhere.”

“Aye, then perhaps it is for the best that Frerin goes. He may be safer on the road than he is at home.”

Bilbo had heard enough. He put on his coat and collected his bits and bobs into his knapsack and checked that Sting was secure at his waist. Slipping on his ring, he left his room in search of the king.

 

***

 

There was a dwarf standing outside the massive, iron-capped doors that led to the grand throne room of Erebor. He was a stout old fellow with a kind face, his snow-white beard curled over his chest; he looked tired but resolute as he attempted to dissuade Thráin from entering the room for the fifth time in as many minutes. 

“My lord, please, if you would but read this report and attend to Queen Níroc’s letter, it would be much appreciated. And you have not eaten all day.”

“No more business,” Thráin said, hardly sparing him a glance. “Begone, Balin, and find some other unfortunate dwarf to regale with your advice. Open the doors!”

Two guards leapt forward to obey their king. The old dwarf bowed, stone-faced. “As you wish, Your Majesty. Have a pleasant evening.”

Thráin strode into the chamber in a whirl of robes, and Bilbo caught his breath and dove in after him. The iron doors slammed at his back with a mighty boom. Bilbo stood frozen for a moment, blinking in the dark and marvelling at his own foolishness.

Thráin stomped off at once, toward the arched doorway of an inner chamber; Bilbo stayed where he had landed. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw that the high ceiling was coated in scales of crystal, each square framed in gold. The effect was like a mirror, reflecting the tapestries and plates that adorned the walls. The chamber was dank and unkempt, but he could imagine well enough how it had once looked, brightly-lit and filled with dwarves at every level. Bilbo resisted the urge to gawk any further, for he had work to do.

From his knapsack he gathered handfuls of mistletoe and dried wisteria to tuck into the empty wall sconces and into the grimy corners. He sprinkled salt across the doorway and tied Lady Galadriel’s pendant around his ankle, where it glowed like a touchstone. With the room thus secured, only then did he explore.

Right next to the doors a massive tapestry hung, its rich silk stained with neglect. Something about it gave him pause, and he blew the dust off as far as he could reach. It was an image of a dwarf, bare-chested at the forge. At first he thought it a portrait before he noticed the small figures clustered around the dwarf’s feet, little hands lifted high in supplication. Bilbo knew nothing of how the dwarves regarded their Maker, but surely it was an invitation for bad luck to allow the likeness of Aulë to fall into such disrepair.

Bilbo searched in every nook and cranny, crawling along the floor and climbing up the carved bannisters. Dust curled up in tickling plumes to settle between his toes. The air was stale. The smell of rot and decay was everywhere, though he could pinpoint no particular source.

It felt sick. The heart of the mountain felt sick.

When the antechamber had been thoroughly vetted, Bilbo reluctantly ventured into the inner sanctum, where he was met with an unsettling sight. The throne sat at the centre of the enormous cavern, suspended over the black depths of the mountain's chasm. Even from this distance Bilbo could see a light gleaming above the carved stone chair. Below it, gold coins and gems and bracelets and goblets were everywhere, covering the walkway to the throne like a glittering rug.

In the midst of his hoard Thráin paced restlessly, stopping every so often to siphon a cascade of coins through his fingers, murmuring to himself under his breath. His eyes were fixed on the spread before him. He seemed not to notice when his erratic movements sent a few stray pieces plummeting off the walkway and into the darkness below.

As Bilbo set foot onto the walkway, Thráin’s head lifted, nostrils flaring like a hound scenting a hare. Bilbo wet his lips nervously and inched forward. The coins shifted under his toes, but Thráin did not seem to notice that either. His attention was for his treasure-hoard, and nothing else. As Bilbo passed him, he realized that the king hardly seemed to draw a breath between his mumbled speeches; it was a numb, continuous drone, and it made Bilbo’s skin prickle with shivers. He looked away, seeking a distraction, and his eyes fell at last upon the King's Jewel.

The Arkenstone was a gem of starlight and pearl. It shone as brightly as diamond and scattered light across the throne with a steady lantern’s beam. It was smooth and no larger than a hen's egg, and it seemed to hold within it all the colours of a rainbow. Even Bilbo, who had no particular love for treasure, was much affected by its beauty. He had only just stepped closer, enraptured, to study its elegant casement when a frisson of pain assaulted him.

He clutched his right hand to his breast, hissing through his teeth as he sought about wildly for the source of the white-hot burning. It took a moment to comprehend that the pain was coming from the finger on which he wore his little magic ring. In the light of the Arkenstone, the burnished gold blazed as red as firelight. Sweat broke out on his brow. His stomach turned.

Later, he could not say precisely what it was that caught his ear. There was a stutter in the hum of Thráin’s voice, perhaps, or a change in the air, but as Bilbo stood there in bewildered pain, the muttered words of the dwarf king rang as clear as a bell.

…..burzum-ishi krimpatul….burzum-ishi krimpatul…..

That was not Khuzdul. Nor Sindarin, nor Quenya, nor any of the tongues of Men. It was . . . it was . . . oh!  Bilbo stumbled from the throne, tripping over his own feet in his haste to get away. He fell on the coins with a grunt, but Thráin did not hear, his eyes still fixed, unseeing, on his gold.

…..zhaz wroth-tul osho umratul nazgath….nazgath wroth-tul…..

He was cold. Every inch of him was cold, and his little ring stung like ice against his skin. Bilbo scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could down the walkway and through the hall. He pounded frantically upon the iron doors, and when one of the guards finally cracked them open with a tentative, “My king?”, he slipped through the dwarf’s legs and fled.

 

***

 

The instant that Bilbo saw Gandalf’s distant figure appear on the field before Erebor’s gates, he abandoned his perch on the bridge wall and darted down the path to meet him. Gandalf did not so much as flinch when Bilbo barrelled into his legs. He merely tipped his hat to the guards at the gate and immediately swerved from the path to find a secluded crevice. Bilbo took off his ring, and Gandalf’s curious look was taken by alarm.

“My dear fellow, whatever is the matter?”

Bilbo shook his head, unable to find the means to express the horror of hearing that forbidden tongue spoken so boldly. “I went into the throne room. I know I ought to have waited -- don’t tell me, I know! -- but I . . . . blast, it hardly matters why, does it? In any case I did it. The king was there, and it was dreadful. It’s rotted -- the whole mountain is rotted from the inside. There is something very wrong with the Arkenstone, Gandalf, very wrong indeed. And then the king said something -- at least, I think it was the king. Or maybe it was the stone? I couldn’t understand it at all, but. . . . oh, Gandalf, I think it was Black Speech.”

It could hardly have been expressed less coherently, but Gandalf’s response proved that he had gotten the gist of it. “Black Speech!” he thundered. “Bilbo, compose yourself and think. You must be certain.”

Bilbo took a breath as he planted himself on a nearby boulder, his head in his hands. “Of course I can’t be certain! I don’t speak Black Speech!”

“Tell me everything,” Gandalf demanded. “In as much detail as you can recollect.”

He gathered his thoughts and recounted the whole tale from start to finish. Gandalf betrayed little as he spoke, even as he described the dreadful argument between the king and his children. He raised his eyebrows upon hearing of the hoard of gold in the throne room, but that was all the reaction he provided, and Bilbo found himself faltering by the end of it. 

“Well,” Gandalf murmured, “this is a very sorry state of affairs.” He hefted up his staff and began to walk. Bilbo fell into step beside him.

“Do you know what’s wrong?” asked Bilbo anxiously. “Have you ever seen such a thing?”

“We will not stay in the mountain. I think it wise to keep our distance.” He led them around the eastern side of the peak, up a rocky passageway concealed by a high wall of stone. Only as they were ascending it did he speak again. “I have never seen a friend so altered. The Thráin I knew was a just king and a gentle father. Who wears that crown now I cannot say.”

This echoed Bilbo’s own suspicions. “Is it an enchantment?”

“Possibly. It is impossible to know without further study.”

“I will go back tomorrow.”

“No,” Gandalf said sharply. “Do not go back in there alone.”

The cliffside path was steep, so Bilbo had no breath to spare for arguing. “It must be the Arkenstone,” he said. The idea had wedged itself into his mind over the last few hours, and the more he thought of it, the more sense it made. If there was indeed a curse at fault, it seemed reasonable to assume it was tied to the stone. Bilbo had come across a cursed item or two in his time, when people mistook him for a magic-wielder, and there was always an indefinable but striking presence to the objects that could not be described. “You must look at it for yourself, Gandalf. It is no common jewel. Someone must have placed a curse on it. Who gave it to the king? Perhaps they were angry with him. Perhaps it was planted by an enemy.”

“Perhaps,” Gandalf said.

They crested the hill and came upon an unexpected sight. On the top of the mount was a Great Eagle, perched upon the precipice. Her massive form dwarfed the tips of the tall pines, her bright round eyes as large as dinner plates. Bilbo stumbled to a halt, open-mouthed.

“Olórin,” the Eagle said, her beak clicking curiously, “is this your companion?”

“Indeed, Mistress! This is Master Baggins.” Gandalf nudged Bilbo’s shins with his staff, prodding him forward. Bilbo obeyed, stunned by the sheer size and breadth of the wings that fluttered before him.

“I am Cirwae, daughter of Belgrim, nest-mate of Landroval.” The Eagle lowered her graceful golden head courteously, white feathers ruffling at her breast.

Bilbo knew it was unconscionably rude to stare so, but he could not help it. He had never seen anything so astounding. What a marvellous creature!  “It is an honour to make your acquaintance, Mistress Eagle.” He tore his eyes away long enough to look to Gandalf for an explanation. He had never met an Eagle, though he had heard tales of their secretive ways, but it was, so far as he knew, unusual for them to mingle with other kind. They kept to themselves in the highest cliffs of the North. Then again, Gandalf was known to collect an odd assortment of friends.

“Cirwae will be accompanying us for a short time,” was all the explanation he received. Bilbo sighed. Wizardly business, no doubt.

The Eagle took flight as dusk began to fall, and Bilbo watched her shadow wheel above the mountain, vast wings silhouetted against the sky. He and Gandalf made camp in the shelter of the trees. It was a mild enough night that there was no need for a fire, but Gandalf lit a small one nonetheless. “There are wargs about,” he explained. “An unusual number of them, for they do not generally come this far East.”

“I wonder what draws them?”

Gandalf puffed on his pipe and added another branch to the fire. “These are strange times, my dear Bilbo.”

They shared a stack of lembas and some dried fruit between them. With the comfort of his friend’s presence and a full belly, Bilbo at last began to put the unpleasantness of the day behind him. The sound of beating wings drew closer as the moon rose. Cirwae had returned.

“There were wargs to the south, in the vale,” the Eagle told them, shaking her wings before tucking them against her sides. “I gave them merry chase.”

“I am certain you did,” said Gandalf.

There was a stream not far from their camp, and Bilbo went away to refill his water-skin and clean his teeth. When he returned to the fireside, it was to find that he was not the only one to contemplate bedding down for the night. The Eagle had made a nest of branches and leaves, and it was almost comical to see the austere creature perched like a hen in a roost.

Bilbo sat with Gandalf, stealing a corner of his robes to guard against the cooling wind. Slumber was less easy to claim. He could feel the Eagle’s eyes on him, and it made him restless.

When Gandalf groused at him for wriggling, he finally confessed, in a hushed whisper, “She . . . uh, she keeps looking at me. Have I said something wrong?”

“Your hair.”

“My ---?” He reached up, feeling his curls (a bit dustier than he would prefer, though a hot bath was probably asking too much). His hair was a nice red-gold colour and it grew thick, but it was nothing spectacular or out-of-the-ordinary for hobbit hair.

A chuckle slipped past the stem of Gandalf’s pipe. “Even the Eagles have nests to pad with soft things. They are as fond of hair as any bird.”

He patted his head again, a little bemused, and abandoned his cosy spot to carefully approach Cirwae’s perch. She blinked at him and cocked her head to the side, watchful. Her wicked talons flexed.

“Madam,” he said, feeling a bit foolish but soldiering on regardless, “may I offer you a few strands of my hair? It is a paltry gift, but perhaps someday it will warm your hatchlings.”

The pleased glint that lit her eyes bolstered his confidence, which was rapidly deflated when she spoke. “I am an Elder, and too old for hatchlings."

“Ah. Er. . .” He heard Gandalf chortling to himself, and it took everything he had not to grit his teeth. “I hope I haven’t given offense.”

Cirwae could not smile, but the creak that came from her throat could have been laughter. “You have not, Hatchling.”

“Oh, I’m not a ----”

“I accept your gift.”

“Yes, of course.” Bilbo fumbled at his belt for Sting and trimmed a small hank of hair from behind his ear. He offered it to the Eagle, who took it delicately in her beak and began to spread it across the nest, where a few long white strands already resided.

“Join me, little one,” Cirwae said, and one massive wing unfurled toward him. “The north wind is cold. You have provided warmth and so you ought to partake of it.”

“Ah, I couldn’t possibly. . . . “

She stared at him with one gimlet eye. Bilbo heard Gandalf chuckling again, and he felt his cheeks grow hot. Well. It would not do to be ungracious. He sat, flinching as the sticks prodded his bottom, and was nearly knocked apace when her wing tucked down and dealt him a face full of feathers. He squirmed about until he could breathe, and then he lay there stiff as a stone.

Nevertheless, his new bed-mate was not so uncomfortable. The steady presence of two such powerful beings drove away some of the disquiet that lingered from his visit to the throne-room. Besides, she was very warm, and her feathers were as soft as down. The rumble of her breath and Gandalf’s humming lulled him into complacency, and he closed his eyes.

Under the shelter of an Eagle’s wing, the wind did not seem quite so cold.

 

***

 

Bilbo and Gandalf returned to Erebor at dawn's first light, just as the procession left the front gates.

They kept out of sight, watching as rows of warriors marched across the drawbridge. The dwarves were decked in war-armour, spears and axes hefted at their shoulders and swords at their belts. Their helms glittered in the rising sun. At the rear of the procession was Prince Frerin, riding a black ram and carrying a banner with seven stars. His armour and helm were crafted of gold, and as he passed over the bridge, Bilbo could see a cobweb of golden beads woven in his beard. He made for a splendid sight. Beneath his helm his face was unsmiling, despite the rowdy cheers and well-wishes of the crowd.

Bilbo sought out the king, who stood on the battlements with Dís and Thorin, all of them resplendent in formal court-wear. Thráin’s countenance was alight with satisfied pride, and he raised his hand for silence as Frerin bid the company halt and removed his helmet.

“You see before you Erebor’s finest warriors,” Frerin called to him. “With your blessing, Your Majesty, we go now to the Iron Hills to offer our aid where we may.”

“My blessing you have,” Thrain returned, beaming, “and the blessings of Erebor for her future king.”

Bilbo heard Gandalf’s sharp intake of breath, but it was not until he glimpsed the shock on Frerin’s face that he realized what had been said. The respectful silence of the gathered dwarves took on the dreadful stillness of discomfort and disbelief -- it seemed as though no one knew how to react. Thorin stood at his father’s side, his expression blank. If he had any thoughts about apparently being disinherited, he did not appear inclined to show them. Dís was not so circumspect: her cheeks were red as tomatoes, and she trembled with fury.

“Go forth!” King Thráin boomed. “Win a glorious victory over our foes.”

Frerin seemed stunned yet, his eyes seeking out his siblings’ faces, but the order could not be gainsaid. “As my lord commands,” he said, and he turned about with a sharp gesture to depart.

“Oh, dear,” Bilbo said faintly, as the mumbling crowd dispersed above them. “I suppose this is . . . not good?”

Gandalf’s lips were pursed. “There is no time left.” He inhaled heavily, pinching at the bridge of his crooked nose, and then shook his head. “So be it. Come, Bilbo.”

Bilbo presumed that they would go directly to the throne-room, but Gandalf left him in the dressing-room to collect their things. They would not stay any longer, he said, and he would speak with Dís to have her ensure that the king would not be in the throne-room while they examined it. Bilbo packed up Gandalf’s spare cloak and a book or two and saw that everything was put back in its place while he waited.

And waited.

It was taking a long time.

The moment he gave up and sat down by the fire, a commotion erupted in the hallway. Someone was screaming like they had been gutted. Bilbo leapt to his feet, Sting unsheathed in an instant. The door burst open and Bilbo halted his swing not an instant too soon: it was Gandalf, and in his hand was the Arkenstone.

“Gandalf!” Bilbo gasped. “What have you done?

“We must remove this from the mountain post-haste.” Gandalf stuffed the stone in a handkerchief and thrust it towards Bilbo. Its brilliant white light spilled out through the fabric. “Take this and run. Above this room on the next tier, there is an open door facing the east, next to a gallery. Go through it, and Cirwae will be there waiting for you. Stop for no one.”

Bilbo could hear the clatter of booted feet approaching. “And what of you?”

Gandalf’s staff flared. “I will provide the diversion. Take it. Now.”

Bilbo had no choice. The Arkenstone seemed to hum in his hands, and when he slipped on his ring, the nauseous, dizzy feeling once more nearly had him crumpling. Shaking it off as best he could, he wedged the stone into the crook of his elbow and fled.

He passed dozens of dwarves, running at full tilt with their spears and swords outstretched -- it gave him a moment’s concern, but Gandalf had never had difficulty getting himself out of trouble before. He dodged the guards neatly and darted up the staircase, only to be abruptly cut off by the king himself.

“Thief!” Thráin shrieked. For one wild moment, Bilbo thought that his trusty ring had failed, but he saw then that Thráin’s eyes were staring past him, unseeing. Still, it was as though he were scenting Bilbo like a hound; he kept pressing closer, and Bilbo was only just able to evade his grasping hands. “I know you are there! Show yourself, you coward! You filth!”

He ran again, and at his heels was Thráin, who proved extraordinarily fast for an old dwarf wearing a hundredweight of gold jewelry. Bilbo panted, clutching the Arkenstone in sweating fingers, and did his best not to stumble.

The passage was a maze of doors and corridors, and to his horror, Bilbo found himself pinned in the corner right next to his escape route, Thráin boxing him in and lashing out blindly. His fist cracked the wall, sending a shower of broken rock down onto the polished floors. The door was open and so close. In desperation, Bilbo bent low, intending to ram himself right past the dwarf, when Thorin suddenly appeared and caught his father’s arm.

“Adad, stop!”

At first the king reared back as though he meant to strike Thorin, but instead his anger seemed to drain from him, leaving only despair. His face crumpled. “Thorin,” he sobbed. He clutched at the prince’s tunic, trembling from head to toe and sinking to his knees. “My son, my son!”

Thorin looked half-pained and half-hopeful; he caught his father’s hands and held them. “Adad, please, you will hurt yourself. I saw him take it, but we will take it back. I will help you repay his treachery, I swear it.”

“It calls to me,” Thráin cried. His eyes were crazed and wet, and spittle flew from his lips. “It cries out for rescue! Thorin, do not let him take it from me!”

Bilbo slid his back against the rock, inching toward the door, but his movement seemed to jar Thráin out of his stupor. In a flash, his rage returned tenfold; he shoved away from Thorin roughly, his eyes blazing and teeth bared.

“There! The thief, don’t you hear him? Catch him! Kill him!”

Bilbo ran.

The open doorway led to a rocky plateau. They were on the side of the mountain, Bilbo realized, not too far from where they had made their camp. Cirwae was nowhere in sight. Bilbo paused long enough to turn and take stock, disoriented.

“Follow him,” Thráin howled from the floor, pointing up at the path toward him. He must have fallen. His shoulders heaved and his face was red. “Go, Thorin! Damn you, go.”

Thorin did as his father bid him, obediently leaping over the ridge and up the path. Thráin’s screams faded as they ran, the doorway vanishing around a bend in the mountain rock. Bilbo was quick on his feet, but the persistent pain in his head slowed him; to his dismay, he found that Thorin was close behind him, though he was more likely to trip over Bilbo than catch him.

Bilbo skidded to a halt, hoping to let the dwarf pass him, but he kicked up a cloud of dust in his haste, and Thorin saw it. His eyes widened in disbelief. He flung out his arms, and by chance his big hand landed on Bilbo’s head, seizing his hair. A loud shriek coming from the empty air startled the prince -- Thorin stumbled in his haste to back away and lost his footing on the loose shale. His head struck the rock with a sharp crack, and he lay still.

Bilbo stared down at him in horror until the steady beat of Cirwae’s wings brought him back to his senses. He threw himself to his knees, half-convinced that he had managed to kill the poor dwarf, and he could have cried with relief when he saw that Thorin still breathed. There was no blood, but a hard knot was already forming under the mass of dark hair. Bilbo knelt there for a moment, his hands pillowed under Thorin’s neck, and dithered with himself.

What was he to do? He could not take Thorin with him, nor bring Thorin back to the mountain without risking capture himself. But he couldn’t leave him here either. There were wargs on the mountain, and the prince was unconscious. He would stand no chance against a warg pack in such a state even if he had a tree branch at hand. Only King Thráin knew where his son had gone, and with Thráin’s mind as fractured as it was, it could be days before anyone thought to look up here . . . .

“Drat!” Bilbo cried. Thorin was far too heavy to lift, but Bilbo managed as best he could, straining and dragging his limp body toward Cirwae, the dwarf’s boot-heels scraping through the dirt. It was all very undignified.

Amusement flickered in the gold depths of Cirwae’s eyes, but she obligingly bent her regal head for Bilbo to get Thorin on her back, using her claws to hoist them up. “Thank you,” he panted, dabbing at his damp face with his handkerchief.

“Hold fast,” said she, and she spread her great wings and took flight.

Flying with an Eagle would have been a pleasure -- for Bilbo loved with feeling of the breeze in his face, and watching the trees and mountains shrink below was exhilarating -- but the vastness of the sky held no wonder for him today. The Arkenstone was a cumbersome weight in his pocket, and the echo of King Thráin’s pitiful sobs rang in his ears. He clutched Thorin’s belt so tightly his hands grew numb, wary of the dwarf slipping off Cirwae’s glossy feathers and falling to his death.

Gandalf was nowhere to be seen, but the Eagle seemed to know where she meant to go, striking forward with confidence. There was nothing for Bilbo to do but hold on and wait. Cirwae’s wings fluttered in the wind, and up they flew until Erebor faded to a mere speck beneath the mist of the clouds.

 



 

Chapter Text



PART THREE


 

FLIGHT AND FLAME



 

 

“LAY FORWARD,” CIRWAE commanded, her voice scarcely penetrating the screaming whistle of the rain and wind.

Bilbo looked away from the gathering black clouds and did as she bid him, shuffling forward into the crook of her shoulder to clasp one sopping arm around her neck while the other clung to Thorin’s waist. Her wings flicked back as they dove toward the rocky hills below. Thorin’s dead-weight pulled painfully on Bilbo’s shoulder; in desperation he cast a pinning leg over the dwarf as they hurtled down and down and down.

Through watery eyes, Bilbo glimpsed Gandalf atop an outcropping, his staff a brilliant light in the growing darkness. He did not trouble himself to wonder how the wizard had gotten there first -- Gandalf had his ways -- but he was surprised to see that he had Myrtle and Fleetfoot with him.

Cirwae’s talons touched the earth with a dancer’s grace at the crest of the precipice. Before Bilbo could so much as draw a breath, Gandalf was there beside them.

“Bilbo Baggins, put that dwarf back where you found him!”

Bilbo stayed where he was, lest he leap up and shake his friend by his beard until his teeth rattled. “Pardon me! He struck his head by accident -- what else was I to do? Leave him alone to be torn to ribbons by wargs?”

Gandalf plucked the dwarf from Bilbo’s arms, settling him gently on the ground before reaching up to help the hobbit dismount. Cirwae cast the water from her wings and took flight again. Bilbo knelt to cushion Thorin’s head on his lap while Gandalf examined him.

“I will need to bandage his head,” said Bilbo as Gandalf studied the lump on the back of the dwarf’s skull. “I have a hot poultice for the swelling. There must be a village of Men where we can leave him safely.” He gave the prone body in his lap a careful prod and then, when that failed to produce any reaction, a few pinches. “Do wake up, Your Highness. We will send you back to Erebor if you’ll only wake up.”

The dwarf did not respond.

“Have pity on me,” Bilbo moaned. He had never been much for mingling with fine folk, and now here he was, kidnapping princes.  “What do we do?”

“Nothing at the moment,” Gandalf returned. “Sturdy things, dwarves -- he will be fine in a few hours. Such fussing does not become you, Bilbo.”

Bilbo scoffed (rather churlishly, but one could hardly be blamed for a momentary lapse of dignity in these trying circumstances). Blight and bother these wizards! They were good for nothing! “Laugh at me all you like, but help me get him dry. He will catch his death of cold if we stay out here in the rain.”

“Do you have the Arkenstone?”

At the mention of it, the nagging discomfort in Bilbo’s temples returned in full measure. He groped in his pocket to retrieve it. It glittered like starlight, and Bilbo never wanted to see it again. “Take it, please.”

It disappeared into the folds of Gandalf’s robes, and it was a smidge alarming how relieved Bilbo was to have it out of his hands. Even his headache seemed to lessen.

Gandalf lifted the dwarf onto his back with an ease that belied his whitened hair and stooped shoulders, and Bilbo led the ponies. They had barely reached the level ground before Cirwae reappeared with news of a suitable hollow a half-mile away. The cavern was shallow, a tight fit for an Eagle and two horses, but somehow they all managed to squeeze themselves into the sheltering rock. As soon as Gandalf settled Thorin down, Bilbo emptied his pack and set to work. First he patted the dwarf’s face dry and painstakingly cleaned his cuts and scrapes. The prince's breaths came steady and strong. Bilbo pried up one eyelid to see if he might stir. He did not, but up close Thorin’s eyes were a soft blue, muddied with just a hint of grey. They were quite a nice colour.

Bilbo stopped prodding at the poor fellow and began to wring out his long, thick masses of dark hair before he took a chill. Dwarvish hair had a curious texture to it, wiry and heavy, like horse-hair, and it was bound up in elaborate braids that Bilbo had no hope of replicating. There were a half-dozen silver beads in his beard as well, stamped with the most curious runes and symbols. Gandalf gave him a disapproving look when he lifted one up to examine it.

They banked up a fire and pulled off Thorin’s sopping wet clothes, which they hung with their own coats near the fire to dry. Gandalf produced a spare blanket to warm the shivering dwarf and preserve his modesty. Bilbo’s best willowbark and turmeric poultice bubbled merrily in a tin cup, and he laid out strips of linen for binding while he waited for it to congeal. It occurred to him to wrest off Thorin’s sodden boots as well, and when he did, he was tremendously amused. How small and dainty dwarvish feet were! Little wonder that they wore iron-capped shoes.

Their camp began to settle as the sky darkened outside. Myrtle and Fleetfoot gnawed at the sparse grass growing around the mouth of the cavern while Cirwae industriously preened, ruffling her wings every so often to shake away a stray droplet. After an hour or two by the fire, Thorin’s colour was much improved and he began to shift restlessly under his blanket, but he did not wake. Bilbo applied another dollop of poultice, keeping his touch light, while he recounted his confrontation with the king and their hasty escape.

“Darkness moves in the East, Olórin,” Cirwae concluded when Bilbo’s sorry tale came to an end. “I smell it in the air. The clouds gather.” She clicked her beak. “I smell it on the dwarf there. It lingers on him like smoke.”

“I fear you may be right, my friend.” 

Cirwae flicked her round, yellow eyes toward Bilbo. The fine feathers around her neck puffed up. “It lingers on you. You should not have gone into the mountain.”

“Well, I’m not sorry to leave that place,” he admitted. “Perhaps Prince Thorin will be able to help us find a way to salvage it.”

“You would do better to leave him behind, little one,” she said, and then she turned away to assemble her nest in the corner.

Bilbo frowned after her, starting when Gandalf touched his sleeve. He took the coat that Gandalf handed him, its fabric stiff but only a tad damp, and put it back on gratefully. Despite the blaze, the evening air was cool. “Are his things dry yet?”

“Nearly. Dwarf-spun fabrics are very heavy. You should eat something.” 

“I’m not hungry.” Bilbo tucked the bandage behind Thorin’s ear, his fingers glancing over an earring set with a square sapphire.

Gandalf sighed. “What happened was no fault of your own.”

“It was poorly done of me. I probably ought to have left him.”

“Probably,” Gandalf agreed.

Bilbo huffed.

“But what is done is done. Having Thorin with us may yet prove an advantage.”

A thin, pained groan interrupted their conversation. Bilbo looked down to see Thorin’s eyelids fluttering. He crouched down to help him along, but Gandalf caught his arm.

“Do not crowd him,” he warned. It was wisely said, for the next instant, the dwarf bucked up from his blankets in a whirlwind of flesh and hair. He stared at Bilbo, blank and uncomprehending, before he turned to gape at the cave around them.

“All is well, Your Highness,” Bilbo soothed, aware that he was lying through his teeth. “You are among friends.”

“How is your head, Thorin?” Gandalf asked solicitously.

“Master Gandalf? Where----” The prince put his palms to the ground in obvious bewilderment, and then his face contorted with something very near to betrayal. He threw aside his blanket and staggered to his feet, evidently unconcerned by his nudity.

Bilbo resisted the urge to cover his eyes. “Your Majesty, you really oughtn’t be standing yet. You have had a nasty knock to the head.”

Before any of them could react, Thorin heaved up a log from the fire and braced it in front of himself like a sword. “Come no closer,” he growled, and Bilbo froze.

Gandalf put out his hand placatingly. “Now, now, Thorin, you must calm yourself.”

“Where have you taken me?” he demanded. His stance was blustering defiance and challenge, but there was fear in his eyes. “If you mean to ransom me, you’ll get nothing!”

“Do not be absurd! Master Baggins and I have no desire for your gold, and no harm will come to you.”

“Do you expect me to trust your word?” Thorin said angrily. He shook his torch in their direction. “You stole our most sacred treasure -- I saw you take it myself! My sister trusted you, sent for you and this . . . this little rat in desperation, and you repaid her trust by robbing us.”

Rat! “I am a hobbit, and I’ll thank you to remember it,” Bilbo cried.

“You are a halfling rat and a brigand!”

Bilbo took a deep breath and reminded himself that the prince had been disinherited and abducted and had altogether had a rather bad day. He was entitled to an insult or two. “Here,” he said, “let’s all calm ourselves and talk about this sensibly.” He took Thorin’s clothes from the makeshift rack. Keeping his movements slow and deliberate, he offered the trousers and tunic, which were summarily snatched up. The dwarf managed to get his trousers on one-handed, but when he wrestled the tunic over his head, he stumbled dizzily. Bilbo instinctively reached out for him, but Thorin slapped his hands away with an indignant hiss.

Bilbo prudently retreated, but the neither the distance nor having his clothing restored to him pacified Thorin. He kept the flaming branch before him as he surveyed the cavern, taking in the sight of Cirwae with only a slight widening of his eyes. He swept his palm across the ground again, his nostrils flaring. “We are in the Southern Fells.”

“We are,” Gandalf confirmed.

“Why have you taken me here?”

“Not for any nefarious purpose,” Bilbo protested. “It was an accident.”

“An accident,” Thorin repeated tonelessly.

“You fell and struck your head. I was afraid the wargs might eat you.” Thorin’s glare did not lessen a whit. “You don’t believe me.”

“I will believe you when you return me to Erebor with the Arkenstone.”

“You really should not be on your feet with a head wound,” Gandalf said mildly. “Perhaps you would care to put that log down.”

Thorin only grasped it more tightly.

Gandalf's expression spoke clearly enough his opinions on the stubbornness of dwarves. “I ask you this: Your sister said that Thráin first exhibited strange behaviours around last Durin’s Day. Would you agree?”

Thorin kept his silence, assessing, his feet shifting restlessly. “Aye,” he said at length, with palpable distrust.

“So Thráin’s affliction appeared a year past.”

“As I said.”

Gandalf merely raised his eyebrows. “When was the Arkenstone found?”

Thorin stared at him.

“Pray correct me if I am wrong, but the stone was discovered in the diamond mines in the month of Ăzhûng, the day before the festival of the First Wake began. Your father commissioned a mithril casing for it, and it was set above the throne at the first light of Durin’s Day. He declared it to be the heart of the mountain, the King’s Great Jewel.”

“What game are you playing at?”

“He was enamoured of it,” Gandalf continued levelly. “Everyone of note paid tribute to it, for it was displayed with pride above the throne. Folk came from far and wide to glimpse its beauty, but Thráin grew jealous of it. Visitors were turned away at the throne-room doors. He began to see thieves at every turn. Including you.”

From the gutted look on the prince’s face, Bilbo thought that the jab had met its mark.

“I ask you, son of Thráin: would your honoured father have ever held any heirloom back from his children? Would he have ever forbade you from setting foot in the throne-room that was meant to be yours when he passed?”

“The Arkenstone is beyond priceless,” Thorin said, but he looked troubled. “It is a gift from the Maker, the treasure of our people.”

“Oh, for --- I happen to know that you are not a fool, but you are doing your best to convince me otherwise! Think! By your own account, Thráin’s temperament became altered after the stone's discovery. When it was set above the throne, the sickness festered. The Arkenstone is a black poison whose nature we do not yet understand, but it has corrupted your king.” Gandalf closed his eyes and shook his head. “No, you are no fool, Thorin Oakenshield. You know that returning the Arkenstone to your father will not make him love you again. It will only spell his ruin, and yours.”

Against the wall, Thorin had grown very still.

That . . . that stung too sharp, too close. Bilbo turned away a little, back toward the fire, feeling that he was intruding on something very private.

“If it is the Arkenstone,” Thorin murmured, “should he not be cured now in its absence?”

“No.” Gandalf seemed to regret having to say so. “There is a pall in the mountain itself. I felt it, even after the stone had been removed. It will take a deal more effort to expel it, though I have hope that it can be done once the stone has been dealt with properly. Believe me or not if you choose, but Master Baggins and I are here to help you.”

Thorin bowed his head. He came away from the wall and dropped the burning log back into the fire. “Forgive me, I ----” He staggered then, his knees crumpling under him. Bilbo lunged forward with a cry, but Gandalf had already caught him.

They laid him down. Bilbo set a pot boiling for tea, but the prince was already stirring before the steam had begun to curl into the air. He tried to sit and promptly collapsed back against the bundled blanket with a grunt; Bilbo braved his wrath and palpated the knot on his scalp before checking Thorin’s eyes. The pupils were much too large.

“Your head must hurt something dreadful. Do you feel as though you might be sick?”

He did not really require an affirmation -- the peculiar green tinge to Thorin’s cheeks was one that Bilbo knew far too well. He measured out a generous spoonful of powdered ginger-root and added it to the tea, giving it a good stir before pouring the lot into one of Gandalf’s large mugs and placing it within Thorin’s reach.

“Drink this. It will ease your headache and take away the stomach pains.”

The dwarf pushed the mug away. Bilbo pushed it right back. “It is only willowbark, ginger, and cherry-root. If I wanted to poison you, I wouldn’t do it with tea.” When Thorin made no move to take it, Bilbo decided that he was done sparing anyone’s delicate sensibilities. “Unless you would prefer to empty the contents of your stomach all over yourself -- and I swear on my mother's garden that I won’t clean up after you -- drink it this instant.”

Thorin took the cup.

None of them slept a wink that night. The dwarf sat against the wall of the cave, aching head cradled in his hands, and another word could not be wrested from him. Gandalf kept watch at the cave’s entrance. Bilbo stayed awake himself to ensure that Thorin did not sleep too deeply, for head wounds were tricky things. Cirwae was quiet, but her eyes gleamed in the dark and her feathers rustled every so often.

When the sun finally rose, none of them were rested, save perhaps the ponies. After another mug of the tea and a fresh application of poultice, the worst of Thorin’s discomfort seemed to have subsided. The swelling had gone down and his face was no longer pinched with pain. His meekness, however, had also left him; he argued with Gandalf, half-demanding and half-pleading to return to Erebor.

Bilbo packed their satchels and hoisted himself up onto Myrtle to observe the quarrel. While the Arkenstone obviously could be returned to the mountain, Bilbo did not see why Thorin must stay with them, but he trusted Gandalf. His schemes and plots tended to turn out well in the end, however nonsensical they might seem in the moment, and his intentions were nearly always good. Therefore Bilbo would keep his own counsel until further explanation was offered.

“You will ride with one of us,” Gandalf told Thorin at last in a severe tone that brooked no argument. “Make your choice, and be hasty. We are wasting daylight.”

The prince hesitated. Bilbo could almost see him reasoning that riding with the least imposing of his captors was wiser (not to mention that Myrtle’s squat stature would be more comfortable for someone with such stumpy legs.) Thus he was not surprised when Thorin approached him. Bilbo offered him a hand up and received a disdainful look for his trouble.

Gandalf led the way, the ponies trotting amicably along the uneven stones. It occurred to Bilbo too late that they should have checked their companion for weapons, though in all honesty the heft and weight of the arm around his hip could probably crush him between one breath and the next. He remembered the glee with which Lady Dís had recounted her brother's killing of the wolves and hoped that Thorin would not think to make a prize pelt of him as well.

They rode hard. The storm of the night before had cleared, leaving a blue sky dappled with gossamer white clouds in its wake. They seemed to be heading south, if the lay of the mountain behind them was any indication. By the size of the peak, Bilbo judged that a day’s journey would bring them back to Erebor -- a mere stone’s throw. Where their destination was, he had no idea. Before them were a series of rocky hills, their backs bare of trees and riddled with boulders; they was unfamiliar to Bilbo, and the further they went, the tenser the prince became. He was stiff in the saddle, holding himself as far apart as he could. He would be very saddle-sore indeed if he didn’t relax. Bilbo sought in vain something reassuring to say. It did not appear that the prince had sustained any serious damage from his misadventure, but Bilbo could not promise that everything would be well. Nor could he promise that Thorin would soon be free.

Bilbo’s stomach whined, reminding him that he had had no breakfast, nor any supper the evening before. He thought wistfully of the breakfast he’d shared with Lady Dís, and it made him remember the graciousness of her welcome. Was she grieving over the loss of her other brother, so soon after the first? The notion sat ill with him, and he hoped that Gandalf might be persuaded to send back some word of Thorin to the princess. As he pondered this, it occurred to him that Dís might be in some danger herself. If Thráin believed his children to be embroiled in treasonous activity, might he think Thorin’s disappearance with the Arkenstone to be some sort of plot between them? There was a dreadful thought! Oh, he had been foolish to take Thorin away. With the throne’s heir vanishing on the very day that he had been disgraced publicly before the gates -- well, might the dwarves think it defection, or worse? Suppose they thought that Thráin had banished him? 

Myrtle picked her way carefully down a hillock, and at his back, Thorin shifted his weight in response. Several crooked strands of hair clung to Bilbo’s shoulder as he resettled; they smelled of the turmeric poultice and woodsmoke, with a clinging vestige of some sort of sweet incense.

If he and Gandalf could gain Thorin’s cooperation the situation might be salvaged, but Thorin had no cause to trust them. Some familiarity would help, surely? “Erebor is lovely. Do you like living in a mountain?” As soon as the question, nervous and high-pitched, passed his lips, Bilbo winced. Thorin was a dwarf -- of course he liked mountains. “I mean to say, Erebor is very lovely. Very, uh, very grand. I only meant that you must love it a great deal. No doubt you miss it. Oh, not to say that you won’t see it again! That’s not . . . of course you shall. We’ll get this silly matter straightened out and you will be back in Erebor where you belong.”

Thorin was silent.

Perhaps it was better not to speak.

On they rode. Gandalf was uncommonly quiet, his attention fixed inward, though he was often watching the sky. They stopped to stretch their legs and rest the ponies, and sure enough Thorin’s gait was stiff-legged. The dwarf refused any offers of food, though he did drink water from his cupped hands at the stream. He kept his suspicious, wary reserve once camp was made at sundown, sitting at as great a distance as he could manage without losing the fire’s warmth. Gandalf was conferring with Cirwae a distance away, their voices low, and so Bilbo applied himself to the task of cooking a good supper.

Stew was simple but rich enough to fill empty stomachs after a day’s travelling. Bilbo set about warming rendered fat and water for broth and cutting up a generous amount of potatoes, carrots, and salted coney, with a few handfuls of spring peas, onions, and herbs for flavour. He could feel Thorin’s eyes on him all the while. The look was not friendly, but Bilbo did his best to ignore it. By the time the stew was finished, it was wonderfully fragrant. Bilbo filled a bowl first for Thorin, knowing that he had eaten nothing for at least a day. He approached like one might approach a bristling badger to offer it, and after a moment, Thorin reluctantly took the food, his caution overwhelmed by hunger. Bilbo gave him a slight smile and went on -- the dwarf was capable of being sensible, at least.

Cirwae left to seek her own dinner while Gandalf came to collect his share. The stew was well-seasoned, but Bilbo found himself picking at it. He was too anxious yet to eat much. An unhappy table made for poor appetites, or so his father had always said. Still, Bilbo was gratified to see that Thorin’s appetite was good. The prince was not so undignified as to eat with any real enthusiasm, but he finished his bowl in short order and his gaze strayed toward the pot longingly. It became evident that he would not ask for more. He was proud, Bilbo thought.

Gandalf finished his own meal and set the empty bowl aside with a contented sigh. “You have outdone yourself as usual, Bilbo."

Bilbo, acutely aware of listening ears, considered how best to phrase his request. “If you are done with your dinner, I would speak to you.”

“Speak of your schemes openly, halfling,” Thorin grunted, with much bitterness. “You know I can do nothing about them.”

Gandalf knotted his fingers in his lap. “Perhaps we would be more forthcoming if you saw fit to provide some answers to our questions.”

“Perhaps I would be more forthcoming were I not a prisoner,” Thorin said coldly.

“Perhaps,” said Gandalf, with a droll look. He reached into his cloak and withdrew the Arkenstone. “Bilbo, do come here. If you feel equal to it, I would have you try to contain it.”

“Now?” Bilbo cried.

“Yes, now."

A refusal was on the tip of Bilbo’s tongue, but then Gandalf added, “I believe an examination will clear up several matters for us all. If you please, Bilbo.”

Reluctantly, the hobbit fetched his satchel while Gandalf placed the Arkenstone down onto the grass. Its light was as blinding and beautiful as ever. Thorin’s attention was fixed upon it, something fearful in his gaze, and Bilbo wondered if he thought they were going to smash it to pieces right before him. He forced himself to concentrate, counting and recounting the collection of mathoms that he set out in a row on his travelling coat: three bay leaves, one twist of mistletoe, four dried wisteria petals, a handful of salt, a copper coin, and a chunk of rose-coloured quartz.

Bilbo knew, even as he arranged the items carefully around the Arkenstone, that his little ritual would not work. Gandalf had to have known too. These wards were meant for the containment of wraiths, not for lifeless objects, no matter how cursed. Still, he obliged and sat back only when he was satisfied that they were all in place. “Your turn,” he said, and the wizard came forward to lay his hands over it.

“What do you . . . . ?” Thorin trailed off, his eyes growing wide in the light of the fire.

The Arkenstone had begun to burn blue, the deep cerulean blue of seawater and summer sky. Gandalf murmured under his breath all the while, words that Bilbo would never be privileged to learn but which rang in his ears with a solemn and ancient weight. The Arkenstone grew brighter and brighter still, until it was painful to gaze upon, and then it dimmed as the blue light vanished entirely. “Do you see anything?” Gandalf asked.

Bilbo peered into the pearly depths of the jewel. To him, its colours seemed to shift, as though carried along by a slow current. There was nothing for him to see, no shadows lurking inside, but he felt the stone humming beneath him. It was . . . it was almost as if it breathed. As if it were sleeping. He shuddered.

He glanced up and realized the true purpose of Gandalf’s request. The wizard was not looking at the stone -- he was watching Thorin, marking his reactions. The prince’s discomfort was obvious. His palms twitched against the grass and his scowl was fierce, but he had made no protest, nor any motion to take the Arkenstone from them. Bilbo remembered the desperate, feral manner in which King Thráin had clawed at him. He would have gladly torn the hobbit asunder to have the jewel in his hands once more. Try as he might, Bilbo could see none of that wild avarice in the eyes of Thráin’s son. "I see nothing."

Gandalf made a soft sound of approval, and the Arkenstone was returned to the depths of his cloak.

“What. . . what have you done just now?” Thorin was looking between them uncertainly, his gaze occasionally straying to the circle of herbs on Bilbo’s coat. “What could a halfling see that a wizard could not?”

“A great deal,” Gandalf said. “Big Folk see the horizon and often miss the subtleties of the earth underfoot.”

“Flatterer,” Bilbo chided, and was gratified to hear Gandalf’s fond chuckle.

The prince was looking between them with some astonishment. “Do you mean to say the tales of you are true?”

“As true as tales can be," Bilbo laughed.

Thorin’s face had gone white. “You are a necromancer.”

All the warmth vanished from Bilbo, needling irritation cold in its wake. “Why must everyone insist that I am a necromancer?!”

“Master Baggins is no necromancer, but he is an apothecary and an excellent cook.”

“He speaks to the dead,” Thorin said, sounding strangled.

“Well, yes, there is that.”

Bilbo threw up his hands and went over to collect the remains of his supper. There was a fraught silence before Thorin dared to speak again. “How does he talk to them? Black magic?”

“You may ask him yourself.”

“I have never used black magic and I never will,” Bilbo snapped. He finished his food, wincing to find it already gone cold. “I have no magic at all. I can see wraiths, and I have since I was a lad. That is all there is to it. Now here, do you want more stew?”

Thorin gave him such a look as suggested he thought them all thoroughly touched in the head.

“I can tell you this much, Thorin,” Gandalf said, “and you would be wise to listen. There is a presence inside this stone. It hides itself from me, and from Master Baggins.”

He seemed to consider this. “There are jewellers and scholars among my folk who might examine it, if it is as you say.”

“The Arkenstone will never be taken back into Erebor,” Gandalf declared. “On that point I will not be moved. I doubt we would find any answers there besides, for this is beyond the knowledge of your jewellers. The King’s Jewel is not a jewel.”

“Then what is it?”

“If I knew, I would most certainly tell you. That is why we are travelling to seek out someone who can help us.”

“Who?” Thorin demanded.

“Give me patience,” Gandalf mumbled. “I intend to take it to the Lady Galadriel of Lothlórien.”

Outrage was writ plain as day on the prince’s face. Bilbo knew enough of the old and enduring enmity between the dwarves and the elves to recognize that Gandalf could not said something more distasteful to Thorin. He would probably have preferred the King's Jewel be used as a whetstone rather than see a great dwarvish treasure be put into the hands of an elf, even if that elf were the Witch of the Golden Wood.

“I will hear no further argument, Thorin Oakenshield! Cleansing Erebor of what ails it shall mean accepting assistance even from those you distrust. If you care for your father the king, you will take the help that is offered you.”

Thorin ground his teeth, but his head bent in a terse gesture of acquiescence. “Do what you will with the stone and let me return home.”

“You know I cannot,” Gandalf returned tiredly.

The dwarf’s temper rekindled as swiftly as it had been extinguished. “Why?”

“I call your father my friend and always shall. You must try to trust me.”

“I hardly know you. If you want to do right by my father, you will return me home to him. You have no concept of what you might have wrought, what chaos you have caused. . . . By the Maker, I begin to wonder if Erebor will be standing when you finally see fit to release me!”

Bilbo could listen in silence no longer. He tugged at Gandalf’s sleeve. “May we speak for a moment? Just a moment.”

Gandalf gave him a searching look before leading him to the scant privacy of a nearby copse, Bilbo saw Thorin shift, his face alert, as though he meant to take his chance and flee; the next instant, he deflated visibly as Cirwae touched down next to him by the fire, her steady eye stern.

Bilbo stopped only when he was relatively assured of not being overheard -- with any luck, the ears of dwarves were not so keen as a hobbit’s. Gandalf settled himself against a tree, taking out his ever-present pipe. “Speak your mind, Bilbo. You always do.”

“We cannot keep him here against his will.”

“I dislike it as much as either of you,” Gandalf said, “but it is for his safety.”

“His safety?’

“You said yourself that Thráin sent Thorin to retrieve the Arkenstone from you. If we allow him to go and he returns to Erebor without the stone, I suspect the punishment for his failure will be swift and final.”

Bilbo caught his meaning at once. “No, surely not! Not his own son!"

Gandalf pursed his lips around the stem of his pipe. “Thráin has been utterly consumed by this sickness. If Thorin leaves, I fear very much for his life.”

This was distressing news. Bilbo began to pace, his supper curdling in his stomach. “We mustn’t let him return. Yet Lady Dís might find herself in danger. And what of her sons? Prince Frerin?”

“You have cause to worry, but the sooner we identify the source of the blight, the sooner we can return to the mountain.”

“This is dreadful,” Bilbo groaned. “He will hate us for keeping him from Erebor.”

“He will.”

“Better that he should think us crooks and brutes than that he should know his own father would kill him over a pretty rock,” Bilbo said unhappily. He rubbed his tired eyes. “Do you mean to take him with us all the way to Lothlórien?”

“Not so far. I would not bring evil into those fair lands. We shall meet before the eastern gate of the Greenwood in six days' time.”

“And the Eagle?”

“Sent by my lady.” Gandalf frowned a little. “For what purpose I cannot say.”

Bilbo paused in his pacing and laughed aloud. “She won’t tell you!”

“I trust the visions she receives in her mirror, and though it vexes me, I have learnt not to ask. I suppose it is fair turnabout.”

“It is indeed.” Bilbo turned his eyes back toward their camp. He could only just make out the light of their fire through the heavy brush. “Six days is so long. Anything could happen in that time. Must it be Lady Galadriel? What of Master Saruman?”

Gandalf looked rather shifty. “No, not Saruman,” he said, and left it at that.

“Would King Thranduil be able to help us?”

“Thranduil has great knowledge of the world and has seen many things, but I do not think it wise. He shares the dwarves’ fierce love of treasure.”

“But if the Arkenstone is not a jewel . . . .”

"It is as alluring as one. I would not risk it.”

“That was a sly trick, with the Arkenstone,” Bilbo said, half-reprovingly.

Gandalf was unapologetic. “I wished to see how it would affect him, else it would not be safe to have him so close. He seems spared from the worst of it; being barred from the throne-room may have saved him. By some grace the brunt of its influence was contained to Thráin, and Thráin alone.”

“I know you told him you did not know, but truly, have you even a suspicion of what it might be?”

“It is no spell or enchantment. That much I can tell.”

“To me it felt as though it were alive." Bilbo's heartbeat came faster at the memory of it. “As though it were aware of me.”

“It is,” Gandalf said. “When I looked upon it, it hid itself. It will not speak to me as it spoke to you in the throne-room. It knows, I think, that it is in unfriendly hands.”

“You think so? I wonder why it spoke to me at all.”

“It is merely a theory,” Gandalf harrumphed. “Allow a hobbit to cast away a wraith or two and suddenly he thinks himself a great magician!”

Bilbo grinned.

“Have heart, my friend, it will not be a mystery much longer. We shall take it to Lady Galadriel and see what it is concealing from us.” The words were fine, but there was something in his weathered face that gave Bilbo pause.

“You do know something,” he said stoutly, for he had his own suspicions too, looming ever larger as Gandalf’s silence stretched on. Part of him begged to prod no further and leave his fears unconfirmed, but that would only delay the inevitable. He planted himself in front of his friend and resolved not to budge until he had his answer.

Gandalf saw his determination and sighed. “I believe it may be the work of a barrow-wight.”

“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Bilbo mumbled.

 



 

Chapter Text

PART FOUR


 THE WITHERED HEATH



 

 

OVER THE COURSE OF THE NIGHT, Prince Thorin’s angry recalcitrance had contained itself to a caged, wary watchfulness. He made no arguments when they broke camp, though his gaze still often turned eastward. No longer was he a lump of unmoving rock on Myrtle’s back; his body rolled fluidly in time with Bilbo’s, betraying no small amount of experience with riding. He spoke if addressed and even spared a word of thanks when Bilbo changed the dressing on his head. It was a curious turn, but his compliance was to be preferred to scowls and threats of violence.

Gandalf led them south, cleaving through a pass that limned the distant dark shape of the Greenwood’s canopy. Bilbo knew now that it would take at least two days' riding to reach the Old Forest, but there were already signs that they were leaving the mountain range behind them: the vegetation grew wilder and the trees taller as craggy peaks diminished into rolling hills.

“This is not the way to Lothlórien,” said Thorin as they turned sharply westward. “Where are we going?”

Gandalf turned in his saddle to look at them. “Forgive me if I find it unwise to say too much, considering that you sent a raven to Erebor last night under cover of darkness."

The broad chest set against Bilbo’s back heaved uneasily, but the retort that issued from it was defiant. “Would you have everyone think me dead? There is no harm in allowing my sister to know that I live.”

“No harm in that, no,” Gandalf said, “but the battalion you asked her to send after you might constitute ‘harm.’”

Bilbo nearly groaned aloud.

“I would advise against any further messages,” the wizard continued, “unless you should like your soldiers to be wandering aimlessly all across Middle-earth when they ought to be guarding your kingdom.” Thus the reproof was delivered, and judging by the defeated slump of Thorin’s shoulders, it had been received. Bilbo pitied him.

“Have heart, Your Highness,” he ventured, for the dwarf’s ears alone. “Gandalf always does what is right, even if he sometimes forgets to be kind about it.”

After a long pause, Thorin said, “You are a strange creature."

Bilbo might have taken offense had he not sounded genuinely perplexed. He thought of the disfavoured prince who stood before his father and bore his public shame with dignity. He thought of the wild-eyed, hollering, naked berserker who had threatened him with a burning log. He thought of sweet harp music, plucked by gentle hands. “I could say the same of you,” he murmured.

They lapsed into silence as the ponies forded a shallow stream. Myrtle struggled over the slick stones while Bilbo held his breath. He had travelled by river before, huddled at the bottom of the boat, but he had never been able to conquer his innate dislike of moving water. Judging by Thorin’s absolute stillness, dwarves were none too fond of it either. Not until they were securely on land once more did the prince speak again. “I would know why you are here.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Why does a halfling keep company with a great wizard? I cannot imagine why a halfling would leave the West at all.”

“Why indeed? I presume you are a scholar of hobbits.”

Although Bilbo could not see Thorin’s face, he knew that the prince was frowning at his mockery. “I know enough. They are a meek folk who never lift a sword and have no craft to speak of. They are never seen beyond their fair lands.”

“Yet here I am.”

A blast of hot breath stirred Bilbo’s hair as Thorin made a sound of exasperation. “What you did to the Arkenstone last night . . . . ”

“Last night was mostly Gandalf’s doing, so you will have to apply to him.” Myrtle lost her footing in the soft mud of the bank; Bilbo tugged her back onto the path, clicking his tongue when she snorted rudely at him. “I suppose you think me a fraud.”

Thorin’s answer left him taken aback. “No.”

“Oh? Your sister thought so.”

The silence stretched so long that Bilbo began to think Thorin would not elaborate. “My sister is a practical dwarf.”

“And you are not?”

Another sigh touched Bilbo’s neck. “All our folk are educated in our songs and our sacred histories, but I was taught the Old Stories as well. A king must learn as much as he can of other lands and their peoples.”

“Sensible. Do you believe these old stories?”

“I believe,” Thorin said, “that there are forces in the world that cannot be understood, and perhaps are not meant to be.”

“That is very broad-minded of you.”

“But not so broad-minded of you, to think a dwarf incapable of such a belief.”

Bilbo blinked and then had to laugh at himself. “Very true, Your Highness.”

The prince merely grunted. “In any matter, it would be foolish of me to call you a fraud. No story I have ever heard of halflings has made mention of an ability to vanish into the air at will, yet you have done so.”

“It’s possible that you haven’t heard the right stories.”

“Is that is why you travel with Gandalf? I have heard of such gifts among Men. You are a Seer, perhaps.”

“I am not a Seer,” Bilbo said.

“An apprentice to the wizard?”

“He is my friend. As I said before, I have no magic.”

Thorin seemed unconvinced. They rode on, and if their silence was more companionable, Bilbo was not willing to assign much significance to it. The air suddenly stirred as Cirwae’s wings sent a gale across their heads; she shot into the sky like an arrow. Her feathers gleamed like gilded gold in the sun. Gandalf turned to watch her go, frowning.

They were passing through a pretty little glade by the river, their bodies thrown into dappled shadow, when Thorin abruptly asked, “Is it true that halflings live in burrows?”

“I wouldn’t call them burrows,” Bilbo protested. “They are perfectly lovely homes under the Shire hills, and they are built for every comfort.” Bag-End was little more than a faint memory now, seen through childish eyes. Yet he could remember the polished beams and spotless floors, the love that his father had carved into the walls. “Their proper name is smial.”

“You speak well. Who are your folk? What sort of people are your parents?”

“They were gentlehobbits,” Bilbo sighed, “as much good as it did them.” No amount of wealth or good reputation could have saved the Baggins name in those days. He often wondered, with a distant pang, whether it had ever recovered.

“May their forges burn forever, fanned by the breath of the Maker,” said Thorin gravely.

“Er, thank you. Though it has been many years now.”

“Have you no other kin?”

Dwarvish bluntness was something else. “Gandalf is as near as kin to me. He was a dear friend of my mother’s.”

“How did you come to travel with him?”

“My word, you are full of talk this morning,” Bilbo observed. “I wager you learnt tactics as well as your histories, and it is wise to know one's enemies.” Thorin said nothing. “No matter, Your Highness. I do not mind telling you my secrets, and I certainly don’t mind talking of myself. I have never heard of a hobbit who did. Gandalf took me in as a child after my mother and father passed, and I’ve been with him these . . . let’s see . . . gracious, it has been forty years exactly.”

“Forty! How old are you?”

“That’s very impertinent.”

“He is lately turned fifty,” Gandalf called, startling both of them. “His birthday is on the twenty-second of Havermath.”

“I’ll thank you to mind your own conversation,” Bilbo returned. The heavy arm around his waist had grown very tense. “Prince Thorin?”

“I must ask your pardon,” he said stiffly, to Bilbo’s bewilderment.

Gandalf laughed. “Master Baggins is no child. The lives of hobbits are measured differently; infrequently do they see a century.”

“So young,” the dwarf exclaimed. He looked to Bilbo for confirmation. “Is this true?”

“Yes, of course. I'm no youth. How old are you?”

“Impertinent,” said Thorin, and the brief flicker of merriment was so unexpected that Bilbo had no retort to offer. “I am approaching my two-hundredth year. I may see as many as three-hundred, if I am very lucky.”

Three-hundred years was nothing to the elves, of course, but it was a good allotment compared to the brief lives of hobbits and Men. “Remarkable,” Bilbo exclaimed. “I should not have thought you older than sixty.”

Whatever Thorin might have said in return, it was lost forever to a blast of wind from the east. The hot, steaming gust caught them all unawares; in the time it took Bilbo to utter a gasp, it ceased, leaving them in the cool autumn air once more.

Gandalf yanked hard on Fleetfoot's reins, drawing him abreast. His stare was fixed skyward, and when he clenched both fists around his staff, Bilbo’s stomach lurched.

“Bilbo,” said he sharply, “there is a thicket over the hill just there. Go at once and wait for me.”

The hot wind blew again. This time it did not dissipate. It was so thick and humid as to be stifling. Thorin coughed, and Bilbo covered his mouth with one sleeve, fumbling at his waist for Sting. A moment later, before their astonished eyes, a distant but unmistakable figure dropped below the clouds.

Bilbo gaped. “Is that a ---?”

“Dragon!” Thorin bellowed.

With terrifying speed, the creature hurtled down toward them. Gandalf leapt from Fleetfoot’s back, but Bilbo sat petrified. He had never seen a dragon, and none of his friend’s stories of them had adequately captured their heft and swiftness, the length of their wings or the roiling furnace of their mouths. The dragon looked like a writhing pillar of fire in the calm blue stretch of the sky, as beautiful as it was terrible. A plume of orange flame billowed from the creature’s snout -- Gandalf cast a shield to catch it, fire battering against the wall of white light, but Bilbo felt a shadow of scorching heat against his face.

“It’s a fire-drake.” Thorin’s voice was level, but it shook slightly. “Where are your weapons, halfling?”

“What?”

“Arrows,” the prince barked. “We need arrows.”

Into the air came an eruption of choking ash as Gandalf deflected another blast. The earth trembled as the dragon touched down, its massive claws cracking the rock underfoot. Fleetfoot broke into a gallop, and Myrtle shrieked in terror; it was all Bilbo could do to keep her reins in hand.

Shaking himself from his stupor, he began to dismount. With one foot in the stirrup, it occurred to him that Thorin could simply take the pony and return to Erebor. Yet the thought of attempting to explain to Lady Dís how exactly he had managed to burn her brother to a crisp was enough for Bilbo to make his choice. He stuffed the reins into Thorin’s hand and slipped down before the dwarf could react. “Stay out of sight.” He slapped Myrtle’s flank with a harsh, “Go!” and watched as she bolted after Fleetfoot, bearing Thorin toward relative safety.

With Sting at the ready, Bilbo ran to help his friend. From what he could see, magic seemed to have no effect on the beast. Perhaps if Gandalf could provide the distraction, Bilbo might be able to dash in and skewer it. Even as he considered this, he knew it would fail; he was small and quick-footed but no fighter, and dragons’ hide was said to be near impossible to pierce. What could his little letter-opener do against such scales?

Still, he had to try.

He stopped some distance behind Gandalf. The drake was in flight once more, and it hovered low, smoke pouring in steaming black trails from its nostrils. Bilbo squinted up at the glittering scarlet hide, searching for any flaw in its scales, any weakness around its throat and wings.

“Bilbo Baggins,” Gandalf growled, “leave this instant.”

“Shan’t,” he said breathlessly.

The dragon dove again, tail lashing against the wind. Bilbo's hands quivered and sweated around Sting’s hilt. Another shadow fell across the grass, and Bilbo saw, to his horror, that a second dragon had cast it. This one was smaller than the first, and its hide flashed gold and orange, its head crested with crooked horns. It began to plummet in concert with the other drake, their bodies moving in perfect, sinuous accord. They dropped and split apart, one circling back and the other forward as they released a plume of fire on either side. Their wiles did not account for the tricks of an Istari, however -- Gandalf’s light enveloped both of them, deflecting the flames. It nearly blinded Bilbo, but he struck out with his sword and hacked at the leg of the scarlet drake. The blade bounced off the scales harmlessly.

The drakes swept up together, leaving a curtain of smoke and charred grass behind them. The larger one retreated, but the other held its ground, snarling and screaming at Gandalf. Bilbo watched the fight nervously, looking for some path he might take to get within reach of the dragon’s great serpentine head, for putting out its eyes seemed the only option left. Absorbed as he was, he forgot the other drake until it was nearly upon him. He was tackled to the ground, the drake missing him by a mere hair’s breadth. His breath left him in a gasp as a heavy weight settled upon his back, and he struggled ferociously. Only Thorin’s hiss of “Stay still, damn you!” made him stop.

The fire-drake disappeared behind a spray of feathers. Cirwae slashed at the creature with outstretched talons, and her screams of rage were deafening. The two battled viciously, scarcely twenty feet above the stunned Bilbo and Thorin. The wind from their lashing wings was as powerful as a hurricane; Bilbo's fists found handfuls of Thorin’s hair and gripped it as they fought to keep themselves from blowing away.

Gandalf managed to dash the smaller drake against the rocky bank, and it tumbled into the water. At almost the same moment, an agonized shriek rent the sky, and Cirwae broke away from the tangle. Her talons were wet with blackish blood. With its belly slit neatly down the middle, the dragon fell in a gruesome cloudburst of its own entrails and hit the bank heavily. When Bilbo dared to look at it again, the light was already faded from its eyes. The river rose in a flume of water and foam as the other drake took to the sky, the rapid flapping of its wings carrying it away until it vanished from sight.

Thorin rolled off him with a grunt. Bilbo sat up. Cirwae fluttered to the ground with less grace than usual, one wing bent at an odd angle. Gandalf slowly lowered his staff and watched the horizon with a pinched, troubled brow.

“Goodness,” Bilbo said. His voice was too loud in the eerie stillness. His mouth tasted of ash. “Are you hurt, Your Highness?”

"Do not speak to me!"

“What?”

The prince still sat crouched in the grass, panting, but his face was twisted with fury. “You dare banish me from the battlefield as if I were untrained, as if I were beardless!

“What?” He failed to contain his disbelief, which needled Thorin all the more.

“Durin's folk do not cower and hide!” he snarled. “And you swing like a drunken elf! Who taught you your paces? They ought to be beaten.”

“I know as much as I need to know! Hobbits don’t go about brawling for the pleasure of it!”

“Be quiet,” Gandalf snapped. “Have either of you been injured?”

Bilbo took a calming breath and turned away pointedly from the fuming dwarf. There were more important things at hand. “No, but I fear Mistress Cirwae is.”

“It is but a shallow wound,” the Eagle assured them. 

To Bilbo’s worried eye, the jagged gash along her left wing did not look particularly shallow. Gandalf examined her wing, seeming to take her word that she was quite old enough to know her own limits, before moving on to the corpse on the bank. Bilbo followed him, despite how ill the sight of glistening pink innards strewn across the grass made him feel.

“Where did it come from?” he wondered aloud, staring at the pattern of ruby-coloured scales on its snout. The dragon was beautiful, in its own way, when its features were in repose. “I didn’t know anything could be so big.”

“That is a young drake, little one, hardly more than a hatchling." There was a limp in Cirwae's left leg too as she came to join them, Thorin trailing behind her. “I could not have slain a dragon full-grown.”

“Nor I,” Gandalf said.

Thorin looked as surprised as Bilbo. "This is a youngling?”

“She is,” said Cirwae. She circled the beast, and before Bilbo quite realized what had happened, there was the sound of rending flesh. He uttered a short squeak as the Eagle tore a wide strip of leathery skin from the dragon’s back. The exposed knobs of the spine were as white as goat's milk. Cirwae let the flesh fall from her beak and secured the body with her claws as she peered inside the gaping wound.

“She is a fire-drake from the Withered Heath, Olórin,” she announced. “Here, do you see the ridges on her spine? Those are a mark of Ancalagon's kin.”

“A curse upon this foul creature's head,” Thorin muttered darkly, and then he looked to Gandalf with steely determination in the jut of his chin. “We have had no dragons come so far south for five-hundred years. Erebor must be warned -- I insist upon it. Whether it is only these two or many more, Erebor must be told of the danger.”

“I will send word to your sister at once." Gandalf whistled, and a small brown starling touched down on his staff. “Who else should be told?”

“Balin. Send word to Balin, son of Fundin. He is first among the king's advisers.”

Gandalf sent the starling to Erebor with the news after they set the dragon’s body ablaze. Thorin did not seem satisfied, however. All through the afternoon he was anxious, his gaze straying back again and again toward the shadow of the Lonely Mountain.

 

***

 

They did not travel much farther that day, exhausted by the fight and impeded by their wounds. Bilbo’s ankle ached where he had fallen on it, and as Cirwae could not fly for any great length, her gait on the ground was slow and ponderous. Gandalf found them shelter in a hollow under a hillside cliff. It smelled strongly of mildew and moss from the river, but it would give them a measure of protection.

The Arkenstone was forgot in light of this new threat, at least to Bilbo’s mind. The sighting of a dragon was an ill omen, and two was worse. Fire-drakes kept to themselves in the desolation of the Withered Heath, but Lord Elrond had spoken of the wanton destruction they had wrought in the days before the Great Fall. Though no dragons living could compare to the wicked might of Ancalagon the Black, they were still much to be feared.

They ate quickly, and in silence. When supper was done, Gandalf stepped away with a rather cryptic remark, promising to return in short order. Cirwae went to keep watch atop the hill, leaving Thorin and Bilbo alone at the fire.

“Well,” Bilbo said, for lack of anything better, “now I may say that I have seen a dragon for myself. It is a privilege I should have been happy to be denied forever, but I suppose we cannot help these things.”

Thorin was staring into the flames. His fingers twisted in his lap, clenching and unclenching in an odd rhythm. There was taut tension in his shoulders, a darkness in what sliver of his countenance was visible behind the curtain of wavy hair. Bilbo faltered, suddenly recollecting how large the dwarf was in comparison to himself. He glanced up to reassure himself of Cirwae’s presence only to find that she had stepped away from her perch.

His moment of distraction was ill-timed. Thorin stood, hand flying to one of his boots; metal flashed in the firelight, and then Bilbo’s wrist was being crushed by strong fingers.

Bilbo hissed and drew a breath to call out for help, but he was promptly grabbed up against the prince's chest. Steel touched his throat, and he thought to himself that if he were very lucky, his wraith would not end up wandering this smelly hollow for all eternity.

“Be still,” Thorin whispered. The blade held steady under Bilbo’s chin, but he hardly dared breathe. “Listen well and do as I say. You will tell the Eagle to take us back to Erebor.” He punctuated the command with a warning squeeze.

For one thing, Eagles were not to be ordered anywhere. They went where they pleased and when it pleased them. For another, Bilbo was not keen on spending the rest of his natural life locked in a dwarvish prison. It seemed useless to explain this, however, when Thorin was in such a mood. Bilbo dug his toes stubbornly into the ground and hoped that the dwarf would hesitate to actually cut his throat.

Fortunately, his gamble was not to be tested, for a starburst exploded in front of them.

“Thorin Oakenshield!” Gandalf shouted. “Release my hobbit!”

The dagger fell to the ground. Gandalf looked much as he always did -- the drab, harmless grey wanderer -- but there was such an inferno in his eyes that the steadiest soldier of Men would have quailed before him. Even Bilbo flinched.

“Bilbo, has he harmed you?”

“I . . . no, no. No, Gandalf, I’m quite, uh, quite well. Thank you.”

“Good. Release him.” The arms clamped around Bilbo withdrew, and he stumbled forward clumsily. Wings fluttered overhead -- Cirwae had returned to her watchtower on the hill.

“That was foolish indeed,” Gandalf told Thorin, very coldly. “It would be wise to sit quietly and hold your tongue until you are capable of comporting yourself with honour.”

Thorin’s cheeks were bloodless beneath his beard. He left his knife where he had dropped it and backed away to the wall of the hillock, where he sat out of the reach of the fire. He was still and stiff and did not say a word even as Gandalf sheathed the dagger in the depths of his own cloak.

Bilbo stood where he had been left. His wrist ached and his face burned with embarrassment. He felt rather a fool himself.

“Are you sure you are not hurt?” Gandalf asked.

“I'm fine,” Bilbo murmured. He did not want to come back to the fireside. “I’ll just . . . I shall go keep watch for a bit, I think.” He took up his coat and began to climb the hill, hoping the short walk would soothe his nerves. Cirwae acknowledged him with a nod as he approached her roost. There were no clouds tonight, and the stars were bright -- the view before them was lovely. He felt dreadful.

Wishing to distract himself, he inquired after the Eagle's injury. The feathers looked clean, and all traces of the dragon’s blood had been scrubbed from her talons.

“It is painful, but it will heal,” she replied. "I think your wound troubles you more."

He rubbed his wrist. Bruises were already starting to rise on the moon-bleached skin. “It’s nothing. Merely a scratch.”

“That is not the wound I meant.”

“Sorry?”

She looked at him closely. “I prefer to speak truthfully, though never with intent to injure.”

“Of course.”

A soft chirrup of a sigh rumbled in her chest. “You wish too keenly to soothe the troubles of others. You wish too keenly to be repaid for your kindness with love. It is why you feel betrayed, now.”

Her words plucked a chord of recognition within him. She spoke true. It was too true, and he could not help but feel a little angry at her. “I don’t expect anything from anyone.”

“You walk for a time among those you help, and then you must leave them. Yet you covet their trust. Your deeds are good, but they will not win you the kinship you desire.”

Bilbo stared at her. She chirruped, a sound of sympathy and amusement both.

“My people name the high northern cliffs of Gondor their home. The dwarves have their mountains, and the elves their forests and dells, the Men their cities of stone. Hobbits have their Shire. The elves of the West tell tales of you, little one. I knew who you were ere Olórin brought you to me.”

“And what do they say?” Bilbo asked tiredly.

“That you have been touched by death. You should not have survived its mark.”

“No, I shouldn’t have.” Lord Elrond had said as much when Gandalf first brought him to Rivendell, a stricken lad torn from the only home he had ever known. The elf lord must have believed him asleep, else he would never have spoken so bluntly, but it was a conclusion that Bilbo would have reached on his own. The healers had murmured over him with alarm and fascination, and they seemed surprised to see him alive each morning.

“Olórin does not understand you. For all his wisdom he cannot. He is the Grey Pilgrim and has no home to call his own, as Aiwendil has the forest and Curumo his tower of Orthanc, and he is content in his wandering.” She looked at him, her amber stare unblinking. “It is a lonely thing, to forsake the living to walk among the dead.”

To Bilbo’s humiliation, he felt his chin tremble. 

“There is no shame in seeking a balm for loneliness,” she continued, “though the departed can offer only a fleeting companionship. Perhaps you have not realized yet that the living do the same.”

“He did his best by me."

“Of that I have no doubt.” She bent her head suddenly and nipped at his collar with her beak, like a mare reining in an unruly foal. “Take your rest now. It has been a long and wearisome day.”

He sat but did not sleep, his head aching under the weight of so many troubling thoughts. Cirwae did not settle down herself, but she stood a short distance away and watched him.

“Many years ago,” the Eagle said, apropos of nothing, “my nest-mate found himself stranded in the Barrow-downs of Eriador.”

Bilbo propped his chin on his updrawn knees, waiting.

“The tale Landroval brought back to me was a terrible one. He spoke of the barrow-wights and how they crept in the shadows, how they changed their shape and bent the wills of whatever creature they possessed. He told me that they smelt of ash and death.” Her feathers ruffled and then smoothed out in a tide-wave of moonlit gold. “It is how you smell. Was it a wight that touched you?”

“It was,” Bilbo said reluctantly. He did not like to speak of wights. “Gandalf believes the Arkenstone is anchored to one.”

“I do not believe it is so.”

“No?” 

“It does not smell of ash and death.”

Bilbo tugged his coat closer. “If that is so, we've done all this for nothing.” 

“Not nothing. We do not yet understand what the stone is, but it has rotted the mountain. It draws sickness and disease to itself. It hides from Olórin’s sight.”

“But you don’t think it a wight.”

“I do not,” she said simply.

Bilbo pushed his cheek into his knee, inhaling the familiar scent of pipe-weed and fresh air as he let his weary eyes droop. His wrist hurt. At that moment, some part of him wished that he had never answered Lady Dís’s letter. “Why?”

Cirwae cocked her head, her gaze solemn and knowing. “Because the fire-drakes of the North desire it for themselves, and they are coming to take it.”

 



 

Chapter Text


 

PART FIVE


 

A TEA PARTY



 

 

AT DAWN, BILBO rose, stretched the aches and twinges from his bones, cleaned his teeth, shrugged into his favourite green weskit, and began to gather together his pack and bedroll. If, during his morning routine, he did not look at the dwarf still curled against the rock wall, well, that was simply because he was making haste.

They ate no breakfast today. The smouldering remains of the campfire were doused and the ponies were saddled. There was a sense of unspoken urgency in the way in which Gandalf and Cirwae watched the sky, and Bilbo was no less eager to leave this land behind them. He swung up onto Myrtle’s back. Thorin approached them and then hesitated, looking uncertain.

“You will ride with me,” Gandalf said sternly, and Thorin offered no objection.

They rode at a punishing pace. It was not long at all before they reached the great bend in the river that marked the border of the farmlands of Dale from the realm of Thranduil’s wood-elves. Around that bend a small retinue awaited them: a half-dozen elves on horseback watched their approach, faces blank behind their shining helms.

Gandalf looked unsurprised to see them, but Bilbo’s heart sank. The Greenwood and Erebor might be uneasy allies, but the elves would take the prince away and escort him home to curry favour with their neighbours. It appeared that a similar notion had occurred to Thorin -- surely no dwarf had ever looked so relieved to see an elf. Bilbo gritted his teeth over a curse. Current grievance aside, he did not want to see Thorin returned to the mountain only to be abused or executed at his father’s hand.

“Gandalf, we cannot let them do this,” he hissed.

“Hush. Wait and see.”

An elf-maid in gusseted armour pulled her stallion to the front of the formation. Copper-coloured hair spilled over her shoulders, and on her helm was the crest of a captain of the Royal Guard. “Hail, Gandalf the Grey,” said she.

“Good morning,” Gandalf returned with an affable smile. “Though I am of course always delighted to meet loyal denizens of Thranduil's kingdom, I am sorry to say that I bear you a warning, and ill tidings of fire-drakes from the North.”

“Our scouts saw signs of them yestereve. You bring dark things at your heels, Mithrandir.”

“Dark things follow me of their own accord. I certainly do not invite them.”

“The Honourable King Thráin of Erebor has accused you of thievery,” she said bluntly, unamused. “He sent word to His Majesty King Thranduil to detain you, in the spirit of goodwill between our peoples.” Her gaze sought out the prince. Bilbo thought he detected a trace of reluctance in the stoic composure of her face. “Prince Thorin?”

“I am he.”

“You are also to be detained, Your Highness, by order of King Thráin.”

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open. Thorin’s hands were white-knuckled where they rested on his knees, but he betrayed no other sign of distress. “Detained,” he repeated.

The captain confirmed that it was so.

“On what accusation?”

“Treason against the crown of Erebor.”

“Poppycock,” Bilbo burst out in disbelief. “Absolute poppycock!”

“We come to offer you warning in turn, Mithrandir,” the captain interrupted. “In view of the long friendship between yourself and the elves of the Greenwood, King Thranduil grants you and your party sanctuary and safe passage through the kingdom. He will not, however, invoke the wrath of the dwarves by preventing any pursuers from following, should they come. Therefore he recommends you make haste.”

“How very like him,” Gandalf said. “Tell Thranduil of our gratitude, madam, and warn him that more dragons may come.”

The soldiers stirred slightly behind their captain, but she nodded in curt acknowledgement. “We are well prepared for a siege. The forest is protected.”

“Good, for these are dangerous days. You have my assurance that we will not linger here. With luck, we shall bring no dragons to your door.” Gandalf clicked his tongue, and Fleetfoot pressed forward, but Thorin slipped down suddenly from the horse’s back.

“Hold fast,” he called, approaching the captain’s mount with no fear. Bilbo tensed, but Gandalf made no motion to stop him. “What is your name?”

The elf lifted the helm from her head. Her face was ageless and lovely, hardened with a soldier’s watchfulness. “I am Tauriel, daughter of Taulíen, Your Highness.”

“I ask your lord to extend his offer of sanctuary to my sister’s sons, my heirs, in my stead. The two lads are in hiding in Dale. They will be no trouble to you, and I will find a place to house them as soon as I am able.” One hand dipped into his tunic, and he withdrew a heavy gold chain from his neck. A ruby pendant dangled upon it. “This gem was cut by the hand of the late King Thrór of Erebor. I offer it to Thranduil as a sign of my friendship and gratitude for the safekeeping of my sister-sons. Carry this and my boon to your lord.”

Captain Tauriel accepted the necklace with grave ceremony. “I will do so at once, Your Highness.” Her eyes lifted from the jewel to Thorin’s face and lingered there. “If my king bids it, I will fetch them myself. What are your nephews called?”

“Fíli and Kíli,” Thorin said. “They reside in the home of Bard, Lord of Dale.”

She lifted one hand, bronze vambrace flashing in the sun, and her soldiers turned their mounts back toward the Greenwood. She donned her helm and dipped it in a perfunctory bow. “The light of Elbereth Gilthoniel guide you, Mithrandir,” she said, and away she and her soldiers galloped.

The stillness was broken by Gandalf’s sigh. “Thorin,” he said, quite gently, and the prince clenched his fists. His shoulders slumped and he seemed to heave his own soundless sigh before he came back to Fleetfoot and accepted the wizard’s hand-up.

On they went. The underbrush thickened along the road. They did not go into the Greenwood itself, but the surrounding land became wilder, shaded by the ancient boughs and overgrown plants. Cirwae flew high above to keep watch, her shadow falling across the road ahead of them. Bilbo’s earlier anger was all but forgot. Thorin kept his chin held high, but his hand rose unconsciously to his own chest once or twice, as though to touch the chain that had hung there. Bilbo felt very sorry for him indeed.

They did not stop for luncheon, so Bilbo produced a few crumbled loaves of lembas from his pack and handed them round. Gandalf held Fleetfoot back to keep pace with Myrtle as they ate and passed a waterskin between them. Thorin’s appetite appeared to have deserted him. He took no more than a bite of the lembas, and that more than anything else spurred Bilbo to speak to him -- he did not like to see anyone put off their food.

“Are you not hungry, Your Highness? I have dried fruits if they would suit you.”

Thorin seemed mildly surprised to be addressed, but he shook his head.

Bilbo nibbled at his lip, glancing to Gandalf, who met his questioning eyes with a shrug and a faint, rueful look before returning his attention skyward.

“I’m sorry." Even as Bilbo said it, he recognized its absurdity.

You are sorry?” Thorin repeated wearily. “You are a shameful excuse for a kidnapper.”

“Because I’m not one.” Bilbo offered him the heel of his leftover waybread, and after a pause the dwarf accepted it. “A kidnapper, I mean, or a brigand of any sort. With present company excluded, I have never stolen a thing in my life.”

“I am beginning to believe you,” Thorin murmured. He said nothing else, but he did eat the bread.

It was evident that the prince did not wish to speak of what had happened any further, and Bilbo did not press him. He could do very little about madness or betrayal or banishment, but he could let Thorin have his pride.

 

***

 

It was late into the afternoon when they came across the ruins. Cirwae had smelt the smoke first, but across the grass, the wreck of scorched earth and the iron skeleton of a wagon were unmistakable.

Gandalf dismounted at once, calling on the rest of them to stay there while he investigated. Bilbo obeyed for a minute or two (which was more than Gandalf ought to have expected by now) before swinging down after him. A moment later he heard Thorin follow suit.

It took some time for Bilbo to sort out what he was seeing. The smoking wagon looked elvish, and a few yards away lay the charred owner, burnt beyond recognition. Stranger still were the other bodies, fallen a short distance ahead. They were huge, too large to be anything but orcs, and an elvish blade was still stuck through one of the corpse’s ribs. There had been a scuffle, Bilbo thought -- the unlucky elf had been beset by orcs, perhaps, or stumbled across them by chance, and they had fought. The sheer scope of the burned grass looked far too familiar.

“Dragonfire,” Gandalf confirmed. “And I thought I told you to stay put.”

Bilbo merely gave him a look.

Thorin joined them to survey the grisly tableau. “Orc raiders,” he said with disgust.

Bilbo dug his toes into the blackened dirt. It was cool, with no touch of heat. Thorin drifted away to study the other bodies, but Bilbo held to Gandalf’s side. “It doesn’t look recent,” he mused.

“A day or two past, I should think.”

“Was it done by the dragons that attacked us?”

“Possibly. They may have passed this place on their way to us.” Gandalf was visibly bewildered, if only for an instant -- it was not an expression often to be found on his face. “They could have circled back from the north. Of course, it could be the work of an entirely different dragon.”

Bilbo couldn’t contain a shudder at the idea. “Do you think there are more?”

“I certainly hope not.”

“Gandalf,” Thorin called suddenly, an urgent note in his voice. He was standing on the other side of the overturned wagon, and when they hastened up beside him, Bilbo saw a pile of fragmented bone and ash. A few inches below were a pair of steel-capped riding shoes and a helm, far too small to belong to an elf full-grown. Bilbo cursed the cruelty of it under his breath.

A third orc, less touched by the fire than the others, was sprawled a short distance away, his half-melted sword fused to one hand. Bilbo wrinkled his nose, and his eyes widened as Thorin stooped to rip the orc’s golden belt from its bones.

“Thorin!”

But Thorin was holding the belt aloft, frowning at it in puzzlement as he turned it over in his hands. “This is dwarf-crafted,” he said. “It bears the runesgild of Dorem, daughter of Glom. Dorem is chief-of-guild of Erebor’s goldsmiths.”

The belt was made of diamond-shaped plates and black opals, and though presently scorched, it had undoubtedly once been a pretty thing. 

“Olórin,” Cirwae called. “I would speak to you!"

Bilbo cast his eyes back to the poor elfling, his thoughts turning to practical matters. “We cannot leave them to the open air.” He whistled for Myrtle, unhooking his pack as soon as she came within reach. There was a spare blanket for a shroud, he was sure, and he had some herbs to help preserve what remained of the bodies until the elves could collect them for burial.

He transferred the remains as best he could, and his struggling seemed to rouse Thorin from his pondering. The prince stared at the belt for a moment longer before coming to lay it across the broken chest of the elfling. It gleamed there, a flash of bright gold in the soot. Bilbo closed the blanket and tucked the edges tight.

They attended efficiently to the next body together, speaking only to argue briefly about what to do with the orcs.

“Orcs leave their wounded to die in their filth. Why give them the honour of burial when their own kind hold no regard for it?”

“They were still living creatures,” Bilbo retorted, “no matter what they did or how they lived.”

In the end, Bilbo won the bout. Thorin grudgingly helped him bury the orcs in a shallow grave a short distance from the road. As they threw the last clot of earth atop the mounds, Bilbo glimpsed a flicker of light from the corner of his eye. When he looked more closely, he saw two faint shapes against the dark tangle of the trees. “Oh dear.”

“What?” Thorin's hand went to his boot before he seemed to recollect that his dagger had been confiscated. “What is it?”

The figures vanished back into the trees like startled deer. Bilbo looked around for Gandalf only to find that he had disappeared, along with Cirwae. “Dratted wizard,” he exclaimed, and Thorin blinked, realizing too that they had been left alone.

“He’ll be back when it pleases him,” Bilbo said irritably. “I shall have to do it myself.”

“Do what?”

“The elves are still here.”

“The soldiers?” Thorin drew himself up, squinting suspiciously into the trees.

“No. I am afraid the two poor souls here haven’t seen fit to leave yet.”

Thorin’s lips parted. “Ghosts?”

“You can wait with the ponies. It shan’t take long.”

There was a strange blend of feeling in Thorin’s face: doubt, wariness, and an intense curiosity. For the first time all day, he met Bilbo’s eyes directly. “If I am permitted, I would help you.”

“Then come with me.”

Thorin frequently turned to watch at the trees, as though he expected a monster to emerge at any moment, but he helped Bilbo lay out the linens and mathoms and light a small fire. When Bilbo brought out the remainder of the lembas and his chipped old tea-set, however, his curiosity got the better of his reserve.

“Why the tea?”

“It is a custom of mine.” He could see flashes of silver every so often, still sheltered by the underbrush, but he did not rush them. They would come when they wanted and no sooner. “Uncommon, I’ll grant you, but it has served me well.”

“It is for the ghosts?"

“Wraiths,” Bilbo corrected. “Or spirits. And yes, it’s for them. They cannot consume it, of course.”

Thorin was once again peering narrowly at him like he suspected the hobbit of having fallen on his head one time too many. It was a look that Bilbo was quickly coming to dislike. He sat back on his heels while the tea brewed, considering how to explain. “You said you were taught the old histories. Have you ever heard of the Dúnedain chieftain Aerthorn?” At Thorin’s confirmation, he continued, “Did you hear the tale of how he fought the Barrow-wights of Fangorn?”

“Aye,” Thorin said, with only a little impatience. “My tutor said they were a figure of speech, a symbol of the self-doubt that cost Aerthorn the respect of his people.”

“I suppose that is a fair interpretation,” Bilbo conceded, “but a barrow-wight is more than a symbol.” It was impossible to describe a concept that had taken him years to comprehend, let alone accept. He wondered if he was a fool for even trying. “A wraith is a shadow of a life that lived. It is a reflection, and it has no real power. A wight is more than a shadow -- it becomes a creature in its own right, with its own monstrous soul. Wights find no rest in death, and they take great pleasure in killing.”

There was no hint in Thorin’s countenance as to whether he disbelieved this assertion or not. “You speak as though you have seen them yourself.”

“The Shire is a peaceful land. There is no war, no famine, no quarreling kingdoms. Barring an unforeseen illness, a hobbit may be comfortably assured of dying at a ripe old age in his bed.” Bilbo took one of the teacups in hand and traced its delicate pattern of painted cabbage-roses. If he looked up, he thought, he would not be able to speak. “Some forty years ago, a barrow-wight came to Bree, a town of Men outside the Shire. It must have travelled from the Misty Mountains, or perhaps all the way from the Blue Pass. It crossed paths with a Man and two of his young brothers driving a wagon to trade in Buckland. It took the Man -- possessed him -- and forced him to drive the cart into the Brandywine, swollen with spring rains. They were all three of them drowned.”

Thorin’s frown deepened, but he did not interrupt. Bilbo might have preferred it if he had.

“It was a dreadful day. A Brandybuck lass came across the wagon in the water, and the bodies were fished out and sent home to Bree. Their poor mother and father were inconsolable. We thought it an accident at the time, but even such accidents were rare indeed to us. My father bid me stay close to home after that, but I was in the habit of playing along the river in the Old Forest. I was a stubborn faunt.” He shook his head. “I don’t suppose I shall ever know why the wight found me there.”

There was a startled intake of breath from the prince.

“Suffice to say, our meeting was not a lucky one,” said Bilbo, with a thin smile. “I was found and taken home, and the next morning, I saw them for the first time. The two drowned children had followed me back to Hobbiton. I could see them as clear as anything. I didn't know where they had come from or why they were in our smial, but they followed me all morning and into the afternoon. And do you know what I did?” The teapot was whistling, and Bilbo removed it from the fire. “I invited them to supper. They looked so hungry, and hobbits are strict about the duties of a good host, so I brought them to my parents' table. That is when I learned that I was the only one who knew they were there.

“I could see them, I could speak to them, but no one else could. The lads were confused, and very insistent about wanting to know if I had seen their brother. When I repeated this to others, I was told to stop telling stories. It was very frustrating to be disbelieved, and I became angry. The apothecary told my parents that I had suffered some severe injury to my head, or that my nerves had gotten the better of me. But the children were there. They sat with me at the table, though they couldn’t eat, and it comforted them a little. They wanted their brother and cried for him. I tried to run away to find him so often that my father had to lock me in my bedroom. He thought I was going mad.

“After a few weeks of this, my mother called upon Gandalf for help. He realized what had happened in an instant. He took me back to the Old Forest, and we found their elder brother. He had been searching desperately for them up and down the river, poor soul. They passed on peacefully together. So why the tea, Your Highness?

“The thing is, dwarves, Men, elves, hobbits. . . . we aren’t so very unalike, in our essentials. We all know what it is to be hungry. We all feel thirst. Wraiths were living souls once. They have not forgotten what it meant to be alive.”

Thorin’s piercing gaze lingered long after the story was done. He finished laying the dishes and napkins (inexpertly, and it occurred to Bilbo to wonder whether the prince had ever set his own table before.) When it was steeped properly, Bilbo divided the fragrant mint tea into four cups. He gave one to Thorin and took one himself, and then they sat down to wait.

The elfling came first, drifting from the woods towards them with the unthinking bravery of the young. He examined the empty places set in invitation, silver hair swinging over his shoulders, before glancing shyly toward Bilbo. “Are those for us?”

Bilbo nodded. At this, the other wraith appeared, his manner more suspicious. Both of them were terribly confused, no doubt. Elves were unaccustomed to death, so far were they from dreading its arrival, and they had not learnt to fear it in the way Men did. Except in warfare, rarely were their long lives cut short. At Bilbo’s smile and gesture, the elfling trotted over, brushing against Thorin’s shoulder as he did.

Thorin would not hear or see the child, of course, but Bilbo saw the instant that he felt the chill -- his whole body jerked, tea sloshing onto his breeches. He growled a string of guttural, rather nervous dwarvish words until his speech resolved into something Bilbo could understand. “It’s cold, halfling. It’s . . . is it touching me?”

Bilbo had other concerns. Both wraiths had reared back at Thorin’s reaction. “All is well,” Bilbo soothed. “There is no need to be afraid.” The familiar sound of Sindarin seemed to reassure both young and old, and the child reached forward to touch Bilbo’s outstretched hand. He exclaimed at the faintness of his own skin next to Bilbo’s, and awful awareness began to dawn on the face of the other elf.

“We have perished?” he asked. His gaze turned to the remains of the wagon and the shrouded bodies with vague surprise, as though he could only now see them.  “We have.”

“You have,” Bilbo said. “Or you shall, very soon.”

A spasm of grief twisted the elf’s face before it was subsumed by acceptance. “I see,” he murmured, laying his hand on the child’s head.

“I am sure it was quick,” Bilbo told him gently, though he knew no such thing.

Already the wraith was beginning to fade, his hand and the elfling’s hair as pallid as smoke. It would not be long. “Must we go now?”

“It would be for the best.”

The elf nodded and drew his confused child away. The icy little hand slipped from Bilbo’s. “Peace find you on the silver shores,” Bilbo told them. “May you rest until the unmaking of the world.”

As simply as that, they were gone.

Bilbo took a moment to breathe before he finished his tea and began packing everything up. Thorin sat motionless, cup still clutched in his big hands. “Are they . . . have they left?”

“They have. They went very easily.” He sneaked a bit of lembas to settle his stomach and tamped out the fire. “Drink your tea before it goes cold.”

Thorin only stared at him.

Too tired to bother, Bilbo shrugged to himself and emptied the other cups himself before rolling up the linens and storing the whole lot back in his luggage. He was glad it hadn’t taken long, for he wanted to be ready to leave when Gandalf saw fit to return for them. Eventually Thorin stirred himself to rise and bring his teacup to Bilbo. His face was very solemn. When Bilbo returned to the saddle with some pipeweed to soothe away the unpleasantness of the day, the dwarf had mounted Fleetfoot without Bilbo having to say a word.

“You buried the orcs,” said Thorin, without preamble.

Bilbo removed the pipestem from between his lips long enough to agree that he had.

His cheek earned him a scowl. “Yet you did not do the same ---” He made an incomprehensible gesture. “--- for them.”

“Oh. Oh, no, orcs never seem to linger, or at least I’ve had the good fortune to have never met an orc-wraith.” He shivered at the idea. “Some folk don’t, you know, and I think it is so for orcs and goblins and the like. They go directly where they go after this life, wherever that happens to be.”

“The fire-pits of Udûn, with any luck."

Bilbo laughed a little. “You will have to ask Gandalf about that when he comes.”

But Gandalf did not come -- not that afternoon, nor that evening, and Bilbo began to fret. A wizard arrived and departed as he pleased, but he never left Bilbo alone without telling him when he would be back. When it became clear that Gandalf and Cirwae were not returning, the two of them reluctantly dismounted. Thorin spotted a low, sheltered thatch just off the road where they could tether the ponies and rest unseen. They decided that another fire would be too much to risk -- there were dragons and orcs lurking about, and they were both fugitives of the king now.

Thorin found a seat against the trunk of a gnarled oak while Bilbo settled the ponies. He was looking at one of the rings he wore on his thick fingers, turning it over and over. Bilbo stood watching him, uncertain of his welcome now that the crisis had passed. Thorin had been agreeable today, but Bilbo wasn’t soon to forget the feeling of being held at knife-point. He gathered his courage and sat down. “What a handsome ring,” he remarked lightly.

Thorin’s shoulders stiffened. Before Bilbo could begin to wonder how he had managed to offend again, the dwarf slipped off the ring and held it in his dirty palm for Bilbo to see. It was a simple piece: thick white-gold inlaid with a row of sapphires.

“When I was born, Master Baggins,” he said, “my father crafted this ring. He had not thought to ever have an heir. Three babes before me had been returned to the stone before their births, and he and my mother had lost hope. I was small, but I lived. He said he had never known such joy as the hour he learnt that I survived. He crafted this in thanks to the Maker, that I might be able to carry my father's love with me.”

“He loves you still.”

Thorin closed his fingers around the ring. A wall of hair hid his expression, but his bearing spoke plainly enough.

“He is not in his right mind,” Bilbo pressed. “You mustn't give up on him. My parents sent me away with Gandalf. I see now that they meant to protect me, but at the time . . . . well.“ It pained him to remember the letters he had left unopened, the messages he had refused to send. “I was young. I believed them to have abandoned me. They showed me that they loved me even above their own happiness, and I repaid their devotion with resentment. They had been buried three years before I even learned of their deaths. They must have left this world believing that I hated them.”

Thorin betrayed no reaction to this. He slipped the ring inside his tunic before reaching out to take Bilbo’s forearm and push up his sleeve. His thumb rubbed carefully across the purpling bruises. “Do they pain you?”

“What? No, not at all. No harm done.”

“I should not have turned a blade on you,” Thorin said gravely. “I beg your pardon.”

Bilbo rolled his sleeve back down, a trifle flustered. “Well, you have it, provided that you never do it again.” It had been frightening at the moment, but really, he had been hurt worse with less provocation. “You were defending yourself.”

Thorin simply shook his head and fixed his eyes on the bare finger on which he had worn his father’s ring. He seemed deep in thought, and so Bilbo kept his own counsel. He tidied fallen leaves and pebbles into neat piles, distracting himself with the idle work, and only when the last of the bits and bobs in reach were sorted did Thorin stir.

“You know so much of the world,” he said, so quietly that it took Bilbo a breath to realize he was being addressed. “I thought myself well-versed in its ways, but I begin to see that I know very little.”

 

***

 

A fluttering of great wings startled Bilbo from his light doze, and he sat up as slowly as he could, straining to see through the canopy. At his side Thorin stirred, eyes opening as the noise grew louder. He was clever enough to come awake without a sound. They listened and watched, hardly daring to breathe. The dim figure came to a halt and hovered above their hiding place. They exchanged a grim look, Bilbo reaching for Sting and Thorin for a heavy branch.

“If you throw something at us, Bilbo, I shall be cross with you.”

“Gandalf!” Bilbo crawled hastily out of their nest, Thorin at his heels. To his relief, the wizard was there on Cirwae’s back, both of them looking unharmed, if somewhat windblown. “Where on earth did you go?  We thought you had gotten lost, or caught, or worse!”

“Forgive me, my dear Bilbo. It seems there are more dragons in these parts than we suspected.”

“Are you hurt?” Bilbo cried.

“We are not,” Cirwae said, “but we bring foul tidings. We were pursued by the great fire-drake Smaug, though we were able to escape. The Withered Heath is indeed stirring. Brother Eiräe has seen four dragons with his own eyes, and a half-dozen more are reported within the bounds of Rhovanion alone. Aiwendil’s forest in the Grey Mountains has fallen in flame.”

Bilbo gasped. “Radagast---”

“Is unharmed,” Gandalf was quick to assure him.

“Aiwendil lends his healing aid where he is able. The Ents retreat, fearing that Fangorn shall be next. Olórin and I followed the paths of the drakes before the dragon Smaug discovered us, and those paths look to converge: they are moving West, to the Greenwood.”

Thorin crossed his arms over his chest. “They’re following us.”

“They are,” Gandalf agreed. He looked wan and old. Whatever they had done to evade the dragon, it had drained him. Bilbo wanted to fetch him some lembas and a good bracing nip of brandy, but he did not dare move for fear of missing something important. “Mistress Cirwae’s instincts were correct.”

“I wish they were not,” the Eagle said, “but it is so, and now we must act.”

Bilbo looked between the two of them, torn between alarm and vexation. How quickly this little adventure had gone sour! It would teach him, he thought, to meddle in the affairs of dwarves. “It is the Arkenstone they’re after, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Cirwae said. “Smaug spoke to us to demand its return.”

“Its return?

At the same instant, Thorin exclaimed, “The Arkenstone?”

“It would appear that the fire-drakes have joined their forces to retrieve the stone. Dragons are solitary creatures. They do not travel together unless it is to hunt, and we have only one prize among us.”

Thorin looked stunned.

“I don’t understand why,” Bilbo muttered. He chafed his arms against a sudden chill. “What is the Arkenstone to them?”

“That I do not know, little one,” said the Eagle. “I can only say with certainty that they believe it to be theirs by right.”

“Dragons,” Thorin breathed. He looked faintly ill, and Bilbo reached out unthinkingly to grasp his elbow. “They would have come to Erebor. The stone was there in the throne-room. If dragons had come . . . .” He dropped into a ferocious burst of Khuzdul that contained some un-princely sentiments, if Gandalf’s look of fleeting amusement was anything to judge by. “Our gates are not built to contain dragons -- they could have burned half the kingdom!”

“As fortune would have it, they seem not have noticed the presence of the Arkenstone until I removed it. Perhaps the mountain sheltered it somehow.”

“But they have found it now,” Thorin urged. “You must destroy it!”

Gandalf’s brows rose. “My word, this is quite a remarkable change of heart.”

Thorin made a sound of pure irritation. “I would be ten times the fool to deny it now. The coincidences number too many, and I have seen enough of its effects. If you say the Arkenstone is a danger, it must be so.”

“If it were only so easy to break it, I would,” Gandalf told him. “There is something within the stone, and at the moment it seems to be contained. I hesitate to think of what might emerge if we split it carelessly. The dragons are not far behind us, and I would not see the Greenwood be attacked. I will lead them away to the Misty Mountains.”

“But Lady Galadriel ----”

“The Lady Galadriel is in the Greenwood no longer,” said Cirwae. “We heard word that Landroval has taken her to the ruins of Moria.”

“Why would she go to Moria?” Bilbo asked.

“The library,” Gandalf interjected. “There is a great chamber of records that houses all the old histories before the Great Fall.”

Thorin stepped forward then; Bilbo, with some surprise, realized he was still clutching the dwarf’s arm and hastily let go. “Khazad-dûm is lost, overrun by orcs. It is a wasteland.”

“It is,” Gandalf said, “and yet it is the knowledge buried there that she seeks. I will go after her, and both of you shall stay in the Greenwood. Thranduil will house you safely until I return.”

Bilbo protested this fiercely, his complaints echoed by the prince:

“Stuff and nonsense, Gandalf, I won’t leave you now! What if you should have need of me?”

“I will not be left behind to be minded like a child!”

“You have already been put in more danger than I care to think of, Bilbo Baggins. Your father would have had fits if he knew you had been within a hundred leagues of a dragon.”

“There is no safe place on Middle-earth if there are dragons about, and don’t try to tell me otherwise!”

“I refuse to cower under Thranduil’s protection, Wizard!”

“Peace,” Cirwae trilled, her voice sharp and loud, and all of them quieted at once. “Olórin, you must give them the courtesy of choice.”

Gandalf thumped his staff in a fit of pique, but Bilbo knew it was done out of worry. He came forward to take his old friend’s hand. “I gave my word to Lady Dís that I would try everything I could to save her father, and if that means ridding the East of dragons I must do it. I don’t have your knowledge, but I can still be useful. Do not make me face her again knowing that I broke my promise.”

He could see that he had won. Gandalf seemed both proud and unhappy, but he squeezed Bilbo’s palms between his own. “Far be it from me to underestimate the courage of hobbits." He drew away to meet Thorin with a keen stare. “You are the master of your own fate, Thorin, but I caution you: I cannot guarantee your safety.”

The prince was undeterred. “I have nothing left to lose.”

Gandalf’s countenance softened a little. “It will be perilous.”

“The Arkenstone is the responsibility of my house and the ruin of my father. I will see it destroyed.”

“So be it,” Cirwae said. “Olórin, our time runs short.”

“Take only what you can carry on your back and leave the ponies,” Gandalf told them. “The rangers will collect them when they come for their kinsmen’s remains. Make haste. We will not stop again until we come to Moria.”

Bilbo scurried to collect his knapsack, stuffing it with his best supplies and what little food remained. Thorin shouldered their blankets and both of Bilbo’s saddlebags, and Gandalf returned his dagger to him with a stern look. Bilbo spared an extra moment to say goodbye to Myrtle, parting from his faithful pony with a word of reassurance and a kiss for her velvet snout. At Cirwae's bidding, they climbed atop her back and settled themselves carefully apart so as not to strain her, though she hardly seemed to feel their weight.

“Hold fast to my feathers,” she said, when Thorin seemed reluctant to put his hands to her. “You will not hurt me.”

Bilbo clung to her like a crawling weed as they left the ground behind them in a few wide sweeps of her wings. Thorin uttered a hushed exclamation, his eyes widening as they lifted up toward the clouds. Bilbo wished he could feel the same awe; he could only think of what lay before them, and of the thrice-damned stone hidden in the folds of Gandalf’s robes.

 



 

Chapter Text


 PART SIX


 DURIN’S FOLK



 

 

THEY TRAVELLED THROUGH the night, the scant light of the stars through the overcast clouds their only beacon. The moon was barely a sliver, and up in the air, the darkness pressed around them like a heavy quilt.

Bilbo shivered, turning his cheek against Cirwae’s supple feathers. But for the warmth of the massive creature beneath him, he might have felt himself suspended in the inky expanse of the sky itself. It was a strange sensation, and try as he might, he could not settle to sleep.

His companions seemed to have no such difficulties -- they slept quietly, Thorin curled on his side and Gandalf propped against the slope of Cirwae’s shoulder, his open eyes (which had long ago ceased to unnerve Bilbo) unfocused. Bilbo tossed and turned, mindful not to roll too far, and eventually gave up on the notion of slumber altogether.

“Mistress Cirwae,” he whispered, “are you not tired?”

“I am well,” she returned. “Rest. There will soon be no time for it.”

His bid at conversation thus dismissed, Bilbo lay back down. Idly he studied the pale slip of the moon. It would be autumn very soon. He had not planned at all for the winter, and it would be upon them quickly. If Elrond was amenable (which he always was), he might return to Rivendell to while away the cold months in warm company. Or perhaps Lothlórien, if Gandalf meant to stay.

The slow, steady rhythm of Thorin’s breathing stuttered. The dwarf stirred, brushing loose strands of hair from his eyes, and turned onto his back. “Master Baggins?” he murmured.

“Here, Your Highness,” Bilbo assured him.

Thorin sat up enough to peer over the Eagle’s wing, as though to confirm for himself that they were still in flight. “Where are we?”

It was now near impossible to see the precise lay of the land so far below, but a half-hour or had passed since they had left the falls of the Anduin headwaters behind. “Not far from the Southern Pass of the Misty Mountains, if I’m not mistaken.”

Thorin wiped his sleeve across his eyes, half-awake. He always seemed to sleep poorly. Bilbo suspected that he had not often had cause to spend a night away from his soft feather bed and fur rugs. “Have you been here before?”

“No, never. That is to say, I have gone through the Misty Mountains, but never by way of the south. I have only ever taken the High Pass.” He twiddled his thumbs before tucking his restless fingers into the pocket of his weskit to play absently with his ring. “I have heard much of Moria, though its past is shrouded in mystery. By all accounts it was a remarkable kingdom. Have you been there?”

“Considering it has been a graveyard these five centuries, no.”

“Forgive me, I . . . .” Bilbo trailed off as he spied the faintest hint of a smile tugging at Thorin’s severe mouth. “Are you making fun of me?”

The prince declined to comment either way, linking his hands over his chest. Bilbo watched him furtively. He looked different in the darkness, somehow. His nose was a sharp blade balanced on his profile, his greying temples turned a striking silver by the moon. There was a puckered scar on his jaw, peeking through his whiskers, and Bilbo wondered that he had not noticed it before.

“Where else have you travelled?”

“Hmm. Almost everywhere in Eriador at some point or another. Gandalf becomes too mischievous by far if he’s been in one place too long, you know. I have gone as far as Gondor to the south and Fornost to the north, though I have spent the most time in Rivendell. I’m rather fond of the West, but I am predisposed to favour it. I suppose the East must be the same for you.”

Thorin was pensive for a time. “I could not say.”

“Pardon?”

“I have never gone beyond the borders of our land.”

Bilbo blinked.

The dwarf seemed to take his silence for censure. “There was no time to spare for travelling. I am . . . I was the heir. There was only the kingdom.”

“Do dwarves never holiday?” he asked. “I cannot say that hobbits care to travel on the whole, but it’s not unheard of to take a short holiday to Bree.”

Thorin grunted, brusque and dismissive. “The mountain provides everything we need. We have no cause to leave it.”

“Have you never been away from the mountain at all?”

“No. My brother and sister went to Dale or the Greenwood with the envoys, but I could never be spared.”

“I see.” Bilbo was no dwarf, but to him it sounded like half a life to be separated from the sky and the trees, the grass and the water. What would it be like living always inside the stone, sealed away from sun and stars alike? He could not countenance the idea of being so dreadfully enclosed. “Excuse me, but I’m afraid I don’t understand. Should a future king not see something of the lands his kingdom will court?”

Far from taking offense, Thorin seemed amused. “If I am a scholar of hobbits, Master Baggins, then you are a scholar of kings.”

This parry to his earlier teasing was so gracefully done that Bilbo could accept the rebuke without any hard feelings. “Very well, I know nothing of kingship,” he admitted easily. “I was speaking as one lover of stories to another, for I have always dreamed of far-off places and likely will continue to do so until the day I die. But that may be a weakness all my own.”

Thorin’s answering hum was noncommittal. “What do you know of my grandfather, Thrór?”

“Lord Elrond spoke warmly of him,” said Bilbo curiously. “If I recollect rightly, Elrond spent a summer in Erebor on Thrór’s invitation, though I believe your grandfather was very young then.”

“That does not surprise me, as he travelled a great deal before he took the throne. He was an ambitious dwarf, my grandfather, always looking to strengthen Erebor’s influence in Middle-earth.” In Thorin’s voice there was pride, along with the echoes of an old, cherished affection. “Who knows what may have become of Erebor under his rule. He might have expanded our claim further into the Grey Mountains. He often spoke of doing so.”

Bilbo hesitated, wondering whether it would be improper or just indelicate to pry, but he was saved the trouble when Thorin continued, “Grandfather liked to be active, and he frequently went down into the mines to watch the gold being drawn from the veins. It gave him pleasure, I think, to see the evidence of Erebor’s prosperity. When I was little more than a lad, there was a chance cave-in deep in one of the mines. Grandfather was not supposed to be there, but he had decided to accompany the inspectors at the last instant. It was a promising vein but too unstable. The shaft collapsed.”

“That's dreadful.”

He nodded curtly. “The rubble took three days to excavate, and by then the Maker had returned Grandfather to the stone. Father was young, as Grandfather ought to have ruled at least a century more, but he took the crown and did his duty. Thrór was quick to anger and not so gentle as my father. I have been told that I take after him, and I can only suppose that Father saw this. He feared that I would be left unprepared as he was, and that my temper would make me reckless. He thought that Grandfather had become too interested in his travels and treasury. My father's aim is diplomacy rather than expansion, and Erebor’s trade relations in Rhovanion have never been better. Or they were.” He paused. “He sheltered us. After my mother returned to the stone, he kept us even closer at hand. He is protective of all of us, but Dís and Frerin are bold enough to demand more freedoms.”

“Unlike you?”

Thorin exhaled a soft chuckle. “A crown is a cumbersome weight.”

“I would imagine.” Bilbo drew out his hands to pillow them under his head and laid back. “Do you know, I used to be jealous of my cousins? I was a gentlehobbit, my parents’ only son, and Bag End was to be mine when I came of age. I spent every afternoon and evening at lessons (though my mother did let me run wild in the mornings, bless her) and I thought it hard of my father to expect so much of me. My mother was a Took, and Father very much wanted me to be a proper Baggins. It turned out well enough, but I loathed the other faunts for filching strawberries and playing conkers while I was inside doing figures.”

This admission earned him another throaty huff of a laugh. “Any rational child would. I did envy Frerin and Dís their freedom, at times. Yet I am the eldest, and it is my privilege and my burden.”

Bilbo had nothing to say to that. His own birthright lay empty in the Shire, his mother’s lovingly-tended garden fallen to ruin.

Cirwae tilted suddenly as she rose past the drapery of the clouds. Bilbo uttered a breathless exclamation as the starlight broke through. The stifling darkness of the night had burst open into a canopy of glittering stars, the whole of the sky spread out before them in jewelled tones of midnight purple and swirling blue. “Oh,” he gasped.

Thorin propped himself up to look as well, and they sat together in companionable admiration.

“We hobbits say the stars are paper-lanterns. The elves say they are the footprints of Elbereth Gilthoniel. What are they to the dwarves?”

“Sparks. Sparks from the Maker's forge.”

There was a vague pain flavouring the words, and in the moonlight Thorin’s expression had grown melancholy. Bilbo withdrew discreetly back to his spot by Cirwae’s wing. But the dwarf still sat, eyes fixed on the sky, until he began to list to the side with exhaustion. Bilbo was very nearly dozing himself when Thorin, his voice slow and honey-thick with sleep, said, “There are crystal caverns in the mountain. They shine like these stars and number so many that you can see the light from three tiers away.”

Bilbo nosed into golden feathers, drawing his cloak tight around his shoulders against the chill of prickling guilt. “I’m sorry I have taken you so far from home.”

Thorin was silent.

“I don’t know what it means to belong to one place,” he admitted. “I belong nowhere, really -- one place is as good as another to me. I wonder, sometimes, if that is why I was chosen. Perhaps the wight saw that I had no roots to grow.” He petered off in embarrassment, regretting that he had said so much. “I truly did think I had no choice but to take you, Your Highness, but I hope you can forgive me for being glad that I did.”

Again there was no response. He glanced over his shoulder to find Thorin sound asleep.

 

***

 

Bilbo awoke to warm sunlight on his face, astonished to find that he had managed to sleep until dawn. He sat up and rubbed the imprint of feathers from his cheek. Gandalf and Thorin were sitting together at Cirwae’s neck. Gandalf was narrating some story or another, and when Bilbo’s ear snatched up a few stray phrases, he smiled to himself.

“Is he telling the story of the White Council at Elorgoth, Your Highness?” Bilbo interrupted. “You needn’t listen too closely, for you'll hear it one or twenty times. It is his favourite.”

“Because it is a fine tale.”

“You like it because Lady Galadriel won the day,” Bilbo teased.

Gandalf gave him a severe look, but Cirwae cackled her strange, rusty laugh.

Thorin caught Bilbo’s eye. “I have heard tell of the Witch’s deeds, but it did occur to me that the descriptions of her in battle were effusive.”

“I’m certain they were."

“Preserve me from pert hobbits and insolent dwarves,” Gandalf groused. But he finished the story nonetheless, describing the fall of the evil sorcerer of Men who had been vanquished by the staves of Saruman and Gandalf, the sword of Elrond, and the powerful magic of the Lady Galadriel. When the tale was done, Thorin had questions; Bilbo left his friend to satisfy the prince’s curiosity and went to Cirwae to inquire as to their current location.

“We have not yet come to the foothills of the Misty Mountains,” she said. “We have perhaps a day and a night’s travel remaining. Landroval’s scent is still fresh. We will not leave them waiting long for us.”

“I suppose you must miss him very much."

“I do,” she replied, “and in a few days you shall see for yourself the strength and wisdom of my nest-mate. He will like you, little one.”

Bilbo felt himself colour. “I hope so.”

Gandalf was prevailed upon to tell a few more tales, and though Bilbo had heard them all before, the familiar rhythm of his storytelling was comforting. Despite the harrowing tasks that awaited them at their destination, they breakfasted in high spirits.

After the last crumbs had been eaten, there was naught to do but wait and watch the land drift beneath them. Gandalf spoke briefly to assuage Thorin’s concerns -- Moria was in the hands of the orcs, true, but Lady Galadriel had the means to sneak them inside its walls without disturbing its unpleasant inhabitants. Bilbo had no doubt that she did, but Thorin was inclined to prepare himself for a fight. He borrowed a whetstone from Bilbo and spent some time sharpening and buffing his boot-knife. When he was done, he offered to do the same for Sting.

Bilbo took the gesture in the light it was intended and observed as Thorin expertly tended to his sword. He remarked upon it, and learned that the prince and his siblings had been taught swordcraft almost from the cradle. The art of battle was as prized among dwarves as smithing, and all dwarflings were raised with the knowledge of how to fend for themselves against an enemy's attack, even if they were never to march to battle.

“I was given lessons, but I am afraid I never took to them. The only blade most hobbits use is a carving knife,” Bilbo confessed, “and even then the most dangerous foe they face with it is an undercooked roast.”

A half-smile was wrested from Thorin at this. “I could instruct you.”

“Would you?”

“I am not in the habit of making promises I cannot keep.” He finished cleaning the grime from the rivets of Sting’s pommel and put the blade back into Bilbo’s hands. “Should we survive this journey, Master Baggins, I will teach you how to fight.”

“Olórin,” Cirwae exclaimed suddenly, “there is spilt blood on the wind.”

Bilbo sat up in alarm. “A dragon?”

“No,” she said, the denial sharp and tight. “I fear it is something worse.”

They dove down below the clouds, the air tearing through their hair. Bilbo cleaved to Cirwae, but the haunted pallor that had come over Gandalf’s face frightened him more than the breakneck speed of their descent. His eyes were good, for a hobbit’s, but he did not have the keen sight of an Eagle or a wizard. It wasn’t until they had dropped below the mountain ridge that he saw for himself what they had already seen.

The aftermath of a battle spread out before them. There were so many bodies -- bodies beyond count, torn and hacked and hefted in two until they were indistinguishable from each other. Mud-streaked spears and cloven shields thrust up from the earth like ghastly trees. Wargs lay in the wet dirt, their coats stained scarlet, some still with their orcish riders pinned to their backs. The air stank of copper and sweat and misery. As though through a haze, Bilbo noticed the glint of gold everywhere, and a dawning, terrible awareness stole over him.

No. Oh, no.

Cirwae brought them lower. 

“lu’Mahal!” Thorin screamed. He lunged forward, and Bilbo was barely able to keep him from leaping off the Eagle’s back. “Â! Mahal mahnusussu nadadê, nadadê!” He struggled against Bilbo’s tenacious clinging before abruptly going limp. Hiding his face in Cirwae’s feathers, he heaved with anguished sobs.

On the edge of the cliff lay a dwarf, his golden armour rent open. A half-dozen arrows stood in his unprotected throat, strands of bloodied chestnut hair caught on the shafts and fluttering in the wind like a grotesque banner of war. With a sickening lurch in his stomach, Bilbo saw that it was Thorin’s brother.

He covered his mouth. There was no sound but for Thorin’s muffled moans as Cirwae landed carefully on the rock. Gandalf slid from her back to run to Prince Frerin, but Bilbo knew that the dwarf was dead, for no one could survive such wounds. Thorin tore himself from Bilbo’s grasp and stumbled to the ground. Gandalf stepped away hastily as the prince gathered up his brother’s body, and in a clumsy panic, Thorin began to wrench the arrows from Frerin’s throat one-by-one.

Bilbo had to look away. Beneath him, Cirwae uttered a soft, sorrowful sigh. 

Thorin had pulled out the last arrow. His eyes blazed, and he caught at the gaping flesh, as if he meant to close it by sheer stubborn will. His hands came away wet. It seemed to strike him then that there was nothing to be done. He hauled Frerin to his breast and wept as though his heart should break.

Gandalf touched Bilbo’s shoulder. “Come."

They left the prince to his bereavement, guarded by Cirwae’s gimlet eye. Though Bilbo and Gandalf scoured the valley desperately for survivors, there were no living souls to be found. The orcs outnumbered the dwarves by nearly five to one, and it had all the makings of an ambush, planted in the hollow of the vale where the ranks would be thinned. It had been a bloodbath. There was nothing for them to do but put the corpses to rights, returning limbs and swords and helms as best they could.

At length, Gandalf surveyed the field and shook his head. “We cannot stay.”

“They shouldn’t be left to moulder here.”

“I know,” he said. “But we cannot stay.”

Bilbo was numb and his nose burned with the reek of rust, and he wanted desperately to leave this cursed place. He followed Gandalf back to the outcropping, feet dragging in the wine-coloured mud. There was blood crusting under his toenails. He could not seem to muster the spirit to be revolted by it. 

Thorin was tending to his brother. His tears had dried, and he worked with stone-faced efficiency to scrub the filth from Frerin’s face and armour with his tunic. Bilbo and Gandalf stood for a moment, watching somberly -- neither one of them, Bilbo thought, wanted to be the one to interrupt.

“We can spare an hour to rest,” Cirwae said.

Gandalf looked as though he might protest at first, but after another pained glance at Thorin, he conceded, “An hour.”

They dared to light a fire for warmth on the desolate plateau. None of them were in the mood to eat, nor to converse. Thorin would not be pried from Frerin’s side until the worst of the gore was gone and Frerin’s hair had been combed and arranged in thick braids over his shoulders. He tied them off with the laces from his own shift and wove into them all of the beads from his hair, leaving his own locks unravelled and bare. Gandalf approached to offer his cloak as a shroud.

“You will see that he is taken home?” Thorin asked him, as he covered his brother's face with steady hands.

“I will,” Gandalf said solemnly.

“I would have your oath.”

“And you shall have it. Come here by the fire, Thorin.”

The prince rose, but then his face drained of colour and he collapsed to his knees. Bilbo uttered a cry, but Gandalf had already caught him up.

It was no malady but the terrible pain of loss. Between the three of them, they were able to bully Thorin into drinking poppy milk. Bilbo made up a bed of their cloaks and coaxed him into lying down by the fire, and there the dwarf dropped into a drugged, restless sleep. Cirwae nested down beside him to shelter him under one motherly wing, grooming his disheveled hair with delicate nips of her beak.

While Thorin slept, Bilbo left their makeshift camp to sit and weep alone, overwhelmed by the scale of the horror before them. He had seen death, but never like this. He could not help but think of all the soldiers lost, the families waiting for kin who would never again march through the gates of the mountain keep. He thought of the smiling, golden prince, who had welcomed him earnestly and shown such boyish eagerness to hear a good story. He could not close his eyes without seeing the look on Thorin’s face as he wrested the last arrow from his brother’s throat.

He stifled his sobs against his updrawn knees. When at last they tapered off, he was not surprised to feel the weight of the arm that draped across his shoulders. He leaned into Gandalf's side, sniffling as he wiped at his face. His friend’s embrace was a consolation, but it was a while longer before he felt himself equal to speaking. “Thráin sent the soldiers to Moria instead of the Iron Hills.”

“Yes,” Gandalf said, with great remorse and disappointment. “What a witless old goat I am. If I had thought to send a simple inquiry to Dáin, all of this might have been avoided.“

“You are no soothsayer. It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault.” Bilbo blew his nose into his sleeve (uncouth, but he imagined he could be pardoned for it under the circumstances) and cleared his raw throat. “It is the fault of whatever sickness lies in that . . . that damned stone.” He looked down at the blood on his feet, and he wondered, with remarkable bitterness, whether he ought to bother washing it away. There would always be more, for him. “Sometimes I feel as though death follows me.”

Gandalf’s smile was a small, sad thing. “My dear Bilbo, you follow it,” he said.

 

***

 

When they returned to camp a few minutes later, the pile of cloaks was empty and Cirwae stood alone. She turned as they approached, tilting her head toward the outcropping. There Thorin knelt in the place where Frerin had fallen.

Bilbo sighed. He had hoped the poppy milk would bring Thorin at least a few hours of rest, but it seemed that dwarves were impervious to its effects. “How long did he sleep?” he asked.

“No more than a quarter-hour.” 

Bilbo was not in the habit of carrying many poppies with him, as their stuporous effects were known to be addictive, but he thought he might have enough for a few cups. “I could give him a little more.”

“Our pursuers are not far behind us,” Gandalf reminded them. “There will be time enough for mourning later. We cannot afford to wait.”

“No, we cannot, but let the little one speak to him first.” Cirwae's beak brushed against Bilbo’s back, propelling him forward. “Go to him. He has need of you.”

Bilbo went.

Many comforting words came to mind, and all rang false. Thorin would not welcome them. Bilbo knew very well how trite the compassion of others felt when one was deep in despair. What could he say to one who had lost his crown, his father, his home, and his brother, all in the course of a fortnight? Still, if the Eagle thought he could offer something they could not, he would try his best. He must find the words. He must.

This resolve deserted him when Thorin lifted his head.

It took Bilbo a moment to realize what had happened. Thorin’s eyes were red, and his long beard was shorn so that it scarcely covered his chin. The glossy braid with its shining silver beads lay on his lap. 

“He doesn’t deserve my grief,” Thorin snarled, before Bilbo could say a thing. “The fool led this campaign. He gave the orders, he obeyed my father’s delusions, and for what? He sent an army to their doom for nothing. He spent lives that were not his to spend, and now he is dead!”

Bilbo shuffled his feet. He could not stop looking at that severed, forlorn braid.

“I told him to go,” said Thorin hoarsely. His back heaved and his mouth twisted, but he did not cry. “I told Dís he would be safer.”

“You did your best to protect him. Whatever his reasons, I am sure he meant to protect you in turn.”

“He is a son of Durin. He must be buried in the mountain, in the catacombs. You will see that he is brought home to my father, if I cannot?”

“Your father has lost one of his children,” Bilbo said, very gently. “You mustn’t let him lose another.”

Thorin covered his eyes. It was a long time before he could speak. “We need to leave.”

“Yes,” Bilbo admitted.

The prince came unsteadily to his feet. Bilbo knew better than to offer assistance, and he watched silently as Thorin drew the tattered remains of his dignity around himself like a cloak. “Master Baggins,” he said stiffly, “I should not ask it of you, but if you would be willing to burn my braid, I would be in your debt.”

“Burn it?”

“Please, I . . . I cannot.”

“But your beads,” Bilbo said helplessly.

Thorin’s face was hard and cold. “Burn it all.”

Bilbo took the braid away, carrying it respectfully in his cupped hands. The silver was cool against his palms and the dark hair soft and thick. He had nothing more than a suspicion of the significance of this act, but he did not need to understand to feel the weight of it. He set the braid aside long enough to stoke the dwindling fire into a hot, high blaze, and then he cast his burden to the logs. The smell of burning hair choked the air, but Bilbo kept watch until it was turned to ash.

The fire was tamped and they left the cliffside, for Cirwae and Gandalf had gone down into the valley. Frerin was vanished. Bilbo knew that Gandalf had seen to it that his remains would be concealed until they could return. Thorin was impassive as they crossed the battlefield, even as he shooed away the pecking birds and stepped over a shattered helm. He did not flinch, as Bilbo did, when his boots sank into earth crusted with viscera.

They departed, the powerful churn of Cirwae’s wings drawing them above the hills in seconds. There was a new urgency in the Eagle’s movements and Gandalf’s sober glances, and all felt the tension. It was near to sundown before any of them uttered more than a word or two.

“Master Baggins.” It was spoken so softly that at first it went unheard. “Bilbo.”

He turned at once. The prince’s eyes were bloodshot, the circles beneath them a bruised, exhausted grey, and pity seized in Bilbo's heart. “Yes, Your Highness?”

“You see spirits, and talk to them.”

“Some of them,” Bilbo agreed guardedly. 

“Can you. . . . Could you see him? If he is here, could you speak with him?”

Ahead of them, Gandalf began a conversation with Cirwae about the direction of the wind. It was a poor illusion of privacy, but Bilbo felt an uprush of gratitude for his friend. He gathered his thoughts and took stock: Thorin looked half-afraid and half-hopeful, and Bilbo regretted that he would have to extinguish those hopes. In a stroke of boldness, he dared to touch Thorin’s hand.

“I do not pretend to know your ways,” he said, choosing his words with care. “You are the first dwarf I’ve ever known, really. I am only a hobbit. There is much I haven’t yet seen and much that I never will. But I will say that in all my years wandering, I have never seen the wraith of a dwarf.”

The dim spark left the prince’s eyes, and Bilbo squeezed his fingers. To his great surprise, Thorin’s palm turned into his and held fast. His skin was rough and dry, and very warm.

“Your folk simply don’t seem to linger,” he continued, when he had regained his composure. “I do not know how it is for dwarves in death, or where you believe you will go when your time is spent. Wherever it is, he will be there, with your grandfather, until you join him. You will see him again, Thorin. Of that I have no doubt.”

Thorin swallowed hard and looked away. "I have done poorly by him. My brother goes to our Maker in a way that shames our house. No lamentations, no incense, no prayers. He should have been laid out in state and bathed with water from the deepest springs. He should have had his sword and axe at hand. I should have been there for his last breaths, to see him returned to the stone. He should not have been alone."

What did Bilbo know of dwarvish funerary rites? Not a whit. But he did recollect well enough the way Frerin had looked at his brother and sister. "It is not your fault that you were not with him. Nor do I imagine that he would begrudge you doing your best by him, as you have just done. True, I did not know him as you did, but he was kind to me, and I could see that he loved you.”

“He was kind to everyone.” There was a curl of anger in the dwarf’s voice, but Bilbo thought it directed inward. “I believed him too kind. I was hard on him. I expected too much. There is much I would have said to him, had I known we would not meet again.”

“Say it to me, Thorin. Tell me a story. I have spent my life among all kinds of folk, of all different manner of birth and circumstance, and often in the throes of grief. There is a tradition, among Men, that during a funeral, friends and kin will speak of their memories of the deceased to all those who have gathered to bear witness. In this way, no one is ever truly forgotten. Often, after a wraith has been sent on its way and those left behind are sorrowing, I make a nice pot of tea and say, ‘Tell me a story.’ And then we have tea, and I listen, and the stories are passed on, good and bad alike. I am afraid I don’t have tea to offer you, but my ears are keen enough.”

For a moment, Thorin only looked at him. His lips were drawn tight, his eyes half-hidden in shadow, but his grasp on Bilbo’s hand was firm and unabashed. He seemed to struggle fiercely with himself until his proud head lowered -- in defeat or acceptance, one could not say.

Thorin spoke into the darkness until his voice grew hoarse, and Bilbo listened.

 

***

 

Night fell and brought with it a violent wind. None of them slept. The twilight deepened and the current howled, and it struck a nameless dread into Bilbo’s breast. With a presumption that would have mortified the honour of his good father, he brought over his blanket and curled himself against Thorin’s back. Though the prince stiffened at the intrusion, he did not send Bilbo away. Through the whole of the night they shared what meagre warmth they had between them; if his companion shook with silent tears, Bilbo pretended not to notice. When the dawn greeted them, he pressed some lembas and his waterskin into Thorin’s hands and forced himself to eat as well, for they would need all their strength to face the day ahead. The sun was high overhead when Gandalf declared that the ruins were at last in sight.

Unlike the single tower of Erebor, Moria lay beneath the confluence of three mountain peaks before the glassy waters of Mirrormere. In the vale, a splendid gate of white marble rose from the rock, half-crumbled, and the forest around its walls were overgrown with twisting, blackened trees. In fascination, Bilbo leaned over as far as he dared and overbalanced, but Gandalf caught his collar unceremoniously.

He chose then to stay where he had been deposited. “Where are we going?”

“The Great Gate is guarded by watchmen,” said Gandalf. “There is a secret gate to the west.”

The woods grew thicker at the mountains' western base, but there was a clearing by a green, stagnant pond. Bilbo spotted Landroval first, for it was impossible not to. He was larger than Cirwae, his feathers burnished copper rather than gold. His clever eyes were the same striking shade of yellow, but a furrow was carved across his beak, and one toe and its dagger-sharp talon were missing altogether. His chest puffed when he glimpsed Cirwae, though he made no move to leave the tall figure at his side.

Lady Galadriel watched placidly as they landed. Her white cloak shone in the sunlight, but its brightness could not compare to the pearly silver-gold ringlets of her hair and the glow in her cheeks. For all his worries and heaviness of heart, Bilbo could not help but take a moment to sigh over her as they drew near. In all of Middle-earth, there was nothing so fair as the face of the Lady of Lórien.

“You are late, Mithrandir.” The distinct cadence of her voice was as Bilbo remembered it: thoughtful and ponderous, with a far-away, slumberous quality. “The fire-drakes have followed you.”

“Forgive me, my lady. The paths are not easy to travel these days.” 

When it occurred to Bilbo to wrest his eyes from the vision of Galadriel’s beauty, he was diverted to find Thorin equally incapable of looking away. It was not an unusual response to her, though Bilbo had never been able to decide whether one was inspired to watch her so closely out of admiration or fear.

“Well met, Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór.” Lady Galadriel paused, and her eyes lit upon his roughly-cropped beard. “My condolences for your loss.”

Thorin shook himself from his stupor with clear difficulty. “My lady,” he began, and glanced over at Bilbo for guidance. Bilbo knew the feeling. One could never speak to the Lady without feeling very young, very intimidated, and at least a little imbecilic. Thorin abandoned the attempt at speech altogether and made a curt bow.

Her attention turned next to Bilbo, and he did his best to meet that penetrating stare. “Bilbo Baggins,” said she, “well met.”

“Well met, my lady, though I wish the circumstances were better. I should have much rather caught up over tea.”

Her lips curved in an exquisite smile. “Indeed.”

Gandalf had wandered over to the bald patch of mountain stone, which stretched only a hand’s-breadth taller than the tip of his hat. Lady Galadriel drifted away to join him, and for several minutes they stood side by side, conferring silently.

Bilbo loathed it when they did that.

Their conference stretched so long that Thorin stirred himself to murmur, “Can they not find the doors?”

“No, no, they know where they are. They are talking to each other, about us, most likely.”

Bilbo thought it an indication of the sheer dreadfulness of the past week that Thorin did not bother to look at him askance.

They seemed to come to some sort of agreement; Gandalf tapped the stone with his staff, and Bilbo caught his breath as a scrolling image of two intertwined trees appeared across its surface and softly glowed. “Mellon,  he said, and the rock fell back upon itself. Dust billowed from the wide doorway that had been revealed. 

Lady Galadriel lifted her hand. On one finger was her adamant ring, which began to gleam with steady white light. “Come,” said she. “Have no fear. By Nenya’s protection we shall pass unseen and unheard. Stay close at my side, and nothing will harm you.”

Bilbo ensured that his own magic ring was safely in his pocket before gathering his courage and stepping into a darkness that no sunlight could touch. Thorin followed close at his back, and Cirwae and Landroval came one after the other, crouching and tucking their wings to fit through the doors.

When Bilbo’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw that they had entered an enclosed hallway. The floors were inlaid with slabs of white marble, like the gates, and at every step flecks of precious metals flashed. To his amazement, he began to see that the walls themselves were covered with enormous petroglyphs, symbols and elaborate scenes chiselled in the rock and studded with gems of all colours and sizes. They glittered in Nenya’s light, even under an ample layer of grime. The air was thick. A silent pall draped over the tunnel like a funeral tapestry. 

As he gaped, transfixed, he nearly collided with Thorin, who slowed as the hallway opened into a grand foyer. The vaulted ceiling stretched beyond his scope of vision. Marble pillars thrust up like the tallest trees of Fangorn, and Bilbo realized that they were sculptures. The dwarven figures were carved with such masterful, lifelike delicacy -- down even to strands of hair and links of mail -- that one could almost expect them to open their lips and speak.

Thorin lifted a reverent hand to the nearest pillar, barely brushing the graceful curve of a stone vambrace. For a moment, it seemed, his grief gave way to wonder. 

“You see for yourself, son of Thráin, that the beauty of this place has not been lost to time," said Lady Galadriel, and there was an odd note in her voice. "It only waits.”

“There is no time,” Gandalf interrupted. "Onwards, onwards!"

They passed through another hidden door, and no sooner had they done so than they stumbled upon the mountain’s despicable keepers. Orcs swarmed the hallways and terraces like so many flies. The mountain's funereal air was punctured by their racket as they snarled and bellowed at each other in their dark speech and noisily tended their weapons. Their numbers were so overwhelming that Bilbo hesitated, but Lady Galadriel strode into their midst, surefooted and uncowed.

The stench of orc putrified the caverns as they ventured deeper, and the further they went, the more Bilbo despaired. The beautiful walls and carvings had been deliberately defaced, the statues toppled, the gems pried greedily from their mosaics. As they pressed into the main promenade, it became evident that the orcs were fresh from battle. Their clothes were stained with new blood, and some of them had dwarvish spears or axes. The suspicion was confirmed by one particularly ugly orc displaying his prize of a dwarf’s head, and it was only Gandalf’s timely intervention that stopped Thorin from taking his knife to them all in a rage.

“Steady,” he hissed, holding fast to Thorin’s shoulder. “You will expose us all if you act rashly.”

Thorin breathed in heavily through his nose and thrust his dagger grudgingly back into his belt.

The crowd of orcs thinned as they ascended a spiralling staircase. It was an awfully long climb. It felt as though the stairs should have no end, stretching up into perpetuity, but at last they came upon the landing. Before them was a door decorated with copper wire and set with blue stones. Lady Galadriel lifted the cumbersome iron latch, and it opened without so much as a creak. Peering eagerly around it, Bilbo froze in open-mouthed awe. Shelf upon shelf of leather-bound tomes stretched up the high walls, stacked almost to the magnificent dome of crystal panels that crowned the room. Weak sunlight filtered through the grime-covered crystal. 

“Is this ----?”

“The Chamber of Mazarbul,” said Galadriel. As she closed the door behind them, her slender fingers lingered on a row of tarnished runes. “I remember how the sun shone through the mountain and lit every corner. Durin III was Lord in those days. They were simple days. Simple and free.”

Thorin came inside with an expression that was equal parts disbelief and wordless longing; his gaze flitted from arch to arch, as though he meant to imprint every inch in his mind. Bilbo wished desperately to explore as well. His hands itched to take up one of the books on the long tables at the center of the chamber, but he knew there was not time.

“What are we looking for?” he asked.

“A book, of course,” Gandalf replied. “Listen carefully: it is two palm-lengths across and five high, and it is bound in scarlet-dyed calfskin. There are moonstones sewn into its spine.”

“What is it called?”

“It has no title. It is an old text, written in ancient dwarfish runes.”

Bilbo sighed. “Well, what is it about?”

“If I knew that we would not be looking for it.”

“I am old, Bilbo Baggins,” Lady Galadriel said, with a shade of wryness. “I have seen the passing of three Ages. I have walked the silver shores of Eldamar and the lands of Middle-earth when they were as new as a spring bud. My memory is not undimmed by time. There is a tale of a dragon that teases at my thoughts, but I cannot recollect it. I believe the book that contains it will provide a solution to our troubles, and I have hopes of finding it here.” She looked to Thorin, who had been listening attentively. “Tell me what you were taught of the founding of Erebor, Thorin, son of Thráin.”

He appeared perturbed by her demand and did not answer at first. Bilbo thought then of the secretiveness of the dwarves, and of how jealously they guarded their customs. Thorin seemed to struggle with himself, but at length he ceded, “Erebor was crafted by the Maker, that we might stand on its peak and see the lay of the East before us. It was made for Durin, but he woke too far to the West and built his kingdom in Khazad-dûm. After Khazad-dûm fell, the Maker led the Longbeards to Erebor to their true home.”

“It is as I thought," she concluded. "Our only recourse is to find the book. Make haste, but look carefully.”

It seemed a hopeless quest, finding one solitary manuscript among ten thousand, but they took to their task with undaunted fortitude. Gandalf and Lady Galadriel combed through the book-stands behind the tables, and the Eagles took to the air to scan the highest shelves with their sensitive eyes. Thorin searched the sealed cabinets set against the wall, picking their complicated dwarvish locks with his knife. All the while Bilbo darted around them, looking here and there, going wherever his gaze led him.

He plucked up every scarlet-bound book he could find, but there were hundreds of them. Most were lavishly decorated with gilt or studded with gems, and they ranged in size from the breadth of his own palm to taller than Thorin’s height. Bilbo did not know how long he searched, but his clothes and hair were powdered grey and his lungs filled with dust when a glimmer of pearl at the back of a low shelf caught his attention. He burrowed under the wood, coughing at the whirl of dirt and musty air, and he had it in him to be grateful that no one was nearby to see him struggle to wrest himself back out with his prize in hand.

His mother had owned a moonstone bracelet, and the white gems on the book were alike to Bilbo’s unpracticed eye. The leather binding was blackened with oils, but it might once have been crimson. Inside, the pages were filled with an incomprehensible jumble of blunt lines and angles. It was very, very old, Bilbo thought. He hefted the book into his arms and went in search of Gandalf.

Gandalf had never actually viewed the book himself, but Galadriel was swiftly fetched. She confirmed that the volume was indeed the one she had seen in Moria two Ages ago and praised Bilbo warmly for his efforts.

He only hoped that the dust hid his blush. “Speak nothing of it, my lady.” He turned as Thorin and Cirwae joined them. “Here is the book, Thorin! Maybe you can make sense of it.”

But Thorin shook his head brusquely. “I cannot read it to you.” It was obvious that it pained him to deny them, but the set of his chin was firm and fixed. “That is a step too far. I will not.”

“I know,” said Galadriel. "It does you credit. Yet there is no need for you to betray the laws of your people. I will translate." She took the book from Bilbo’s hands and opened it. Thorin looked dumbstruck, watching her page through the thick sheets of vellum with careful hands, and seemed to be holding his breath.

Lady Galadriel soon found what she searched for. Her eyes lit, and she smoothed down the page and began to read aloud.

“Ere the hallowed kingdom of Khazad-dûm was brought to being at the hand of Durin Deathless, the Seven Fathers their footsteps made across all the lands of Middle-earth. While Durin Deathless sought his home in the Misty Mountains, so too did his brothers seek their own halls of stone. The steps of the Firebeards wandered far to the East, to the Grey Mountains, and there they saw the land was good and the stone was fruitful. But in the East a darkness dwelled: a Fire-Drake of old nested in the Grey Mountains, and she was jealous of that land. She was called Saaum, and she was Mother of Fire-Drakes, mate of Glaurung, Father of the Dragons, he who was slain by Túrin Turambar.

Wanton death was dealt by Saaum the Wicked. All was flame and desolation, and the Dwarrows despaired.

Among their number was a priestess much beloved. Binarís was her name, and through her supplications did the Eye of Mahal turn upon his people’s plight. Lo, Mahal saw the ashes of his children, and from his halls he came, his face as Fire and his hammer as Death. Saaum fell to the earth beneath its blow, and atop her Mahal threw towering boulders. The stone buried Saaum the Wicked and rose toward the sky til its peak was wreathed by the clouds. The Dwarrows sang hymns of gratitude, their foe entrapped in the cage of the lonely silver mountain, never to be freed.”

Soft though it was, Bilbo would have sworn that her voice echoed from the dome above them.

Gandalf recovered himself first. “Curious indeed! I have never heard a whisper of this tale.” After a moment of contemplation, he huffed and cut his eyes to the astonished Thorin. “Although I see reason for it being forgotten. I doubt the bards of the Longbeard clan cared to tell a history in which Erebor is founded by Firebeards!"

Galadriel closed the book and gave it into Bilbo's hands. “It is as I feared."

“Let me go with you, my lady.”

“Stay with them, Mithrandir. I know where it hides.”

When the elf slipped through the door, Nenya’s light vanishing along with her, Bilbo shuffled nervously. “Are we safe here?” Even bereft of Nenya’s shielding power, his own ring would protect him if orcs came upon them, but his companions were vulnerable.

“We will be safe enough,” Gandalf assured him. “It seems the orcs have not troubled themselves to come to the Hall of Records in several hundred years. There is no cause for them to start doing so now. But we must still be quiet, and cautious.” His eyes were bright, though, and Bilbo knew his concern at their predicament was at war with his natural enjoyment of intrigue. Gandalf was fond of mysteries, and there was very little that could confound a wizard. “Well spotted of you, Bilbo. Curious. Most curious indeed.”

A low growl drew Bilbo's gaze. Thorin had his hand over his eyes and was standing very still, in the manner of one clinging to their last shred of temper.  "For the love of all, explain yourself. I tire of being spoken to in riddles and led about like a halfwit for your amusement.”

“I shouldn’t mind a bit of information myself, now that we are here,” Bilbo added, more generously. Gandalf did not always mean to be so secretive, really, but Bilbo had found that sometimes he needed a reminder that not everyone knew everything.

“As you wish,” Gandalf said easily, “but all of this is really your doing, Bilbo.”

“Me?” Bilbo squeaked.

“It was you the Arkenstone called to. I had already guessed that Thràin’s sickness was no mere curse or enchantment; after it spoke to you, I began to suspect that it was an anchor of some dark creature or another. You made me think of it when you said that it felt as if it breathed.

“My first impulse was to assume it a wight that had possessed first the stone and then Thráin -- unusual, I will grant you, but not unheard of. But Mistress Cirwae was also correct, for the Arkenstone does not smell of death, and wights are not clever enough to conceal their presence as the stone did from me. My lady and I concluded that whatever spirit or creature imbued the stone, it was dear to the dragons, and involved them. The fact that they believed it belonged to them confirmed the idea.” He gave the book a light tap with one gnarled finger. “And now we have our answer. The Noldor’s history of Saaum, mate of Glaurung, says that she was felled in battle with Tulkas an Age before the birth of Túrin. Perhaps that was not the case.”

It seemed incredible, but there was no other conclusion to draw. Bilbo held up a belaying hand. “Are you saying. . . . one moment. Gandalf, do you mean to say that this dragon Saaum is the Arkenstone?”

“That is exactly what I mean to say. Though it is now some matter of debate between my lady and myself as to whether the stone is merely a casing or a part of the beast.”

“A part of ---! The mountain crushed a dragon into a jewel? How is such a thing possible?”

“For all the years you have travelled with me, Bilbo, one would think you would know better than to ask that.”

Well.

Thorin spoke then, his voice peculiarly flat. “There was a dragon buried in our mountain. We hung a dragon above our throne.”

“It would seem so.”

The ensuing string of invective was so long and violent that even Bilbo, who could not understand one word in twenty, was red in the ears by the end of it. Gandalf looked rather impressed.

Having exhausted his supply of obscenities in both Khuzdul and Westron (and perhaps a smattering of Sindarin, if Bilbo’s ears did not deceive him), Thorin sat down on a stray boulder and held his head in his hands.

“So what does this mean?” Bilbo asked, flustered. “What do we do?”

“That is the problem,” Gandalf confessed. “Dragon-sickness is a potent, pervasive evil. I suspect that your father’s hoard was contaminated by Saaum’s presence, Thorin, and Erebor will need to be cleansed thoroughly. But our first priority must be Saaum. By all accounts she was once as fearsome as Glaurung himself, equal in power to Ancalagon the Black. None of us can say what threat she presents or how strong her power remains after such a long captivity, but her mere presence endangers us.”

“The other dragons. They are coming for her, aren’t they? That is why they want the Arkenstone.”

“Precisely. Most dragons no longer regard the bonds of kinship. Now they dwell alone, but they once travelled under the leadership of the Old Drakes. They were scattered after Ancalagon fell, and this has prevented them from holding the dominion they once did. If the Mother of Fire-drakes should rise again and unite them, I fear the consequences.”

Landroval ruffled his feathers angrily. “Already they are banding together to free her. The Eagles know too well what evils they can accomplish in the height of their power.”

The great door suddenly swung open. Lady Galadriel had returned, and she bore with her an axe the likes of which Bilbo had never seen before. It was perhaps half her height, its broad head as luminous as a star. No jewels or rings of gold inlaid the mahogany handle, but she carried it as if it were the most precious treasure in the East.

“Thorin, son of Thráin, come to me.”

Thorin sat motionless.

Hu’Unduthand,” she said, and hearing guttural Khuzdul on her lips was shocking. “Idmi d’dum, yand Durinul. Come and take the axe of your forefather. It is yours to wield.”

Slowly, Thorin came to her and grasped the handle. His fingers trembled around it. He lifted it from her, his eyes caught in the light of its blade, and he traced the graceful curve of steel with a look of such awe that Bilbo felt his own chest swell with nameless pride. “Why?” he asked her, sounding lost. “Why would you give this to me?”

Galadriel bent to touch her pale hand to the prince's cheek. His breath caught, but he did not pull away. “Once there was a tender friendship between the elves of the Noldor and the dwarves of Khazad-dûm. It was a strong and steadfast bond, broken only when Eregion was felled. I remember the warmth of that friendship. Hear me: there is no stone on Middle-earth that the blade of Unduthand cannot cleave. Diamond and bedrock alike crumble as dust beneath it.”

“You wish me to break the Arkenstone.”

“Your claim is greatest,” she said levelly. 

Gandalf, who had been watching them with gentle amusement, began to frown at this. “This is all very well, but the question of Saaum remains. What good does it do to break the cage if it only releases the beast inside? A trap must be set first. Bilbo, I will need your help.”

With a clamorous boom, the stone bucked under their feet. Cirwae shrilled, nearly treading on Bilbo and Thorin as they fell forward onto the hard floor. Even Lady Galadriel stumbled, catching herself on Gandalf’s arm. Dirt and pebbles rained down from the ceiling in a steady stream. The Eagles lunged into the air. The mountain creaked and moaned around them.

Distantly, Bilbo heard the screams of the orcs. The walls rattled as something struck the mountain with stupendous force, hairline cracks spreading like vines from the top of the crystal dome. Thorin gasped.

“Bilbo,” Gandalf cried, his staff aflame, “take Thorin and hide! Go under the shelves, lock yourselves in a cabinet, do whatever you must. Flee!”

Galadriel stood unbowed as the mountain quaked around them, but Bilbo saw something terrible dawning in the depths of her eyes. “There is nowhere to flee,” she said quietly, and for the pall that came over the chamber, she might as well have shouted. They have come.”

 



 

Chapter Text


 PART SEVEN


 The Dragon-Riddler



 

 

IF BILBO HAD BEEN FRIGHTENED by the two fire-drakes that had accosted their party on the fringes of the Greenwood, it was nothing compared to the stupefying terror inspired by the sight of five gargantuan dragons shattering the library’s domed ceiling as though it were little more than a glass atrium.

The dragons burst through the broken tiles in a flock of red and gold and fiery orange. One -- a mottled green and brown drake, the largest of them all -- broke away at the last moment to alight on the stone with a shudder. The others flitted around him, leathery wings whipping dust and crumbled stone into the air.

Lady Galadriel strode forward to plant herself before the drake, the white jewel at her throat glittering scarlet in the furnace-glow of its belly. She lifted one imperious hand, and Nenya crackled upon it like lightning. The air split with the ear-shattering timbre of her voice. “Spawn of Ancalagon, you shall go no further! You have desecrated these hallowed halls! Account now for the ill deeds you have done, for you will do them no more. Caela ie'lle.”

“I do not answer to you, Witch,” said the dragon, “nor do you dismay us with your pretty lights and tricks.”

“I had not counted Smaug of the Withered Heath a fool,” said Gandalf.

Bilbo went a little faint as the dragon parted his jaws in a sickly mimicry of a smile, yellowed fangs jutting up from his gums like crooked spears. “I am as strong as the day when first we met, Gandalf Greyhame. Your influence and powers are diminishing with the passing of each Age. Which one of us is the fool?”

“It depends upon what you believe makes one foolish.”

Somehow, Bilbo managed not to leap out of his very skin at the unexpected chime of Galadriel’s voice in his head.

Do not let them take the Arkenstone, Bilbo Baggins. Above all, do not let them take it.

Gandalf’s hand twitched on his staff, and the pocket of Bilbo’s weskit bulged with a familiar weight.

Flee!

He spun on his heel, grabbed Thorin’s hand, and ran for his life.

A deafening roar rippled through the library, and there was an explosion of sound and heat behind them. Bilbo did not dare look back. Thorin gripped his fingers like a vice as they stumbled over the cracked tile toward the door. The axe Unduthand bobbed on the dwarf’s shoulder, and it would be have to be their first defense. Bilbo’s hands shook too much to hold Sting.

“Five of them,” Thorin grunted. Five. How long can they hold them off?”

“I have no idea. But we mustn’t let them get the Arkenstone.”

“You have it?”

“I do.” Something rattled the floor, and he started to fall -- without missing a beat, Thorin hauled him back into stride. “Do you know these halls? Is there somewhere we can hide?”

The prince made a noise of frustration. “Without proper lighting and maps, it is no better than a labyrinth. Who knows what the orc-scum have done to it.” 

“Then we will improvise,” Bilbo determined. “Can you find the doors we came in?”

A thick roil of flame billowed overhead, setting the highest bookshelves alight. Bilbo felt a moment’s anguish for the poor books -- so much knowledge, lost! -- before the choking ashes swept over his face and reminded him that there were larger concerns at hand.

“I remember,” Thorin said shortly. “Down the spiral staircase, northwest to the hallway.”

The air went tight, pinched, and suddenly the dim chamber was lit as bright as high noon. A chorus of hisses and howls erupted, and Bilbo could not resist the urge to glance over his shoulder.

He rather wished he hadn’t.

There was nothing so horrifying as the sight of something beautiful made hideous. Gone was the shining moonbeam hair; gone were the porcelain cheeks and rosebud lips -- in the Lady’s place stood a figure of light and shadow. Her eyes were as black voids, her face as colourless as wax, her hair as dripping strings of ink. In her hand blazed her elixir of starlight, overtaking even Nenya’s effulgent beams.

Two of the dragons writhed under her strength while the others were flying about in rattled confusion, their wails and shrieks an indescribable ruckus. One of them collided with a pillar and cracked it neatly in half. The whole mountain trembled.

“Maker preserve us,” Thorin croaked.

His staff arching in a circle of blue flame, Gandalf leapt forward to fight at his lady’s side as the dragons began to recover from their stupor. They moved in perfect accord, one striking while the other parried, one aiming high and the other low, turning in an elegant, dangerous dance. Smaug kept himself apart from the tussle, unleashing the occasional spear of fire. The other drakes seemed to leap to his bidding. They flew in a dizzying cluster, weaving in and out like snakes, repelled by potent bursts from the Lady’s hands and Gandalf’s staff.

“Hurry,” Bilbo urged, and they left the wreckage of the chamber behind them.

Out on the balcony landing, Bilbo had almost expected an assault by orcs rushing to defend their conquered hall. It came as something of a shock to find nothing but bare rock as far as the eye could see. The Gundabad orcs were apparently clever enough to consider battle with a horde of dragons beyond even their warlike expertise, and the staircase and the floor far below were deserted.

“Cowards,” Thorin muttered.

Bilbo surprised himself with a breathless laugh. “And what are we?”

They ran for the staircase. Bilbo was so intent on keeping his footing on the weathered stone and not tumbling head over heel down to the ground far below that he did not notice they had been followed until the library door collapsed in a spray of splintered wood. Behind the yawning gap was the dragon Smaug, his snout curling with streams of dark, oily smoke.

Thorin instantly had Unduthand at the ready, but Bilbo struggled to draw Sting, the weight of the Arkenstone as heavy as a millstone in his pocket. Two smaller dragons skulked from the hole to flap around the ceiling. Smaug himself emerged slowly, deliberately. There was an aura of grandeur about him, and he carried himself with the courtly confidence of Elrond, though he had none of the elven lord’s graces. Bilbo flinched, for Smaug’s burning eyes were fixed on him. Somehow, he knew.

“I believe you have something of mine," the dragon rumbled. "I would have it returned, unless you should prefer your innards strung from this banister.”

“Try it and I’ll carve your hide,” Thorin snapped.

Smaug’s gaze lit upon the dwarf then, and his cavernous chest heaved with amusement. “What have we here? You have the ill look of Durin’s seed. A princeling, perhaps?”

A dart of colour passed before Bilbo’s eyes, followed by a spatter of blood across the stone. Smaug bellowed, the slope of his knobby brow opened in a deep gash. Landroval turned nimbly out of his dive and flashed his talons.

“Come, Smaug,” the Eagle cried. “Shall you skulk and hide like a craven beast, or will you fight your equal with dignity?”

The answer was plain: Smaug stayed where he was, but the two drakes leapt to the attack. Landroval dodged the twin streams of fire easily and wheeled around, catching the tail of one of them. In a motion too quick to follow, he sank his gleaming beak into the dragon’s skull. It screamed. The Eagle’s claws lodged into its back, and Landroval drove them both off the balcony and down, down, down toward the floor; the second drake sped after them, squalling. Bilbo spared only a second to watch their descent before his attention was seized by the menacing red flush kindling in Smaug’s belly, rising up into his neck.

“Do as you will,” Bilbo exclaimed, “but it seems a shame that Mistress Saaum must burn with us.”

Smaug hesitated.

“I know what the Arkenstone is. Or who, I should say.”

The glow receded from Smaug’s throat. He cocked his great serpentine head, looking at Bilbo with something akin to intrigue. “You do not smell like a halfling, nor a dwarf. What are you?”

“A Baggins,” Bilbo said.

“And what, pray, is a Baggins?”

“Why, me, of course. Bagginses have a powerful magic. It’s in our blood. I could have an unseen army at my beck and call, if I chose it.”

“Is that so?”

“It is.” Bilbo could feel the sweat slicking his temples and dewing at his lip, but he did not dare retreat now. “I am not what I seem. I dare say you would know that if your nose worked a little better.”

Smaug bent his head. His wound glistened sickeningly, and his massive nostrils expanded and exhaled a gust of steam. There was a strange look in his eye as he pulled back.

“I smell of death,” Bilbo said quietly, “don’t I?”

The dragon regarded him in silence.

“I know dragons are fond of magic. Wouldn’t you like to see my spells? I could teach them all to you. Imagine how the others would fear you, if you knew death as I do.” He dove into his trouser pocket and drew out one of his warding crystals, the pretty rose quartz, and held it aloft in his fingers. “With a few words, I could call upon this stone and summon Ancalagon himself from his grave if it pleased me.”

For a long moment Smaug was still, hardly seeming to breathe, before he began to laugh a loud, coughing laugh. “You, a necromancer? What an amusing creature! Give the Arkenstone to me, and I will spare your life.”

“He lies,” Thorin growled.

“Hush!" The dwarf was of no interest to Smaug. If Thorin would stop drawing notice to himself, he might still be able to slip away and escape the hall. Oh, where was Gandalf? He and Lady Galadriel were certainly taking their time! Bilbo cast about desperately for something to keep the drake’s attention. “Do you want to know how I came by your stone? I do not fancy myself much of a burglar, really, but I stole it. I rather wonder that you weren’t able to get it on your own.”

Smaug’s eyes narrowed. “What did you say?”

“Nothing of importance. No doubt you had better things to do.”

“Do you know to whom you speak?”

“Smaug the Magnanimous, Smaug the Wise, Smaug, Devourer of Kingdoms.”

The dragon’s tail lashed against the floor, knocking Bilbo off his feet. He landed with a yelp and froze to find Smaug’s snout right before him. “You dare mock me, thief?” His breath smelled of sulfur and iron, its heat strong enough to singe the hair on Bilbo’s toes. Up close, his scales gleamed as sheets of beaten copper, and the wreath of spikes around his head was tipped with fragments of bone. “Brazen words from a simpering ground-mole.”

Smaug the Great’s vanity was evidently as thin as parchment. Bilbo grasped at a new tactic. “Forgive me, O Smaug the Beneficent. I find my words fail me before your magnificence. I am only a hobbit, you know, who has never seen so majestic a dragon as yourself.”

Smaug was not to be placated. “Give me the stone in your pocket.” His maw opened wide, and Bilbo observed with a detached sort of wonder that his fangs were as long as Bilbo’s own legs.

Thorin barreled forward to deal the dragon a swipe across his grinning snout. Unduthand bit true, delving through the tough hide like butter, and Smaug reared back long enough for the prince to pull Bilbo roughly to his feet. “Go, Master Baggins, I will hold him off!”

“Filthy earth-digger,” Smaug hissed. Blood streamed down his jowls, staining his teeth. “Wretched little worm, I will hang your head from the ramparts!”

In Thorin’s hands, the axe flashed and parried as gracefully as a broadsword, but the dragon seemed to regard his blows as no more than an irritating insect’s bite. He snapped and spit at Thorin, billowing streams of fire across the floor that the dwarf only barely managed to evade. Bilbo sprinted for the stairs, his heart pounding madly and Galadriel’s warning in his ears. As he reached the first step, the cacophony of crackling flame and clattering metal was pierced by Thorin’s voice, shouting hoarsely. Bilbo could no more have stopped himself from looking than he could have pinned Smaug to the ground with one toe. He turned about, and his heart gave a frantic leap.

Smaug had trapped the prince in the coil of his tail and was shaking him in the air like a snake toying with a mouse. Unduthand lay on the ground below. Thorin fought fiercely, clawing and kicking, but it was no use: even as Bilbo watched, Smaug tired of his game and carelessly dashed Thorin against the wall.

“No!” The cry ripped from Bilbo’s throat, and Smaug’s gaze turned to him, blazing with satisfaction.

There was an answering call in the air. Cirwae sluiced through the curtain of smoke to fly straight at Smaug’s face. She overshot his gleaming eye by the slimmest margin, gouging deep into his cheek before being batted away.

“You,” Smaug snarled.

Cirwae hovered, undaunted, before him. “This time I shall not miss,” she said coldly.

The fight was too tumultuous for Bilbo to follow -- glittering scale and feathers, talons and fangs and churning wings and bursts of fire. Below them, Thorin stirred, groaning, and even from this distance, Bilbo could see that his sword arm was badly broken. He crawled over and uttered a little moan at what he found: Thorin’s face was bathed in sweat, one arm crooked and limp, the other clutching at his chest.

“Your ribs. . . . Are your ribs broken?”

“Leave me,” Thorin panted.

“Thorin----”

“There is no time! Go.”

Above all, do not let them take it.

“I will come back for you,” Bilbo swore. “I will, I promise.”

“Go,” said Thorin.

Heated by the blasts from Smaug’s mouth, the floor smouldered like coals and burned Bilbo's feet as he bounded off the balcony and down the first set of stairs. The slabs of marble spiraled down endlessly, but he could not think of how far he had to go. He could only run, and hope.

The blinding ball of fire on the balcony blinked out of sight. From above a twisting mass of smoke and golden plumage plummeted to land on the staircase four levels below Bilbo with a tremendous crash.

“Cirwae!”

The Eagle lay very still, her beautiful feathers charred and blackened. Bilbo’s eyes blurred in a flood of hot tears, but he smeared them aside. He could hear Smaug behind him, his gait lumbering but growing faster with each second. There was no time. There was no time.

A shaft of fire passed over his head, ruffling his hair. He did not dare look over his shoulder. Ah! His ring! Cursing himself for his own folly, he thrust his hand into his pocket. He cradled the Arkenstone in one hand and slipped on his ring with the other, and he heard Smaug howl in frustration as he blinked out of sight.

He had only an instant’s relief before everything dissolved into agony.

Nazgul rasgath ishi bul . . . ishgan urdu nazgath kun. . . Baggins . . .

His finger burned. He shrieked, crumpling down onto the stairs. It was pain like nothing he had ever felt, worse than a sword wound, worse even than the torment he had felt in the throne-room of Erebor among the king’s hoard. It was the same creeping, rasping voice that had spoken to him then, and it struck dread into the marrow of his bones. The Arkenstone began to glow with ruby-red light.

…..burzum-ishi krimpatul….burzum-ishi krimpatul…..

Blinded by tears, Bilbo wrested off his ring. It dropped from his palm and rolled away, gold glinting dully against the stone before it dropped between two slats and down into the darkness below. An overwhelming wave of panic gripped him. That was his ring! He would lose it, someone would take it from him. . . .!

His hand, stretched out vainly toward it, began to shake. He stared at it. His flesh was scalded, a brand of blistered raw flesh circling his finger. On his lap the Arkenstone was blazing, flickering from orange to red to a dark, smoky black. It began to quiver, fumes curling from underneath it in thin curls. He pushed it away with a gasp. As it landed on the step, its dim light spread across the flagstones and dripped over the edges like quicksilver.

What have I done? Oh, mercy, what have I done?

Behind him, Smaug let out a bark of laughter. “My gratitude, little thief!” he crowed. He might have said more if a blast of the Lady’s white light had not caught him around the head and driven him off the stairs, through the stone wall, and out into the open air. There came a billow of flame, and Gandalf’s voice shouted imprecations.

Bilbo had no attention to spare for the battle. From the centre of the Arkenstone a slender thread of silver emerged, licking around the stone like fire as it rose. As he watched in horror, it resolved into an undulating figure of translucent grey. It shaped itself into a proud snout and great, withered wings, a whip-cord tail that flicked into the air. Above empty white eyes, a crown of horns burst from an elongated skull. The shade flickered, as though caught in a breeze, but it did not stir from its roost, grasping the Arkenstone with the edges of its curved claws.

Bilbo tensed, but it seemed not to see him. It seemed not to see anything, hanging lifelessly above its shell. It looked very much a wraith, but what did he know of dragon-wraiths? He breathed deeply, studying the blankness of its eyes and the fragility of its form. It scarcely seemed able to hold its shape. Perhaps it was merely the echo of the dragon Saaum, a last breath that had been trapped under the cascade of rock and was now released to dissipate into the air. 

Why then was his stomach curdling with such fear?

Footsteps pounded behind him, and Bilbo jumped. It was only Thorin, one arm dangling uselessly and the other grasping Unduthand with a white-knuckled fist. His face was an awful, sickly colour and he leaned heavily on the railing.

Bilbo wanted to wring his stubborn neck. “What are you doing? Sit down, you’ll put a hole through your lungs!”

“What is that? Is that ---”

“Do not say her name,” Bilbo said sharply.

Thorin shook his head, his bloodied mouth twisted in a grimace. “So that is a wraith?”

Bilbo’s breath stopped. “You can see it.”

“Yes?”

“That’s not a wraith.” He scrambled to his feet and shoved Thorin down a few stairs. “Get out! Get out now!”

“Â! Your hand ----”

The stone flickered once, twice, and a hard pressure clutched Bilbo’s chest and started to lift. “No,” he gasped. “No, no, no, no!”

“Master Baggins?”

He began to struggle ferociously, but it was no use. His toes left the ground as he was reeled upward. Hanging five feet above the stairs, he flapped like a fish caught on a line as he was dragged inexorably toward the Arkenstone.

"Bilbo!”

There were no words, really, to describe the sensation of possession. Bilbo had done his best to explain it to Gandalf and later to Elrond and his healers, but there were no comparisons to be made, no expressions that could encapsulate a sensation so unnatural. When the barrow-wight of Fornost had touched him, his terror had left no room for any other feeling, but as the wight of Saaum began to glide toward him, Bilbo was far too angry to be afraid.

“Thorin, the stone!”

“What---”

“Break it,” he roared.

The axe of Durin flashed radiantly as it swung into the air. Thorin heaved, and Unduthand struck the Arkenstone with a mighty bang. The stone shattered as glass, tinkling across the floor in a dozen fragments, and Bilbo knew in an instant that they were too late. The stone was gone dark, for Saaum had already anchored in him.

With one final thrust, she surrounded Bilbo in a silver vapor and pushed into his mouth, slithering down his throat. His body jerked with the violation of it, but he could not lift a hand to stop her. He could not draw a breath to scream. He could only hang there and shiver as Saaum forced her way inside him, her claws hooking into his head and curling around his heart. Pressure flared behind his eyes, skittering down into his chest, and he seized.

“Yâk! Let go of him,” Thorin bellowed. He brought the axe down again and again onto the cloven Arkenstone, and when it had no effect, he kicked the pieces away in a fit of helpless rage. “Bilbo!”

He could feel her everywhere, a strangling vine constricting ever tighter until he felt he would burst. She looked inside him, and he saw her in turn. The dragon-queen was fire and ancient magic and malice, a half-broken creature warped by her bitterness. He saw the breadth of her knowledge and the depths of her lonely greed. Like the feelings were his own, he tasted her pleasure at his pain, and he dangled there as she sifted idly through the full measure of his life and found it wanting.

Get out, he thought indignantly. You’ve no business being in here!

Her voice filled his ears as half-incomprehensible crackles and hisses, its Westron stilted with disuse. Another has been here before. Who has taken you?

It’s no concern of yours!

He felt her faint stir of astonishment before it was drowned in a tide of displeasure. I am Saaum, and vast cities have knelt before me. I have toppled the crowns of kings and scarred the face of a mighty Vala. You will obey. I heard you in the mountain. You spoke to me. You are mine.

I am my own.

There was another ripple of bewilderment, but Bilbo’s victory was not long-lived. Terrible images assailed him, scrolling before his mind’s eye: there was Gandalf, drowned in flame as his beard scorched and his skin peeled. There was Elrond, weeping as he sought to douse the flames that licked at his screaming sons and daughter. There was Erebor, its halls piled with seared bodies, the corpses of Thorin and his father and Lady Dís propped up mockingly on the throne. There was the Shire, its rolling hills reduced to mounds of parched dirt, its streams dried up, its trees burnt beyond saving, his parents stretched out on the charred ground where Bag End had once sat. There was Middle-earth, wiped of anything good and green and alive.

Bilbo sobbed, or he thought he did.

This is what awaits you, Saaum whispered. The Age of the Dragons is nigh. My children will rise victorious from the ashes, and all shall be shadow and flame.

“Do not think it an easy victory,” Thorin cried, and Bilbo realized dimly that Saaum’s words had rolled off his own tongue. “We will fight them until there are none of us left to hold a sword or a bow. If it is to end in fire, we will all burn!”

Such arrogance, dwarf.

“It was a dwarf who plotted your defeat,” Thorin declared, defiant and proud. “It was our Maker who cast you under the stone. If you rise up, we will strike you down again. M'imnu Mahal.

Fury burned like a bellows in Bilbo’s heart. Kill him.

Like a puppet, his limbs hurried to obey her. He dropped to the ground and threw himself savagely at the prince.

No matter how he fought it, Sting came down again and again to meet Unduthand. Thorin parried his clumsy strikes, cursing at Saaum and pleading with Bilbo to come to his senses, and Bilbo knew then that the dwarf was not willing to hurt him. Saaum saw it too. Her glee rose inside him, and she pressed him until sweat poured down his face and his muscles groaned. He watched with growing horror as Thorin was forced to retreat, his defensive blocks slowing as his already-spent strength waned.

A stray blow managed to catch Thorin behind the knee. His leg crumpled and he fell against the stairs, landing on his broken arm with a howl of pain. Unduthand slipped from his fingers, and Bilbo sprang. Straddling the prince’s chest, he grasped a handful of Thorin’s dark hair and forced his head back, Sting laid under his chin.

Finish him, Saaum said. Let our blade taste the blood of kings.

Thorin was very still. Bilbo could feel the wild throb of his heart and hear the pained rasp of his breath, but his bloodied face was calm. Their eyes met.

No, Bilbo thought. No.

With every last scrap of strength he possessed, he rolled off Thorin’s chest and staggered to the edge of the staircase. Saaum let out a shriek as he tipped over the railing.

As a lad, Bilbo had owned a pretty porcelain doll from Rivendell. It had been a favourite toy, and so well did he like it that it was given a place of honour in his bed when he slept. But for all his cossetting, he was still a boisterous child, and the doll had been a victim of his exuberance. He still remembered the moment it had fallen from its guard-tower atop his mother’s kitchen cabinet and shattered against the floorboards, broken into so many pieces that one would not have known it from a vase or a platter.

It was curious, Bilbo thought, as he opened his eyes and blinked up at the swaying ceiling far, far above him -- he felt rather like that doll just now.

Wet heat pooled under his neck, dripping sluggishly from his nose and between his lips. He went to wipe it away before it stained his neckerchief and found his limbs unresponsive, leaden weights that seemed not to belong to him. Saaum was wailing and cursing him. He felt her wrath, but the sensation of it was dampened, as though it came from somewhere outside himself. He could feel her trying to worm her way out of him. His body might have broken but his mind had not, and he clung to her like a burr. There was a nasty satisfaction to be found as she thrashed about in hysterics, her voice growing fainter and fainter as the pulse of his heart began to pound like a drum in his head. He pushed her into a little corner of his mind and fenced her up until her shrieks were nothing but whispers. Serves you right, trying to possess a Baggins of Bag End!

He managed to turn his cheek against the stone. Its chill soothed his feverish skin, and he let his eyes close as he drifted. This dying business was not so dreadful. There was no pain at all. How strange that he had spent his life in death’s shadow, only to find at its coming that he did not fear it.

He did not know what waited for him, after death. Surely he would go wherever all hobbits went, and there he would see his mother and father. He would kiss them and tell them how sorry he was. He would tell them that he had never hated them, not even for an instant. That would be that, and everyone could go back to their lives. Gandalf could remove the dragon-sickness, the king could have his sanity restored to him, Thorin could go home, and nobody would have to trouble themselves about fire-breathing ruffians again. It had all ended well. Really, the only thing he regretted was that he had not spared the time to tell Gandalf that he loved him.

Oh, Gandalf. Gandalf would be furious.

“Bilbo!”

Bilbo struggled as he was lifted up, or he supposed that he did; when his vision returned, it was to find himself draped limply across Thorin’s knees. The prince was pale and shaken, his tunic already flecked with rusty stains. “You will ruin your shirt,” he said unhappily.

“Lay still,” Thorin ordered. His uninjured hand fluttered around hesitantly before it settled on thumbing the blood roughly from the corners of Bilbo’s mouth. “By the Maker, what have you done?”

“Something very Tookish,” Bilbo murmured. From one second to the next, his breath began to crackle. The air felt thick and soupy, and it refused to go down his lungs properly. Oh, that was less than pleasant. He coughed and groaned. “She’s gone.” Saaum was barely a flicker in the back of his mind. It would not be long now.

“Stay awake,” Thorin demanded, and it was said so imperiously that Bilbo would have laughed if he'd had the breath to spare for it. “The fight is nearly won, you cannot forfeit now. You must wait for the wizard.”

His smile was probably a gruesome sight, but Bilbo smiled anyway. “Your Highness, Gandalf isn't a necromancer either.”

The prince was still, and it seemed as if he did not know whether to weep or hasten things along by shaking the life right out of Bilbo. He did neither. With slow, careful movements, he shifted the hobbit further onto his legs until his head was pillowed on Thorin’s lap. It was indecorous, but Bilbo thought he could be excused for appreciating the comfort under the circumstances. Thorin took his hand and held it to his breast.

There were many things Bilbo wished to say at that moment. He wanted to ask Thorin if he would take Sting, so that his trusty blade would not rust in the desolate depths of Moria. He wanted to ask him to look after Gandalf and ensure that he would not blame himself. Most of all he wanted to tell Thorin how grateful he was that he would not die alone. In the end, he said none of those things. “I'm so sorry. I’m sorry I have brought you into such peril.”

Thorin leaned forward. The fall of his loose hair tickled Bilbo’s cheek. Only the faintest scent of his perfumed oil still wafted from it, but he would soon be home to make it shine again properly. It was a pleasant thought. “None of this. I would hear no apologies. You have done more for my people than I could repay, more than ever I could hope to do myself.”

“I should have liked to travel with you,” Bilbo sighed. His vision was growing grey at the edges, the world narrowing down to spots of flashing light and Thorin’s dirt-streaked face. “I should have liked to show you the West.”

Thorin’s eyes glistened. “Erebor will never forget you,” he swore, softly and fiercely. ”I will never forget.”

If more was said, Bilbo was not to hear it. His chest grew heavy, his eyelids leaden, his head as light as feather-down. Dry lips touched his forehead, and he knew no more.

 



 

 

Chapter Text


 

PART EIGHT


 

Abeyance



 

 

THERE WAS A DWARF bending over him.

He was an odd-looking old fellow, his salt-and-pepper beard accompanied by a braided moustache that curled up toward his nose like a boar’s tusks. Bilbo blinked his blurry eyes a half-dozen times, but this vision did not fade like all the others had. The dwarf stayed stubbornly there, scowling at him.

“Ach, I see you’ve decided to visit the land of the living!”

The other shades had never spoken to him, dissolving into thin air the moment he turned his eyes to them. Bilbo could feel the softness of a pillow under his head and the weight of a fur rug over his stomach, but he felt detached from himself, as if he were only tethered to the bed by a string.

“Can you understand me, lad?” asked the frowning dwarf.

He tried to speak and found that he could not. Dim panic tickled at the back of his mind.

“There, there." The dwarf put a calloused palm to Bilbo's forehead and tucked the blanket briskly under his chin. “Go back to sleep. Rest.”

His eyelids began to droop, though he struggled against it. He did not want to return to that empty, noiseless place, where nothing but shadows lived. There was a dull roaring in his head, a rush of colour and sound, and then it was gone and everything was still.

“Send word to the king,” he heard someone say, and he drifted away again.

 

***

 

The second time Bilbo woke, everything was dark. He let out a strained breath and held as still as he could, taking stock. The mattress ticking was soft and warm, and the fire in the grate was banked low. His head ached, but it was a faint, niggling throb. He looked around as best as he was able, taking in the high ceiling, the grey stone walls, and the massive wrought-iron bedpost at his feet. The blanket atop him was a rich azure wool, woven with interlocking diamonds of gold thread.

Dwarves, he thought.

At the foot of his bed sat the dwarf with the queer moustache, ensconced in a plush, well-worn armchair and snoring lightly. Next to him was an elf on a high stool, sleeping with her chin on her chest.

Bilbo’s eyes itched with the strain of the sparse light. He reached up to rub them and his hand flopped against his cheek instead. He gathered his strength and tried to lift his arm again, but it wobbled and swayed like a jelly. A cold sweat prickled on his forehead. Slowly, laboriously, he forced his hand down to his chest and under his thin nightshirt; his skin was flushed with hot blood and his heart beat a frantic pulse under his fingertips. His breath came quick, but it came.

I’m alive. How curious.

He had no memory of falling asleep, and yet when awareness dawned on him once more the light in the chamber had changed. The fire was burnt down to embers. Strains of early-morning sunlight peeked beyond the heavy brocade curtains. It took him a befuddled moment to realize that the sound that had woken him was the sound of someone opening the door across the way -- it took a moment more to recognize the dwarf standing there in the threshold as the little old fellow who had tried to keep King Thráin from entering the throne-room. His robes were a fine velvet maroon this time, but his white hair still looked like nothing so much as dandelion fluff. He beamed to see that Bilbo was awake.

“Oh! A good morning to you, Master Baggins,” he exclaimed, his cheery greeting accompanied by a very proper bow.

His mild voice woke the sleeping dwarf and elf. The former came awake on a grunt, heaving himself to his feet with a swiftness that belied his greying head; he was at Bilbo’s side in a trice, blunt fingers prodding and poking impudently before he crouched down to meet Bilbo’s stare.

“You in there this time, laddie?” he asked.

Bilbo unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “Water.”

The elf came forward then, her black ringlets bobbing over her shoulders as she lifted a silver cup to his mouth. He drank greedily, choking on the unexpected coolness against his throat; when there was no more left he fell back against the pillows, exhausted.

“Where am. . . “ he managed to say before the dwarf grasped his chin in one big paw.

“Chin up. Look here.” He pried up Bilbo’s eyelids without so much as a by-your-leave, peered into his nose and mouth, and humphed and hummed to himself. “Vision’s tracking well enough,” he said to the elf. “No sores or obstructions. A bit dazed, aye.”

The white-haired dwarf cleared his throat. “Perhaps the full examination could wait a minute or two, Master Óin?”

“Don’t ever recollect telling you how to go about your business,” Master Óin groused, but he released his grip on Bilbo’s jaw nonetheless.

“Balin, son of Fundin, at your service,” the other said, offering another courtly nod; his neatly-combed beard bounced with the motion. “You are in Erebor, Master Baggins, and quite safe.”

“A pleasure,” Bilbo said instinctively. His throat was as dry as cotton, even after the water. “I . . . how did I. . . .?” His lips moved sluggishly, unable to keep up with the frantic leap of his thoughts, and he petered off in confusion.

“Do you have any recollection of how you came here?” Balin inquired delicately.

Oh, the memories were there. They had been dampened by the more immediate concerns of his body, but they were there. He knew that Smaug had destroyed the library and there had a been a terrible battle. He knew that the Arkenstone had been shattered. He knew that he had been dying. It was too much to express by far. He shook his head.

“You and your companions were pursued to Moria by the dragon Smaug. Gandalf the Grey and Thorin brought you here atop the back of an Eagle, and you’ve been recovering ever since. I’m afraid you sustained some injuries in the confrontation.”

“Ach, don’t roll it in sugar-paste,” said the other dwarf. “You fell down a staircase and scrambled your brains.”

“Ahem. This is Óin, a master healer of the Healers’ Guild,” Balin said, shooting a subtly quelling look at his fellow, “and with him is Mistress Erillulien of the Greenwood. They have been seeing to your care since you came to us.”

It occurred to Bilbo to ask after his injuries, as he felt so distant from himself that he could not have taken account of them on his own -- it was an unsettling feeling, no doubt brought on by some strong pain-killing draughts. A suspicion rose in his mind, unbidden. Surely this was no poppy-dream? Balin’s smile and Óin’s rough handling felt real enough, and surely his mind could not have conjured up such detailed images of folk he had never met. Yet he could feel the ache in his head where Saaum’s whispers had been and wondered. She was gone. She had died. Well, he had died. Hadn’t he? His heart began to pound. Gandalf would know if she was truly gone. He would know.

As his eyes roamed the figures around his bed, seeking reassurance, he realized for the first time that Gandalf was not there. There was no one familiar, just two strange dwarves and an elf. He shivered. Master Óin hauled the blanket further atop him with a disapproving glare, as though Bilbo had no business going about shivering under his watch.

Balin’s open, pleasant look crumpled into perturbation. “Are you well, Master Baggins? My word, you've gone as white as quartz.”

Where was Gandalf?

“All is well,” the elf soothed. Her low voice was like rippling water, and though Bilbo did not stop shuddering, it did slow the frantic beat of his heart. “Calm yourself. You are safe now.”

“Where --- I don’t understand,” he managed feebly.

“You’ve slept for three months,” Óin said.

Bilbo stared at him, speechless.

“Aye, 'tis the truth, and it was a near thing too. We weren’t certain you would ever wake. You’ve a spark of luck about you.”

The thought of having lost three months was too overwhelming to begin to contemplate. He pushed it aside. “The others?” he croaked. “Gandalf?”

“Everyone is quite well, Master Baggins. You may rest easy,” said Balin kindly. “The king is holding public court today, but he will come as soon as he is able. He has been most concerned about you. I daresay we all have.”

Oh. That was. . . that was good, Bilbo supposed. If King Thráin was able to attend council again, that meant he was recovered, and if he was recovered, Gandalf must have already scoured the dragon-sickness from the mountain.

But then where was he?

Where was Thorin?

Taking his silence as acceptance, Óin and the elf Erillulien began to discuss the wisdom of giving him a sponge-bath and something light to eat; he was far too exhausted and overwhelmed to be embarrassed by it. Balin discreetly excused himself, looking worried. Bilbo managed a decent goodbye, for Thorin had spoken fondly of their steward, and he did not want to offend. One must never neglect their manners.

At length, the healers decided against a bath, and Bilbo found that he could not stomach the thought of food. Erillulien went away to a low table by the window to rifle through the wide selection of bottles and tinctures spread across it while Óin helped him turn onto his side on the mattress, as he seemed, alarmingly, to be unable to do so under his own power. Once he was settled, he again asked, “Where is Gandalf?”

Bilbo knew nothing of Óin, but he thought the old dwarf looked rather shifty just then. He cleared his throat and fussed with the coverlet. “Couldn’t say. You will have to ask Balin.”

“I already did.”

The healer gave every indication of not having heard him. Bilbo would have bellowed in frustration if he had had the strength for it.

“Will you at least tell me what has become of Thorin? Is he well? His arm . . . .”

The healer made a dismissive gesture. “Aye, he’s on the mend. He’s had worse -- he broke a leg and three fingers as a dwarfling, and that was just from falling out of an apple tree.”

“And Cirwae?”

“You speak of the Great Eagle?” Erillulien asked. He nodded, and even from across the room he could feel her pity. “It was my understanding that she was brought back to the High Cliffs to be buried in the manner of her people.”

Nothing made sense. He could feel the tears on his cheeks and knew that they were seen, but they came so fast and thick that he could not have stopped them had he tried. The healers left him to his mourning, gathering at the table to ready a sleeping draught and argue in hushed voices over the dosage. Bilbo turned his face away and wept bitterly for Cirwae. When Óin returned with a cup of poppy milk and anise, he drank it down and surrendered gratefully to dreamless slumber.

 

***

 

Some time passed in a haze of astringent syrups that clouded his thoughts and cups of water and mouthfuls of broth. Bilbo slept and woke and slept in turn, but whenever he woke a healer or attendant was always at his side, pressing soup or cool water on him and bathing his face. He sweated and shook and was dimly aware that he had a fever.

He could not have said how long he stayed there, hovering between awareness and unconsciousness, but he finally woke one day with cooled skin and a clear head. Master Óin abandoned his book to test his temperature and check the swelling in his throat, and despite his grumbling, Bilbo thought the dwarf seemed relieved. He declared the fever broken and sent a page to fetch a bowl of thin gruel and “that elf-lass, and mind you don’t tell her I sent for her.”

Óin deigned to answer Bilbo’s queries now that his brains were not boiling. They were indeed in Erebor, he confirmed, and in one of the best sick-wards, the one with a window. This was apparently of some significance. He had been here three months and a week now and had been utterly unresponsive for two of those months, during which Óin and Erillulien had personally seen to his care. Óin himself was a distant relation of the king and had been apprenticed at the Healers’ Guild when he was no more than a boy, working his way up to the honour of master healer. He had a brother and a young nephew, and no wife. Bilbo thought to apologize for keeping him from his home so long, but the old dwarf merely laughed at him, not entirely unkindly.

“What do you think healers do, if not heal?”

“They certainly do not chastise invalids,” said Erillulien as she drifted into the room. Her dark eyes lit upon Bilbo, looking him over from head to toe, and she offered him a graceful nod. “It is good to see you looking so lively, Master Baggins.”

The two of them gave Bilbo a thorough detailing of his injuries, which were unsurprisingly extensive. His legs and soles were burnt, his ribs cracked, his head sorely rattled, one wrist sprained, and the hair on one foot singed off altogether. Bilbo was reasonably certain that he’d broken more bones than that and said as much. Óin looked very disgruntled. “You were knitted up before you came to us. I suppose it was magic or other such nonsense.”

Erillulien gave him a sharpish look. “You were tended by the hands of Mithrandir and the Lady of Lothlórien,” she told Bilbo. “A great honour, I am sure.”

Bilbo was not surprised by revelation, but it did trouble him. Gandalf had somehow managed to heal him, most likely at the expense of his own power, and yet still he did not visit.

“Let us see how you fare,” she continued, drawing down his blankets and setting his loose shift to rights. “Try to sit.”

He was not able to sit up on his power, not without a terrible pain in his back. They quickly arranged a cradle of pillows around him and shifted his hips to the edge of the bed so that his legs dangled over the mattress. The effort had him whey-faced and trembling, but he could not deny that he was glad to be upright. They tested the motion of his limbs next. His right arm was numb and slow, but it did move. His legs did not stir at all, not even when he strained and sweated.

“It is to be expected,” the elf assured him after she had carefully felt the muscles of his calves and thighs. “You have been asleep for many weeks.”

Bilbo looked down at his poor half-scalded toes. “Surely I should feel something of them, even if the muscles are weakened.”

Her expression was carefully blank as she drew back. “We shall wait and see.”

Óin’s frown had deepened, but he said nothing. He gave Bilbo’s knee a pat before he and Erillulien lifted Bilbo’s legs back onto the mattress. As he drew up the covers, Bilbo noticed a circle of raw, pink flesh around one finger, and his chest tightened at the memory of lancing heat and pain and that awful, malignant voice. Óin saw him staring at it and shook his head.

“You’ve got yourself a brand there,” he said. “Figure your jewelry must have got heated up by the dragon-fire. 'Tis not a pretty sight, but we’ve been putting a paste on it, and it should heal up.”

A chill passed through Bilbo, and the dwarf tossed another quilt over him.

The bowl of gruel soon arrived from the kitchens. Óin got up to fetch it, grousing all the way, but when he returned with it, the elf took it from his hands.

“I will see to him. Go seek your own bed,” said she, with the confident tone of one who was accustomed to being obeyed. “You have been here all through the night.”

Óin’s moustache bristled, but he did look very tired. “Aye, I suppose. I’ll go ‘round Glóin’s for a bite to eat and be back by supper.” He stood and stretched, bones creaking. “Do you fancy a visitor this afternoon, Master Baggins? The king would like to see you.”

“Oh! Uh, yes, yes, of course.” The thought filled him with trepidation -- his prior meeting with Thráin had been a very unpleasant one, dragon-sickness aside -- but one didn’t refuse a visit from a king.

“Good lad,” he said, and with that he was gone.

After ensuring that he could grasp the spoon and reminding him sternly not to eat too much, Erillulien gave him his gruel. He had not had anything more substantial than broth in three months, after all, and he felt it. The gruel tasted as fine as a roast to him, but his stomach cramped before half of it was gone, and he watched regretfully as the bowl was taken from his hands. He was given more water instead. As he drank, Erillulien talked to him.

He learned that she had come to Erebor at the king’s personal request, and she was a healer who had a particular skill with head wounds. Her nut-brown face was young and lovely, but something about the measured way she spoke gave Bilbo the impression that she was very, very old. Where Óin was loud and brusque, she was calm and reserved  -- so reserved, in fact, that Bilbo found her rather cold. Still, her hands were gentle, and she gave him a half-smile when he finished the water as she’d instructed.

“Do you wish to rest before your audience?” she asked.

“I suppose I had better.” It would reflect very poorly on him if he were to fall asleep during Thráin’s visit, after all.

It seemed like scarcely more than a few minutes had passed before Erillulien shook him carefully awake. “It is nearly supper,” she cautioned. “The king will be here presently.”

She helped him relieve himself (Bilbo might have been mortified, had he the energy for it) and brought him a basin and cloth that he could freshen up. With her assistance, he arranged himself against the pillows and combed his hair. It was as presentable as he could be under the circumstances.

There came a strong knock at the door, and it opened at Erillulien’s bidding. To Bilbo’s great surprise, it was not Thráin who swept into the room.

“Thorin!”

The dwarf came at once to his bedside and looked him over, the stormcloud on his brow easing as he saw Bilbo’s relieved smile. Erillulien graciously withdrew to the corner to grant them their privacy, and Thorin sat on her abandoned chair. A thin scar across his nose and the sling around his arm seemed to be the only remnants of their adventure. His hair was oiled and braided, his beard already growing in. Gold glittered dully on his ears and fingers, and he wore a circlet cleverly wrought in the shape of a raven on his brow. He looked very much a prince again. “It is good to see you awake, Master Baggins. How do you feel?”

“I’m very glad to see you,” Bilbo cried. “I thought something dreadful had happened to you, or to Gandalf. Where is he?”

“In truth I am not certain,” Thorin admitted, after a wary pause. “He left two weeks ago, and we’ve had no word from him since.”

For a heartbeat Bilbo was sure there must be some sort of mistake. Thorin must have misunderstood. “There was no note? No message?”

“If there was, none of us could find it.”

Oh, he must be very angry with me. Betrayal and hurt and guilt all mired together in an impossible tangle that burst open inside him. He and Gandalf had quarreled on occasion, as companions are wont to do, but never once had he imagined that his friend would leave him behind.

Then again, Bilbo had never done anything quite so foolish before.

“I think something may have happened, else he would not have left.” The urgency in Thorin’s tone suggested that Bilbo had not hidden his distress so well as he might have hoped. “He only left your side to cleanse the throne-room and counsel my father. He vanished very suddenly, and on the same day he did, so too did one of the guardsmen.”

“Who?”

“A young dwarf of our line, Gimli.”

The name sounded familiar, though he could not place it. “And you think he went with Gandalf?”

“Or was taken. I am intimately familiar with your proclivity for kidnapping,” said Thorin wryly.

A flash of ruby-red hair and round, blush-reddened cheeks popped into Bilbo’s mind. He wiped his hand under his eyes and took a steadying breath. There were larger concerns at hand -- this was no time to crumble apart. “I believe I know him. Or I met him, once. He escorted me to breakfast with your sister when I first arrived.” He took another breath. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I have not even asked after you. Are you well? Is the mountain free from all the dragon-sickness?”

“I am well,” Thorin assured him, “as is the mountain. Our concern was for your welfare.”

“Will you tell me what happened? Nobody wants to seem to tell me. Not that they’ve been unkind -- they haven’t -- it’s only that I ought to know. I’m not so fragile; I can bear it, whatever it is.”

“Are you certain?”

“Tell me. I know I was dead, or nearly dead, and now I’m not. Please tell me.”

And so Thorin did. The Lady Galadriel, it seemed, had dealt Smaug the killing blow at almost the moment Bilbo had gone over the railing. Smaug had been wounded in Cirwae’s brave attack, and a rapid burst of Nenya’s blinding power and a mighty thrust of Glamdring into the vulnerable pinpoint between two scales had toppled him. With the great drake slain, the remaining dragons had fled, and in scattering, made themselves easy targets. Only one had slipped away, though Landroval later pursued and killed it in his fallen nest-mate’s name.

Bilbo winced to hear how distraught Gandalf had been to discover him half-dead at the base of the stairs. His friend had expended much of his power in keeping him alive, and Galadriel had called upon an ancient spell that Thorin seemed incapable of describing -- he grew faintly pale and would only say that he wished to never see such a sight again. By their efforts combined, Bilbo breathed, but his state had been tenuous.

It was a fitting irony that the dragon-queen had saved his life. By her old magic or perhaps her sheer hateful will, Saaum had anchored them both. She was not willing to die, and by that determination, Gandalf and Galadriel had enough time to summon their healing incantations. Only when his bones and tissues had been hastily put back together as best they could be did they draw the wight from him and destroy her. She had been too weak to fight. Their last enemy defeated, Thorin and Gandalf had rushed him to Erebor to watch and wait, while Galadriel collected the pieces of the Arkenstone to bury deep in Lothlórien. 

“I began to fear that you would never wake,” Thorin said. “Gandalf insisted that you would, but Óin had never seen anyone sleep so long. We thought you would starve before you could come back to yourself.” He leant forward, his good hand propped on his knee. “But truly, how do you fare? Óin said your injuries are difficult to manage with his usual remedies.”

“Did he? Well, it’s not so very bad.”

Thorin was silent for a long moment. “I regret that this happened,” he said slowly. “You saved my life and nearly lost yours. I am in your debt. What I owe you, what my people owe you, I can never hope to repay.”

A little pain pierced Bilbo’s breast at this, though he did not know why.  “I didn’t do it for a reward.”

“And that is why I can never repay you.” Thorin’s brows beetled, his lips pursing as his gaze settled on the quilt. He looked uncertain.

“What is it?”

He seemed to hesitate before shaking his head decisively. “You will be glad to hear I have your sword and your pack. Myrtle is in the stables -- the elves brought her from the Greenwood, and she is unharmed.”

Bilbo did not know how he ought to feel, but his heart lightened at the thought of his faithful pony. “Will you give her an apple for me?” he asked.

“A hundred apples, if she desires them.”

“Some steed she would make if she grew so fat that she had to roll down the road.”

To his pleasure, Thorin smiled.

“How is your father?” Bilbo thought to ask, belatedly. “I thought I would see him, when Erillulien said that the king was to visit.”

The amusement slipped from Thorin’s face. “I am king, Master Baggins. My father has abdicated.”

Bilbo started. “What? But the sickness. . . .You said the mountain was free.”

“He could not be dissuaded. Frerin was buried when we returned. Father is --- I have no words for it.”

“Oh, Thorin, I’m very sorry.”

“I will let you rest,” the dwarf said then, in a manner that brooked no argument. He rose and drew his furs about him, the gold crown glinting coldly on his head, but he left Bilbo with a courteous nod and a promise to visit again. The door closed and the room was still, and despite the elf at the window, Bilbo felt very much alone.

 

***

 

The next week was difficult. Bilbo was now aware enough to register aches and pains, as well as worries -- he worried about Gandalf, wherever he was; about the dragons who still lurked in the Withered Heath; about poor Landroval, who would now fly alone; about Thráin, who was lost in his grief; and about Thorin, who now bore the full weight of the crown. He fretted about his body too, watching it fail him as Óin and Erillulien ran him through his paces to see what worked and what did not. He was pitifully weak from his sleep, but he was now certain that his legs had no sensation in them. He kept this knowledge to himself, for it was the most terrifying worry of all and did not bear thinking of.

By the second day, he was very restless. Erillulien feared that he might run feverish again if he became overtired, so visitors were barred from coming and they stopped the light exercises that they had been guiding him through. Bilbo had never stayed in bed so long, and he grew irritable and contrary. He felt useless, tended to like a helpless invalid, and at the same time resented being left to himself with nothing to occupy his mind. He became so frustrated that he dared to complain a little about Óin’s manners.

His cheeks burned scarlet as the healer unleashed a tirade about ungrateful hobbits who hurled themselves off staircases and chased dragons and played with dangerous elf-magic and other things they ought not to fiddle with. He was starting to feel properly cowed when something in the phrasing teased at a faint, forgotten memory.

“Wait,” he interrupted, jabbing one finger in indignant accusation. “Wait just a moment! I knew I’d heard your name before -- you’re the one who told Lady Dís I was a necromancer!”

Óin first looked startled and then annoyed at being caught before he had the grace to be a bit sheepish. “Aye, well, it’s only what I’d heard.”

“But you repeated it.”

“Hah! That’s what a body does, when they hear something.”

Had Erillulien not been above such things, Bilbo thought perhaps she might have rolled her eyes at them both.

Books were brought to him that very day by a shy young scribe, who was apologetic that Erebor housed only a small collection of works in Westron and even fewer in Sindarin. The stack of bound volumes he brought towered far over Bilbo’s head when the dwarf set it on the floor by the bed. He seemed a very sweet fellow and most curious about hobbits, and Bilbo was genuine in the invitation he extended to visit again.

That evening, Óin looked over the enormous stack of books with a grunt that Bilbo had quickly come to learn meant approval. “I see Ori’s come by,” he said.

“Did you send him, Master Óin?” Bilbo asked, with some surprise. “Thank you.”

The old dwarf waved away his gratitude with a gruff, “It’s Óin to you, lad.” His bedside manner continued to be appalling, but the gesture did serve to soften any lingering hard feelings about that necromancer business, and the books handily satisfied Bilbo’s restlessness and kept him from growing too peevish.

Master Ori had included a number of poems, both old and new. Very little distinguished them from their elvish counterparts, for they were tales of war and love, of valor and cowardice in battle. They spoke of the comfort of home and hearth, of young hearts and wise old souls, of the fierce longing for companionship and the pleasure to be found in solitude. It was nothing, therefore, that Bilbo had not seen before, but he devoured them nonetheless. (Admittedly, there was a greater prevalence of mining and stone metaphors and gushing descriptions of axes, mattocks, and beards. There were also a great number of lavish odes to the ale-house, which amused Bilbo. Hobbits and dwarves were not so dissimilar after all.)

After a wearisome week, Bilbo was deemed to be past any lingering danger of infection. He was ousted from his bed to sit propped up in a chair as much as he could bear and was given a tolerable amount of solid food to eat, which raised his spirits a little. In addition, Óin announced that he was now free to have as many visitors as he chose, and for as long as he could stand them.

Lady Dís was the first to arrive. She surprised Bilbo with an embrace and many repetitions of her gratitude, and they sat and talked for almost two hours. Erebor, it seemed, had survived its tumultuous year mostly unscathed, though it had been a close thing.

As Bilbo had feared, Thorin’s sudden disappearance had wrought havoc on an already-delicate situation. The lords of the council immediately suspected some foul deed by their mad king, and within the week, Erebor had become a cesspool of rumour and unrest. Kinslaying was an unconscionable act. Even a king guilty of such a crime would not be pardoned from execution. Thráin’s response had not helped matters, for he ranted and raved about Thorin’s desertion and called him a thief and a coward -- hardly the behaviour of a worried father. A few of the lords had come to Dís with their fears and pleaded with her to seek sanctuary in the Iron Hills until they found Thorin, alive or dead. Dís had refused to go. She sent her sons and husband to the Greenwood at Thranduil’s invitation and deployed a discreet band of warriors to rescue her brother after receiving his raven. She and Balin had schemed and plotted furiously to keep Thráin away from the public eye, finally resorting to locking him in his rooms while she ruled in his stead.

That was the rather succinct summary that Lady Dís gave, but by the weary look on her face, Bilbo knew that it had been an ordeal. “I am very sorry to have troubled you so,” he said, wringing his hands. “It’s entirely my fault Thorin was taken away. Your father could have been executed -- why, the kingdom could have been toppled, all because I was too silly to think sensibly! I wonder that you haven’t tossed me out the door.”

Lady Dís waved away his apologies. “It turned out well in the end. My brother is pleased with his adventure and insufferably smug about getting his paws on Unduthand. He’s hurt himself worse doing many a stupider thing.” She fixed a very fierce eye on him, and he shivered reflexively. “I would not suggest kidnapping him ever again, however.”

Bilbo agreed fervently, and the spate of fearsome sisterly protectiveness receded. They talked next of the dragon-sickness and the fire-drakes, for Lady Dís had heard a detailed account of the battle in Moria. Like Thorin, she was most indignant at the idea of unwittingly playing host to a dragon-queen. It had been decided that the carcasses of Smaug and the other drakes would be skinned and made into a glittering tapestry of scales to adorn the inner hall of the keep, as a ward against bad luck and an offering to Aulë. She offered to specially bring a sample to show him the impressive progress the Tanners’ Guild had already made on it. Bilbo hastily declined the honour.

Only briefly did Lady Dís speak of Frerin and the beautiful funeral they had arranged for him, and though her eyes grew wet, she did not cry. She was as proud as her brother, Bilbo thought. With a surprising delicacy, she evaded mention of Saaum altogether, speaking of the Arkenstone in the obliquest terms. Bilbo had dreaded being asked about it and was much relieved when they glided over the whole nasty business. They did not linger on Gandalf’s cleansing of the throne-room either -- the mere mention of his missing friend pained him, and the princess was a clever dwarf. She perceived his discomfort at once and smoothly turned the subject.

Evidently, Thorin’s coronation had been a foregone conclusion. He had taken on a large share of the crown’s responsibilities after the death of their mother and had effectively been ruling Erebor himself for the duration of Thráin’s indisposition -- the people knew his character and trusted him. Almost to the instant of Thorin’s return, the lords had been pushing quietly for him to take on the mantle of regent and rule as king in deed if not in name.

“It was a solution, but an unsuitable one,” said Lady Dís, frowning down at her teacup. “After this, my father could not abide being a puppet, nor would Thorin agree to make such a mockery of him. Passing on the crown was the wisest choice despite the shame of it.”

It was incredible to think of having slept through so much chaos, and Bilbo tried not to dwell on it. “Is abdication not common among dwarven kings?”

“No,” she said simply. “It is not done.”

Bilbo knew very well that it wasn’t his place, but it was frustrating to think that their efforts to save the king might have come to nothing in the end. Thráin was guilty of no greater crime than accepting a jewel found in his own mines. “He mustn’t be blamed for what happened to him. Dragon-magic is very powerful. There are many tales warning of its potency -- no Man, elf, dwarf, or hobbit can resist it.”

“You’re kind to say so,” she murmured.

He hated to see anyone look so dispirited. “I could speak to him if you think it would help.”

She shook her head, but she did smile at him a little. “I thank you for the offer but I don’t think it would be wise. He has asked for a period of seclusion, even from us. We must respect it.”

By mutual agreement, they put paid to the melancholy business. The conversation drifted from mountain business to Bilbo’s apothecary practice to Lady Dís’s sons, who were staying in the Greenwood until matters were calmer in Erebor. He told her, to much laughter, how Thorin had defended himself in naught but his bare skin, and she returned the favour with a number of charming tales at her brother’s expense. Her smiles were a lovely sight, her hearty laugh merry and loud, and Bilbo decided that he liked her quite well indeed.

Too soon (or so it seemed) she excused herself to return to court, for with Thorin on the throne, her role as queen in all but name kept her busy. Before she left, she bid him call her Dís and promised him anything he desired for that her kingdom could provide. Bilbo asked her only to come visit him again.

 

***

 

One fortnight bled into another. Bilbo was still bed-bound and exhausted by the smallest exertion, and none of Erillulien’s stretches or Óin’s potions could ease the pain in his back or the numbness in his legs. He could sit tolerably well but only for a short time. He ate heartily but slept far too much. Everything had to be brought to him, for he could not go to it, and the window was his only contact with the outside world.

The indignities of this new existence distressed him. Like any hobbit he enjoyed his comforts, but he was accustomed to walks and activity. Even his books and his tea began to lose their charms. Óin clucked over him and declared that he growing wasted and thin and decided that things could not go on as there were. He resolved to speak to Balin about acquiring a room outside the sick-ward, and nothing would dissuade him -- the healer was a bit deaf even with his ear-trumpet, but Bilbo had quickly learnt that he chose not to hear when the response displeased him.

Within a day, Balin had them moved to quarters in the upper reaches with access to a terrace carved into the mountainside. It was a lavish set of rooms meant to house honoured dignitaries from Dale, as Men were fond of fresh air. The bedroom walls were studded with a breathtaking mosaic of stained glass and the floors were marble veined with gold. The high-poster bed was draped in silk and furs. The terrace had a padded armchair, a few pots of wild flowers, and an incomparable view. Bilbo was embarrassed by the luxury but had to admit that it was rejuvenating to sit outside with Erillulien to watch the sunset each evening.

Freed from the sick-ward, he began to receive more visitors, and it became obvious that he was an object of intense curiosity. A few lords from Thorin’s court visited to see the halfling who had stolen away their prince and vanquished a dragon-spirit; the guards and kitchen-lads who brought his meals took a few extra moments to gawk and ask questions about the Shire. It was not always pleasant to be under scrutiny, but Bilbo understood that a hobbit in Erebor was a novelty, and they meant no harm. Young Ori visited frequently, bearing books he had borrowed from the great library in Dale and taking down copious notes on the Shire and the habits of its folk. He began to bring with him his elder brother Dori, who made the most delightful camomile tea Bilbo had ever tasted. Balin visited on occasion to inquire after his health, and Bilbo learnt that the intimidating guard Dwalin was Balin’s younger brother. True to her word, Dís saw him whenever she could spare the time, and soon they were well on their way to being great friends. Thus, Bilbo had many callers -- not the least of them the king himself.

Bonds forged in the heat of battle were a strange thing. Considering the brevity and circumstances of their acquaintance, Bilbo had grown inordinately fond of Thorin; he could only suppose that something of that fondness was mutual, for the king often found reason to visit Bilbo’s rooms. Yet when they were at their ease and faced with no greater danger than an undercooked supper, they fumbled around each other hopelessly. How curious it was to know someone so well, and yet know so little of them!

That was remedied soon enough. Words came more easily as tentative overtures settled into routine, for Thorin began to come every day to see him. Some days he stayed only a few minutes, and some days a few hours. He seemed determined to deliver whatever information Bilbo desired, speaking with an openness that was clearly uncomfortable for him. But still he spoke, satisfying every point of curiosity about his childhood and his family, about his mundane preferences, about his long-concealed wish to see faraway places and his love for his mountain.

Feeling somewhat guilty about taking advantage of the dwarf’s need to repay him, Bilbo returned his honesty with candour of his own. He spoke of Bag End and his parents and the Shire, of Elrond and the beauties of Rivendell, and the wide world beyond the Grey Mountains. Thorin listened attentively, and his interest did not seem to be feigned. He especially liked to hear stories of the wraiths and all matters of ghosts and magic. It was very clear, Bilbo thought, that as different as they were as night from day, both of them knew what it was to chafe against confinement.

On one such occasion, Thorin and Dís came together to take their supper in Bilbo’s rooms. The former was in decent spirits after sparring with Dwalin in the training yard, the latter exhausted after a long day of courting favour in the Jewellers’ Guild.

“I am sick to death of my own company,” Dís complained, eagerly accepting the mulled wine that Thorin poured for her. “Have pity on a dwarf and distract me from myself.”

It was a distraction for all of them. With good company and good food and a good fire, things did not seem as bleak. There were no shadows in that cozy chamber, and Bilbo’s smiles came more easily. Thorin’s arm was not yet healed enough to permit any harpery, but he and Dís were persuaded to sing, their low, melodious voices well-matched. It was a pleasant way to while away an evening.

As the last dishes were cleared away, Balin came in with a sachet of papers for Thorin to sign and was persuaded to join them for an after-dinner tipple. They settled around the hearth to talk, and even Erillulien unbent enough to abandon her needlework and accept a glass of wine and a seat at the fire.

Bilbo was carried to the choicest spot by the enormous hearth, supported in the armchair by an absurd amount of down pillows. Thorin and Dís were accustomed to the sight by now, but Bilbo felt somewhat uneasy to have Balin there. He, however, seemed to take no notice of it, drawing up a chair next to the hobbit and settling into it with a heave and a deep sigh.

The old dwarf held his wine in one hand and paged through another sheaf of documents with the other, pausing every so often to jot down an additional note or cross out some line or another. He did it all without dropping the thread of the conversation. Bilbo could not help but observe that Balin never seemed to not be working.

“After two hundred years of practice, lad, I write contracts in my sleep.”

“He really does,” Dís laughed. “If that talent could be applied to council meetings, we would all be grateful for it.”

A loud rapping sound drew their eyes to the closed terrace doors. Bilbo tensed in his chair and then felt silly -- it was probably only a branch in the wind. The sound repeated itself again and again in an unmistakable pattern, like a woodpecker’s patter.

Erillulien rose from her stool to crack open one of the doors. A bird dove past her, stirring her long hair, and darted into the room before she could close it again. Balin spilt a little of his wine as it brushed over his head to land with a flutter of wings on the rim of Bilbo’s glass.

It was a pretty thing, brownish with a speckled grey breast -- a starling. It regarded him with beady eyes, curious and not in the least bit frightened. It hopped around his chalice before beginning to warble and chitter; it went on for quite some time, staring at him expectantly all the while

“Is it a message?” Dís ventured after a moment. “Do your folk use sparrows as couriers?”

“It’s a starling,” Bilbo said absently, watching it prance. “No, we don’t. I’m sorry, little fellow, I don’t understand a word you’re saying.”

The bird fell silent, giving Bilbo a look that no doubt would have been exasperation on a more expressive face.

“Perhaps one of your ravens could translate,” Erillulien remarked, but the starling abruptly took flight. It leapt onto Bilbo’s hand to prod at his scarred finger; he flushed and quickly hid the mark, only to receive a shock as the starling flapped up to his head and plucked out a few strands of his hair. He yelped, more in surprise than pain, but Dís had already lunged to bat the creature away. It rose up to the ceiling and slipped right back out the terrace doors, strands of copper-gold clutched in its beak.

Thorin hastened to the terrace, followed by Balin. “It’s gone,” the latter said. “Good gracious.”

“What was that about?” Thorin asked, watching the sky warily.

Bilbo took a breath and then laughed in sheer relief, the terrible knot in his chest loosening a pinch. “Gandalf, I think.”

 



 

Chapter Text


 PART NINE


 The Road Goes Ever On



 

Mornings were quiet in Erebor. Most comfortable in the dark and cool of the evening, dwarves were inclined to sleep late and work long into the night. Bilbo rose with the sun, and it often seemed that he, Erillulien, and the ever-present rotation of guards were the only souls in the mountain to stir before ten.

On one such day Bilbo woke several hours before dawn after a restless night. As was their custom, Erillulien joined him for a light breakfast of tea and eggs, helped him settle out on the terrace for an hour or so, and then brought him inside. Normally he would read a bit or do his prescribed stretches, but he felt tired and weak, and Erillulien urged him to rest at least until Óin came in for his shift. Bilbo agreed to it if she would still go out for her usual walk along the battlements. He had no need for a keeper if he was only going to laze about.

Left blissfully alone, he drifted in and out of sleep until the sound of whispering tugged him from some half-forgotten dream. He opened his eyes to find two strange dwarves sitting at the foot of his bed. With a gasp he jerked the coverlet primly up to his chin, which sent the intruders into gales of laughter.

“Sorry, sorry,” one of them exclaimed. “We didn’t mean to give you a fright.” He was a handsome young fellow, with blue eyes, long golden hair, and a plaited moustache. His clothes were fine, and he wore a profusion of braids and gold rings. The other dwarf was dark of hair and eye and just as smartly dressed. Despite the dissimilarity in their colouring, they were obviously brothers, and Bilbo knew who they were at once. They each of them had the same regal, hawkish nose -- a nose also to be found on the faces of their uncle and mother. His presumption was immediately proven correct, for the dark one made an exaggerated half-bow and said, “Kíli, son of Dís, at your service, Master Boggins.”

“Fíli, at your service.”

“Bilbo Baggins, at yours,” said Bilbo, feeling rather wrongfooted.

“Do all hobbits look like you?” asked Kíli eagerly. “I didn’t know you were so small!”

“We’ve never seen a hobbit before,” Fíli said.

Bilbo blinked at them, but they stared back at him with round, guileless eyes, looking like a pair of excited owls. He felt his lips twitch and he had to bite back a sudden chortle. “I can tell,” he said. “Your mother didn’t mention that you were coming home.”

“We wanted to surprise everyone,” Kíli declared proudly. “We came yesterday.”

“We would have come three days ago, but someone didn’t want to leave the Greenwood.” There was a decided smirk under Fíli’s moustache. His brother flushed tomato-red and hastened to change the subject.

“Is it true that you coshed Uncle Thorin on the head, Master Baggins?”

“What?” Bilbo exclaimed. “No, of course I didn’t!”

“That’s what Dwalin said,” Kíli insisted, and Bilbo wasn’t sure whether he meant to sound accusing or admiring.

Fíli snorted, folding his arms. “Dwalin wasn’t there. He’s only making fun.”

“How do you know?”

“I didn’t cosh anyone on the head,” Bilbo said firmly. The lads looked him over carefully and exchanged a meaningful glance. They seemed to decide amongst themselves that he was harmless -- what little reserve was there vanished in an instant, and the floodgates opened wide.

“Did you slay a dragon? Did Uncle Thorin slay one?”

“How big was Smaug? Bigger than our throne-room, do you reckon?”

“What did Khazad-dûm look like? Were there many jewels? Did you see the mines?”

“Are you friends with the Witch? Do some magic for us, please!”

“How did you know the Arkenstone was a dragon?”

“Can I feel the fur on your feet? It looks very soft.”

“It is not fur,” Bilbo said indignantly. “And would you like it if I asked to pet your beards?”

The two subsided after that, but the momentary lull was disrupted when Fíli saw fit to say, “It’s not as though my brother has much beard for you to pet anyway. He’s as bald as an elf.”

Kíli cried out against this mortal insult, and for a moment Bilbo feared they might start a bout of playful fisticuffs atop his bed. By the mercy of Eru, Óin chose that moment to appear with Bilbo’s second breakfast. His eyes cast daggers at the two princes, who froze like startled deer.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “I told you you weren’t to come in here and pester the halfling. Out with you!”

“But Master Óin ---”

“Out!”

They slunk from the room, casting woeful glances back at Bilbo, and Óin slammed the door on their backsides. A pair of affronted yelps issued from the other side of the thick wood. The old dwarf stomped over to the table to deposit his tray.

“Trouble, nothing but bloody trouble,” he fumed.

Bilbo realized to his own surprise that he was chuckling. “I wouldn’t mind if they visited again,” he said mildly. “Not while I’m sleeping, mind.”

“Your funeral,” Óin grumbled.

The lads did visit again. Fíli and Kíli were terribly spoilt and far too accustomed to getting their way, but they were sweet lads, good-natured and merry and full of life. They amused Bilbo with their chatter and made presents to him of all manner of trinkets and mathoms, even filching sugary confections from the kitchens. Like Thorin, they were fascinated by the notion of being an adventurer; they listened to his tales with such open-mouthed awe that Bilbo could not help but laugh at them.

Still, he indulged their curiosity and tolerated their careless, mischievous ways. They seemed not in the least put-off by his life of vagrancy or his eccentricities, and within the week they were coming to him with their grievances, complaining about being scolded by their mother or having to court the favour of ‘boring, droning, mealy-mouthed old lords.’ Bilbo listened to them with amusement and gave them what gentle counsel he could; he imagined that they were not so different from the myriad of little cousins he would have had underfoot had he stayed in the Shire. He had never been anybody’s peculiar uncle before, and he was of the opinion that it was an altogether pleasant occupation.

Thorin seemed to regard his nephews’ presence in the sickroom with a dubious eye, though Bilbo assured him that they weren’t being pests (apart from their continued fascination with his woolly toes. Their curiosity bordered on the unseemly.) The king was lately in the habit of taking his supper in Bilbo’s rooms rather than visiting at odd, sporadic hours -- Balin approved of it, as it guaranteed that Thorin ate at least one good meal, and Bilbo liked to see him each day. He did not ask why Thorin’s eyes were limned with shadows, and Thorin did not press him when he shuddered from visions of fire and wings. In this they understood each other perfectly.

On occasion, Fíli and Kíli or Dís and her husband joined them at supper, and it was a heady feeling to watch the inner workings of a family as not-quite-kin but not a stranger either.

Dís was graceful and quick-witted, with a sense of humour that was astoundingly bawdy and a fierce stare that could make the hardest dwarf quake in their boots. She and Thorin had both inherited their grandfather’s legendary temper, and they quarreled often -- sometimes it seemed if only for the sake of quarreling. A few times they seemed to pause in their sniping, as though waiting expectantly for a cooler head to interject, and Bilbo thought sadly that another would have to fulfill Frerin’s role. Still, this did not stop them from disagreeing at great length and volume about everything from masonry to taxes to Kíli’s unkempt hair. They both presented such a dignified and confident mien in public that Bilbo could not help but find this streak of private childishness rather endearing.

As to the actual children, Kíli was of age, but not so much so that he didn’t still cling to his mother, and he and Fíli were all but attached at the hip. Their father Víli was a burly, soft-spoken dwarf -- a bronze-worker, of no particular lineage or distinction -- who always seemed to be toiling in his forge. He was a candidate for Guild Master, Fíli had explained one evening, and was determined to secure his place when it was time for the current master to retire.

“The crustiest old lords had a conniption when Amad married him,” Fíli confided. “They couldn’t say a word against it, of course, but they were hoping for a good alliance and a few of them are still bitter about it. Being Guild Master would shut them up.”

“Amad thinks he’s being stupid,” Kíli said fondly.

For their part, Víli and Thorin seemed to neither like nor dislike each other. It occurred to Bilbo to wonder how Thráin had viewed his daughter’s unconventional choice, but it was none of his business anyhow.

 

***

 

Thráin was rapidly approaching the third month of his self-imposed exile. He took no visitors, wrote no letters, and if ever he left his rooms, no one saw him do so. The kitchens reported that he returned his food half-eaten more often than not, and the guards outside his door admitted that they heard his heavy footsteps pacing into the wee hours of the morning. Thorin and Dís worried about him incessantly.

“Yet I would not go against his wishes,” Thorin said, picking through the remains of his plate. The candles on the table had burnt low, white wax puddling around the candelabra. Bilbo was not sure of the hour -- he only knew that it was late and that Thorin had been unusually talkative. “He was robbed of his will for over a year, and I would never see anything forced upon him again. I don’t know what to do.”

Bilbo slowly sopped up the broth of his stew with a crust of bread, sorting out his thoughts. “The will is a strange thing,” he mused. “So much of our perception of ourselves is tied into the decisions we make. Though we never make decisions alone, I think. There is always someone else to consider. There is always someone else who will be affected.”

In candlelight, the trenches around Thorin’s mouth were carved deep. “Do you think that we should make our choices for others? For whom? Sometimes what is necessary is not painless. There will always be those who are hurt.”

“My, that’s a gloomy picture of the world.”

“A realistic one. Few of us are truly selfless.”

Bilbo chewed quietly for a moment, mulling over the idea. “There is truth in that. I think that sometimes we cannot be selfless, even if we want to be.”

Now it was Thorin’s turn to lapse into silence. He put aside his knife and sat back in his chair. Bilbo left him to his contemplation, tidying up the emptied dishes and resettling as much as he could reach -- he had to bind his waist to the chair with a thick sash, lest he slip right off his seat. It was not entirely comfortable but it suited its purpose well enough. He fiddled with the tied-off ends, rubbing the rough silk between his fingers, and waited for Thorin to speak again.

“He means to protect us. I cannot begrudge him that.”

“If he doesn’t face you, how can he hope to heal? You could help him if only he would let you.”

“Our ways are different.”

“But his absence is causing you pain.”

“Yes,” Thorin conceded.

“He causes you pain to keep you from pain. It seems counterproductive.”

The king looked at him, his eyes piercing and very, very blue. “Did you think of how the wizard would feel? Did you think of how I would feel, knowing that you jumped on my behalf?”

It was said without heat, without any accusation at all, but oh my, how it stung. Bilbo blew out a breath and managed a shaky laugh. He could not seem to meet Thorin’s gaze; he stared at the silver clasp in his dark hair instead.

“I do not say it to be cruel,” Thorin said quietly. “It was an act of true courage.”

“And yet it was selfish all the same,” Bilbo finished. “Your point is made, Your Highness, and it’s a fair one.”

“Bilbo ---”

“He is your father. You know him best, and you know the character of your folk in a way I never could hope to. Perhaps you shouldn’t ask my opinion on this matter again -- I would have something to say about his decision, and I fear it would make me a hypocrite.”

“Say it.”

Bilbo only shook his head. “I will tell you what I think about you. I think you have already made up your mind to allow him do as he chooses, even if it means you must let him do harm to himself.”

Thorin gave him a melancholy half-smile, but he did not disagree.

 

***

 

Bilbo dreamed. As soon as his head touched his pillows, the memories he kept at bay during the daylight returned, made twenty times more grotesque by the odd leaps and perversions of the sleeping mind. Tonight, Cirwae was a black, hollow-eyed wraith lurking above the treetops. He was a faunt, clambering through the overgrown forest at Gandalf’s side. The trees twisted and the canopy darkened, and Bilbo lagged behind until he was left alone with the crawling shadows. He called out for his friend, only to draw back in horror as flames billowed from his own mouth, the flesh of his outstretched hands hardening into gleaming scale before his eyes.

He woke with wet cheeks and a sob in his throat.

As the sun rose, Erillulien brought him his breakfast and a bowl of seeds for his morning exercises. When Bilbo had first awoken, he had hardly been able to bear the weight of a spoon in his hand, and simple tasks like sorting seeds strengthened the muscles made weak by his long sleep. Putting his nightmarish visions behind him, he set to work obediently, plucking them out one-by-one and arranging them in neat piles while he ate. She sat next to him on her stool to weave on a delicate hand-loom.

Erillulien was extremely private. After two months of constant companionship, Bilbo knew only that she lived with her grandson and his daughter and that she had dwelled in Rivendell in her youth. Whatever life the elf had lived, she didn’t care to speak of it, and he had told himself severely to respect that. He chattered away at her, and she listened wordlessly, and it suited them both quite well -- which was why he was so taken aback when she interrupted him in the middle of recounting Kíli’s attempt to capture his own riding-boar.

“When I came this morning, you had been weeping,” she said, with the casual air of one observing that the air was warm. “If you are in pain, I can give you sleeping draughts again.”

He felt caught for a moment, panicked as a hare trapped inside its warren. “No, no. No more draughts. I don’t like being muddle-headed.”

Her eyes seemed to burn right through him. She did not look away as she wound another length of yarn around her delicate brown fingers. “There is no shame in ill dreams. The mind will ache for a time, as the body does, but it will heal.”

“I begin to wonder.”

His answer was a noncommittal sound that, in a less graceful creature, might have been termed a grunt. “A grievous offense was committed against you, but I have seen indignities visited upon elves so unspeakable that they were beyond the help of a kind touch. You are not Fading.”

Bilbo thought at once of the Lady Celebrían, so horrifically violated that she could not endure an embrace from her beloved husband and children. Of all the many tragedies of the Ages, it was only of the fate of his wife that Elrond could not bear to speak. “No,” he said softly. “No, I’m not.”

She finally dropped her gaze back to her weaving and did not speak again until she’d finished off a row of neat stitches. “Finish your bowl,” she said.

Bilbo picked up an acorn obediently. He looked at her and then down at the nut he held. Its dark colour made a striking contrast to the raw, puckered skin around his finger. The burn still refused to heal, no matter how many pastes Óin put on it, and the sight of it turned his stomach. He rolled the acorn over in his palm and trailed one thumb over the glossy hull. “Sometimes,” he said, “sometimes I feel as though there is a hard shell around me, and it’s so tight that it might crack at any moment. I’m afraid of what I might find inside if it does.” He sighed. “That sounds silly.”

“No,” Erillulien said. “It does not.” She reached over to take the acorn from him and placed it on the bedside table atop his books.  “Yet if it never breaks, it will never grow.”

 

***

 

Erebor was equipped with magnificent kitchens. Although Bilbo had not yet had the privilege of viewing them for himself, the depth of their larder was apparent enough. There were enough intriguing, peppery spices and exotic fruits and herbs purchased from the traders of Men to tempt the most lacklustre appetite, despite an appalling lack of leafy greens.

Thorin had a simple palate. He liked roasts and root vegetables and plain sauces, and Bilbo began requesting his favourites from the kitchen for their supper. It pleased him to see his friend eat with enthusiasm, for Thorin looked after a great many and had very few to look after him . It had the unfortunate effect, however, of causing Dís to give him curious looks across the table -- apparently his efforts were not as subtle as he hoped. It flustered him for reasons he couldn’t explain.

“I won’t be able to look over the deeds with you tonight, Thorin,” Dís announced when the last dollops of cream had been scraped away from her bowl of raspberry fool. “I’m going to help Víli with a chestplate that’s been giving him trouble, and then I’m going to take a walk and a hot bath and forget that I have a pair of idiot sons. Thank you for another lovely meal, Bilbo.”

“The kitchen deserves your gratitude, not I,” Bilbo said, “but you’re welcome all the same.”

Dís left them with a tired farewell, bracelets jingling as she hastened away to seek the comfort of her husband. Thorin sighed and topped off their goblets with the last of the small beer before rising to open the terrace doors. The breeze was only slightly chilly, despite winter’s fast approach, but there would not be many more mild nights to enjoy.

Bilbo drew his shawl over his shoulders and began to untie himself from his chair. “Shall we have a game, or is Balin waiting outside to hurry you back to your desk?”

“I have an hour or two. Kot?”

“Please. I’ll have you know that I intend to best you tonight.”

Bilbo gathered their cups before Thorin came over to pluck him up and carry him out to the terrace. At first, he had balked at being carted around by anyone but Erillulien or Óin -- it was one more humiliation in a string of humiliations large and small -- but necessity had had other ideas. Dís did it so casually, chatting about this or that, that he couldn’t possibly be huffy about it, and the lads hoisted him up with uncharacteristic caution to move him from his bed to his chair. He had grown used to hanging on to Thorin’s shoulders after dinner (as Erillulien and Óin took the opportunity to enjoy their meals elsewhere when he had company) but he could not be easy about it. Thorin was careful with him and his grip was never too firm, but Bilbo always grew a little short of breath. It was yet another thing that did not bear thinking of.

Thorin brought him out to the set of padded chairs and the low table that had been arranged on the terrace; once Bilbo was settled and secured in place, he went back inside to fetch the board they kept in the cabinet by the bed. Thorin was the one who had taught him to play kot, a complicated game of strategy that involved three interlocking boards and an army of carved animals. (Being a dwarvish game, of course, the tiles were gleaming black and white marble and the kot-joz -- the game pieces -- were made of semi-precious gems.) He had been patient with Bilbo, teaching him all the clever tricks that he had learned at his mother’s knee, yet with nearly two-hundred years of experience he always won in the end. Far from being discouraged, it only fueled Bilbo’s determination to beat him; he came to prefer kot to all other amusements, and they played several times a week.

It had become their habit to retire to the terrace for their game, and while they pitted their wits against each other on the board, they would talk. Thorin often complained about the quarrelsome heads of the guilds, who always had some new feud with each other to bring for his judgment. He detailed the small sorrows and joys that were brought to him for the day: the presentation of a new babe, or a blessing for a marriage, or the request for a tomb in the catacombs. Bilbo listened, sympathized, and occasionally rebuked, and Thorin began asking for advice to weigh with his decisions. Over kot, their conversations had grown longer, their confidences more intimate.

Being trusted was a gratifying, bewildering thing.

Tonight Thorin’s thoughts were occupied with his nephews. Kíli was still determined to have a battle-boar as his Iron Hills cousins did, and he had somehow convinced his more levelheaded brother to help him tame the beast he’d managed to trap. The attempt had culminated in a broken pen, three utterly decimated market stalls, a terrified hog, and two bruised princes. Had the only damage been the lads’ pride, they might have squeaked by with a stern word or two, but inciting a stampede in the busy Promenade at high noon couldn’t go unpunished.

After the boar was corralled and order restored in the market, the lads had been soundly thrashed by their mother and then led by their ears to their uncle. Any public misbehaviour severe enough to require the intervention of the city guard meant that the matter must be brought before the king or his council for judgment, usually during open court. Thorin’s punishment had been harsh: Kíli and Fíli would formally apologize and pay all the reparations to the affected merchants; in addition, they were barred from the Promenade for three months, one month for each of the stalls they had destroyed, and both would be under the constant supervision of a guard until they could prove that they could be trusted.

The shamefaced pair had accepted their king’s edicts with reasonable composure, at least at first. To everyone’s surprise, Kíli had gone near-frantic at the idea of having his every step dogged by a guard. He broke his respectful silence to beg Thorin to change the sentence, swearing desperately to rebuild the stalls with his own hands if only the supervision would be remanded. Thorin had of course refused, and it had devolved into an ugly scene.

“Mahal himself would despair of them,” Thorin said, glaring at Bilbo’s pieces like they had insulted his honour. “I warned Dís that she indulged them too much, but has she ever regarded a word I’ve said?”

Bilbo, listening attentively and doing his very best not to smile, knew what the trouble was at once. “Kíli is young, and he doesn’t much like the thought of losing his independence again. You know better than to give any credence to heated words. He doesn’t hate you.”

Thorin seemed to deflate a little at that.

“Give him some time to come around.” He considered his next move and then moved an agate goat two squares to the left to confront Thorin’s mother-of-pearl hawk. “They won’t be angry forever. They made a poor choice and their pride has been hurt, that’s all. I daresay they didn’t relish looking foolish in front of their uncle either. I can see how they look to you for approval.”

Bilbo had intended it to be a compliment, but it had quite the opposite effect. Thorin rose so abruptly that he nearly upset the kot board, and he strode over to the edge of the terrace that looked toward Dale. “They would rather I had died and Frerin had not.”

“That’s a dreadful thing to say,” Bilbo cried. “And untrue, at that!”

Thorin’s jaw clenched. For a moment he looked as though he might leave, but then his shoulders fell and he sighed deeply. “I have never had the charms of my brother and sister. It was simple for them to laugh, to be unreserved. Frerin had a gift of putting others at their ease. He loved so unashamedly, and he was never afraid of looking the fool. Kíli and Fíli adored him.” There was a curious tone to his voice: wistful, sad, and envious. “He went along with their whims and never chided them for being underfoot. He took them everywhere with him and taught them to love Erebor as he did. He always asked me to come along on their adventures, but there was never time.

“I was busy. So many times I had to cut our lessons short, or miss the lads’ sparring matches for a council meeting, or return to the mountain during a hunt. I saw how it disappointed them, but it never occurred to me not to go. They had Frerin, after all.” He fiddled with one of his rings, the heavy gold signet. “Would that I were more their uncle than their king.”

“You make it sound so hopeless. Fíli and Kíli are here and so are you. It’s not too late.”

“It won’t be the same.”

“That doesn’t mean it can’t be good.”

Thorin’s fist hit the railing with a muffled slap. “How can it be? There is a faultline in the bedrock now! I see it every time I turn to look for my brother. I see it when I wear my father’s crown.” His voice broke. “I’ve lost them both.”

Bilbo pushed the blanket off his shoulders and held out his hands plaintively, for he wasn’t above using his injuries to his advantage. “Come here, or I’ll drag myself across the floor if I have to.”

Thorin turned reluctantly away from the railing, and when he was within reach, Bilbo guided him to his knees and embraced him. For a moment they were both stiff -- they had not been so close since the night they huddled together for warmth on Cirwae’s back -- but Bilbo thought he couldn’t have stopped himself had he tried, not with such a miserable face before him. After a tense moment, he felt Thorin’s arms slide around his waist and squeeze. A heavy head settled on his shoulder, hot breath puffing unsteadily against his neck.

“Dear Thorin,” Bilbo murmured, daring to brush the curtain of hair over Thorin’s shoulder and out of his face. “I’m so very, very sorry.”

Thorin was still, hardly stirring at all except for his slow, deliberate breathing and the occasional twitch of his fingers against Bilbo’s coat. The tip of his nose was cold, chilled by the brisk air, but the rest of him was exquisitely warm, and that great awful pressure inside Bilbo eased just a fraction.

Far too soon, Thorin squared his shoulders and withdrew. “I am afraid,” he said.

“So am I.”

“I will lose them too.”

“No, you won’t.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

Bilbo was mightily tempted to take a silken braid and yank it until Thorin heeded him; instead he reached up to grasp his shoulder. “They’re grieving for their uncle, as you are,” he said softly. “They miss their grandfather. They were afraid for you, that you were hurt or worse. They were sent away from home for the first time and had to leave their mother behind in a perilous situation. Perhaps they misbehave because they don’t know what to do.”

“They have lived a free life,” Thorin admitted. He reached up to hold Bilbo’s wrist, the steel of his vambrace hard and cool against the bare skin. “Too free. Frerin was to succeed me, and he had every intention of marrying if he could find someone who pleased him enough. His children would have taken the throne -- there was a good chance that Fíli and Kíli would never inherit. They weren’t raised with the expectations of heirs.”

“But you might have had children,” Bilbo said, before he could think better of it.

“There are those among us who never marry. Some are wedded to their craft, others to their duty. I had neither the time nor the inclination.” His fingers tightened momentarily around Bilbo’s forearm. “Nor did you, it seems.”

“I’ve had companions enough.” He thought it wise to refrain from mentioning that none of those companions had been hobbits, and matters of incompatible lifespans and his habit of wandering had been enough to keep his affairs brief and casual. He suspected that Thorin would not find the humour in it. “However, I don’t think I shall ever marry or have faunts of my own.” He cleared his throat, discomfited. “A greater share of responsibility might suit them.”

Thorin regarded him for a moment longer before he slowly came to his feet to sit down properly on the other side of the board. “Fíli is apprenticed at his father’s forge, and his tutoring will continue for another two years. He and Kíli will have precious little time to themselves if they are to be my heirs. Dís worries about depriving them of their youth.”

“They can enjoy their youth and still be useful. Let them have their lessons with you. They can learn what they need to learn of ruling Erebor, and you will all come to know each other better.”

“I don’t think that would be wise.”

“For mercy’s sake, you act like they are afraid of you!”

“No, but they are not easy in my company, not as they were with Frerin.”

“If you were not always scolding them, they might be. Now, don’t give me that look! I’m not saying they don’t deserve those scoldings. But you could spend more time with them, and not for sparring, or tutoring, or smithing either. Take them to the market in Dale or out riding. Talk to them, Thorin. Listen to them. Show them that you appreciate the fine dwarves they are becoming. I think they would rise to the occasion.”

Thorin had no answer to that, but Bilbo thought at the very least he looked to be considering it. “Your move,” he said gruffly.

Bilbo turned his attention back to the board. He had a single piece left: an oliphaunt, carved of some unfamiliar yellow stone, was on the upper board, and he saw a diagonal pathway down to the second terrace. Thorin had only a quartz lion, and absently Bilbo moved the oliphaunt down to confront it, his thoughts still absorbed with the loneliness of kings and the follies of nephews.

His opponent took his time in return, one big hand hovering over his lion as he considered his parry.  Slowly, a curious dawned on his face: he stared at the board with lips slightly parted. To Bilbo’s great befuddlement, he suddenly threw back his head and barked out a loud, honest laugh.

“What?”

Thorin took up the lion and tossed it to Bilbo, who only just managed to catch it. “I believe you’ve won, Master Baggins,” he said.

 

***

 

“Good morning, Master Baggins.”

Out-of-breath as he was, sprawled across the mattress with Erillulien and Óin pulling at his legs like they meant to wrest them right off, Bilbo could do no more than wave. To his credit, Ori only winced before politely averting his eyes as he deposited on the bedside table a stack of books as high as the reedy scribe was tall.

“Morning, lad,” Óin grunted, palpating Bilbo’s hip with the meat of his thumbs until the hobbit squealed. “Glad to see you leave that library once in awhile. Dust isn’t good for the lungs.”

“That hurt!”

“Excellent. Means you’ve got feeling there.”

“I already know I have feeling there. Yavanna help me, stop poking! And kindly move your hand, it’s indecent.”

“I could come back later,” Ori offered warily. He flinched as Erillulien folded one leg up against Bilbo’s chest, taking a few prudent steps back in case someone thought to make a knot of him as well.

“Stay where you are,” Óin said. “We’ve done all we can for the day. Chin up, Master Baggins. You want the bed or the chair?”

“Bed’s fine.” Once he’d caught his breath, Bilbo waved their waiting hands away and wriggled, pulled, and pushed off the mattress with his arms until he’d righted himself and could settle on the pillows on his back. It was still unsettling to feel his legs dragging behind him like dead weights, but his arms had grown stronger, and he was able to move about on the bed quite well. Óin gave him a grunt of approval and a rare smile once he’d gotten himself under the coverlet.

Adequately reassured that Bilbo hadn’t been rent in half, Ori settled in to show him the library’s latest acquisitions. “There’s a bookseller in Dale who knows our Master Librarian, and she does her own transcription,” he explained, paging with a reverent hand through one tome to show Bilbo the bookseller’s elegant script. “She was able to hold a few of her finest editions for us, and what a treasure they are! Some of the others think it silly for our library to have books in Westron, but why shouldn’t we? They have knowledge worth preserving, just as we do.”

Bilbo admired the page had Ori thrust out toward him. It was skillful work, done in beautiful coloured inks. “Your Master Librarian must agree.”

“I’m not certain she does.” He looked disappointed to admit to it, for he was full of idol-worship for his master, who had given her sought-after patronage to a poor dwarf of common birth and no family name. “King Thorin requested these.”

A curious feeling settled in Bilbo’s belly: warmth and pleasure, and a bit of unease. “That’s very sensible of him.”

“That is what I think,” Ori agreed guilelessly. He replaced the book carefully onto its stack and then hesitated, toying with the knitted half-gloves he always wore beneath his plain jumpers. “Master Baggins, do you mind very much if I have luncheon with you today?”

“Of course not! I’ve told you you’re always welcome.”

He looked relieved. “Thanks awfully. I’d rather not go home just yet.”

“Oh?”

“Dori’s in a dreadful mood. Nori came home late again last night, and they’ve been absolutely foul to each other all day. I know that Dori thinks he was out picking pockets. ”

“Was he?”

Ori frowned down at the book. “Probably.”

Two very strange things happened then: a dart of unexpected pain, sharp and hot, lanced through Bilbo’s hand, and the ground began to shake violently underfoot. They both cried out as the mountain roared around them. With one mighty lunge, Ori wrapped his arms around the wobbling tower of books, and Bilbo clung to his bedpost. The walls trembled, and the chest-of-drawers tipped with a great crash -- the porcelain basin he used to bathe his face and hands in the morning shattered on the flagstones.

As soon as the tremor began, it was over. All was still, and Bilbo might have thought it a flight of fancy or a trick of his imagination if his basin wasn’t lying in pieces on the ground. “What on Arda was that?” he whispered.

Ori looked frightened. He could only shake his head in bewilderment and clutch the books protectively to his breast. They sat there tensely, waiting for some further catastrophe to befall them, but nothing happened.

Bilbo heard from the kitchen-lass who brought them luncheon that the quake had reached all across the West -- one raven who had just returned from his message route to Rohan reported that it had even been felt there. Tongues wagged for several days afterward, but no one seemed to know what might have caused it, and no one recollected anything like it having happened before. Even Balin, who knew something about everything, had no explanation to offer. Thorin declared that a deep fault-line must have been struck belowground, perhaps in the mines of the Iron Hills. Dís chided him for his stupidity and declared that it had been a massive earth-eating worm, and Bilbo, who had been unaware of the existence of such a creature, spent several sleepless nights unhappily contemplating this new knowledge.

 

***

 

Six months had come and gone since Bilbo set foot into the gutted caverns of Khazad-dûm, and life went on.

Though the last dregs of the autumn warmth were now vanished and the cold of winter had wound its way into the mountains, Erebor prospered. Her folk were well-fed, secure and safe in the depths of the rock, and her king began to look to the West to secure their fortunes with alliances.

True to her word, Captain Tauriel had not only fetched Thorin’s nephews from Dale herself but had also served as chief companion and escort to them for the duration of their visit. By some whim of chance, Kíli and Fíli’s stay in the Greenwood had had the unintended effect of improving relations with the wood-elves. They were young enough that their elders’ prejudices were not yet ingrained in them and charming enough that the distrustful elves were disarmed by their openness. They had made themselves useful in the Halls of the Greenwood by crafting jewellry for the court, and Kíli had endeared himself to the prince of the realm, Thranduil’s son, with his avid interest in archery.

On Balin’s advice, Thorin made a gift to Thranduil of some white gems that the latter had long desired. It seemed this treasure was enough to soothe even the injured pride of an elvenking, and with Erebor’s excessive taxes now abolished and their merchants trading fairly with Dale, Lord Bard was more than eager to put any past insults behind them. Meetings between the three kings of Rhovanion became commonplace once more. With the summer markets in Dale ended by the frost, Erebor’s grand promenade began to play host to Men and elves who wished to wander among the stalls, mingling with the dwarves and haggling with shopkeepers and drinking deep of dwarvish ales. There were those, Bilbo heard, who grumbled about the presence of strangers in the mountain halls, but their voices were drowned out by the merchant guilds, who were delighted with this new source of profit. Relations between the kingdoms looked very promising indeed, and if Kíli directed moon-eyed looks at Captain Tauriel and received besotted smiles in return, Thorin elected to ignore it in favour of continued peace.

Bilbo thought it all rather sweet but was wise enough to keep this opinion to himself.

In matters more domestic, Thorin and Dís were well-pleased with the fruits of their efforts. No longer did the folk whisper over their beer of the madness of Durin’s line, though Thráin’s continued absence had perhaps eased the rumours. The son and daughter of Thráin were respected and admired, and now there were promising heirs to the throne. With all thoughts of battle-boars behind them, Fíli and Kíli were acquitting themselves by taking to their new responsibilities with gusto. Thorin was proud of their progress, confessing to his astonishment that they were so willing to work and so eager to prove themselves to their uncle. (If Bilbo gloated at this admission, perhaps he could not be blamed for it.) In time, and with practice, they would be a credit to the crown.

For his own part, Bilbo kept himself as busy as he could, though it was not nearly as busy as he would have liked. His various sprains and scrapes and bumps were healed, with even the angry red scar around his finger was at last beginning to fade into knotted white tissue. He spent most of his time sitting, propped up in various chairs around his chamber, only consenting to return to bed when his back began to hurt too much to bear it.

Thorin had sent several letters on his behalf, making official inquiries to the various kingdoms of the East, but the Grey Pilgrim had not been seen in the Iron Hills, nor Rohan, nor the White City of Gondor. Even the Lady Galadriel could not be contacted for information, for Lord Celeborn’s brief, polite reply had stated simply that Gandalf had not passed the borders of Lothlórien for many months. Bilbo knew that his friend was alive -- he had sent the starling, after all -- but the silence was damning, and his concern became riddled with anger. Why would Gandalf not come? Nevertheless, he sent letters faithfully with the ravens.

When he was not abed, Bilbo read, wrote, sang, and tended the profusion of potted plants that had been arranged in his sitting room. Dís had brought him the first plant, a lovely rosebush in a ceramic vase imported from Dale. She had unintentionally started a trend: small shrubs and flowering plants began to arrive almost daily at his door, with or without accompanying visitors. He had nearly two dozen of them now, of all kinds and sizes. They were gifts, Balin explained, from the people of Erebor. The Lay of Thorin Oakenshield and Bilbo Dragonsbane was lately recited in the ale-halls and taverns, and however ludicrously exaggerated -- Bilbo had most certainly not wielded Unduthand in defense of his fallen companions, nor had a crown of seven stars appeared above Thorin’s head as he crossed the doorway of Durin’s Keep -- its popularity was indisputable. Thorin seemed amused both by the poem itself and Bilbo’s dislike of it. (Admittedly it was well-written, if too sentimental for his tastes).

Though he did not like the song, he did like the gifts and the consideration behind them. He could no longer kneel to garden, but the pots could be arranged atop a table. The master of the Carpenters’ Guild had fashioned a clever rotating platform to cover the tabletop, and by spinning it, Bilbo could reach all of the plants without having to have his chair resettled. He spent many hours tending this strange facsimile of a garden, and if it was not the same as feeling the earth under his toes and labouring with good, honest sweat under the sun, it was still pleasant to prune and water and coax the blossoms into their full potential. 

With Óin and Erillulien leaving him more often to his own devices, he was glad of the increased privacy. He could not walk from one place to another, but he was fully capable of staying occupied and tending to his own needs provided that the necessary items were placed within easy reach. Under Óin’s strict instructions, he helped mix up herbal tinctures and potions, and they argued with great enjoyment about the proper method of treating a sore throat and the best way to bind a broken limb. If he could not be himself, at the very least he could be useful. How curious it was to forfeit his title of wandering apothecary and take up the mantle of gardener, scholar, invalid, and erstwhile councillor to a king of dwarves.

And so Bilbo’s days passed, one into another with little to distinguish them. He waited. Each morning he asked to be brought to the terrace, despite the bite of the air, and watched the road for a glimpse of a tall figure with a grey hat. He watched the skies for any sign of an Eagle. He watched the ravens fly to their rook within Erebor’s walls, only to be told each day that they had brought no message for him.

He was not unhappy, here in the warm halls of Erebor, but he felt stretched thin, lost, as though he were standing at the fork of a road with no map in hand. He could only wait, and watch.

 

***

 

It was past second breakfast when Óin arrived in Bilbo’s rooms with his usual bluster, carrying a satchel of seeds and herbs for Bilbo to put his pestle to and bottle for storage. Erillulien was clearing away their dishes as the old healer planted himself at the table and snapped up a ginger biscuit.

“I’ve good news for you, lad,” he announced. “I’ve been talking to a friend of mine about getting you up and about now that you’re better, and he says he can make a wheeled chair for you. It’ll take some work to devise the best way to shore the wheels up against cobblestone, and we’ll need to find a light enough metal for the frame, but he thinks it can be done. What say you to that, eh? Better than a litter, at any rate.”

Bilbo’s fingers froze halfway to the biscuit platter.

“Bilbo?” Erillulien murmured.

He swallowed then, mouth gone as dry as charcoal. “He shouldn’t go to all that trouble. There’s no need. I shouldn’t . . . I shouldn’t need it soon, should I?”

They exchanged a weighted glance over his head, and an awful hollowness bled into his stomach. At length Erillulien turned to meet his gaze and held it firmly. “That you are alive is a wonder in itself. I do not believe that you shall ever recover the use of your legs. You must learn how to manage without them.”

Somewhere, tucked away in the back of his thoughts, he had known that he mustn’t expect too much. Her words should not have punched the breath from him, nor left him reeling and speechless. He knew enough of wounds, of the brittleness of the body and the dangers of false hope. He knew very well that his legs were not healing. He could not bear any weight on them at all. There was feeling again in his hips and arse, but his limbs were as weak as wet dough, crumpling beneath him. None of Erillulien’s stretches or Óin’s medicines could restore their strength, and they grew wasted and thin and ugly to look upon. There were some ills that even the strongest magic could not overcome.

All this Bilbo knew. And yet. . . .

“You’re hardly the first fool to get himself crushed to a pulp,” Óin said, not unkindly. “There are ways around it. A good pair of crutches and splints might do eventually, but we’ll get that wheeled chair fitted for you quick as a wink so you can move about. You will never be as you were, but you’ll get on tolerably with hard work.”

Erillulien sighed at his bluntness, but she did not disagree. Reaching across the table, she brushed a hand through Bilbo’s hair and across his cheek before rearranging the cushion at his back. “I am sorry,” she said. “Such is the nature of sacrifice.”

The day passed in something of a haze. Bilbo went through the motions of his routine, soundless and numb. He watered his plants. He ate when he was given food. He slept all morning and laid in bed all afternoon, staring up at the ceiling. His beautiful rooms had never felt so much like a prison.

Thorin came to him that evening, trailed by a kitchen-lad bearing a supper tray of hearty stew and brown bread and butter. They ate in silence by the fire. Thorin’s mood was solemn, and Bilbo began to suspect that Óin had told him what had happened. He wanted to be angry at the old dwarf for his indiscretion -- his health was no one’s business but his own -- but he was not sure that he would have been able to speak of it himself.

When they had eaten, Thorin did not rise to get the kot board, nor did he offer up some new conundrum at court for Bilbo to ponder. He sat in the wing-backed chair, craggy face lit by the fire, and smoked his pipe. It was not unusual for them to pass an evening in such a way -- both of them valued peace and quiet -- but Bilbo did not want to be left alone with his thoughts. He decided to write another letter, if only to occupy his mind. A bound book, a token from Ori, was still sitting on the armchair where he had left it the night before. He took it up, along with the quill lying atop it, and realized that the bottle of ink was on his bedside table.

On any other day, he would have asked Thorin to fetch it. On this day, the book went sailing across the room, striking the wall beside the fireplace as its owner shouted in wordless rage. Thorin was half out of his seat, casting about for the unseen threat, before Bilbo began to weep.

He could not abide being looked at -- he hid his face with hands that shook so badly that he could scarcely keep them there. “I can’t even get the damned ink!” he cried. No sooner had the words left his lips then he was enfolded in heavy cloth and fur. Thorin’s mantle wafted of skin-warmed metal and pipe smoke, and he hooked his shivering fingers into its softness and clung to it.

Thorin gripped him by the shoulders, not so firmly that he couldn’t pull away if he wished it. He laid one rough paw at Bilbo’s neck and guided their foreheads together. The touch was too much, too much by far. The glossy hardness inside him cracked open, raw and hot, and his breath left him in a low wail.

“I can’t bear it,” he sobbed. “Oh, Thorin, I can’t!”

Thorin did not offer him apologies or condolences, but he stayed there at the foot of the chair, his big hands cupped around Bilbo’s head, until the storm had passed.

 

***

 

The snow fell thick in the East, and the northern winds blew harsh and fast. Glittering icicles were strung across the front gates, the few windows to the outside world scrolled with frost. The dwarves of Erebor were not put-off by the tremendous mounds of snow that smothered the face of their mountain, for inside an ingenious system of piping and furnaces easily heated the inhabited levels.

Bilbo’s terrace was buried under a constant cloak of snow, and scarcely was it cleared away before was filled up again. Reluctantly, he gave up his morning vigil -- Gandalf would not travel in through the deep snows anyway, and everyone grew fussy when they thought he was liable to catch a chill. Now that the weather had turned and he could not go outside, the ability to leave his rooms was of immense importance to him. After some thought, he consented to Óin’s recommendation of the wheeled chair, and within the week it was proudly brought to him with the compliments of the Carpenters’ Guild.

The wheeled chair was a bizarre contraption of wood reinforced with iron, bulky and indiscreet but well-made. Bilbo had never seen anything like it, with its padded arms, rounded back, and small wooden wheels attached to the end of each foot. An iron bar was welded to it that it might be steered easily by an attendant, and the seat was cushioned with down pillows. A leather strap had even been fitted across it so that he would not slip off if the chair was on an incline.

It was not unduly uncomfortable, though he was sore if he stayed in it for more than a half-day without a break. Bilbo thought he would have been glad of it either way, as the freedom it offered was worth any amount of pain. There were wings that could be reached only by the winding staircases, but most floors in Erebor had some sort of level plane, for they served both as hallways and as roads and had to be accessible to carts, wagons, and livestock. There were very few places in the mountain now that the dwarves could not take him, and he was ready to see everything he could. 

Kíli and Fíli were keen to claim the honour of leading Bilbo’s first expedition into the mountain, but it was not to be -- the day after the chair was presented, Ori whisked him away excitedly to the library.

“I’ve been wanting you to see it for ages,” he exclaimed, wheeling Bilbo up an endless series of ramps without breaking a sweat; for such a small dwarf, he was astonishingly strong. “I’ll introduce you to Grora, and perhaps Master Zagâris if she isn’t very busy, and we’ve just gotten the most marvellous collection of Stonefoot histories. . . . .”

They were almost to the library when they were hailed by Kíli, who was followed by his mother at a more sedate pace.

The young prince, thankfully, did not seem too upset to have his position usurped. “Good morning, Bilbo,” he chirped, trotting over to butt his forehead (carefully) against the hobbit’s and inspect the chair. “Uncle said it would be soon, but we thought it wouldn’t be done until tomorrow at least! Do you like it?”

Bilbo couldn’t say that it pleased him overmuch to be stared at and pushed hither and thither like an ailing old prune, but then again was he not out in the world once more, as much as he could be? He had never been one to spit on a gift, and this was a generous gift indeed. “I do, Kíli, very much. I won’t ever doubt the cleverness of your craftsmen.”

Dís made an approving noise, but she bent to examine the welding for herself. Once she was satisfied with the quality of the workmanship, she gave Bilbo a clap on the shoulder and asked for their destination.

When he told her, she laughed. “Of course. The library is a far better fit for you than the nonsense my brother planned.”

Kíli was quick to come to his uncle’s defense. “The hot springs are very pretty, Amad. And Bilbo would like the solarium.”

“Pah! If he would have his way, Master Baggins would be dragged around to peer under every pebble.” Dís turned to Bilbo with her hands on her hips. “He wanted to show you his study. What should you want to see in there? Nothing but musty old books and dirty plates and a hundred papers he’s left scattered about, and probably some of his braes, the great brute.”

Kíli made a noise of disgust.

Bilbo stifled a laugh into his palm -- Ori looked quite red enough already. “I don’t mind,” he said, when he’d gotten himself tolerably composed. “Isn’t that the point of staying somewhere new, to see everything that you can?”

“Indeed it is, and we’re keeping you from it.” Her accessing gaze shifted over to Ori. “Our apologies, Master --?”

The poor dwarf was scarcely able to stutter out his own name.

“We won’t detain you any longer, Bilbo, Master Ori.” She drew her arm over Kili’s shoulder and gave his disheveled braid a tug. “Come, mizimith.”

Kíli looked disappointed. “Can we walk with you there, at least?”

“Of course you may, if it pleases your mother,” Bilbo said, before Dís could chide her son for being rude. She consented to the detour, declaring that Víli could wait for them a few minutes longer.

Ori looked near to having an apoplexy when Dís began pushing Bilbo’s chair herself. Horrified at the notion of walking along empty-handed while the crown princess did all the work, he gathered up his courage enough to squeak, “Your Highness, if I may, if it’s no trouble, if you don’t mind --- there’s no need for you to do that. That is to say, you don’t have to. . . um.”

Dís gave him a narrow look, but Bilbo could see the mischief tugging at her lips. She and her sons were more alike that she ever chose to acknowledge. “I’ll do as I please,” she said, and none of them dared gainsay her.

Erebor’s library was a thing to behold. Its collection was lovingly tended, each book free of dust and arranged on its shelf with care. There were large stone tables and cushioned chairs among the bookshelves, with crystal lamps and three immense fireplaces set into the wall. In familiar territory, Ori lost his timidity and eagerly showed Bilbo all his favourite places. Víli was doomed to wait, for Dís and Kíli trailed after them, listening indulgently.

It was perhaps not so grand as the Great Library of Moria, nor so elegant as Rivendell’s, but all libraries had a calming charm to them. Bilbo scoped out a few cozy nooks where he might sit and work in solitude, and had just begun to ask Ori whether or not he might select a book to take back to his rooms when a voice called out:

“Bilbo Baggins!”

Gandalf stood at the door, his hat askew and his silver beard dreadfully windswept, and Bilbo had never been so happy to see anyone in all his life. An involuntary shout burst from his lips, and he would have tumbled right out of his chair in his eagerness if Dís hadn’t caught his arm. In three strides, Gandalf was before him with arms opened wide; every last drop of Bilbo’s resentment and worry flew from his head as he lunged to meet him. Caught up in a fierce embrace, Bilbo was not ashamed to say that he dampened the grey cloak with a few relieved tears. His friend felt no different under his hands -- he looked drained but unharmed, and he smelled of pipeweed and mint and brown beer, as he always did.

“Where have you been?” he managed.

“Here and there.” Gandalf drew back enough to take Bilbo’s face into his hands. “My dear Bilbo,” he said, “nothing short of a catastrophe would have taken me away from here -- and to call it a catastrophe is to make light of it.”

It took some time before Bilbo felt himself equal to pulling away, and he kept a hand anchored to Gandalf’s sleeve lest he disappear again. Kíli and Ori were staring at the pair of them in confusion, but Dís was beaming.

“Welcome back, Tharkûn,” she said warmly, and the other two dwarves gaped and then dipped into hasty bows. “I don’t suppose young Gimli is home now as well?”

Gandalf swept off his hat to bend his head to her respectfully. “I believe he is, Your Highness, though I have no idea why you think I should know his whereabouts.”

“Mmm,” Dís said. She ruffled Kíli’s hair and then threaded his arm through hers, giving it a reassuring pat. “I suspect my brother will want to talk to you, as will Cousin Glóin, but I can hold them off for today. I make no promises for tomorrow.”

“You continue to work marvels, my dear,” Gandalf said, and with a little laugh she ushered Kíli and Ori away.

By unspoken agreement they returned to Bilbo’s rooms, away from the curious eyes of onlookers. Gandalf remarked on the cleverness of the chair and pressed Bilbo about how he had been treated in the mountain, seeming pleased by what he heard. Bilbo answered what he could, but once they were in the privacy of his chambers, his impatience could not be contained any longer. He did not even wait to call for tea first.

“Where have you been? ” he exclaimed. “And why would you go without a word? I thought you were angry with me!”

“Angry?” Gandalf repeated incredulously, as though the idea were the greatest absurdity he had ever heard. “Why should I be angry with you?”

“What else was I to think, with you taking off without so much as a note while I still slept?” Bilbo was not proud of the way his voice cracked, but it seemed to give his friend pause.

Gandalf pulled up a chair beside him. “Forgive me,” he said. “I should have left a letter, but I feared what would happen if it were read by eyes that had no business reading it. I did send a starling . . . “

“That ripped out my hair!”

“. . . to check on you, and I left in a great hurry, not knowing if my efforts would meet with success. Truth be told, it could have all come to nothing. I could not be certain that I would ever return. Should the worst have come to pass, it would have been a folly to involve you.”

Bilbo sighed, his anger already ebbing. He would forgive Gandalf, he knew -- he always did. “Tell me now.”

It must have been a dire tale indeed, for his rudeness did not earn him so much as a frown. “Two months ago, a great earthquake shook Middle-earth. It passed from Mordor to the farthest reaches of the Grey Havens. I am sure you felt it.”

Bilbo remembered his poor ruined basin and the way Ori had sheltered his books. “That was you?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

Now that the first blush of shock and excitement had passed, he noticed that his friend was so well after all. The wizard was wan, faded, with new furrows in his face and a stoop in his shoulders that had not been there before. “You were hurt,” he murmured.

“Yes,” Gandalf said, and left it at that. Bilbo could not help but reach out and grip his hand again. “The quake was caused by the destruction of a great evil, one that will trouble Middle-earth no longer, thanks to you.”

“Me?”

“I should say, you and Gimli.” Gandalf paused then, and his eyes flitted from Bilbo’s face to their joined hands to his blanket-covered legs. When he glanced up again, he looked every bit his age. “My friend, for all the world I would not have had this happen to you.”

“It happened nonetheless.” It was feigning an ease that he did not feel -- not yet -- but he had hopes that eventually acceptance would come. It always had before. “You are not to blame.”

Gandalf did not refute him, or insist that he was mistaken. Nor did he agree. He sat back and drew out his pouch of Old Toby and two long-stemmed pipes. “Yours is lost,” he said, and Bilbo realized with a start that indeed it was. “Here.”

Bilbo took the offered pipe in his hand in some confusion; it was a handsome meerschaum, jade in colour and carved with an elaborate fresco of Varda’s first hanging of the stars. A Sindarin prayer circled the stem in neat, tiny script, and the reed was polished maplewood. It looked familiar. Very familiar.

“Did you filch this from Elrond?” Bilbo demanded indignantly. “Did -- wait. Wait, what were you doing in Rivendell?”

“That is a story that requires a smoke,” Gandalf said, industriously packing his bowl. “And I suspect you will need one too before it comes to an end.”

 

***

 

“I carried a Ring of Power in my pocket. The One Ring.” Bilbo looked down somewhat blearily at his empty glass. He was not entirely certain how much he’d had to drink, but it hadn’t been nearly enough. “Sauron’s Ring. In my pocket.”

“Well,” Thorin began, and seemed to have nothing else to say.

“Well,” Bilbo agreed.

 

***

 

While Gandalf’s return had been met with pleasure in most quarters, Gimli’s mother and father were understandably upset. To stop Glóin from doing something foolish, Thorin arranged a council to mediate the dispute, and before the king and his most trusted advisers, Gandalf and Gimli told the entirety of their harrowing tale.

There were magic objects enough in Middle-earth that a ring of invisibility had given Gandalf no concern. Nor had Lady Galadriel had sensed anything amiss, for the Ring had been quiescent in Bilbo’s care, slumbering until the time came for it to reawaken. And reawaken it had. Great evil recognized great evil, and the presence of Saaum had stirred it. In return it had broken the prison of the stone, releasing the dragon-wight in the hopes of gaining an ally. In the aftermath of the battle, Thorin had described how Bilbo’s finger had burned and how the Arkenstone had split, and only then did they begin to suspect that the Ring was dangerous.

It took some time to confirm that the unassuming piece of golden jewelry was indeed the lost One Ring, forged by Lord Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom and forgotten for two thousand years. Gandalf had waited as long as he dared for Bilbo to wake, but at length the fear of the Ring finding a new master had forced his hand. He and Galadriel knew they could not retrieve it for themselves and possess such power, lest they fall under its corruption now that it had awoken. It was quickly decided between them that an independent party must be chosen to carry it.

The fabled Ring of Power offered conquest and dominion to its wearer, and so dwarves, like hobbits, were somewhat immune to its wiles. Their ambitions were not the ambitions of Men and elves, for the chief weakness of the dwarves lay in the hoarding of gold and gems, not the acquisition of power. Choosing Gimli as the Bearer had been partly convenience, for he had been in the rotation guarding Bilbo’s door and thus had made himself familiar to Gandalf. More than that, however, he was inexperienced, of (distant) royal lineage, and good-natured. His head was caught up in poems and stories of honour. He was too young to wish for more glory than a position in the king’s guard to make his parents proud and too old to be careless with his task. In short, the Ring of Sauron had little to offer him.

It had been a moment’s work to convince him to help. Accompanied by Lady Galadriel, they flew on the back of Landroval to Moria to retrieve the Ring. Moria was half-destroyed in the wake of the dragon-battle, and fearing the arrival of more drakes, the orcs had not returned en masse to their ill-gotten halls. The Ring was found buried in rubble at the base of the staircase, but removing it from the mountains was not nearly so simple. Other shadows lurked in the abandoned mines.

(“Oh, this and that,” Gandalf said, waving a dismissive hand. “A few stray goblins, perhaps a Balrog -- nothing to concern yourselves about.”)

With the Ring was safely in Gimli’s hands, away they went to Mordor. Their progress was slowed by a handful of dragons that yet lingered after Smaug’s defeat, and Gandalf had incurred severe injuries during their flight from Moria. Galadriel too was weakened, her power spent by another terrible fight so soon after the first. It had been a close thing, but Landroval had borne them bravely to Mount Doom itself, and the Ring was cast into the fire, never to be reforged.

The resulting blast of molten flame and the collapse of the mountain had nearly killed them all. Landroval flew directly to Lord Elrond and his healers, but even with the magic of the elves, it had taken nearly a month for Gandalf to leave his bed. Gimli had been shielded by his companions during the eruption and so had only bruises and burns, but he had been content enough to stay and explore Rivendell. He was a well-spoken dwarf and did not seem to mind the elves so much, fostering a few earnest friendships among Elrond’s court. When all wounds had been healed, the party returned to the East -- Galadriel to Lothlórien, Gandalf and Gimli to Erebor, and Landroval to the High Cliffs.

“We are fortunate that the Ring was discovered now,” Gandalf concluded gravely. “A darkness has been growing these last hundred years, and I hesitate to think what might have happened had it been allowed to spread unchecked.”

“Are you certain the danger is gone?” Balin asked, breaking the tense silence of the listeners. “Can such a ring be made again?”

“Never. Evil will always flourish in the shadows, but I believe our last great war has been fought.”

“An incredible tale,” Thorin murmured. He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair and turned to Bilbo, who sat quietly at his side. “After everything I have seen of late, it is hard to believe I can still be surprised by the world.”

Dís, who had been pacing behind her brother, stopped and shook her head in disbelief. “How lucky we are that the Ring came to Bilbo! Imagine what might have been done with it.”

“I’d rather not imagine,” said Bilbo. It was chilling enough to think of what it might have done to him had he carried it longer. Gandalf said there was not as much of a risk to hobbits, but surely having something so wicked so close to him would have had an effect on him eventually. He shuddered to recollect how carelessly he had used it, thinking it tremendous fun to pop in and out of sight, as if it were a party trick! “I am glad to have it gone. The only luck involved is the finding of Master Gimli, who was strong enough to see it done.”

Gimli fidgeted and blushed beneath his beard, but he was clearly pleased with the praise. His pride was well-earned, Bilbo thought, for the lad had emerged from the journey with a handful of dashing scars, a new confidence, and a prize of three moonbeam hairs from the head of the Lady of Light. His first adventure had turned out quite well for him, all things considered. “It’s no more than any dwarf would have done,” he said stoutly.

Master Glóin, a stout, red-headed fellow who looked very much like Óin, seemed to remember then that he was unhappy. “My lad could have been killed!” he huffed, and his wife, whose hostility had gradually lessened with the wizard’s explanations, turned her frown on her husband instead.

Gandalf smiled at him. “But you see that he was not.”

“Be that as it may,” Thorin was quick to interject when Master Glóin began to sputter furiously, “the matter must be settled.” He straightened in his chair and nodded to Balin, who began to record his words on a scroll. “Glóin, son of Gróin, claims that his son, a dwarf not yet of age, was coerced into service. Tharkûn claims that the service was entered into voluntarily with a clear and willing mind. All arguments have now been heard. Today the judgement of the crown will be passed, and both parties will accept the ruling. This dispute will never be presented to the throne again, nor to any other court of Erebor.”

“Of course,” Gandalf said, sounding amused, and Master Glóin nodded grudgingly.

To everyone’s surprise, Thorin turned to Fíli, who sat at his right hand. “I put the decision into the hands of Fíli, son of Dís. What say you?”

If Fíli was as taken aback as they were, he was at least able to hide it. He shifted in his seat, but he looked properly sober, and he did not waste any time with hemming and hawing. “Gimli hasn’t yet reached his full majority, but he is old enough to have a place in the guard and carry his own axe.” He glanced over at Thorin, betraying a little uncertainty, and received a subtle nod of encouragement. “I would put the question to Gimli. Did you bear the Ring of your own free choice?”

“Aye, I did,” Gimli said, and Glóin deflated like a punctured waterskin.

“If it pleases the king, the dispute is settled. Gimli, son of Glóin, acted on his own power, freely, and all other claims are dismissed.”

Thorin’s attention was fixed on the dwarves before him, but Bilbo saw that he was pleased with Fíli’s performance. “Balin, see that the judgement is recorded. It will not be spoken of again.”

Thus, the quarrel was ended in the practical way of dwarves. Bilbo knew all would be well, for it was a dispute born of love and concern. Master Glóin’s anger would not stand against the proof of his son’s safe return and the tremendous opportunity he now had for boasting -- his wee Gimli, grown from a sweet babe to a promising warrior to the Ringbearer and saviour of Middle-earth! Gandalf settled into his guest quarters and Gimli returned to his post, and the business was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, or almost everyone’s. Óin began to lament that the world would not be destroyed in a blaze of hellfire, if only because then his nitwit of a brother would stop talking about his lad for a few moments together.

Bilbo had a wealth of his own tales to tell, and for several nights the two friends talked long into the early hours. Gandalf was perturbed to hear that Thráin was still in seclusion, and he went alone one morning to see if he could coax the dwarf from his rooms. Dís and Thorin waited anxiously and all but leapt at the wizard when he returned.

“Did you see him?” Dís demanded, but Gandalf would only shake his head, and Bilbo could see that he was grieved.

After supper that evening, the king was in an introspective mood, sparing little attention for their game. Bilbo bested him three times in a row before Thorin saw fit to speak. “You once told me that the road is the only home you have ever known.”

Bilbo made an inquiring noise, only half-listening. He was caught in a corner and was wary of a trap if he moved down to join the battle on the second tier. “That was a bit dramatic of me.”

His irreverence seemed to displease Thorin. “Does it not appeal to you, having a place to call your own?”

“If I’d known we were going to talk about this, I might have preferred some tea first. My mother used to say that heavy conversations always require a good, strong tea. It’s your turn, by the by.”

“Bilbo.”

“What do you wish me to say, Thorin? I’m not unhappy.”

“Not unhappy is not happy.”

“Are we debating word choice now?”

“Irksome creature,” Thorin exclaimed, and it was only half in jest. “Will you listen?

Bilbo tamped down on the retort that sprang to his lips. Thorin’s blood ran hot on the best of days, and they were both of them prickly after the day’s disappointments. “Then speak honestly. We have always been direct with each other.”

“You could have a home here, if you wished it.”

“You mustn’t say such things to me!”

Bilbo couldn’t have said which one of them was more astounded by his outburst. He looked away, embarrassed, from the steady gaze that studied him. For some time they were both still.

“It is an offer earnestly given,” Thorin said at length. “As I said, I do not make false promises.”

Bilbo reached for his goblet to wash away the bitter taste in his mouth. “I believe you mean to be sincere.”

“But you doubt my word.”

“No,” he said forcefully. “No, I don’t. I told you before that I didn’t want to be repaid. All I did was steal a stone and break myself, like a great bumbling fool. You don’t owe me a thing.”

Thorin looked half-pained and half-angry. “You believe I offer out of pity? Is that what you think of me?”

“No! Stop, I don’t want to quarrel with you.”

For a moment Thorin looked as though he might snarl back, and the whole evening would go to ruin. He sat back in his chair and breathed deeply, and he did not speak until he had mastered his temper. “Why is it so impossible for you to imagine that I would wish you to stay?”

Bilbo had no answer for that.

“I would not ask out of pity. You are neither a fool nor a burden, and you have friends here who would be sorry to see you go.”

“And what would your people think of a halfling in their mountain?”

“My kind are quick to distrust and slow to change,” Thorin said, “but they would make a place for a hero. They already have.”

Bilbo ached. “I cannot believe that.”

Thorin smiled at him then, a slight, sad curl of his mouth. “I won’t press you. But know that the offer is always there should you change your mind, whether it be tomorrow or fifty years hence. You will always have a place among us.”

 

***

 

A knock on Bilbo’s door was a common enough occurrence that he did not bother to look up from his book. It was likely Óin’s chief apprentice Shim, who had not yet grown comfortable enough to barge her way inside without notice, as Óin did. She was not equal to Erillulien, who had at last gone home to the Greenwood, but she was a good lass with the makings of a skillful healer.

The knock came again, harder this time, and with a distinct edge of impatience. It was Dwalin, then -- that particular metallic tap could only come from the guard’s intimidating brass knuckledusters.

“Come in,” he called, marking his place in the book.

It was Dwalin, and he looked grimmer than usual. Before Bilbo could ask what was wrong, he swung the door wide, and the figure obscured behind his tall, boxy frame stepped forward into the light.

Thráin wore brown breeches and a black fur coat -- no mail, no jewellry, no cloak, and the wide belt around his waist was untooled leather. His hair was unbraided and bound at his nape with thick twine. He had no beard. Bilbo tried not to stare at the smooth face, his stomach sinking. He could only imagine how Thorin and Dís had felt to see him.

“I hope I have not disturbed you, Master Baggins.”

“No, of course not. Not at all.”

“I apologize for not having paid my respects sooner, but now there is business that must be settled.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said.

“May I come in?”

He hastened to put his book aside, flushing with shame. “Yes, yes, of course you may, my lord. I’m sorry, I’m not dressed for company. If I’d known you were coming, I would have had a nice tea ready.”

The dwarf came inside, his hands clasped solemnly behind his back, and Dwalin closed the door behind him. Thráin was not the cruel, frothing beast of Bilbo’s memories, nor was he the tortured wisp of a soul that Thorin spoke of in such anguished tones. His wide frame was far too thin, even beneath the bulky furs, but there was faint colour in his cheeks again, and his eyes, underneath their careworn brows, were keen and unclouded. He did not come any closer to Bilbo’s bed, moving to the open terrace doors instead with slow, nonthreatening deliberation. “I have come to bid you farewell, Master Baggins, and to thank you for all you have done,’ he said.

“You are going away?”

“I am to the Iron Hills. From there, who can say.”

Bilbo longed to ask if Dís and Thorin knew, but it was not his place. “Do you leave today?”

“Yes.”

He had to ask, if only for their sake. “Will you return?”

Thráin did not answer, and Bilbo was not certain that he had even heard. His gaze was fixed on the sweep of the snow-covered grassland in Erebor’s shadow, the spires of Dale, the dark canopy of the Greenwood, and far beyond, the silver-capped peaks of the Misty Mountains. Bilbo held his tongue. Far be it from him to interrupt this moment, if it was to be the last time Thráin would behold this view.

“I thank you,” the dwarf murmured at last. “Erebor will endure.”

Bilbo hurt for him, for all of them. “What happened was no fault of your own.”

Thráin did not stir; he did not flinch or frown or look away from the horizon. “The greed, the avarice, the anger, they were mine. The dragon was a poison, but it put nothing in my heart that was not already there.” For some time there was silence. Steam rose from Thráin’s lips like smoke in the cool air. “I cannot stay in the stone where Frerin sleeps. Thorin shall wear the crown and be a king far greater than his father, with Dís at his side -- my jewels, stronger and braver than ever I was.” His eyes turned to Bilbo then, fierce with love and pride and terrible pain. “I would have ruined them, but they did not break.”

“They did not break for love of you.”

A shudder rolled through the mound of furs, like an icy wind moving through the grass; yet the broad shoulders did not slump, nor did the impassive face crumble, and Bilbo saw that he would never be swayed. “There are things in this world beyond forgiveness.”

The frigid northern wind rose over the terrace. The clouds over the distant mountains were the colour of steel, swollen with another heavy snow. The trek to the Iron Hills would be cold and lonely. Bilbo drew his blankets a little closer. “I wish you well,” he offered, as there was nothing more to be said.

With one last lingering look, Thráin came away from the doors. “Dís said you would take no payment for your deeds. I would only ask that you accept this.” Into Bilbo’s palm he tipped a beautiful silver ring. It was sized perfectly for his fingers, set with a brilliant orange gem as large as his thumbnail. “I crafted it with my own hands. That is amber from the forest of Fangorn, and the silver is Blacklock mined. It bears our kinsmark. All who see it will know that you are khuzd-bâhu, honoured dwarf-friend.”

It was too fine a thing for a hobbit, but Bilbo accepted it because he knew he must. “Thank you. Safe journey, wherever the road takes you.”

Thráin stood in the muted grey light, and for just a moment he was as he once had been: a wise and mild king, who valued his people above gold and regarded his children as his chiefest treasure. “Farewell, Master Baggins,” he said, and Bilbo watched him leave with a quiet sorrow in his heart, for he knew a shadow when he saw one.

 

***

 

The old King Under the Mountain slipped through the gates of Erebor with no fanfare, without so much as the protection of a single guard, and vanished into the south. Thorin did not speak of his father’s departure. He and Dís bore their loss stoically, and Bilbo knew that in this, at least, he would never understand the ways of dwarves.

 

***

 

He was restless.

It was a painful realization, one that he struggled against. He had been happy here, in some ways as happy as he had ever been, and yet he felt that inexorable tug in his bones, a weight that grew heavier each day. The world was becoming grey and colourless, the confining stone unfriendly -- when he lay awake in his bed, unable to rise from it, he felt as though the walls had become a tomb. He longed for an open sky and wide spaces, grass underfoot and mild wind on his face. The pull of the outside world summoned him. It was time.

A fortnight after the wizard’s return, he asked Gandalf to come to him and told him that he wished to leave before the heaviest snows of deep winter made passage impossible. Gandalf betrayed no surprise at his request. He merely nodded thoughtfully and blew another smoke ring. “I can arrange for our departure within the week. Where shall we go?”

“You needn’t feel obligated ----”

“I advise you not to finish that sentence.”

Bilbo was able to smile at that. “Wherever you’d like to go, I’ll go.”

“Nowhere in particular?”

“I know things cannot be as they were. How could they be? But I don't need my legs to continue my work, Gandalf. I still have a duty to do.”

“No one would fault you if you chose not to. All lost souls find their way across the Sea eventually.”

“Am I to abandon them to their loneliness in the meantime? I will never know why I was chosen, if there was even a purpose to it at all. But I must do what I can.”

“That is a vast burden for one hobbit to bear.”

“No,” Bilbo said, after a moment’s contemplation. “No, it is a privilege.”

“You sound so much like Belladonna, it is almost as if she stands before me.” Gandalf leaned forward to extinguish his pipe and point its stem at Bilbo's chest. “There is an old magic that seeps through the earth of Lothlórien. The chill of winter does not pierce the trees of Caras Galadhon. I have good reason to think that the forest would prove a balm to you. Your mind is full of heavy thoughts, my friend, and has been for many months.”

Bilbo had visited Lothlórien when he was scarcely more than a fauntling. The mere recollection of it ripened that fierce longing inside him for grass and trees and green, growing things, and the touch of the sunlight on his face. There would be no barrow-wights in Lothlórien, nor dragons, nor visions of fire and death. In the City of Light, no memories of Saaum could touch him. “I have been offered a home here,” he mumbled.

Gandalf said nothing, but the look in his eyes was gentle and sad.

Slowly, Bilbo began to gather his few possessions together. They planned their journey with care, for there were now many more logistics to consider. Dwarflings learning to ride their first mountain goat wore leather harnesses to strap themselves into the saddles, lest they fall and take a tumble off a rocky cliff; it was simple enough to procure one to secure Bilbo to Myrtle’s back. A half-wagon would be taken as well so that he could lay down in comfort when he grew tired of riding. The wheeled chair would be left behind, of course, as it was far too unwieldy to transport over long distances, but Gandalf assured him that they would find a suitable alternative in Lothlórien. If they left soon, they could reach the pass before the storm arrived, and the weather was milder in the south. There was no sense in tarrying. The day of their departure was fixed.

Bilbo did not make any public announcement, but word travelled fast in the mountain. As his time dwindled, he received a score of visitors and going-away gifts. A crate of hearty grains and dried meats was added to their supplies, courtesy of Balin and Dwalin. (“To fatten you up while you’re with the leaf-eaters,” Dwalin groused.)  Óin packed a bulging bag of ointments and salves and a selection of herbs, declaring that it would be up to Bilbo to bring dwarvish medicine to the elves. Dori gave him a dozen satchets of his best camomile tea, and Ori tearfully told him to keep his favourite of the books; they promised to write each other faithfully. There were others, lords and kitchen-maids and all sorts in between, and even young Gimli stopped by to wish Bilbo luck.

These visits were bittersweet, but the most difficult partings were yet to come. On the eve of his departure, Dís and her sons came to his rooms one last time to say a private farewell. The lads had been very disappointed to learn of his leaving, but their mother must have talked to them sternly, for they didn’t complain. Fíli gave him a fur coat and Kíli a set of little silver knives, and he embraced them fondly and gave his solemn word that he would write and tell them as many stories of the Golden Wood as they wished to hear. When her offer of a banquet in his honour was declined, Dís laughed, declared that she had been prepared for a refusal, and gave him a most unusual gift: the raven Scrik, of Roäc’s line, would serve as Bilbo’s personal page. Ravens were hardy birds, and she would have no trouble ferrying letters back and forth even in the darkest weeks of the winter. Scrik would also accompany them to Lothlórien, so that word of their safe arrival could be brought back to Erebor posthaste. Dís parted from Bilbo with many affirmations of their friendship and a sisterly kiss.

After they had gone, Bilbo waited, and waited, and began to fear that Thorin would not come. He had not been able to bear telling Thorin of his leaving himself. Instead had taken the part of the coward, letting Kíli and Fíli do it for him. The king had made himself scarce in the past few days, and Bilbo feared very much that he had given enough offense to spoil their friendship forever.

He need not have fretted -- two hours after Dís left, Thorin came knocking at the door, still wearing his court clothes. He was welcomed inside with relief and ushered to a chair by the crackling fire. He sat, but he did not shrug off his mantle or his crown, as he usually did.

“Dis has already come?” he asked, spying the collection of teacups and plates on the table.

“Kíli and Fíli too.”

“They are sorry to see you go.” From inside his coat, Thorin brought out a parcel wrapped in rich fabric and twine. “I will see you off at the gates with the others tomorrow, but I wished to say my farewells tonight. What I owe you----”

“Thorin, please.”

“It is not a reward, but a gift from a friend.”

It was affectionately said, and Bilbo found himself helpless to refuse. There were very few things, he thought, that he would refuse Thorin. “If I must.”

“I thank you for your forbearance,” said the dwarf dryly. He laid the parcel in Bilbo’s hands. It was light for all its bulk, and Bilbo was curious despite himself. Nested in the cloth was a gleam of metal, and he drew it out to uncover a finely-wrought shirt of mail. And what a shirt it was! He had never seen metal that shone like moonlight, and the shirt was as weightless and delicate as a spider’s web.

“It is mithril, silver-steel. Wear it under your coat, and it will protect you from any blade or bow. Consider it a token of my esteem.”

Bilbo ran his fingers wonderingly over the glimmering links; they felt as smooth as glass under his skin. “I will miss you,” he said, feeling very small. “I’m sorry.”

“I knew what you were before you came here,” Thorin said. “You are dukhuddûm, he-without-halls. I told myself that you would not stay and that I shouldn’t shore up my hopes. If there is any pain in our parting, it is of my own making.”

“It pains me too.”

“I have watched you. You are pale and tired and you don’t laugh as you used to. Perhaps hobbits are not meant for the stone.”

Perhaps they weren’t. Or perhaps it was Bilbo who was not meant for the stone, who did not yet know how to accept peace when it was offered to him. “I don’t want to leave you.”

“I know. Go to the elves, and I will learn to be grateful to them if you can laugh again.”

Thorin spoke bravely, but he looked so forlorn that Bilbo could not bear it. “In spring,” he blurted, to the dwarf’s obvious confusion. “I mean to say, when things have settled I could find myself near enough to the mountain. Lothlórien is not so far. I can visit so often that you grow sick of the sight of me, my friend. Of course I shall write to you all through the winter too, and I expect you to do the same!”

Thorin rose from his chair then and came to kneel before him. With one hand at Bilbo’s neck and the other at his chin, he drew their heads together solemnly. Bilbo reached out for him. Their foreheads touched. He bumped against Thorin’s nose and felt the curious soft-coarse texture of the loose hair in his hands, and something of his sorrow eased. “I may always be dukhuddûm,” he said, the Khuzdul clumsy on his tongue, “but that doesn’t mean I can never grow roots.”

“I will wait for you,” Thorin murmured.

There was no blazing, brilliant moment of realization, no momentous fanfare or bolt of sudden understanding. Oh, Bilbo thought, and his heart seized with quiet joy. “Not too long, I promise.”

On his flushed cheek came the press of Thorin’s lips, wind-chapped and tender. “I will wait,” he repeated, and Bilbo could feel him smiling.

 



 

EPILOGUE

 

In Erebor, where the stone was threaded with gold and the great forges burned day and night, there was a story.

It was an old story, told and retold so that history and legend became intertwined, taking shape into something altogether new. It was whispered to dwarflings as they were tucked into their beds and recited by hopeful suitors to their chosen, for it was a tale of fidelity, and among the people of Mahal, no virtue was held more highly than the ability to endure.

There once was a King of Durin’s folk, it was said, who had served his people through many trials. He had seen the world and understood its ways; with this knowledge Erebor prospered beyond bounty. His wise eye watched over the dwarrows of the East, and his strong hand did not falter as his hair ripened from black ore to mithril.

With faithful kin to carry forth his line, the King took no wife and ruled alone. He was contented with his duty, but a tender absence lived inside him. In the darkest days of winter, he stood on a balcony overlooking his lands, and there he played a harp of gold and sang:

 

Merry it is while summer lasts

With birds in song;

But now there threaten windy blasts

And tempests strong.

Alas, alas, but the night is long.

 

When at last the darkest days passed and the snows melted, two wanderers came up the long southern road: one of them an old and trusted friend, and the other -- smaller and softer than any dwarf -- the only love of the King himself. He had returned to the mountain, bringing to the King exotic treasures from the West and tales of valour in battle; he was honoured as highly as any lord.

The will of Mahal, the storytellers remarked, was full of wonders, for he had smelted two souls together on his Great Forge, and one of them had been poured into the cast of a halfling. For a half-year, the two were happy. The Wanderer sat at the King’s side and shared with him the burdens of the crown, and their laughter filled the mountain with joy. The cool mornings of the spring and the warm, velvet darkness of the summer nights were theirs.

Inevitably, the days grew shorter and the winds began to howl over the peaks once more. The Wanderer was not a dwarf, and a strange halfling magic bound him. Without the sunlight and the green, growing things, he dissolved like cold water poured atop an anvil. For the cool spring days and the warm summer nights, he was the King’s; in the crispness of autumn and the chill of winter, he belonged to the earth from which his people came. In the icy mountain he could not stay. When the leaves turned golden on the trees, the Wanderer bid his farewells. Neither of them despaired, though their parting was painful, for they would meet again.

Each year the King kept his vigil, as steady and faithful as the oak tree after which he was called, and each year his succour arrived when the snows were gone. Thus it was to the end of their days.

Would that all hearts were so steadfast, the dwarrows said, as the King of Durin’s folk, who waited for his happiness through the bitterness of winter -- would that all souls were so brave as the Wanderer, who crossed the wilderlands to return home in the spring.