Gandalf was genuinely surprised. And if you think for some time about it, it is not a common achievement to surprise a wizard. Wizards happen to be acquainted with all sorts of things, strange things and enormous things, tiny little things no one seems able to see and dark things no one wishes to speak of. You could be under the impression that wizards consitute a very odd lot. Besides, many hobbits would share your belief that the sole interesting (and respectable) wizard's ability concerns fireworks; but wizards have seen many, many things and – even more important – they have grasped their meaning.
These are facts, and another reliable fact is that Gandalf was at loss with words.
He had not foreseen this – there were thousands of goblins and hundreds of wargs keeping his mind busy: distracted by the approaching war, Gandalf had lost insight into Thorin’s heart.
Gandalf had been relieved when Thorin had appeared at the war council. Of course they had sent for him, but Gandalf's hopes had not been particularly high until Balin, Dwalin and Thorin had reached the gates of the Lake people’s camp. The dwarves were all dressed in embroidered velvet and wore silver breast-plates; Dwalin carried an axe, but Thorin was too disdainful to arm himself, and Balin too anxious to keep peace between his lord and the council.
Gandalf was glad to find an ally in Balin: the old dwarf was using great courtesy to Bard and the Elevenking, but not even Balin's wisdom had foreseen Thorin's request. On the other hand, Dwalin was unfathomable: he stood still at Thorin’s side, hands on his shining belt, and he had not spoken yet.
“War is coming over us,” Bard said, “and you would waste our time to put down the details of your claim on the dragon's treasure.”
“It has never been the dragon’s treasure to lose,” Thorin replied, coldness seeping in his voice. “It was my father’s and my father’s father, mine by the right of blood.”
“As you say,” Bard complied, “but all the same you want us to linger on this topic rather than on our plans for the imminent battle. Let us fight this battle together and prove our worth on the battlefield. You’ll be glad to share the treasure with us after having fought side by side.”
Thranduil smiled that smile of him, silent and mysterious like a flower blossoming at midnight. The Elvenking was surely reflecting about his share in the treasure, but he did not deem necessary to speak of his desires aloud. Yet, Gandalf guessed them and wondered if the treasure would not have been better placed at the bottom of the lake with Smaug.
“I won't be glad,” Thorin replied to Bard, “but I accept your help to fight greater enemies. For this, I’ll be generous.”
“If you’ll survive.”
Thranduil had spoken in a soft, light voice; but Thorin froze and Dwalin closed his grip on the axe.
“Am I to fear an elvish arrow?” Thorin asked bluntly. Bard’s face went pale, but Gandalf reacted quickly.
“Enough of this feud of yours,” the wizard intervened. “I’m sure,” he shot a glance at Thranduil, “that the Elvenking meant nothing by it, except warning us all about how great is the danger. We do not know who’ll survive the uncoming battle and Bard speaks wisely. We must stand side by side against the dark times ahead: what are gold and silver for the peace of your people, King Thranduil? What the Arkenstone for the sake of your kin, Thorin Oakenshield?”
But Thorin was not moved by Gandalf’s words. Nor was Thranduil. Only Dain of the Iron Hills seemed able to grasp their meaning.
“Cousin, I sense the truth in the wizard’s plea," Dain confessed, caressing his beard. "Your claim is rightful and my axe is yours, but choose wisely how to use them. We cannot waste time bickering about each golden bowl in the treasure.”
“Am I wasting time, cousin Dain?” Thorin’s voice was gentler when speaking to Dain, but his eyes shone like cold stones in the moonlight. “I came here to listen to your offer of peace,” Thorin continued, addressing himself to Gandalf, Bard and Thranduil. “I've made my claim and it is a generous one indeed, for each one of you betrayed me at least once. But my counsellors urge me to be wise and do not indulge in bitterness for the past wrongs: here I am, offering you a share in the treasure in exchange for the Arkenstone. Is it not what you asked in the first place? Yet, now it’s me you are accusing to hinder this alliance.”
“We meant to trade the Arkenstone for a share in the treasure, but you ask us to offer hostages too!” Bard protested, frowning.
“You call them hostages, Bard of Dale; I call them guests," Thorin replied, without blinking. "You think me cruel; I think I am most kind for having offered your women, children and old ones a shelter from the battle. At the end of the battle, your people will leave the Mountain carrying the fourteenth part of the treasure, and you’ll be free to share it with your friends the elves.”
“What garancies do you offer?” Bard asked, suspiciously. “For all I know, you could enslave them to rebuild your home, King under the Mountain.”
“They will be treated kindly; we are not Elves,” Thorin spat back, shooting a hard glance to Thranduil.
“But you also want the Arkenstone placed in your hands before the battle,” Thranduil pointed out contemptuosly.
“Should I put the Arkenstone in your hands, elf?" Thorin asked in return, sneering. "The gem shall return to the Mountain, its rightful place.”
“Plus you pretend to lead alone the battle,” Bard continued, shaking his head. “You know how dwarves fight, but what about men and elves? Let King Thranduil lead his elves and let me guide my own people. We should make the best of our differences and yet strike as a single body.”
Great, great man this Bard of Dale! Gandalf smiled for the first time since the beginning of the council. Even Thorin seemed weighing Bard's words carefully: surely Thorin was bound to see how this requests of him were nothing but a whim. Gandalf deemed the moment propitious for intervening again in the discussion.
“Give him the Arkenstone,” he suggested to Thranduil and Bard, “because it is the heart of the Mountain and a token of Thrain’s times. Bard, let your people take shelter in Erebor; they will be safer there, should we lose the battle. King Thranduil, bring food and healers for the hosts and the Lake people," Gandalf urged them. "But you, Thorin Oakenshield, take a sacred oath to reward men and elves who’ll fight tomorrow. They will be your allies and not your own army, but friends are much more valuable than servants.”
Maybe the coming and going of the elven scouts bringing news of the approaching enemy was affecting them all, but they all appeared more inclined to accept Gandalf's words.
What they were creating in that tent was not a real peace, but it would do for wartime.
“Surely you see by yourself we cannot give you Bilbo Baggins,” Gandalf added, while Bard, Dain and Thranduil were exchanging information about their respective hosts.
Thorin did not seem surprised by Gandalf’s words, as if he had been waiting for them a long time. It was the last of Thorin's demands, yet the most astonishing. Bard and Thranduil had fought him on the other pressing matters of the Arkenstone and the impending battle, but Bilbo had been forgotten by them all but Gandalf. And Thorin, the wizard understood, looking at his face.
“The burglar has robbed and betrayed me and my kin," Thorin replied quietly. "He must be judged by our law.”
Gandalf shivered. Not for the first time, the wizard wondered if Thorin had really gone mad under the influence of the dragon’s sickness.
The law of dwarves is hard and bitter like the metal of their axes. As a consequence of their love and greediness for precious things, dwarves punish theft even with the loss of one or both hands. And they are not prone to admit extenuating circumstances, blind as they are when gold and pride are concerned.
“Bilbo did what he deemed right to avoid a foolish war,” Gandalf pointed out.
“Foolish?” Thorin repeated, raising his voice till the others’ attention was back to him and Gandalf. “Defending what is mine is foolish? You should have expressed your view before the beginning of this journey, wizard. And the burglar should have put a limit to his...burgling.”
“Mr Baggins is under our protection,” Bard stated quietly.
Too quietly, Gandalf thought. Bard was a good man, but it was plain that he would not risk the chance of an alliance for the sake of a hobbit. Bard and Thranduil would try to save Bilbo from Thorin’s grasp, but for how long? Gandalf sighed.
“You cannot blame Bilbo for the situation you are in, Thorin Oakenshield. You're blinded by your desire for the Arkenstone: don’t you remember how Bilbo risked his life more than once to save yours? Balin, Dwalin,” Gandalf looked at them, “has Bilbo Baggins been anything but a loyal friend to you dwarves?”
Balin cheeks reddened a little and he dropped his gaze, Dwalin only sneered. But Thorin was furious, his mouth closed in a hard line: obviously Thorin did not like to be reminded of his debts toward Bilbo and he loathed to discuss them in presence of men and elves.
“I spared his life when I should have thrown him from the top of the mountain," Thorin replied after some moments. "I sent him to his friends,” he reminded Gandalf, wincing. “And now I only ask to judge him: he shall have a fair trial for theft according to our law and the trial will not take place before the battle. In the meantime, he shall be our guest among the Lake people.”
“In truth the hobbit has no place on the battlefield,” Bard admitted, caressing his chin. He did not dare to look at Gandalf while he spoke again: “If Erebor is the safest place for my people, why not for the hobbit?”
“Because he plans to take revenge on him!” Gandalf replied coldly.
“I would consider myself responsible if something should happen to the hobbit,” Balin declared.
Gandalf shuddered and looked at the old dwarf.
Balin had been a valid ally during the negotiation, softening Thorin’s harshness and encouraging him to acknowledge the advantages of the proposals. But Balin was not fighting Thorin for Bilbo's sake. The wizard was disappointed at first, but then he saw something else. Balin had the most serious look about him. He meant what he had just said: he was going to take care of Bilbo, even against Thorin’s wishes. Maybe Bilbo would not be alone in the Mountain, maybe there were others ready to protect him.
Still Gandalf was not happy with this. He wondered how much betrayal he would see in Bilbo’s eyes once informed of the decision taken during the council. The hobbit deeply grieved how he had been driven out of the mountain – Thorin’s words and deeds were clearly haunting him. Was it possible that the greatest danger of Bilbo Baggins’ adventure still lay ahead? Yet it was useless to discuss it with Thorin. He was more stubborn than ever and on this point the others were more pliable.
“Mithrandir,” Thranduil said at last, “have you not just reminded us that war is upon us and we should swiftly join forces against the common enemy? I admire the hobbit, but we should talk about the battle ahead: let the dwarves’ law have him.”
“You’re asking me to give him up,” Gandalf replied between his teeth.
“Each one of us has given something or someone up, Mithrandir,” the Elvenking said, his voice full of sweetness and deception. “Why should you be spared?”
Gandalf was tempted to leave the council - let them fools be slaughtered and enslaved!
But he did not go. He wanted to explain that the reason he was fighting for Bilbo was the fact that winning the battle against goblins and wargs was not more important than winning the battle against their own treacherous desires. He wanted to say that they were going to fight for the happiness and peace Bilbo appreciated and valued more deeply than them. And yet Gandalf did not speak: they were blind and he had never been more tired in his life.
“Bilbo Baggins is worth more than all your lands and gold and weapons,” he declared bitterly.
No one spoke of the hobbit anymore, but it was implied that he was to be given to Thorin.