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Universally Acknowledged

Chapter Text

It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least in Eriador, that a unmarried king in possession of a kingdom must be in want of a spouse. However little known the feelings of such a king may be when ascending the throne, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding countries, that he is considered the rightful property of their unwed progeny .

“My dear Mr. Baggins," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Erebor is taken back at last?"

Mr. Baggins replied that he had not. It was not Bungo Baggins’s habit to pay attention to the outer world. The inner world of Hobbiton and in a small part, the Shire, was enough for him.

However, he had married a Took, and this came with certain expectations. In other words, a larger view of things.

"But it is," returned Belladonna Baggins née Took; "for the Dwarf traders have let us know all about it."

Bungo regarded his missus with an evaluating stare over his morning’s first pipe and a sheaf of papers having to do with the contested ownership of a pregnant sow.

He had fallen for Belladonna because of her red-haired beauty and her Tookish spirit. Even now, that flame in her warmed all of him. All the rest flowed from that, but it didn’t mean he must like it. So Mr. Baggins made no answer and waited for the rest.

"Do you not want to know what this means?" cried his wife impatiently.

Bungo smiled despite himself. "You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it."

This was invitation enough. "Why, my dear, you must know that the Dwarves say it is finally Thorin who has been crowned King under the Mountain, after a slaying of a dragon no less! He has two unmarried nephews - princes, mind you! - just as he has no spouse. There will be a public ceremony in the spring. All the dignitaries must be there, including our Thain of course."

"What is his name again?"

"Thorin II, my love."

"You say he is single?"

"Oh! Yes. There are not many Dwarrowdams, even in plentiful times. A tragedy for the Dwarves, no doubt, but how fortunate for Bilbo!”

A pause followed as Master Baggins tried to recall what a Dwarrowdam was. His wife’s green, silent glare seemed to indicate that she had translated that term for him in the past, and being less than interested in the topic, he hadn’t quite attended. "How so? How can it affect him?" he inquired genially, hoping to circumnavigate this sad gap in his knowledge of Dwarves.

It was a fortunate thing that Belladonna was as beautiful when exasperated as she was in everything else, for she was often in that state with the sort of Hobbit she’d fallen for.  "My dear Mr. Baggins," she replied, "how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of one of these unmarried king or princes marrying at least one of our Bagginses, and why not my Bilbo? He’s the prime of the lot."

Bungo choked, nearly dropping his pipe. It was saved with deft reflexes but his papers slid every which way like so many leaves from a shaken tree. "I applaud your ambitions, Wife,” he coughed, “but I fear a Dwarf king should have very little use for a Hobbit … er… consort?”

"Nonsense, how can you talk so! Dwarves are not so different except for unfortunate softness of foot, and I’ve been told the Durin Dwarves are especially comely if a little tall. Why not a handsome, accomplished Hobbit spouse for either the princes or the king? So you see, our family must be part of the Thain’s dignitary train, for surely one of the Dwarven nobility may fall in love with any of our available Shire boys and girls.”

Bungo paused. Belladonna was not prone to flights of fancy, and the more he thought on it, the more the idea of his immediate family tied to the very rich nobility of Erebor began to sound, if not plausible, profitable. He did appreciate her loyalty to his family; she could easily be supporting her maiden family, the Tooks. However, the thought of such a journey gave him a shudder of dismay.  "I see no occasion for that . You and the youth may go, or you may send them by themselves with the Thain, which perhaps will be still better, for as you are as pretty as any of them, this King Thorin may like you the best of the party."

His wife gave him a flirtatious smile and tossed her long, curly hair in return for his clever flattery. "My dear, even Thorin Oakenshield will not want a matron such as myself, even if he himself is no longer so young. No, my adventuring days are over. We must send our children with their best clothes and in their fine looks, and you must write to the Thain to insist they go with him. They are, after all, gentlehobbits everyone.”

Even Bungo could see some holes in this plan. “Now, my dear; you forget. Only one of our next generation is ours… and even though our Bilbo would snatch any chance at traveling beyond the Shire, others may not be so …”

She sniffed contemptuously and in a cutting tone rejoined: “As if Camelia Sackville-Baggins wouldn't lob your nephew Otho with a trebuchet straight at the Lonely Mountain at the mere scent of a rich son-in-law.”

Bungo sighed, allowing for the truth of it; his sister-in-law was frightfully money-grubbing. It wasn’t a trait Bagginses in general admired. He had never understood why his younger brother had married the girl, except for a stab at rebellion.

“So you see, you must write to the Thain right away before he sets up plans without them.”

Bungo sighed. “It is more than I wish to attempt, truthfully.” He hated politics and he could envision a long period of self-effacing with an uncertain outcome.

“Consider our son, my love. You know Bilbo will never be content here until he’s seen the world, and if he should win the favor and hand of royalty, so much the better. Gold will flow again from the Lonely Mountain. Would you want the Tooks to have all the opportunities, and deny our only son?”

His wife’s hands were on her hips and she stared at her husband; Bungo appreciated how the pose accentuated his wife’s curves, and eventually he began to mull over her words.

The front door opened and closed and their son came in from the hall, cheeks pink from exertion, but auburn hair impeccably tamed in sedate waves, only a few strands of summer honey catching the light now that it was approaching autumn. There was a fresh wildflower in his lapel and a book in his hand.

He raised his eyebrows at his parents’ stance, and went to the counter to make himself a cup of tea from the service there. “Should I ask?” he asked over the rim of his cup, his dark green eyes surveying them wryly.

Belladonna tapped her cheek and he leaned obediently and kissed it. She took the book from his hand and glanced at its title, then turned its cover towards her husband with a triumphant look. “Reading up on Dwarves, are you?” she asked mildly.

“There’s not much here unless I go down to Michel Delving, but I thought about learning the writing system at least. There’s news from Erebor; there’s a new King under the Mountain!”

Bungo hung his head in the face of his son’s enthusiasm. “Looks like I’ll be starting that letter to the Thain now,” he said, rising and taking his papers with him.

“Whatever is the matter with Da?” Bilbo asked, bewildered, his teacup half-raised.

“It seems he heartily consents to whichever Dwarven noble will marry you.”

“Pardon?!” Bilbo’s outraged cry echoed down the halls of Bag End.

Chapter Text



Hobbits of the Shire were people of the earth and led relatively simple lives, but this should not lead folk to assume Hobbits themselves were simple. Certainly, they were an inward-looking people, more concerned with their only family trees than who was patrolling their borders or who sat on any particular throne at any given time.

The history of the Shire was not always peaceful; at one time wars and battles had necessitated naming a military leader, and Hobbits created the title of Thain for such individuals who would unify defenses in times of war. As time passed, and peace reigned in the Shire, the title of Thain was passed down from father to son and the Hobbit tendency for insularity grew to be a cultural trait, and leaving home or even inviting in strangers from outside the Shire became frowned upon.

As with all populations, there were exceptions. In the Shire, two families were infamous for encouraging a bit of difference in their descendants. One of these families were the Tooks, a very old, prolific, and eccentric family. A few adventurous souls in each generation was expected of the family of Thains, for they were a rather bold lot for being Hobbits, forthright and a bit impetuous.

Bilbo Baggins’s mother was Belladonna Took, and when you understood the Tooks, you understood Belladonna, and in some ways, her son.

The other family, by the by, were the Brandybucks. But that is another story, involving rivers, boats, and other tragedies.

If the Tooks were the outliers, the Bagginses were the very stuff that epitomized Hobbits, full of propriety, an over awareness of status, and a stubborn clinging to tradition. A Baggins would not live except in a traditional underground Smial, for example. If you had a question about flower language, you visited a Baggins, or their gardener.

The one interesting thing about Bagginses is that they had a particular love of scholarship. Hobbits had no complex educational system, but they did have books; a wealthy family might even have a library. If a Hobbit had the inclination (and most Bagginses did), he or she could learn quite a bit about preferred topics.

For Bungo Baggins, his preferred topics had to do with agriculture, animal husbandry, and genealogy. For Bilbo Baggins, who was half Took after all, it was maps of far off places, languages like Sindarin, or writing systems like the Dwarven runes.

Master Baggins, knowing this about his own son, and fearing the fiery temper of his Tookish wife, was among the earliest of those who wrote to Paladin Took, the Thain of the Shire and inheritor of the leadership of Tuckborough. The returning correspondence indicated receptiveness, and so on the pretext of a council meeting, he did indeed visit Paladin Took. Until the evening after the visit was paid Belladonna had no knowledge of it. It was then disclosed in the following manner.

Observing his son scouring through a pile of books intent on locating some piece of information, he suddenly addressed him with: "I hope the Thain will appreciate your skills, Bilbo."

"We are not in a way to know what the Thain appreciates," said his wife resentfully, "since we have heard nothing of his decisions."

"But you forget, Mama," said Bilbo, distracted, "that Aunt Ruby suggested just last afternoon that she request I accompany my younger cousins." He was, in fact, the oldest of all the Baggins cousins, being the only son of the eldest son, whose father had himself been the eldest son. Bilbo also had a reputation of being protective and mature and was often the darling of his aunts and uncles when a chaperone was required.

"I do not believe Ruby will do any such thing. She has three children of her own. She is as self-serving as the rest of us, and I have no trust in her her doing well by you, Bilbo."

"No more have I," said Mr. Baggins; "and I am glad to find that you do not depend on her serving you."

Mrs. Baggins deigned not to make any reply, but, unable to contain herself, began taking an interest in Bilbo’s moving about of various tomes. "Whatever are you looking for, my flower?"

“There was a genealogy of Dwarf kings, and I was certain it was in one of these books,” Bilbo replied, fretfully.

"Oh, I am sick of Dwarf kings," cried his mother, stamping her foot and tossing her fiery head.

This was Master Baggins’s chance to shine and he snatched at it.  "I am sorry to hear that; but why did you not tell me that before? If I had known as much yesterday I certainly would not have called upon the Thain. It is very unlucky; but as I have actually paid the visit, we cannot escape his plans now."

The astonishment of his wife and son was just what he wished.




Bilbo, as most gentlehobbits of good family, had no official occupation, but this is not to say he was not skilled. As a lad, he had rollicked and played as any carefree child, but as a growing Hobbit his interests diverged into rambling through the different Farthings of the Shire, and in writing. These two interests had led him as far east as the Old Forest, and in becoming the most educated Hobbit of his generation. The folk of Hobbiton did not trust in Bilbo’s travels, but at least they remained within the boundaries of the Shire, and if Bilbo had met and discoursed with all manner of people and perhaps gone a bit past Buckland, that was his own business. Disconcerted folks could reassure themselves that Bilbo was, in fact, half-Took, and strangeness was bound to happen because of it.

On the other hand, the general consensus was that reading too much outlandish literature might turn a Hobbit queer, and so Bilbo’s reputation was that of potential madness just for his reading material, but he was also the Hobbit one went to for official correspondence. It wasn’t unusual for Bilbo to bring in vegetables or a coney that he’d traded a bit of writing for, and if someone needed a scribe for an official event, Bilbo Baggins of Hobbiton came highly recommended. Usefulness was important to Hobbits, although sometimes a Shire definition of “useful” might make other denizens of Middle-earth raise an eyebrow. Certainly, an education was often not useful in the Shire unless it led to food, clothing, shelter, or the creating or maintaining of genealogies. However, like any community, the passing of “news” was always welcome, and particularly gossip could only really cross the Shrine in written form, as its inhabitants had a certain reluctance to travel any sort of distance from home.  

 

It was not a surprise then, that Bilbo’s role in the party of Shire dignitaries was that of scribe; being the only heir of Bungo Baggins only got him a certain amount of cache.  Being part-Took gave him a bit more standing in this case, and it should be no surprise that Paladin Took was Bilbo’s cousin. The various “first” and “second” and how many times “removed” can be left to avid genealogists, of which Hobbits number in the thousands.

For Bilbo it was a natural progression to become the writer of the official correspondence between the Thain and King Thorin II of Erebor, or at least the Thain and a variety of royal advisors.

The first missives were simple and forthright, statements of intent to visit during the public crowning, requests for permission to travel within that kingdom (and several other versions of that request to go to King Thranduil of Greenwood and various other people of note). More detailed letters began to fly back and forth once the King of Erebor began to employ ravens from the Lonely Mountain to deliver them.

To Bilbo’s delight, these ravens were not the ordinary corvis one encountered in the Shire. Twice the size of other black birds, these Ravens knew some words of Westron and could croak out any number of harsh sounds to resemble speech. The same ones flew back and forth, and it wasn’t long before they recognized him when he was working in the Thain’s offices; at first they could not pronounce his name, but eventually what they called him sounded like it.

It hadn’t taken long for all correspondence to be delivered straight to Bilbo to be sorted. Some never needed to be brought to the Thain’s attention, for Paladin was himself a busy hobbit of some stature in his family and community. In comparison, Bilbo’s life was an immeasurable amount of free time.

This embassy from the Shire required quite a lot of organization, with almost every level of planning to be done from transportation and supplies, to gifts and appropriate clothing for the delegates. Not only were letters going back and forth from Erebor, they were also going out to all the corners of the Shire for resources.

Bag End was a large smial for a single family, and had been built from plans Bungo had laid down carefully, inspired by dreams of a large family he would have with his Belladonna. Those dreams had altered with the force of reality through the years, but still the habitation had remained one of the best representations of its kind, dug deep into the hill as was tradition, but with the modern conveniences of glass windows all around. The family, small as it was, could all have rooms with windows, and more besides, so that Bilbo’s study resided in a room with a view of the garden, and when it was warm, that window was open. Their gardener, Hamfast, had helped Bilbo place a perch there, so that the Ravenhill messengers had a place to alight when delivering letters.

 

One day, a familiar Raven flapped down and settled, its quick black eyes and darting head making it seem to be bowing. This was Karaic, a female who particularly like staying as long in the Shire as she could manage.

“Good afternoon, Mistress Karaic,” Bilbo greeted and put out a hand so she could present her foot and the scroll tied there.

“Afternoon,” she replied. She watched him remove her burden, then hopped a few times and rearranged her wings. “Balin son of Fundin says to Bilbo Baggins - will he … will he come to Erebor?”

Bilbo stared at her in shock. There had never been any direct communication to the higher nobles of Erebor, at least that he knew of. He had assumed he was exchanging letters with the scribes and dignitaries, not - “Balin, advisor to King Thorin?”

Karaic cackled. “One king, only king. Thorin son of Thrain son of Thrór, King under the Mountain.” The last part was almost sung.

“I - I will be in the party, yes. I … was not aware that Lord Balin took any note of me.. Are you sure he is asking me, Bilbo Baggins, and not Paladin II, the Thain?”

The Raven gave him a beady look. “Balin knows Thain will be there.” The “idiot” in her tone was unmistakable. “Wants to know if the…” She made a few cracking sounds. “... the scribe who writes the runes will be there.”

“Oh.” Bilbo felt himself flush. Perhaps it hadn’t been a good idea, then, to make an effort at addressing the letters in the Dwarven alphabet. He had taken pains to apologize for any mishaps when he had done so. “It is kind of him to inquire.”

Now she was laughing, cackling.

“Speaking of kindness, I do believe we have some of that corn cake you like. Shall I fetch it?”

Karaic did a little dance on her perch. “Corn cake!” she screamed, which was an emphatic yes .

 

They had written and sealed permission to travel the length of the Great East Road, through Rivendell, over the high passes, and through the Greenwood. Bilbo took great care to pack those in his scribe’s carrying case. Lists of requirements were sent directly to the Thain’s people. Answers to questions of culture and manners were Bilbo’s particular area. He took careful notes of the details which were starting to flow; he suspected other countries were starting to ask very specific questions, because some of the lists he was getting were very detailed and from various minor Dwarven dignitaries.

One in particular from the cultural advisor conveniently arrived when Bilbo was in residence in Tuckborough, and merely required a quick jog to the Thain’s own study. Paladin waved him in, grinning. Having taken the title of Thain when his older, childless cousin had passed, Paladin was younger than Bilbo himself, but he had already the demeanor of the leader, not to mention an inherited height that added to the impression of authority.

“Must be important,” the Thain commented. He was more than thankful to leave the letter writing to his more erudite cousin, and it was rare that Bilbo needed input once the correspondence had started.

Bilbo slid the document over the desk and pointed. Paladin bent, read, then blinked and read again. “Do you mean to say -” he began, flummoxed. His naturally rosy cheeks deepened in color as he met his older cousin’s eyes.

“Yes. I don’t think anyone’s told the king’s cultural advisors what we look like.”

“That’s absurd! Dwarves come all through Bree and even by Hobbiton now and then. They should know by now!”

“I suspect that King Thorin nor his advisors have yet to speak to any of these traders.”

“By Yavanna, this a pickle and no mistake,” Paladin sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Do you think you could -?”

“I can try.”

“Please do, cousin.”

Bilbo returned to his desk, pulled out a sheet of the official and embossed paper and began to write carefully, pausing between words.

For the eyes of King Thorin II, King under the Mountain

To His Majesty, respectful greetings:

I shall beg the patience of His Majesty on a small matter of propriety that has recently been communicated to the office of the Thain, that of clothing that is appropriate for the crowning ceremony of His Majesty.

It has been made clear to us that within the sacred halls of Erebor, modest attire is required as to not offend yourself and our kind hosts. The requirements of this modesty have been stated as “all areas of the body shall be covered except for the hands, the front of the midway of the neck, and the face.” Although our traditional clothing may need some small alterations in covering parts of the lower neck and the back of the neck (as many of us do not have long hair), the point that concerns My Lord Thain

Bilbo paused, and took a drink of water, carefully setting his cup as far from the document as possible. The quality of paper he was currently writing on was worth more than he could easily replace.

and would concern all members of the delegation of the Shire is the matter of our legs, specifically from knee downward.

Hobbits have had dealings with Men and Dwarves, and so we are aware that we may appear very different from other races. His Majesty may have heard that we are a small people, and thus the misnomer of “Halfling” (which can be offensive to us, depending on the tone of the uttering of it). We average about a foot shorter than the Dwarves I have encountered. Only our women grow long hair; young men cut it to the middle of the back of the neck. This can be modestly covered by a scarf or something similar. However, our chief difference is our feet.

Bilbo had to take another drink. He was feeling hot and uncomfortable, for one does not talk of one’s feet often; it was an intimate subject.

 

To illustrate, Your Majesty: one of our clans’ names is Proudfoot. Hobbits take pride in the hard soles of our feet, which are somewhat larger in proportion to our bodies than with other races, with hair which grows on top. Hobbits do not wear shoes or even boots unless dictated by cold weather. As our winters are almost always mild, many Hobbits have never worn shoes. Our trousers end at the knees; women wear skirts a little longer.

However, I must stress that Hobbits do not wear anything that covers our feet.

I hope this lapse shall not keep our people from enjoying the beauty of your kingdom or the ceremony we hope to attend. If this matter of propriety is beyond Your Majesty’s interests, I apologize. It is some concern to us at this juncture and considered a delicate and somewhat mortifying matter.

 

Respectfully,

Bilbo Baggins

with permission from Paladin Took II, Thain of the Shire

 

Bilbo let the ink dry, rolled and pressed the official seal. He paused before addressing the outside of the document, and self-consciously wrote in the Dwarven runes. He whistled at the window and Karaic fluttered down, cocking her head.

“For the king,” he said as she extended her foot.

She cocked her head to one side, then another, and he realized she was looking at his face. “Urgent?” she asked.

“A bit, yes.”

“Urgent!” she shrieked and was gone.

Bilbo sat back down and sunk his head into his arms on his desk.

Paladin came by later with tea. “Forgive me, Bilbo; that wasn’t an explanation I was willing to undertake. How did it go?”

Bilbo turned his red face to his Thain and the younger Hobbit sighed. “That good, then?”

“I had to explain feet … to the King of the Dwarves .”



His day did not improve from thereon. As he was approaching Bag End, he could see his mother talking over the garden fence to Bell Gamgee, the gardener’s wife, and caught his mother’s last sentence: “...and I told Balin that if I can Bilbo have happily settled in Erebor, and all his cousins equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for.”

“Mother,” he said through clenched teeth as he neared, causing her to startle as if guilty. “You haven’t by any chance been writing to anyone in the Lonely Mountain?”

“Not anyone, no… except perhaps Lord Balin, once or twice.”

Lord Balin, the king’s advisor?”

“Oh, is he the king’s advisor?”

“And in your letters, have you mentioned that your handsome lad is unwed and desperate for a husband?”

“Now, don’t be gauche!” Belladonna admonished. “He of course would want to know about my son, but I by no means am matchmaking!”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows.

“I may have mentioned your skills as a scholar and a scribe. And that you are a handsome lad. Neither of these are lies!”

“So he knows that I’m the Thain’s scribe, does he? And you’re hoping that word gets to the king that the scribe who has been transcribing all of the Thain’s correspondence is in fact the only son of Belladonna Took, the adventuring Hobbit?”

“Now, son, there’s no reason for that tone.”

“I have every reason for my tone ! You don’t know anything about King Thorin, or his nephews! Do you know they don’t even know about… about…”


“About?”

Bilbo threw his hands up and stomped his way into Bag End. His father glanced up from his papers, startled at this unfamiliar stomping. “Son?”

“Bloody!”

“Now, son…”

Bloody !!”

“There’s no call for such lang-”

TOOKS !”

His father’s lack of admonishment was agreement enough.

Chapter Text

The spring thaw came early, which was ideal for the beginning of a long journey, and soon Bilbo was packing for the trip in between a flurry of last minute meetings, missives, and preparations.

Surprisingly, Karaic had wintered with the Bagginses in Hobbiton, clearly preferring the food and company at Bag End than that at the Lonely Mountain. Despite the advent of spring heralding the renewed arrivals of Erebor’s Ravens, she stayed with Bilbo. It may have been strange enough that it incited comment but no one was self-destructive enough to try to tell a giant raven what to do. Karaic had a way of making Hobbits nervous, most possibly related to a wingspan longer than Hobbits were tall.

Word of the Hobbit emissaries had apparently spread beyond the borders of the Shire because on the same day that the Thain mentioned that Rangers would be escorting them partway from Bree eastwards, the wandering wizard Gandalf appeared at Bag End, much to the delight of Belladonna. The family had not seen the old man since the horrible Fell Winter a decade before. Bilbo emerged from his packing in his room to hear them chatting in the dining room over tea and scones.

“And here he is!” his mother exclaimed. “The last you saw of him, Gandalf, he hadn’t yet come of age, and now he’s to be on his own adventure! Time surely does fly. My flower, you remember Gandalf of course.”

“Of course,” Bilbo replied politely, bowing. “Good morning.” In a glance, Bilbo saw that Gandalf had changed very little from his childhood memory, if at all - the same twinkling, canny eyes, the same gray cloak and tall hat. Even the beard had stayed about the same shade of gray and white. Of course, memories of that freezing, hungry winter were hazy at best...

“Good morning to you, young Hobbit,” the wizard replied, with a very observant glance. “He is the very image of you, my darling girl! In his tweens I would have taken him for a Baggins through and through, but the Tookish part is definitely shining out now.”

“Must be the upcoming adventure,” Bilbo remarked wryly. “And also, we are all growing out our hair because of Dwarvish tradition.”

Gandalf raised his eyebrows at this. “Ah, I see. Yes, there are a few problems with exposing the back of the neck, with Dwarves. However did you stumble up on that one, though?”

Therein ensued the description of the cultural conversations which had literally flown between Bilbo and Erebor, and by the end Gandalf was laughing and wiping his eyes. “My boy, I can now see the Baggins in you. Who else would research the minutiae of Dwarvish customs? Please do tell me you’re also keeping a narrative?”

In fact, Bilbo had used the lull of winter to compile all the new pieces of knowledge he had acquired in the masses of correspondence he had had to endure. He had not thought about a narrative, though. “I have been organizing my research, of course,” he explained. “I am not sure of the practicality of writing while on the road.”

“There are always small moments here and there for someone to get out ink and pen,” Gandalf advised him. “If you have a traveling case for your writing tools, it would inspire you to keep a journal at least. After all, it will be a grand adventure, and who knows where it will lead?” He winked at Belladonna. “There is no need for you to tell me where you hope it might lead, my dear, but Bilbo must make his own way.”

Bilbo found himself grinning. “Thank you, Gandalf. I’ve been trying to tell her that since this whole thing began!”

“Do they have the final list for the group?” Belladonna asked, handing her son a cup and refraining from commenting. “Is Rosalda going?”

Bilbo took a grateful sip and nodded. “She is, and Amaranth Brandybuck and her brother Dodinas, Dora Hornblower, Tom Cotton, and Daisy Under-hill. There are a few cooks and able-bodied lads to help with guarding and encamping, and that list will be finalized soon.”

“Not your cousin Otho?”

“He’s been sick on and off; personally I think he’s faking so that Aunt Camelia won’t insist he goes.”

“Sometimes I wonder about your Baggins cousins, Bilbo. More Tooks and Brandybucks on this journey, although I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised! There’s more spine in the youngest Took than there will ever be in most families put together.”

Gandalf merely drank his tea without further comment, and it wasn’t until later that night, when he and Bilbo went outside to smoke that he said, “You know, my lad, the portents are good for this journey. My heart tells me that any later, darker forces might interfere, but this feels like a good time.” He muttered to himself in the midst of packing his pipe, and Bilbo thought he heard him say, “Yes, yes, this might just do it.”

Bilbo frowned at him, but Gandalf didn’t explain and soon the Hobbit forgot all about it. 

 

The Shire’s Ambassadorial Train to Erebor, or as Bilbo and his traveling companions came to know it, “The Long Ride East” began on a cold spring morning with ten hobbits, five ponies, three carts, and one wizard. Bilbo’s parents, like many families, journeyed to the meetpoint to farewell their relations. The planned location sat at the crossroads where the roads from Hobbiton and Tuckborough intersected the Old East Road at Bywater.

As it was, half of Tuckborough seemed to come out to see Paladin and his sister off. Bilbo managed to make his arrival known and relieve Paladin of their checklist as the Took relations crowded about the head of the line of ponies.  Rosalda Took, Paladin’s sister, caught ahold of him for a quick hug before letting get on with his duties. Having inherited shining black hair and dark blue eyes of their deceased mother and height from her father, Adalgrim Took, she was probably the tallest female Hobbit Bilbo had ever known, just as tall as her brother, which made her rather imposing to most Hobbits. Bilbo’s mother was also an inheritor of Tookish stature, and tall imposing females did not intimidate Bilbo. Quite the opposite.

The ponies were being rechecked by their riders, so Bilbo proceeded to the pony carts to make sure the supplies they had arranged for were in the correct carts. Miss Dora Hornblower was seated in the lead cart, a pink-cheeked blonde in very smartly cut traveling attire and smoking an elaborately carved white pipe.  

While the Tooks and Bagginses were old money based in land, the Hornblower’s fortune was in the growing and drying of their primary crop, that of pipeweed. Dora’s family wasn’t just rich in the way that the Baggins could be called rich, they were incredibly rich and less shy about displaying that wealth. Belladonna might sniff about “taste,” but the fact was that the Hornblowers could afford to be fashionable.

Dora offered a hand down without hesitation to help him up to the bench. As he settled, she took his list in one hand and held her pipe in the other. Bilbo eyed that pipe mournfully, very aware that even his best did not compare, and that Dora herself probably carved it. She was known for creating fantastical but functional smoking pipes

“Master Baggins,” she greeted, nodding her head, “I see your hand in this escapade. Such a writer you are!”

Bilbo smiled deprecatingly. “It's a Baggins trait.” Hornblowers weren’t terribly admiring of book learning, although each could do sums as soon as they could walk, so he suspected some small amount of sarcasm.

She hummed noncommittally, turning about and looking at the tarp covering in the cart behind her. Bilbo leaned over and lifted the edge of the oilskin and they surveyed the casks and crates. “Looks like I have the most important wagon,” Dora said, chuckling.

Bilbo had to laugh. “Yes, you have the cider, water, dried fruit, and the salt pork… and are those…?”

“My grandfather insisted,” his companion replied. “I reckoned that there would be no complaints.”

“No, no complaints, Mistress Hornblower,” Bilbo snickered, grinning, “but I wouldn’t mention it just yet.”

He received some backslaps from various Hornblowers on his way to the next cart, where he encountered an expected and familiar face.

Young and unmarried Tooks, Brandybucks, and even Hornblowers were no strangers to Bilbo, because they were of the same generation of Hobbits, and ran in the same circles in the seasonal events that were the mainstay of Shire society. None of them were intimate friends, as Bilbo was the only child of Hobbiton’s most prestigious family and elder to all of them. Day to day, he could not roam the forests with his cousins from Tuckborough. They were well enough acquainted, with no ill will between them.

Bilbo’s relationship with the Hobbit in the next cart was much more intimate. Tom Cotton was not of a “notable’ family, but he was from a farming clan of good reputation, local to Hobbiton. He and Bilbo were the same age and often played together as children, and kept a connection even in their 30’s. A week didn’t go by in warmer months that Bilbo didn’t go mushroom hunting with Tom. The last winter, they had met down at the Green Dragon to warm up with ale and talk of the plans he was in the midst of.

He fondly recalled when he and Tom had something of a reciprocated crush with each other in their tweens, which had carried on with good humor and had eventually dissipated as such things tended to do. Strong and brown from working in the fields, with hair bleached by the sun, Tom Cotton was a central figure in Bilbo’s romantic daydreams when he was younger and now a good companion and helpmate.

Tom hopped down from the driver’s bench and threw his arms about Bilbo, rocking him lightly. “And there you are, old man. Looks like I got a wagon full of tents and blankets.” Arms around each other’s shoulders, they poked under the tarp and Bilbo checked his list against the quantities of goods. Stakes and coils of rope completed the supplies. A quick handshake and he was on to the next.

He did not have much in common with Daisy Under-hill, but he knew her from local gatherings and by reputation. She was one of those girls who wore breeches under her skirts and kept a slingshot in her pocket. In very large families, the youngest Hobbits tended to grow up rather wild, left to the capricious supervision of older siblings. Daisy was one of these youngest children, and hadn’t really lost that wildness even as a young woman. Bilbo often saw her  employed by the Green Dragon as a bodyguard in the agricultural off-season, after (rumor had it) she had tried bartending and wound up dumping a flagon of ale onto the head of a customer one time too many.

She was currently rifling through the back of her cart and counting on her fingers. Several women and young men with the same flyaway brown curls and freckled cheeks were talking excitedly next to her, but subsided when Bilbo approached. The Under-hills were an odd, inclusive family and rather poor. Along with his mother, Bilbo had often taken food and medicines to their smials during hard times, but it was always an awkward business because the Under-hills were proud and distained charity. Belladonna had tried to explain to her son why she left things at their doors instead of knocking and handing things in, which would have been his instinct as a young Hobbit. As an adult, he thought he might understand, but he knew comprehension was limited. As a Baggins, he’d only ever been hungry in dire circumstances; he had never been poor; he’d never had young ones to care for day to day. It was easy enough for him be charitable; he could not imagine having to be grateful for someone else’s.

Daisy waved at him and dropped a swift curtsy. “Mister Baggins, sir,” she said.

“Miss Under-hill. It seems you’ve started inventory.”

“Why, I saw the others start in, and Tom told to me you’d likely appreciate it.”

“I do indeed. So what have we got back here?”

The young lady counted on her fingers, reciting: “Folks’ clothes trunks, rugs an’ such, medicines and bandages, an’ some of these.” She pointed and he glanced down his list.

Of course, this was the cart that contained spears wrapped in the “rugs” and several gifts for the king in carved wooden boxes, and also the coinage they would use to buy goods on the road. Bilbo chewed his lip and looked at Daisy. “Do you still have that slingshot?” he asked, recalling certain mischievous adventures of a very young Daisy and her slightly older siblings.

The girl grinned. “I’m a weaver and a knitter now, but I always have my slingshot,” she replied, which probably meant she was even a more deadly shot than she had been. “You never know when a bit of hunting will come in handy.”

“Well, you have the more precious cargo here,” he informed her, although he figured she was clever enough to discover that herself. “I would keep some stones on hand if I were you, and always keep two carts ahead of you and two behind; we’ll pick up the next two in Buckland. We don’t want any of these things to lose their way, if you know what I mean.”

Daisy tapped her foot pensively, and nodded. “Yes sir, I’m the Hobbit for the job. No one’s getting past me if they want to keep all their bits and pieces.” Something caught her eyes and she twitched, pulling her intricately handwoven shawl closer about her. “Lady Above, is that the Messenger-Raven everybody keeps yammering about?! It’s a monster!”

Bilbo turned to see Karaic flap in and  settle on the branch of a tree close to the road, her head cocked attentively. “Goddess’s sake, don’t let her hear you say that! You don’t want to have that bird mad at you, young lady!”

Daisy made a scoffing sound but her entourage of siblings giggled, all of then craning to see Karaic but not daring to get closer.

Bilbo proceeded up the train and checked his own assigned pony under the experienced eye of his mother, who had taught him to ride and care of such creatures from an early age. His scribe’s case was one of the personal items strapped in behind his saddle, while his father took his larger trunks and parcels to Daisy’s cart. While his father was busy doing that, Belladonna approached him with a long item wrapped in a blanket. As he looked at her questioningly, she flipped a fold of the cloth from one end and there he saw the unmistakable shape of a hilt.

“Mama -” he began, shaking his head.

“Now, don’t fret, my flower. I’ve no use for it here, and you may one day need it out in the wilderland.”

“I wouldn’t know what to do with it-”

“Then throw it at Tom Cotton. That boy can handle anything with a blade; he could mow down down a goblin like a field of wheat. But do try not to lose it; I have some affection for how it was won.”

Bilbo swallowed and blinked rapidly at the water in his eyes. As a child, he had heard all of his mother’s stories with large eyes and an open heart. He knew every detail of how his mother had won the Elven dagger from a troll hoard.  “My thanks, Mama.”

Bungo returned in time to pat his son’s shoulder and tousle his hair as Bilbo bent his head so his mother could kiss his brow.

“May the road take you to new friends and new lands, my son,” she murmured. “You may never know where the road eventually ends, but it is not as important as the change it makes in you.”

His father grumbled and put something soft and folded into Bilbo’s hand.

Of course, it was true to their natures that Belladonna Baggins gave her son what was essentially a sword, and Bungo Baggins gave him a bundle of pocket handkerchiefs.

 

All was packed and every traveler ready to start off, but they seemed to be waiting for something or someone. Bilbo looked around, but counted the correct amount of Hobbits for his leg of the journey. All was made clear when the Old Took, Gerontius, rode up to the pleased murmur of the crowd. Belladonna and Paladin hurried to the Took patriarch but he waved them off and got down on his own from his small horse to accept embraces from his daughter and grandson before coming over to the train of waiting ponies and carts.

Gerontius nodded to Gandalf, who was tending his own steed, then made his way down the train, pausing from time to time. He kissed Rosalda’s hands affectionately and threw his arms out to Bilbo to received his “grandfather hug,” as was his due. He kept his arm about Bilbo’s shoulders for the rest of the tour, circling back to the head where Paladin and Rosalda waited.

“It’s a proud day for the Shire,” the Old Took proclaimed. “It’s about time those Outsiders saw us Hobbits as more than half of anything. We have something to give to Middle-earth, and these are the young people to do it!”

A cheer went up, and with that everyone mounted and started the journey east to Buckland.

Chapter Text

Balin, arms filled with scrolls, bustled through the halls of the king’s palace within the greatest Dwarven kingdom in Middle-earth. Although not inured to the magnificent stone handiwork of his forefathers and the wonder of finally returning to the kingdom he’d seen wrested from his people in blood and fire, the white-haired Dwarf had too many immediate worries on his mind to appreciate his surroundings.

He had lost track of his king, and was starting to panic.

“Ori!” he cried, spying the young scribe hustling from the other direction. “Have you seen Thorin? He isn’t down in the counting rooms, is he?”

Ori’s eyes widened in consternation. “I saw him in the library when I left an hour ago, Balin,” he answered. “He was in the back stacks.”

Balin sighed in relief. “My thanks, lad. Where are you off to, now?”

“I just finished up from last night and I’m off for a lie down. A group of us finally got the treaty written up.”

“I’m sure it’s very pretty, too, knowing your guild. Well done, and enjoy your rest.”

Ori waved at him as he scuttled off. Balin took the turn toward the royal library. Gold veined marble made way to obsidian-paneled walls and glass-encased lamps all around newly installed oak shelves. He followed the long, free-standing bookshelves to a series of tables hidden in the back and was reassured by the sight of Thorin Oakenshield sitting there with a spread of papers and his head in his hand.

Balin reflected that it had been naive to think that taking back Erebor from a dragon would be the most difficult part of repopulating their ancestral kingdom. Winning back their home had only been the first in a long line of struggles, and overcoming Thorin’s self-doubt had always been a quest they had yet to conquer.

“Your Majesty,” Balin huffed, putting his scrolls down and corralling them from rolling off one edge. “Once again I have had to hunt you down. I know the king’s study isn’t your favorite…”

Thorin’s pale blue eyes glared from underneath his fingers and a fall of his long, dark hair. “All I see is my grandfather there,” King Thorin II rasped tiredly. “I keep thinking about how he was before the dragon came, and it was not always good.”

“Like the throne room?” Balin encouraged. Thorin’s notorious avoidance of that area had his advisories worried for the upcoming public ceremony.

Thorin straightened as he nodded. He eyed the new scrolls with a sigh. “What news?”

“Ah, well, news from the Shirelings, my king,” Balin chuckled. “I know how entertained you are by Bilbo’s correspondence.”

Thorin rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes,” he replied, impatiently. “How that land of round little farmers every produced such a one, I’ll never know.”

“Well, laddie, that’s akin to saying that it’s a miracle you come from a race of miners.” Balin hunted through his pile while he added nonchalantly, “And he’s the son of Beldan Tûk, so I am not at all surprised.”

“Beldan Tûk? I thought she was a story.”

“Oh, she was real enough. Had a few adventures with her east of Bree about forty or so years ago.”

The King under the Mountain snorted. “So you know what they’re like.”

They ?”

“Halflings.”

“I’ve met a few, but not in the Shire proper, mind. And they’re Hobbits , Thorin. You wouldn’t want to start off on the wrong foot by calling them a name they resent.”

The King under the Mountain shook his head. “He’s a dab hand, isn’t he?” he said, pulling a paper from his own pile with a finger. Balin recognized the runes at the top and the excellent calligraphy of the main body.  Belladonna’s son had proved himself a very helpful communicator, down to every foreseeable detail. Such conscientiousness warmed Balin’s precise Dwarven heart.

“Indeed he is.”

“And speaking of the wrong foot, or of feet in general,” Thorin drawled, sliding a slow finger down the paper.

Balin hummed in a questioning tone and jumped when Thorin slammed his hand down on the stone table. “ Hobbit feet!”

“Oh? Oh, yes! Ahem. Right you are, laddie. Hobbit feet.” And Balin blushed .

“The cultural minister sent clothing guidelines to the Thain of the Shire-” Thorin began and then trailed off at the sight of the elder Dwarf’s face steadily growing redder. “Whatever is the matter with you?”

Balin coughed. “N-nothing!”

A suspicion started to form in Thorin’s mind. “Just how well did you know this Beldan Tûk? Baggins says here that it is a delicate matter… do you mean that their feet -!”

Balin threw up his hands. “Laddie, do you really want me to answer that question?”

Thorin stared wonderingly down at the letter under his hand. He knew some subtle writers, but this was a champion attempt to skirt a taboo subject. He took a deep breath. “Balin, old friend, perhaps you should sit down and tell me more about Hobbits.”

It was midwinter, and because of planning they were living off of stores they'd laid in during the autumn. The Ravens were few but news still carried, and the numbers of various immigrants from the Blue Mountains were dwindling. King Bard and Thorin met alternately in Erebor and in the reconstructed sections of Dale, slowly working through the conditions of the treaty between their two cities.

Thorin’s two nephews, young and high-spirited, grasped at any opportunity to leave the mountain and spend their gold in Dale’s few disreputable pubs. Thorin, despite the sure knowledge that his sister would string him him up by his stones if her sons came to harm, was more than happy to let them run wild with the understanding that they didn't break anything that couldn't be paid for.

So one day he set out to Dale with Balin, Dwalin, Fíli , and Kíli. At the gates to Dale, he and Balin parted from Dwalin and his nephews. The boys were strong fighters but Dwalin was insurance that any villains after the heirs of Durin encountered enough pain to discourage any more such attempts.

Bard’s children greeted them at the doors to what Thorin remembered as the governor's residence. It was not particularly fine enough for a king, but the stones were good, and whatever had burned or rotted was slowly being replaced as the descendants of ancient Dale slowly brought back artifacts and family heirlooms. As a sign of good faith, Thorin would gift any Dale pieces from Smaug’s hoard. It was a slow process, which meant Thorin was never empty handed to his host’s home.

Let it not be said that Thorin hadn't learned the lesson on holding too tightly to one’s riches, even if handing over each golden goblet or necklace felt like wrenching his heart out. The pain was a glad reminder that he was able to fight his family's curse, and each time the pain lessened and his generosity grew easier.

This time it was a bracelet of gold and sapphires that he presented with a bow to Bard's youngest daughter, who blushed and giggled but nevertheless curtsied and took it before running to shyly hide behind her sister’s skirts.

Bard watched this wryly, and gestured into the reception chamber currently serving as his office. “They'll learn soon enough,” Bard commented, “that gold brings no warmth in winter.”

Thorin reflected that it certainly brought dragonfire, but he was not going to make that comment. Instead he sat down next to the fireplace while Balin, long used to Bard’s kitchen, went to fetch the wine. “We were going to discuss where the various delegations would be staying during the coronation,” he opened.

“How many delegation are certain?”

“Dwarves from the Iron Hills and Blue Mountains, but they will be staying in the mountain. Elves from the Greenwood and Rivendell. Half- er, Hobbits from the Shire. Men from Dale, of course.”

“Not from Rohan or Gondor?”

“Rohan perhaps - they are used to traveling long distances on horseback, but Gondor is too far south for such a journey.”

“...and Hobbits, you said? What are Hobbits?”

“Little people from the west, called Halflings in tales.”

“They actually exist, the little people who vanish, sing like birds, and live in holes?”

Balin returned for this last part, wine in hand. “They certainly do exist, and although they are stealthy, they do not vanish. They live underground, certainly, but I wouldn’t call what they live in mere “holes” unless you consider Erebor a “cave”.” He poured the wine, and added: “The question is the Elves, as we do not have good relations with them and do not trust them within the mountain.”

Bard nodded. “Thranduil is not loved among the Lake people either. He turned his back on everyone when the dragon came. He acquitted himself handsomely once there was chance at a treasure, and I do admire his sons and captains who are a good group to have at your back. Thranduil himself, though…”

“We may house them here in Dale, or in our best rooms in Erebor, close to the treasury,” Thorin said slowly, smiling to himself.

The others stared at him in confusion.

“So he can see the comings and goings of the wealth of the mountain, and stay in rooms far removed from the stars and trees. I would enjoy his misery.”

Bard’s eyebrows went up. “Remind me never to go against you, King under the Mountain.”

“You are not an oath-breaker,” Thorin replied, “and do not need to fear my retribution. I reluctantly made treaties with him for his archers this time, which proved helpful in the destruction of Smaug, but his new generosity does not wipe clean what was done in the past, the lives that could have been saved had he merely succored us when we were cast from the mountain. I will suffer him at my coronation, for the sake of the future of our two peoples, but I do not trust him.”

Bard nodded. “It would be best if Dale houses the Elves, and this we can do. By spring we should have enough of the city repaired for such a visitation. What do you know of the needs of these Hobbits?”

Balin stroked his long white beard. “They love gardens and growing things, but they also live underground. A short time in Erebor will do them no harm as long as they may leave now and then for the sun and the wind.”

“Don’t Thranduil and his people live underground?” Bard asked in a teasing, sly tone.

“That creature stays in my mountain when I and all my heirs are cold in our tombs,” Thorin growled.

Bard raised his hands in surrender, grinning. His son, Bain, came in then, victoriously holding his wrist aloft, encircled with the golden bracelet. He was immediately followed by his sisters, crying their outrage.

“And so to begins,” Balin intoned. “The lure of gold is strong, Bain son of Bard; will you have the will to resist?”

The young man grinned, puffing up his chest. “I won’t be lured!”

All three adults wryly eyed his raised wrist, and the boy flushed and dropped his arm to the delight of his sisters who snatched up the bit of jewelry and ran from the room, laughing. Thorin stared after them wistfully. There were not many Dwarrow children, even with the influx of colonial immigrants, and few Dwarrowdams, young or old. He missed having children about, for Fíli  and Kíli were young adults now.

“There’s a lot of talk,” Bard assayed, after a long swallow of wine, “about royal marriages.”

Thorin choked and glared; Balin smiled beatifically. “Oh, yes, that is to be expected at a coronation.”

“It is not expected !” Thorin replied hotly. “I am being crowned , not married!”

“Ah, but you’re a king without a consort, laddie, and the richest bachelor in Middle-earth, and that will always invite speculation. And your heirs are unmarried, as well.” Smiling at Thorin’s mutinous scowl, he added: “I have a number of letters, in fact, asking about the marital status of various Dwarven nobility.”

Bard guffawed, slapping his knee and howling. Thorin blinked in consternation; Bard very rarely smiled, much less laughed. “You’re unmarried, too,” he pointed out in a growl. “Both of you are!”

That sobered up King Bard and Lord Balin very quickly, like snapping a book closed. Thorin felt a bit triumphant at that.

“I am a widower with young children,” Bard replied, as if that were any sort of reasoning.

“What better a catch than a man with experience and proven fertility?” Balin responded benignly. Thorin watched with unholy glee as Bard’s face colored at “fertility” but stared at Balin in horror when the elder Dwarf added: “The same could be said of Thranduil, I suppose.”

From the other side of the room, Bain made imitation vomiting sounds.

Children . Mahal love them.

 

That was not what he was thinking when they had to retrieve an inebriated Kíli and punch drunk Fíli from a bar fomenting with the fighting instincts of several males and females of more than one species too far into their drink.

Khazâd ai-mênu!” Fíli giggled, stumbling after them, smacking away Dwalin’s attempts to aid his course. Kíli managed to pump the air half-heartedly with his fist in brotherly fidelity, almost sliding out of Thorin’s grip.

They recovered the horses they’d ridden in on, and nearing the gates of Erebor, spotted the tail end of a caravan of ponies and carts of a familiar design from the Blue Mountains.

“Durin’s balls,” Dwalin cursed. “It’s Dís.”

Kíli, mounted in front of his uncle and held upright by Thorin’s strong grip, promptly threw up on Thorin’s gloved hands.

Chapter Text

Thorin was not a coward. He was not. He was battle-hardened even at a young age, and had battled Orcs, Elves and Men; he had faced a dragon! He was of Durin’s line, and King under the Mountain. He would not retreat.

One look at his sister’s face as she beheld her falling-down drunk sons and their complicit uncle, and Thorin changed his opinion of himself. He glanced at Balin, and Balin glanced at him, and both came to the silent conclusion that this battle was already lost.

While Thorin dismounted and got Kíli awkwardly off the pony and Dwalin attempted to help Fíli alight without falling on his face, Balin stepped forward with arms open. “Shamukh! Princess Dís! Welcome to Erebor! You are looking well after such a long journey.”

Outright lies, Thorin thought as he quickly stripped off his fouled gloves. Balin was a master politician, because facing him, with tired eyes and a thin-lipped frown, stood Dís, daughter of Thrain, granddaughter of Thrór, and she looked unhappy and weary.

“Amad!” Kíli cried happily, and wobbled forward, Dwalin catching him before he fell forward on his face. Dís watched this with crossed arms, then her gaze slid to Thorin as he struggled not to sweat or start groveling.

His sister walked up to her son hanging in Thorin’s grip, sighed and looked into her brother’s eyes. “You are the luckiest Dwarf in Middle-earth, nadad,” she growled, “because if I wasn’t cold, tired, hungry and impatient for a real bed, I would shave off what little of your beard you’ve finally grown out.”

Thorin gulped but she wasn’t finished.

“But this is what will happen. You. Will. Fix. This. Do you understand?”

Thorin nodded silently.

“Fine. I’m going to have a bath and change out of these stinking clothes. When I come to dinner, my inùdôy will be presentable heirs of Durin.” She said this loud enough to carry to her now cringing sons.

“Welcome to Erebor, namad,” Thorin managed contritely as she turned and strode off. As soon as she was past the gates, he turned abruptly and motioned to two of the gate guards. “Have the princes taken to the baths and into their court clothes.” He glanced at Balin, who nodded and followed as Fíli and Kíli were helped in through the gates.

“What’r’ya going to do?” Dwalin asked, coming alongside him and staring after the sad scene.

“I imagine hiding under my bed isn’t a very kingly response.”

Dwalin snorted. Then his eyes suddenly riveted ahead of them and Thorin had to suppress a knowing grin. It didn’t take much thought to know who was standing there, waiting expectantly, having slipped the watchful eyes of his two overprotective brothers.

“Go ahead,” Thorin encouraged, slapping his friend’s shoulder. He watched as the tall Dwarf strode forward to join the slender male scribe to walk shoulder to shoulder towards the walls in one unified movement. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and strode forward to his fate.

 

By the time he got to his rooms to shed his winter outerwear, Balin was waiting. “I ordered the servants to make them drink as much water as they can stand and groom them within an inch of their lives.’

Thorin nodded, but when Balin remained expectantly, he asked: “Was there something else?”

“Yes, laddie, it’s about time we began preparing you for a coronation, and we might as well start now, now that Dís is here and expecting things to be fancied up.”

“Not now, Balin!” Thorin growled. “It’s enough we have to get my nephews cleaned up. We can get to me some other -” But when he looked up from throwing his gloves in a pile of dirty clothes, there was Dori next to Balin, tapping a comb against his arm, flanked by Brokkr and Vestri, the male and female heads of wardrobe who held a disturbing amount of fabric and jewel boxes in their hands accompanied by scary smiles. “Uh, Balin -”

“Gird your loins, laddie, this might get uncomfortable.”

 

Dís, princess royal and sister to the reigning King under the Mountain, paused in the archway to the formal dining room within the palace of Erebor. Her temper had cooled somewhat with the help of a hot bath, the first in over a week, and the shedding of layers of travel clothes. She had left her ladies in waiting to unpack their own belongings and take advantage of the ingenious plumbing heated by the main forges of the mountain, which burned perpetually now that the mountain’s blacksmiths, miners and craftspeople had returned in enough numbers to tend the fires. The smell of a meal prepared by skilled cooks further encouraged her better mood.

And then she entered through the arched entrance and saw her sons standing by the great table, hair washed and braided looking so much older than they had when they parted a year before. They broke from their conversation, brightening at her appearance, but didn’t crowd her as they had in the past.

It was a shock, that combination of maturity and hesitancy. She opened her arms, then, and they broke their discipline and ran into her arms. “My boys! My handsome boys!” They crushed her between them, already as tall and strong as their father and uncles. Fíli’s long and braided hair, as golden as Frerin’s had been, brought water to her eyes. Kíli's dark good looks, which had often been compared to Thorin’s, had taken a strange turn. He was now an image of his father with his straight, fly-away hair and triangular jaw. She cupped their cheeks and touched their hair, overawed that they were here, safe, and she was with them in the home of their forefathers.

“The king!” came Balin’s familiar voice, and the three of them turned, confused by the formality of such an announcement for Dís’s brother, until Thorin entered.

His face was like thunder, his pale eyes boring in at Balin before he turned to Dís and her sons. Dís’s hand flew to her mouth and Kíli made a breathy sound. Fíli ’s whisper of “I didn’t know he found great-grandfather’s crown” alerted her that perhaps Thorin hadn’t been making much of an effort to dress to the standards of the line of Durin. As it was, he was in the family colors of blue and black and the golden crown of Thrór with its obsidian ravens fitted to his brow as if made for him. The dual braids on either side of his face were thick and perfect, clasped in silver.

Dís hadn’t realized how much he looked like their great-grandfather until this moment and found herself smiling in nostalgic pride. When had her brother become such a majestic Dwarf? “Brother, you are a picture,” she told him in soft approval.

That seemed to surprise the fury from his face and replace with a bit of vulnerability. Dís wondered if he had seen the resemblance himself in the mirror, if he thought about how alike he could be to the king whose love of gold had not only destroyed himself but his entire kingdom. “Sister,” was all that he said, and drew her into his arms, “I have missed you.”

“You are a poor liar,” she mumbled into his indigo coat. “I saw your face when you saw it was me.”

“That was more my natural survival instinct,” Thorin replied with a chuckle. “I love you, Dís.”

And then her sons were there, too, and she was surrounded once again by her family.

She managed not to cry.

 

Like many of his exiled people, Thorin had wandered across Middle-earth for many years in search of work to provide for his family. His particular craft was the forge, which proved to be a boon, as working metal was a skill all manner of folk would pay for. It was still his craft, and in some ways he felt he was more blacksmith than king, as most of his life since he was a young man had been in pursuit of survival as far away from the royal life of his childhood as possible.

He often felt like an imposter, the blacksmith playing at being king. At other times he would rather be be an imposter than what his grandfather had been before Smaug. There were certain rooms he couldn’t enter without feeling the ghosts of the kings of Erebor pressing in at him, and other rooms he couldn’t face without feeling he didn’t deserve to breathe the air of those worthier than he.

Who was he, really? An exiled prince who thought to organize his kin and shaky alliances into one definitive attempt to kill the beast who had devastated more than the Lonely Mountain. Chance had sided with them, and in the research of scribes like Ori and historians from Lake Town, in the alliances of the descendants of Dale, and in the archers of Men, Dwarves, and Elves.

The dragon was dead, with an arrow in his eye and in his chest - a black arrow of Dale and a thick-shafted Dwarf arrow, and innumerable Elven arrows in his mouth and through his wings. The invulnerability of the dragon had been much vaunted, but not entirely realistic after lying like a slug on the riches of his victims for over a hundred years.

The frozen corpse of the last dragon in Middle-earth lay high upon the north side of the mountain where it had fallen with a roar of rage and pain. Thorin still could not stop his lips from peeling back in a snarl of hatred at the mere thought of that monstrous creature. A predator may claw its way to its food and prey, but did it speak to its prey, knowing that what he was destroying spoke as he did, felt as he might? The enormity of the iniquity of what had happened to Erebor in the mere moments of Smaug’s attack could never fade from collective memory, this Thorin swore.

He did not feel like a king, but he would mold himself into the best semblance of one for the sake of his people. It was not such a bleak existence, and there might be joy now that his family was here.

In the meanwhile, sometimes he would go down to the forge where he had first learned his craft, and from the refined iron he began to hammer out a new design for a dagger, a spearhead, a sword, a crown. He was done with using other people’s weapons, inherited or acquired on the field. A battered oak branch hung on the wall in his rooms, but his swords were his father’s and grandfather’s, and those he would mount in public spaces and not call his.

His crest would be the oak tree surmounted by the seven stars of Durin, and this design he would hand down to Fíli , his heir, for him to alter if he so desired when he became king.

 

Thorin’s behavior was not unmarked by his kin and friends, particularly those who had known him a long time, such as Dwalin and Balin.

Dwalin, unlike most living Dwarrow, had fought by Thorin’s side at the gates of Khazad-dûm, and with Balin had seen Thorin’s father defeated there. He knew what his friend looked like when he was enraged, brooding, amused or languid. Whatever Thorin felt, he felt it intensely.

“Like a fire in full roar, or banked,” Ori had once said. Dwalin was no poet (an opinion shared by both Balin and Ori), but he thought it was a good comparison to his friend and cousin before the death of Smaug.

But now, it was if that fire had been doused or swept away all together. Thorin went through the motions, but the spark seemed dim, hollowed out of him. Dwalin didn’t know what to make of it.

Balin, who spent more time with Thorin in quieter moments, had remarked that Thorin seemed more introspective, and maybe that was natural after a life of pursuing a goal and finally achieving it. “The lad is a bit adrift,” he admitted one night as the two brothers smoked contentedly together after a long day. “He’s not used to peace, or negotiations, or paperwork for that matter. The very things he’s fought for are things he hasn’t know for a long time, and the possibilities that come with a stable kingdom take him by surprise.”

Dwalin thought about this. “...and he doesn’t have a One.”

Balin snorted. “Most Dwarrow don’t. It’s always the lucky who have found theirs that seem to think it is the solution to all our woes. Having a One would help balance things, bring a bit of joy back, but if Thorin can’t concede that it’s a possibility, he may never acknowledge his One even if he finds them.”

Balin was far too observant, Dwalin thought wryly, but he himself had never found his One nor understood the pull that the bond exerted. “True, but you would be surprised how impossible it is to deny one’s One.”

 

Bilbo sneezed violently and felt around in his pack for one of the handkerchiefs his father had given him. They had stopped on the western side of the Brandywine River at the Bridge of Stonebows and were currently waiting at the side of the road for the Brandybuck additions to the traveling group who were riding north from Brandy Hall and the Bucklebury Ferry.

From their vantage point on the road, they could see the dark borders of the Old Forest of Buckland across the river. It was a shame that there were no safe roads for carts through the forest. The East Road skirted the forest on its way to Bree and they would only see the trees at a distance.

He went to beg some fire from Dora Hornblower’s pipe, and using a twig was able to transfer fire to light his own. They stood about and walked, stretching their legs after hours of riding. Daisy Under-hill took out her knitting and continued what appeared to be a scarf. Paladin and Rosalda were conferring with Gandalf over the map.

“I’ve heard about Amaranth Brandybuck,” Tom said conversationally as they drew on their pipes and practiced smoke rings.

Dora snorted from behind them. “It’s all true.”

BIlbo laughed wryly. “The face like a flower, a tongue like honey, but the heart of an adder.”

Dora nodded. “Well said, Master Baggins.”

Tom’s eyebrows rose. “And we’re bringing her with us?”

“The thing about Amaranth is that she’s ambitious and unmarried,” Dora explained after a long draw on her pipe. “The Valar protect the male who will be her equal, but the Brandybucks are probably hoping she’ll find some poor Dwarf to marry her.”

“... and whoever is chaperoning her will have his hands full,” Bilbo added.

“There they are,” Daisy called, pointing from her perch on her wagon.

There was indeed a large party and ponies and carts coming up the road following the river. Gorbadoc, Master of Buckland, conspicuous by his particularly broad figure, headed the group on a pony tall enough to be a small horse.

Paladin greeted them and held Gorbadoc’s bridle as the larger Hobbit dismounted. Behind him the two carts to complete the train stopped, and Bilbo knocked out his pipe against the road marker and strode forward with a deep breath.

Unfortunate brother of Amaranth Brandybuck, Dodinas “Dodi” was helping his sister down. As Bilbo could have predicted, Amaranth’s only concession to traveling was thicker fabric in her green embroidered dress. Her shining rose-gold curls tumbled in a seemingly artless fall and her bright blue guileless eyes gazed about her with cheerful curiosity. “Dearest cousin Bilbo!” she cried and threw her arms about him in exaggerated affection. “It has been far too long.”

“Amaranth, as always your are the Sun,” Bilbo responded, looking straight into her eyes and smiling. It was no secret Bilbo was immune to her particular charm, and it was in Amaranth’s best interest to keep him as an ally. Amaranth was no fool, and very aware that she was not the highest ranking Hobbit of influence on the journey. As the only heir of the Baggins of Bag End, Bilbo’s status ranked him higher, even over the children of the Master of Buckland. Brandybucks were considered outliers, not quite in the Shire proper.

She dimmed her charm in response to his knowing look, smiling winsomely, and went on to greet the Thain, while Dodi shook Bilbo’s hand. “Don’t ever change, Baggins,” he said. While his sister was all Tookish charm from their mother, Belladonna’s sister, Dodi was all Brandybuck, dark haired and forthright. He was a Bounder, one of many guards who patrolled the Shire’s borders along the Brandywine and the edges of the Old Forest with the permission of the Shirriffs of the Shire.

“Dodi,” Bilbo replied with an honest smile. “It’s good to see you again. How are things along the old paths?”

“Recently pretty quiet, but it usually is when the winter cold lingers in the spring. The Rangers have been through a few times and are patrolling our road ahead of us at Father’s request. We should see them when we push ahead. Any news from your other correspondents?”

“We have the accord of the Mayor of Bree, Elrond of Rivendell, Thranduil of the Greenwood, and Bard of Dale. I have a Raven of Erebor carrying missives back and forth. They’re aware of the timeline of the journey and will send out local guards along the road.”

Dodi nodded in approval. “As always, you get to the details, cousin. Tell me, did your mother give you her sword?”

Bilbo sighed. “Yes.” It was no secret that Belladonna’s sword was something of a legend in these parts, where Hobbits were not afraid to venture into danger.

“Well, if you don’t want it, I’m more than happy to take it off your hands.” Dodi patted the long dagger at his side, clearly a family heirloom.

“Not on your life, Dodi Brandybuck. Although, I might ask for lessons.”

“Finally!”

They looked over the contents of the two Brandybuck wagons, then walked over to the cluster of Hobbits around the Master and the Thain. “Really, cousin Amaranth,” Bilbo tutted, “three trunks?”

“I may meet royalty,” the girl replied archly. “I will need to look my best.”

Daisy Under-hill, still on the bench of her cart, shook her head and continued to knit.

Chapter Text

To My Lord Balin:

I write to you from the library at Rivendell. I will not test your patience with details about the journey from the Shire to Imladris, only to say that it has been relatively uneventful. We have been aided along the way by Rangers, officials in Breeland, and from the Elves on the approach to Rivendell.

I should say that a friend of my mother’s, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, has traveled with us for most of the way this far, although he has a frustrating habit of vanishing for lengths of time only to show up unannounced again. Wizards.

Lord Elrond has offered us a few nights’ rest, and it is beyond me to tell my fellow countrymen that they cannot avail themselves of real beds before the crossing of the mountains. Also, our fresh food is long gone and we wish to restock a bit.

Our hosts are very hospitable, and my only criticism of the Elves is that they do not smoke pipeweed and even seem to have an active distaste of it. Clearly they are not as enlightened as they are often characterized.

With respectful regards,

Bilbo Baggins



To My Lord Balin,

I write to you from the kingdom of the Greenwood with the kind cooperation of King Thranduil. We had a bit of a bother with a small band of Goblins as we came out of the mountains, but communication with the Elves here fortunately inspired a more watchful attitude. This resulted in many arrows in many Goblins.

There were no serious hurts gained from the altercation, although I hold my mother’s sword a bit closer these days. Three of the Bucklanders in the party are used to dealing with these small incursions at the borders of our own country, and they were invaluable in saving life and limb.

I am urged by my cousin Amaranth Brandybuck to tell her about the appearance of King Thorin and the princes, and I have been unable to satisfy her curiosity. I feel she is concerned after seeing how tall the Elves are here but I have assured her that Dwarves may be taller than the average Hobbit, but not to the extremes of the Elves.

We set out east tomorrow and will have Silvan guards to the border of the forest. I am not unfamiliar with trees, but I have to say that the Greenwood is not a very civilized place for being so old. The trees seem to hold a grudge. The Brandybucks say that some of the trees in the Old Forest have a similar feel, and that they sometimes move. I should not like to meet a walking tree!

Please send Karaic back as soon as you can. I should hate it if she could not find us as we travel under the trees.

Also, I think we lost Gandalf for good this time. We haven’t seen him for many nights.

Sincerely,

Bilbo Baggins

 

To My Lord Balin,

We are currently encamped in a place along the river that I do not know the name of, but we can see the Lonely Mountain from here.

I thank you for your descriptions of the king and princes. I cannot say that I can picture them as of yet, but I am sure they are a hearty and strong lot as you have said. To answer your inquiry, Amaranth is by far the fairest of our group by majority consensus, but that is by Hobbit standards, which is to say she had blue eyes and golden curls, a round face and womanly figure. Hobbits are usually dark-haired, either black, brown or reddish. We are fortunate to have two ladies with fair hair on this journey and the rest of us are woefully ordinary.

We look forward to seeing Dale and Erebor. Please pass on to His Majesty my Thain’s eagerness to view the splendors of your kingdom. Between you and me, we are a civilized folk, and all this traveling about is wearing a bit thin. I now know too many uncomfortable truths about my fellow travelers, and that’s a fact.

Respectful regards,

Bilbo Baggins

Thorin stood in the doorway of the throne room, staring pensively at the activity of workers and craftspeople. Following his orders, they had stripped away much of the lavish finishings throughout the chamber and replaced the elaborate throne with a simply and cunningly carved single piece of white-veined blue lapis lazuli. Two carved ravens flanked the seat below the armrests, and a oak tree adorned the back, its twining limbs turning in the arch of the backrest behind and above the head of the king.

Balin appeared at his side, as always carrying a pile of scrolls. “Well, laddie, how are you feeling about the progress?”

Thorin’s eye lingered on the single throne, raised only a foot off the floor on a stone dais. There was something wrong here, but he couldn’t quite dig down to it. “It’s what I asked for,” he replied noncommittally.

Balin snorted. “It’s certainly democratic in its height,” he commented blandly. “I take it that’s on purpose.”

“I dislike putting myself higher than any other Dwarf,” the king rumbled. “Fili convinced me to raise it for sight-lines.”

“There’s some common sense in the lad,” Balin muttered. “And I suppose you’ve resigned yourself to bachelorhood?”

Thorin groaned. Of course Balin would smell out the niggling doubt like a hound and raise a cry. Now that it was named aloud, Thorin could see that the dais was sized for more than one throne, in the ancient custom before King Thrór, when consorts were raised in importance.

Thrór had been obsessed with consolidating the rights of the kings of Erebor over all nobility, including his own queen’s.  When Thrór ascended, the Dwarrowdams were erased from historical genealogies, and only the single eldest male recorded in ancestral family trees. Thrór added his male relatives, but when Thorin ascended, Dís and her sons would be added, and Ori had orders to research the female lines and add them in again.

“I well remember the day, when you were barely a karat’s twinkle, asking your grandad if male Dwarves had babies.”

Thorin snorted. “I remember his reaction. To this day I still find it beyond belief that the family tree only shows male heirs, as if the dams had no part in our history!”

Balin nodded, but could see Thorin’s eye still lingering on that blank space where a consort’s chair would be. Unexpectedly, Thorin added: “Don't you think I would have found him by now, if I was ever to find my One? I am not young.”

“You're not in your dotage either,” Balin reminded him tartly. “And don't you think that looking in the same place over and over again will only give you the same result?”

Thorin turned a bewildered look upon his advisor. Balin reflected that it was a good thing that Thorin was one of the more attractive axes in the armory, as he clearly was not one of the sharpest.

And speaking of which... Balin shuffled through the scrolls in his arms and handed his king the latest letter from the Shirelings. “The Hobbits are in sight of the mountain. They are then a few days away from Dale.”

Thorin glanced down the letter and a twitch of a smile curved his thin lips. “Well then,” he said in a lighter tone, “why are we standing about here? Let us look upon the guest quarters and make sure that our weary travelers will be comfortable.”

Balin was not fooled. Thorin had the look of someone who'd been given a reprieve from a very awkward conversation. But there was no reprieve because Balin was not willing to let go of this particular topic quite yet.

The guest quarters for the Hobbits were Balin’s pride and joy. Being one of the few dwarves in the royal court to have ever encountered Hobbits or to have been described the dwellings of Hobbits, he had advised on the general look and feel of the rooms for the Thain’s delegation.

They had chosen a series of rooms originally carved out of the mountain for the extended royal family, especially children, when the population of Erebor had been ten times its current number. They had been plumbed in the old style, using natural stone aquifers that filtered the rainfall and snowmelt through layers of permeable rock; the water then was channeled through aqueducts of harder stone. In later times, new channels in the stone were created to divert some water through forge-heated boilers and to the royal apartments.

It was the warmest habitable part of the mountain, and by chance happened to be comfortable for beings less used to the cold.

The rooms had been cleared of the debris that had not yet fully decayed over the years, and rugs brought in to protect feet from cold stone. Balin had carefully commissioned Dale rugs in all the rooms in the colors and designs of nature: green, gold, brown and rust leaf, tree, and vine patterns.

The cleaned walls still bore remnants of the earlier inhabitants, and he had not the heart to erase the fanciful stone mosaics of oliphants, trolls, and yes, even dragons that had once entertained young Dwarrow in these rooms. These were augmented by tapestries that had been miraculously preserved in the deeper storage rooms, even some “teaching” tapestries depicting the life of Durin and other important events of Dwarven history.

He and his helpers had hunted down child-sized furniture both in Erebor and Dale - Dale’s having the advantage of being made of wood, which Hobbits were partial to. The fireplaces had been inspected and made viable for burning fuel, and little necessities and luxuries were stocked in the privies and baths.

Thorin observed all of this with his hands behind his back and a small frown of concentration on his face, especially the large table in the front reception room. “Is this a … dining table?”

Balin merely smiled.

“...and a sideboard?”

Balin nodded.

“Will they not be eating in public with the rest?”

“Oh, certainly, laddie. But then when shall they take their other meals?”

“Their … other meals?!”

Outside in the hallway, a passing guard was startled by the disembodied shout of his king crying: “But where do they put it all?”

 

“The little people are here! The little people are here!” Bain yelled, racing through the house to where his father was conferring with the agricultural guild, a varied group of farmers and merchants. Bain skidded in front of them, panting. “S-sorry everyone,” he gasped as the adults stared at him in surprise. Straightening, he grinned. “T-the Hobbits are being escorted here by the city guards.”

King Bard nodded. They’d all had warning that the delegation would be arriving soon, and he was as ready as he would ever be in greeting a people he’d never met before. He stood and sighed when Bain handed him his mantle and crown. His children were much more concerned with appearances. “All right, let’s get this over with.” Only to be met at the door by his daughters, who straightened his clothing and hair before letting him out.

He descended the stairs to the central fountain plaza, a great public space where the trees were just beginning to grow back and the fountain itself recently repaired by their Erebor allies.  All the roads in and out of the city circled this central place, taking them past the door of the governor’s estate. Hearing the clip clop of hooves from the south road, Bard was able to catch a glimpse of the first ponies and riders following the armored forms of the city’s watch and tried not to twitch when Bain’s oh! distracted him.

It wasn’t that they were short, because Dwarves could be short and made up for by being broad and heavy-boned. These Hobbits were small with adult human proportions, as if shrunk down from a well-fed people to the size of 10-year-olds.

“Oh, they’re cute!” his smallest daughter TIlda whispered excitedly. Bard did wince then, grateful to hear his eldest shush her.

He waited until the foremost and tallest rider dismounted before descending the rest of the steps. “I am Bard, King of Dale. Welcome to our city, honored guests.”

The Hobbit bowed deeply, sweeping his hood completely off his head. Now that Bard could see more details, he at once saw that his was a younger man with bright red hair in waves and jewel-like green eyes. “My thanks, honored king of Dale,” the little man said with a startling baritone voice. “I am Paladin Took II, Thain of the Shire. At your service.”

The other Hobbits, still mounted, bowed their heads in unison, politely murmuring the phrase after their Thain.

“You are most welcome. You’ve had a long time in the wilderland and we hope to provide food and rest before your last leg of the journey. May we conduct you to a place for you to refresh yourselves, and then provide you dinner?”

“Very kind of you, Your Majesty,” the Thain replied, motioning to his people behind him. “We will gratefully accept your offer. Might we keep the more complicated introductions until then? We Hobbits do our best socializing about the dinner table.”

Bard laughed. “That seems to be a pleasant strategy. My son will show you the way.”

The Hobbits were dismounting and removing saddlebags. Another male Hobbit was offering a hand to the dark-haired lady who had been riding at the Thain’s side. Once that was accomplished, he came to join the Thain, taking down his hood.

This one was older, a little shorter, and resembled the Thain in coloring, but he had a benign and observant look and his features were very... Bard blinked as the Thain said: “Oh, and here is someone you know, my kinsman and scribe, Bilbo Baggins.”

The attractive Hobbit bowed with a quick twitch of a smile. “A pleasure to finally meet you, King Bard.”

The king managed to keep his answering smile from taking over his entire face. “Bilbo Baggins,” he said while his Sigrid cried: “Oh, the scribe who wrote those lovely letters!”

Bard bit down on a chuckle. “She’s an avid reader of yours.”

Chapter Text

“She’s like a living doll…” Tilda whimpered in awe, pressing her knuckles to her mouth. She and Sigrid were stationed outside the governor’s dining room as the cooks began laying out platters and bowls and the Hobbits began sitting down. The girl’s focus was on the prettiest Hobbit lady of the bunch, with beribboned ringlets of rose-gold hair, and a round face with big blue eyes. Her outfit was a confection of pale and dark rose shades and green embroidery. Neither of girls had seen such a dress, with visible layers of chemise, shawl, corset and underskirts.

“Dolls aren’t shaped like the baker’s wife,” Sigrid reasoned, equally as fascinated. She watched the little lord, the Thain, take the hand of an equally small dark-haired lady to her seat. All the Hobbits were a little round, if not all around, then especially around the middle.

Like a lot of people from Lake-town and Dale, they were all colors. Some were fair-skinned with rosy cheeks, and some were somewhat brown to very brown - there didn’t seem a distinction between the Hobbits at the head of the table or at the lower end. One lady with white-blond curls in expensive-looking clothes sitting next to Bilbo Baggins was as brown as another with wild brown hair and a knitted shawl who sat further down. Several young men who clustered together lower down the table with similar clothes and a certain swagger were as pale as their companions were tan.

They were definitely ranked by wealth, though, or at least sort of if one looked at the fabric of their clothes. Maybe by family? Sigrid thought maybe family. A lot of the Hobbits at the head of the table looked a bit like the Thain, and the ones at the end looked similar enough. “I don’t get it,” Sigrid sighed. No family colors, no sigils or crests, and as many ladies as gentlemen. It was a puzzle.

At least with Dwarves it was easier - the ones with the prettiest armor or rings or hair clasps were usually the higher in rank. No armor, no jewelry? Miners.

“Da,” she said, grasping her father’s sleeve, “how can you tell which ones are in charge? Besides where they’re sitting at the table, that is.”

Bard smiled down at her. “The Shire is farming land, sweetheart. The ones are in charge own the most land. They also have very old families. So, rank comes from family as well.”

“So the Tooks have the most land?” Tilda asked.

“That’s what I was told by Master Baggins.”

“Oh, Master Baggins ,” Sigrid cooed, smiling dreamily.

“Now, none of that,” Bard admonished lightly, tapping her cheek. “Don’t scare off my guests with your daydreaming and calling them cute and adorable and all that rot. That goes twice especially for you, Tilda.”

Bain appeared then, his hair slicked back in cleaned within an inch of his life. Bard’s eyebrows went up. “I don’t want to know who you’re trying to impress, just don’t make me kick you out of the dinner for being as dreamy-eyed as your sisters.”

Bain flushed. “I’m not dreamy-eyed ,” he protested.

“Oh, you weren’t perhaps wearing your best tunic for the pretty lady on the Thain’s arm?” Sigrid asked with a grin.

“...no,” Bain muttered, looking everywhere but at his family.

Which meant yes , to Bard’s mind. Dear Valar, what was going on here?!

“All right, my soldiers. Here are you orders. You will be on your best behavior and table manners, which means being polite to all the Hobbits, or it’s early bedtime for you lot. Got it?”

There were quick if not slightly disheartened nods and Bard sighed, opened the door to the dining room all the way, and walked in.

Hobbits liked to talk, oh how they liked to talk! Bard thought dazedly, as the main dishes made way for sweets and then tea. Well, most of them with a few notable exceptions. The Thain’s sister was very shy for a loquacious race and a few here or there listened and replied good naturedly rather than start any sort of conversation, but the Thain himself could talk on and on on almost any topic of conversation concerning his own country or countrymen.

This changed over tea, when Bilbo Baggins (who had said very little unless directly asked), took advantage of a brief lull and leaned in and asked of Bard: “Do you know, we have not been told very much about the retaking of Erebor? One hears things on the road, but my Dwarf correspondents in the Mountain seem hesitant to tell the full tale.”

Bard wasn’t that surprised by the question. Lake-town had no official chroniclers and the Dwarves were a secretive race, the direct opposite of the Hobbits who seemed to chatter about everything from last year’s pipeweed harvest to their neighbor’s cousin’s sister’s scandal. “Well, Master Baggins, I could have predicted the King under the Mountain would keep his stories close to the chest, and the Elves have their own view of things, which leaves us poor Men, who have been too busy to figure out an epic besides a song or two about it. Didn’t King Thranduil tell you anything?”

“King Thranduil did have quite a few things to say about the matter,” the Thain said abruptly, as if trying to reroute what Bilbo might have said. “His perspective needs a balance, I should say.”

Master Baggins, whose mouth was indeed open to reply, frowned at his kinsman. “He seemed to have quite a few valid grievances.”

“More like grudges,” the blond Dora Hornblower added with a laugh. “Like a land-deal gone bad three generations back!”

Bard nodded. “Something like that - bad blood from way back.” When the Hobbits leaned in to hear more, he backtracked: “I wouldn’t want to prejudice you on either side, but promises were once made and the King of the Greenwood did not follow through when he was most needed.”

“But all other sides have kept all their promises?” Bilbo prompted, dark green eyes glinting like a hound ready to chase. “There was no reason for Thranduil to back away?”

Bard shrugged. “It goes far back, like I said. Hundreds of years ago, perhaps the Dwarves did not make a fair deal, who’s to say? But, on my side, Thranduil’s sin was the greater, for it cost lives.”

“I knew it!” a shawl-covered lady further down the table smacked the table with her palm. “Those Elves talk uncommon slick, if you ask me.”

“Well I didn’t ask you, Daisy Under-hill!” Bilbo Baggins called, but he was clearly willing to add good humor to the mix, and threw a coin at her which she caught with a triumphant cry. It happened too fast for Bard to see and Bain cried out, “Oh, do that again!”

In the ensuing chaos, a soft voice said, “Oh dear.” and Bard, startled, realized that Rosalda Took, who had not said a thing the whole night, was gazing down at a tipped teacup and a line of tea dripping onto her skirts.

“Oh, your dress!” Sigrid cried sympathetically, and within a twinkle, his eldest daughter was leading the dark-haired lady out, calling for a servant and some towels.

Bard didn’t think much of it until Sigrid returned alone and whispered into his ear: “Mistress Took wants to talk to you, Da. Alone, she said.”

Concerned, Bard rose and told those noting his movement, “Just some business. I’ll be back soon.”

Rosalda was sitting primly in a chair that dwarfed her and made her seem even smaller than she was. She smiled reassuringly when Bard approached. “I have concerns, Your Majesty. Would you sit and give me a few minutes of your time?”

She had a sweet, light voice, almost musical, but a solemn look that spoke of serious matters. Bard pulled a chair up to her, nodding. “Certainly, Mistress Took.”

Rosalda gave him a serene glance, almost queenly. “King Thranduil was a particularly attractive conversational partner...” she began, and it occurred to him that she was comparing Bard’s skills with the Elven king’s, until she continued with: “... and he monopolized Cousin Bilbo to a shocking degree. Tongues would be wagging to Bywater and back if that kind of behavior was observed in the Shire. So it’s no wonder Bilbo isn’t objective about King Thranduil’s accusations against the Dwarves.”

Bard’s stomach dropped. Why in Middle-earth would Thranduil invest that much time with Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit no less? “That is unfortunate. If he takes Thranduil’s side of things when he’s in the mountain, he can make things very difficult for himself. The Dwarves and most of the Dale Men distrust the Elves of the Greenwood, and many of those despise them as well.”

“Goodness, I suspected something of the sort from how you spoke at dinner,” she responded with a frown. She had such a sudden calculating look, that Bard began to wonder about why she was the one asking these questions.

In fact, had she purposefully tipped her tea onto her skirt in order to hunt out the issue?

“Mistress Rosalda,” he asked, with slow realization, “why are you on this journey? You don’t seem the adventuring type like your companions.”

She smiled at him, as if pleasantly surprised. He had a dismaying thought that she might have underestimated his intelligence until that moment. “You do see that all my companions are the epitome of what Hobbits generally are not? And that, with the exception of my brother the Thain, all are unmarried?”

Bard hadn’t quite connected that particular set of facts. His bewilderment prompted another smile, sympathetic to his confusion. “Are you speaking of matchmaking?” he asked slowly, recalling the uncomfortable conversation between himself, Thorin, and Balin one night during midwinter.

Rosalda laughed softly. “I’m here because more than one set of parents wanted someone who could negotiate a match, should the need arise. Being so far away, parental worries grow about the fate of their children, who could be blinded by their feelings and not thinking clearly when it is time to make vows.”

Bard laughed, amazed. “You’re a matchmaker!”

She put a finger to her lips. “No so loud. Only my closest family know.”

“Now I understand your concern about Master Baggins,” he responded, grinning.

“He will be the hardest of them all to match,” she confided. “He seems to be waiting for something or someone, and he isn’t so young as the others. He’s learned to be picky, and that’s makes it difficult. Bilbo is rarefied; his match will have to be equally unique.”


Karaic took the news from Master Bilbo to Lord Balin of their arrival in Dale and the Raven returned to the roost after dinner. Bain ran the scroll to the guestrooms the Hobbits were sharing for one night. Master Baggins, in a velvet patchwork robe and damp hair, thanked him kindly and wished him a good night.

Word came through a servant helping the Hobbits that they would be leaving in late morning in order to make it to Erebor before dark. There were sad faces all around when Bard’s children heard the news. “Oh, stop it,” he admonished crossly. “You’ll see them again at the coronation and when they leave to return home.” Tilda’s lower lip wobbled and Bard had a moment of regret that he hadn’t thought that last part through.

He made a quick decision. “We’ll ride with them partway up the mountain. What do you think?”

The cheering of his children made him feel like a hero. Then he remembered that he hated horses.



Dora, white-blond curls down her back and nightgown conspicuously without a robe, tapped on the second door on the right; after a moment it creaked open and brown face peeked out. A flash of white teeth greeted her.

“Dora!” Tom Cotton greeted with a affable laugh. “Whatever are you doing here? You know we all need our beauty sleep.”

Dora smiled back through her lashes. “Are you saying I’m unwelcome, Tom?”

Another male hobbit, a bounder from Buckland, inserted himself at the door along with Tom. “What’s this, then? Oh Dora, what a pleasant surprise! I was just thinking how deadly dull it’s been for some of us without agreeable society. Tom here gets on fine, but some of need a softer touch. I do hope you’re up to some friendly games.”

Dora leaned against the doorframe so that her nightgown gaped provocatively. “You know me; I am absolutely the gaming type.”

The door opened all the way to admit her, then shut, followed by a scuffle and delighted laughter.

Bilbo, having returned from sorting last minutes requests for the next day’s journey, watched this from the end of the corridor and sighed. Knowledge was always a boon, but he was beginning to think there were just some things he’d rather not know about his fellow Hobbits. Their private escapades was one of them.

On the surface of Hobbit society, a faithful marriage and the raising of children were first and foremost. Marriage between males was “modern” but acceptable as long as courting was done by the books and the wedded pair cleaved together. Women had been able to marry for centuries, but it was a new idea to not keep it a secret anymore.

However, for Hobbits like Dora Hornblower, who showed no tendency to “settling down” and creating a family (even if it was just a family of two) and Rosalda Took, who showed no tendency to connect with anyone romantically, Hobbit society was not so forgiving. The two ladies had the advantage of wealth to buffer wagging tongues, and thankfully in Rosalda’s case, Tooks were considered strange by default. Others were not so lucky.

And in Dwarven culture, were the expectations the same, similar, or completely alien? They married and had children, and that was all anybody knew about it. Were they free with affection, or prudish by nature? Modesty was treasured, as he was aware, but why?

“Proud. greedy, and secretive,” Thranduil had called the Dwarrow. He had named King Thorin Oakenshield: “distrustful, demanding, and cold.”

Elrond had been more diplomatic. “Master Baggins,” he had said over tea and a book on the subject written by one Celebrimbor, who had been an Elf who was also a Dwarf-friend, “I have learned to be skeptical of chroniclers of histories not their own.  I would trust a Hobbit to know about Hobbit ways, but I would not trust even an Elf to be so accurate. Trust in what you see of the Dwarves, and not what ignorant minds might make of them.”

He winced at the thought of how some of the personalities he had gotten to know on the long journey would play out in Erebor, with the unknown of Dwarven culture as a playing field.

How he would deal with the unknown Dwarves.


Or how they would deal with him .

Chapter Text

The plan was that the first delegation to arrive would be the Hobbits of the Shire, as they had the longest journey to take. Lord Elrond of Imladris and King Thranduil of the Greenwood had agreed to follow a few days behind them in a coordinating schedule of arrivals, as to not overwhelm the kingdoms of Dale and Erebor with a mass of visitors who then had to be greeted and housed.

The morning of the day that their first set of visitors were to arrive, Erebor was a hive of activity. Word had spread into the city itself that the delegations would start to appear, and the idea of Hobbits, for whom most Dwarves were merely a myth (like faeries), added a veneer of anticipation that the future arrivals of Men or Elves would not elicit.

Thorin unapologetically hid from most of the activity. The night before he had hosted a reunion of all of the Dwarrow of the Company who had backed Thorin’s bid to take back Erebor. Thorin, whose own brother had died in the battle of Azanulbizar, embraced this collection of guards, miners, makers, smiths, and in one case, a scribe, as an extended family of adoptive brothers. They had been the only Dwarrow to risk returning to Erebor and might have died there with him had not alliances in the Greenwood and Lake-town, and eventually the Iron Hills, allowed them to roust the dragon in a different manner.

Some, like Balin and Dwalin, had stayed by Thorin’s side in Erebor. Others, like Ori the Scribe and Óin the gem appraiser, had taken on employment in the restructured kingdom, with their family staying on and taking positions where they were needed. Others had taken their share of treasure and returned to the Blue Mountains where they had family or other obligations.

With the midwinter immigration, they were all returned. The final returnees had been Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur, who had no other family in the mountain until they brought their own. Bifur’s niece had volunteered to return to Erebor to help her uncle, and Bombur’s wife and three children had brought back the welcome addition of younger Dwarrow to the kingdom.

As usual with that group of Dwarrow, drink had flowed and tales were retold with much embellishment, argument, and laughter. In the end, Dwalin and Thorin had had to hold each other upright on the way to the royal quarters.

In the morning, Thorin’s head was pounding when he woke with a dry mouth and Dwalin snoring on the floor. He grumbled his way through water and medicinal tea, and kicked out his friend when Ori came to find his One.

After breakfast, Dori and assistants brought his new royal robes, fabric saturated blue and lined in black fur and embellished in silver. Reluctant as he was to clothe himself in finery, Thorin had to admit that the clothes were beautiful and nicely matched his newly made regalia without being too ostentatious.

Dís arrived then with the family beads that she had brought with her, beads that denoted him the heir of Durin, king of Erebor. These were added to the everyday clasps that he had forged when he’d promoted from apprentice to master blacksmith, and ones that he’d taken in remembrance of his mother, his brother, and his grandfather.

While Dís worked a small amount of scented oil to tame his coarse locks and began the painstakingly elaborate royal braids at the back of his head that would pull back what was usually an uncontrollable long swath of hair, she began to relate how she first braided Frerin’s hair and how she’d envied his golden waves, and how she’d wept when Fíli was born with that same rare coloring, the last remembrance of their mother, Aldís the Golden, who had died in grief in Ered Luin.

Thorin had only ever seen Dís cry once, and that was the day they’d fled Erebor, forced to flee without burying their dead families and friends; even the young ones had seen so many horrors that day. And she’d been very young then, but like Thorin, she had a very long memory.

This first royal braiding took over an hour because it was the first time they’d ever completed the whole thing in one go. His sister knew her own style from watching her maids do hers, but his had a few more braids than hers, and the king’s braid that brought everything together in the back (deliberately made complex so that a person could not braid his own) was something Balin and Dori had to explain to her.

She left him to do the braids on either side of his face, the ones he could plait with eyes closed, kissed him quickly on the brow, and left. He sighed, thinking that his sister was becoming sentimental in her old age to make up for his own particular lack of that emotion. It wasn’t as if he didn’t remember Frerin or their mother with love or pain; he had long forced himself to stop dwelling on those thoughts too much. If he was susceptible to gold-madness from my father’s side, he might be susceptible to Fading from his mother’s.

When he emerged, Balin gave him a covert once-over, nodded in approval, and they went to collect the nephews. Dís had tamed her hellions into a semblance of princes and managed to look a bit like a princess herself and less like a tyrant in the meanwhile, wearing a dress in the family blue and a thin coronet of silver and diamonds.

As they made their way to the throne room, the noise increased. Dwarrow gathered in the halls outside of the closed doors, taking excitedly. Balin snorted: “I’m guessing word has got out about the Hobbits.”

“Yes, I wonder how that could have happened,” Thorin said darkly, as his nephews grinned unrepentantly.

A crowd of Dale citizens lingered in the plaza as the ponies were brought out, and they let out a great cheer when the Hobbits began to emerge in their bare feet, finery, and baggage. Bard, bewildered by this reception, waved with an uncomfortable smile when the horses for himself and a wagon for his children were led out as well, and then the Thain completely outdid him but grinning and waving. Then, to top it off, he began to chat first with the fascinated children standing in front for the view and then their parents. Soon, not to waste an opportunity for admiration, Amaranth joined him, collecting a mesmerized entourage of little girls and young women, her brother trailing behind, nervously eying the “Big Folk.”

When everything was loaded and ready, Bilbo found that half the Hobbits had wandered into the crowd; collecting them turned into an adventure of combining polite cajoling and friendly socializing.  “Hobbit, please,” he found himself saying for every “Master Halfling.” It was a good thing Hobbits were quicker on their feet than other Free People, for the movement of the crowd could easily have pushed someone over or crushed toes.

Eventually everyone was extricated, and returned to their transports. With a throng of cheering Dale citizens, they proceeded sedately out of the plaza, to the north gate, and the paved road that led to Erebor.

Balin anticipated Karaic’s arrival by assigning a messenger runner to wait with the Master of the Rookery at Ravenhill, a great outcropping of stone that opened into vast caves tall enough for the Ravens themselves to build their nests in. This was the kingdom of the great Ravens of Mandos who long ago spoke their alliances to the Dwarves of Erebor, and agreed to take their messages to the very edges of Arda in return for the protection of their nests and the sharing of food when times were lean.

The occupation of Smaug had disrupted this alliance, but Thorin had renegotiated it as soon as he had been able; the Ravens of Mandos had waited for the return of Dwarrow to Erebor the whole time, and Thorin felt he must reward such loyalty. The Ravens were one of the greatest resources of Erebor, and their connection to the outside world.

Roäc, the most ancient of his kind and progenitor of half the Ravens in the kingdom, waited with them. Although he was half-blind and his mate long perished, he kept a place of honor as the direct ambassador between his people and the Dwarrow. He spoke Khuzdul so well that his accent could not be distinguished by a Dwarf’s, but his Common Speech was a bit more broken. The younger generations had surpassed him there, and the most fluent was his descendant Karaic who had inherited his linguistic skills and his stubborn sense of loyalty.

She had wintered in the west, and had returned fattened and healthy with messages in the spring, flying back and forth from the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the Thain of the Shire. She had told all the Rookery about the pretty growing land and its little people who fed her corn cakes and politely called her Mistress Karaic.

Roäc cocked and raised his head, and the Master of the Rookery looked south and saw the distinctive lone silhouette of a Raven winging towards them, her black wingspan approaching five feet in width.

Master Azan, a broad-shouldered dwarf of few words, stood straight and extended a leader-padded arm to her as she circled and dropped. She was heavy, but he was used to that sort of weight.

“The Hobbits are an hour away at the last road marker!” Karaic cried triumphantly.

Balin’s messenger sprinted down the path towards the city.

Bard had figured that he and the children would turn back to Dale once the Hobbits got an unobstructed view of the Lonely Mountain and the Gates of Erebor. Once they’d cleared the last hill and the road flattened out, they all stopped and stared.

Bard had lived in the shadow of this mountain all of his life, whether in Lake-town or in Dale, and it became easy to let familiarity cloud his admiration of it from a distance. Close up, the enormity struck anyone who approached it. Scale had no meaning from Dale - the mountain could be a small hill for all anyone knew because of its lack of surrounding landmarks. Up close, one could see tiny specks on a tiny wall and realized that wall was five stories high, and that the statues that flanked the great open gate were the height of a tower.

The Hobbits were silent and staring, transfixed. How did they see such a place from their own experiences? They lived underground, did they not? But they had seen towns and the city of Dale at least, and had transversed the passes through the Misty Mountains between Rivendell and the Greenwood. They’d seen some tall buildings and mountains, then, but nothing like this mountain.

“By the Lady,” the Thain said his cousin, Bilbo Baggins, “that’s a sight to stay with a fellow.”

Bard laughed, taken aback by the (he was now finding) typical Hobbit habit of reducing great events to the more accessible personal level. Maybe it was not so much habit as a talent to put people and things in perspective without one whit of offensiveness. That gigantic mountain kingdom, with its history of glory and blood, awful in both its meanings, had been the center of conflict for as long as Bard could remember. But to a Hobbit like Paladin Took, it was a memorable sight and not much else without stripping it of its magnificence.

Master Baggins took a deep, fortifying breath, and replied: “I think the Lady has not much to do with it. Not a tree or flower in sight. What did Balin say? Dwarrow are the children of Aulë, made from stone. I suppose they don’t need growing things.”

The traveling companions within hearing distance of him turned to look at him, aghast. “...not need..” Dora Hornblower whispered, as if repeating heresy. “How is that -?”

“No flowers?” cried Amaranth, incensed by the very thought.

“Dwarves love gold and gems, Mistress Brandybuck,” Bard reminded her gently. “For some of them, that is all they live for - to find, to bring forth, to shape what they find in the mountain.”

“They make very pretty things,” Tilda added reassuringly. “Necklaces like stars, in all the colors. The mountain is filled with jewels.”

The Hobbits as one looked to Bard for confirmation. “Well,” he temporized, “mostly gold and jewels, and I’m not sure about ‘filled’. A lot of it was divided up among the allies who helped defeat Smaug the Dragon. But there is still a lot left for the King under the Mountain and his people.”

“So the King under the Mountain is the richest bachelor in Middle-earth?” Bain asked with a grin and Bard swatted at him good naturedly. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the pretty Brandybuck clap her hands excitedly, but Master Baggins only rolled his eyes, unimpressed. Bard met the eyes of Rosalda Took, whose raised eyebrows seem to repeat the message: He will be a hard one to match . And certainly, if Bilbo Baggins was not taken with sparkling treasures, that might inure him to most Dwarrow.

What had Thranduil said to the scribe in the vastness of his underground kingdom in the Greenwood? It was not inconceivable that he had insulted Dwarves and Thorin in particular, while painting himself as the injured party, the better king. He could at least give a Hobbit flowers and trees and not just bare rock. Had his behavior towards Bilbo been scandalous, as Rosalda had suggested?

He pondered this through his goodbyes and farewells, as he eventually detached his children from the Hobbits and turned back for home. He thought on it and decided that he would definitely keep an eye on Thranduil when the Elven king arrived for the coronation in a few day’s time.

After all, if kings began personal wars, how long would it take for those to become battles in truth?

The messenger reached Balin at the throne room doors, panting. “The Hobbits are arriving?” Balin asked and got a nodding head in reply. “Go tell the king I will greet them at the gates and bring them through.”

The messenger nodded and Balin proceeded at a good pace, not wanting to appear hurried while definitely anxious to have everything run as smooth as possible. The guards he passed followed him, aware of the plans laid out for the day and that his appearance at the gates meant only one thing: Hobbits. When they came abreast of the steps up to the wall, he nodded and two sprinted up take stations at the vantage point.

He shouldn’t have worried. A crowd began to form at the gates at the first sight of the delegation making its way from the road and Balin could tell from the muttering and shifting going on how close they were getting even without the advantage of his own eyesight. “Clear a way, now!” he called officiously. “No use crowding our visitors, the guests of the king! Give them room.”

The ponies came up the rise and stopped when guards stepped forward to hold the bridles of the lead riders. Balin came forward to ease any concerns, but the red-haired Hobbit at the head of the delegation merely looked curiously at the guards bristling with weapons and then to Balin with a smile. “Good afternoon! Am I right to suppose that you are Lord Balin, and this is indeed the Lonely Mountain?”

“Right you are, Master Took. You have come to the very place.” Bless Hobbits, though Balin, always so curiously averse to dramatics. He bowed. “Welcome to the Dwarrow kingdom of Erebor, Thain of the Shire, and all of your folk. You cannot ride into Erebor, so we will stable your ponies here and have my people take your things to the rooms waiting for you.”

“Very decent of you I’m sure,” the Thain replied in a friendly manner, and dismounted to bow politely before turning to assist a beautiful dark-haired lady from her own pony and speak to another male Hobbit who had come to his side to murmur something into his ear. “We’ve had a very decent journey from Dale; King Bard accompanied us halfway, so very kind. Bilbo says we’re to be introduced right away, and then given our places, to rest?”

“Indeed,” Balin affirmed, curiosity piqued. But then the Hobbit at the Thain’s side turned his face towards him, and Balin saw Beldan Tûk as sharp as a dagger in his fair features and in his dark eyes. “Welcome, Master Baggins! I feel I know you already.”

The scribe smiled, quick and bright. “What, with the mountain of letters between us, I should hope so! It is a pleasure, my lord. My mother extends her warm regards, as well. I hope our timing isn’t too early?”

“Not at all, not at all. Perfect, actually. The Raven warned us in good time, anyway.”

“I’m glad to hear Mistress Karaic made it to you. She’s been such a boon, so obliging to take our missives back and forth. I worried that she might have overstayed in the Shire during the winter and might have been missed.”

“Only a little. We have many Ravens who oblige us,” Balin assured him while being very aware of the mood of the crowd who were watching the Hobbits in astonishment, their strange hairy feet, and Bilbo in particular. “Do come now, my fine Hobbits, and soon you may rest a bit in our care. The king awaits you.”

 

There were fifteen Hobbits, Bilbo had told him in their correspondence, of varying status and families. Some were a little surprised that they would be officially introduced to the king, however briefly.

It was the custom of the Dwarrow of Erebor, Balin had explained. Few Outsiders were allowed to enter into the kingdom, and if they were given permission, they needed to be known to the king and his ministers before given the freedom of the mountain. It was a precaution. If any particular Hobbits from thereon felt uncomfortable in such circumstances, there were not required to attend any other official ceremonies.

Two guards flanked Balin at the head of the procession, and two followed behind but Balin discovered that they needn’t have been concerned. On one hand, Dwarrow were not a people who took to strangers quickly, and on the other, seeing the size of these little guests, they could hardly think them a threat. There was enough curiosity, though, to sustain a crowd of onlookers as they made their way to the throne room, the doors of which were opened to reveal another crowd on either side of the central aisle and Thorin, majestic and still, upon the throne with his family beside him.

Another set of Dwarrow were now murmuring, and staring. Balin glanced back at the Hobbits, who had arranged themselves in twos, mostly male and female where the number of sexes allowed. The Thain appeared unruffled by being on display, but the other Hobbits showed signs of trepidation or fixed courage. They were small and few in a mountain surrounded by strangers, and Balin was proud to see how brave they managed to be.

The doors closed and the onlookers, mostly ministers and Dwarrow of distinction, fell silent as Balin and the Hobbits stopped and Thorin rose slowly. He did not smile, for it was not in his nature to do so with people he did not know, but the King under the Mountain inclined his head slightly and opened his hands. “I, Thorin Oakenshield, offer the hospitality of Erebor to the Thain of the Shire and his delegation. Welcome to our kingdom under the Mountain.”

The Thain bowed, and all the Hobbits with him. It was nicely done, though Balin. “Great King under the Mountain, I thank you for your courtesy and would introduce myself and my companions to you, in hopes of future friendship between our peoples.”

Thorin nodded, and sat down again. “I would like that. Let it be known that these two here are my nephews - my heir Prince Fíli and his brother Prince Kíli.” The two young ones bowed together. “And here on my left is my sister, the Princess Dís, daughter of Thrain.” She nodded. “And you have of course met my chief advisor, Lord Balin son of Fundin.”

The Thain nodded. “I thank you, yes. May I introduce my sister, Rosalda Took,” he began, lifting the hand of the dark haired beauty at his side in a dark red, embroidered dress. They had a similar look, triangular faces and uncanny, vibrant eyes. He guided her away from the front of the procession and up stepped cousins Bilbo Baggins and Amaranth Brandybuck.

Balin was keeping half an eye on Thorin, whose face maintained an expression of kingly and polite interest, but the nephews were a different matter. As soon as they saw these two new Hobbits, their eyes brightened, and Balin didn’t blame them. To a Dwarf, Bilbo and Amaranth were as close to an ideal beauty as a Hobbit could get. Their broader and rounder features translated to “friendly” to Dwarven eyes. Bilbo’s dark red hair and dark green eyes were familiar to a Dwarf’s experience of trustworthy folk. Amaranth’s blushing face and red-gold hair were simply astonishingly pretty, like a bright jewel.

They stepped aside, arm-in-arm, once the Thain had introduced them, making way for a white-blond lady with a brown and cheerful mien and another round faced, dark-haired male, a Brandybuck. A fit and muscular blond male and a brown girl with a wild mane of hair.  A series of brown-haired, brown-eyed Hobbits and then the last three with black hair and lighter eyes.

Balin was sure that if he were a Hobbit he would be able to tell the employment of each of these folk, their families, and their status. As it was, he suspected that the Hobbits at the end of the procession were most likely less affluent than the ones at the front and more typical of the common Hobbit population.

This was confirmed when Balin led them to their rooms, and began to explain the less formal reception planned for later that night and asked what they would like for a party. Eyes brightened, but they all waited until the Thain said: “Plenty of food.” Then Bilbo chimed in with: “Music.” And Amaranth said: “Dancing!” These three having spoken, the rest of the Hobbits began a lively discussion of the merits of each, as if given the signal to speak. Definitely a hierarchy.

It wasn’t until Balin had returned to Thorin to report his findings that he realized what he’d heard.

Predictably, Thorin shook his head. “Danc- public dancing?  No, no dancing!”

‘Yeah, dancing!” Kíli yelled. “Dancing with Hobbits! Dancing with pretty Hobbits!”

Thorin glowered and growled: “ No dancing .”


Later, Balin would say it was the dancing that started it all.

Chapter Text

All the Hobbits agreed that the quarters given to them were quite comfortable, for being inside a mountain. There was some discussion over who was to receive which room, but there were plenty and to spare. In the end, everyone seemed happy to take rooms close to the central dining room, and a few doubled up “for company.”

The short glimpse they’d gotten of the baths, with hot water on demand, had brought a proud smile to Balin’s face and enraptured sighs from every Hobbit in the delegation. The toilets with constant running water created more private celebrations.

Bilbo chose a room directly off the main space, mostly for ease of access if anyone was in need of help. His room also had the advantage of a lovely mosaic, recessed bookshelves, and a private toilet. When he was unpacked, he took out his writing kit to note down his immediate impressions of the day, before lying back and closing his eyes for a spell.

He reflected that, before first seeing King Thorin, Bilbo would have sworn he had no preconceptions of what the King under the Mountain might look like, except that he would be a Dwarf - taller, hairier, and somewhat gruff.

And he had been all those things, and more. He had not expected regal, broad-shouldered, or handsome. Had not predicted that voice, low and sure, nor blue eyes and raven-black hair twined with silver beads.

He had not expected that the sight of a female Dwarf standing next to the throne would send a small, unbidden disappointment that King Thorin was married after all, or the frisson of relief when she was revealed to be his sister.

Bilbo rubbed his eyes and melted back into the soft bedding under him. He was so tired, that was all. The tension of being on the road was dissipating; they were finally at their destination with all the expectations that came with it. His mother’s hope that he would finally find his match, and his own submerged desire for someone who would ignite in him something. Anything.

It couldn’t just be broad shoulders and an arresting face, because Tom Cotton had the same. Perhaps it was only that Dwarrow were so different, something new to discover. Bilbo liked discovering things, certainly.

In the meanwhile, Thorin was feeling a strange unease. Among various communications, one came from Bard detailing the strange popularity of the Hobbits in Dale, how their friendly lack of airs had endeared them immediately to Bard’s children. Bard said that although the Thain was the equivalent king of the Shire and relied on charisma, the one to look out for was his cousin, Master Baggins, the responsible one, the advisor, the one who observed.

He added as a footnote that although the Thain himself was married, all the other Hobbits were not. Imagine that - fourteen unwed Hobbits traveling all the way to Erebor. Surely not a coincidence.

Thorin let the paper slip from his hand to his desk. Oh, he remembered Bilbo Baggins’s correspondence; he had read everything the Hobbit scribe had sent to Balin and to him. He may have kept a select few. He had imagined some wizened, scholarly looking creature with ink-stained hands and a perpetual hunch or perhaps an apprentice to such a scribe, working diligently in some office stacked with papers. He had attached some fondness to that image.

Balin had warned him, calling Hobbits a “pretty people, Yavanna’s children.” He should have listened more carefully.

And oh, they were a pretty people to his eyes, smaller than your average Dwarf but not particularly childlike for all that the tallest of them could barely reach Thorin’s chin. The Thain and his sister had a distinct and unnerving Elven cast to their features, but they were clearly the outliers, for the rest were more pleasantly featured. Shining above all of them was Bilbo Baggins, the scribe, kinsman to the Shire’s king.

The reality of him was the farthest from Thorin’s imagination, relatively young but with a grounded, solid air to his stance. He had a face that spoke of quiet curiosity, and eyes that took in everything but gave back nothing, the placid surface of an unruffled lake the reflected back and showed nothing of what was below. A pretty girl had been clutching his arm nervously, and he’d been like a granite support, and when Bilbo had stepped forward to give his name, his eyes rose once to Thorin’s, then away, dark beryl green.

It wasn’t that Bilbo Baggins himself made Thorin uneasy; it was what that strike of instant awareness Bilbo Baggins awoke in him at a mere meeting of eyes. He thought it was impossible that after all this time that it could happen, that Balin’s digs about being forever a bachelor had chipped away just enough to create a crack in Thorin’s wall of indifference.

Surely, though, it was merely the experience of meeting what was new and exotic. These Hobbits were farmers, land-owners at best; they had the least in common with Dwarrow than even the Elves, for Mahal’s sake. True, they were attractive, but it required more than just attractiveness to cleave two halves of a whole together again.

But , whispered some hopeful little voice in the depths of his heart, what happened when Yavanna’s children finally met Mahal’s?

 

The Hobbits were escorted by another guard armed as if he were going to war to a greater hall brightly lit with numerous torches and a huge fireplace roaring at the far end. It was set up with table upon table of jugs of ale, bottles of wine, food, bread, and most importantly…

“Mushrooms!” Daisy Under-hill exclaimed, which drew all the Hobbits to examine great pale plate-like caps and carry on a debate as to what type of fungus they were looking at. Thankfully these mushrooms exhibited none of the signs of being poisonous or hallucinogenic and Honey Aster-Burrows, one of their cooks, pronounced them safe for Hobbit consumption.

The Dwarves arrived not much later, King Thorin and Princess Dís  entering first with Lord Balin and another Dwarf, almost as tall as a short man, with massive shoulders. Behind them came the young princes and a few other new Dwarves that seemed not to be nobility but close in some way to the royal family if their familiar behavior was any indication.

The Thain and the King under the Mountain traded bows, and the big Dwarf was introduced as Lord Dwalin son of Fundin, brother of Lord Balin. After the necessary greetings, the princes eagerly asked Paladin to introduce them to the other Hobbits personally, much to the delight of Amaranth and Dora.

 

Prince Fíli was good-looking and almost as mannered as a Hobbit; he had a handsome face and dark golden hair, with the beginnings of a beard. His manner was unaffected and friendly, very different from his uncle and mother. His brother, Prince Kíli was clearly younger and more excitable than he was polite, but this could be excused in what the Hobbits soon determined was an equivalent to a young Hobbit not yet of age. Kíli, too, was attractive but in the manner of his uncle the king, dark haired but also dark-eyed with an intensity of expression that one day might grow into a ruthless beauty.

The king and the princess looked on while Prince Fíli bowed over the hands of Hobbit ladies and Prince Kíli started asking about the journey of Bilbo and Dodi. Another young Dwarf with nervous hands was pulled forward and introduced as Ori, one of the royal scribes.

Instantly Bilbo was aware of a sharpening of scrutiny as he exchanged “pleased to meet yous” with this new Dwarf. Both King Thorin and Dwalin were watching very carefully and as Ori fumbled for something in his satchel, Bilbo gave both of them an inquisitive, smiling look before returning his attention to the Dwarven scribe who was presenting a book bound in tooled leather and intricate silver clasps. Bilbo took it in admiration.

“What beautiful craftsmanship!” he exclaimed. It was excessively decorated in interweaving geometric patterns; your average Hobbit would find it a bit much, but Bilbo was not your average Hobbit. “How was it designed?”

Ori beamed. “I bound the paper and asked Prince Kíli to design the cover. The locks are common to our older books so it was a matter of a silversmith taking an old concept and duplicating it with modern designs. If you open it -” He motioned for Bilbo to do so with twitchy fingers. “- you’ll see that the lock hinges fold into this indentation here…”

While Bilbo continued the admire this piece of Dwarvish ingenuity, more food was being brought out and there was a general drifting towards the tables. He and Ori were still talking but Ori was intercepted by Dwalin and steered gently away. Bilbo attempted to return the book but finally realized at Ori’s hand waving that it was a gift.

He hugged it gleefully and bowed hastily before sitting down.

“Well,” the Thain commented under the din of talk, “you’ve impressed someone .” And he jerked his chin to the other side of the table where Ori was happily regaling Dwalin and Thorin about something. The king’s eyes strayed from Ori to Bilbo’s side of the table more than once. When Bilbo turned his head toward the Thain, he caught Amaranth glaring at him, apparently blaming him for catching the Dwarf king’s attention.

“Oh dear,” he said mildly, and ate a mushroom, secretly rather happy about it.

In fact, it was the king who drew most of the attention throughout the meal, being tall, broad and with a noble carriage and regal demeanor. The gentlemen Hobbits pronounced him to be a fine figure of a Dwarf; the ladies declared he was much handsomer than his nephews or indeed any other Dwarf in the assemblage, and he was looked at with great admiration for at least the first half the evening.

To the delight of the Hobbits, in the second half of the evening Dwarven musicians and their musical instruments appeared and began settling to play.

Anyone who understood Hobbits knew that their first love was food, but coming close behind were parties, which happily included food, with the additions of music and dancing. Spontaneous parties were not unheard of in the Shire, where any social event, including funerals, contained these three beloved components.

Amaranth Brandybuck clapped her hands in delight, and nothing could stop her from brazenly approaching the group of musicians to ask about the music they would play, her brother scrambling behind her, poor fellow. When it was clear they had no songs in common except a few Breeland drinking songs, she tapped her foot to a requested rhythm.

Some younger Dwarves were standing and moving the tables to the sides of the rooms, and then the chairs off to the corners. The Hobbits gamely helped with the chairs, which they could maneuver with some cooperation between them. This was something they were used to doing, if a party was taking place inside; you ate, you moved the tables, and then you danced.

 

“Bilbo, you’re with me,” Amaranth stridently declared, appearing at his side as if by magic and taking his arm in a constricting grip. “Dodi is such a Bounder - all muscles but no grace. Make us both look good, will you? At least for this first dance, and then I shan’t press you for the rest of the evening.”

That sounded like a blessing to him, so he put on an affable smile, and pried her grip from his arm, to twirl her around as they walked to the middle of the floor. By then the rhythm of the song began to pull the other Hobbits to the floor as well, for Mistress Brandybuck had chosen to request a beat recognizable as a jig, and even small Hobbits knew how to dance a jig. He was glad to see Dora Hornblower pull a grinning Prince Kíli onto the floor with her and a few other Dwarves seemed intrigued enough to step up and find partners. Balin of all people was bowing over Rosalda Took’s hand, which made Bilbo blink and look again when she smiled at the older Dwarf and accepted.

Unexpectedly, King Thorin did not look happy about this development in Dwarf-Hobbit relations. He stood with arms crossed and an impressive glower, with Dwalin and a few other staid looking Dwarves at his shoulder. He turned heel to sit the corner by the fire when Princess Dís herself allowed herself to be escorted by the Thain.

Despite their general good nature, Hobbits were very socially conscious, and this behavior did not go unremarked. If a Hobbit was retiring, they said their farewells politely and left. They did not remain with a disagreeable countenance that seemed to communicate an excess of pride or superiority. It was plain bad manners and struck many of them as unworthy of a king.

The contrast between the king and his heir became more pronounced. Prince Fíli was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, and created such a good reputation for himself with the Hobbits that his even livelier brother’s antics could not dim their joy in him.  

It turned out that many Dwarrow did not dance; it soon became apparent it was not something a more traditional Dwarf would do in mixed company. The king’s reticence could only be half-forgiven, for he spoke very little to anyone once the necessary niceties were observed.  It was decided that he was generally too proud among company.

He earned a more pointed disapproval when his conversation with his sister was overheard by Bilbo, who had returned to top off a cup of ale. After opening the dance with Amaranth, he’d danced a few times with Prince Fíli and then with Rosalda, mostly to find out how Balin had fared. Now he was free for refreshment and was just sipping his newly filled cup when he overheard Princess Dís on the other side of a stone pillar, who was not making any effort to be secretive about her frustration, say:

“Come, Thorin, you must at least try to dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this ridiculous manner. You had much better be sociable at least.”

“I will not,” the king rasped in reply. Such a nice voice, Bilbo thought, rumbling and arresting. “I said no dancing, but I was drowned out. It’s unnatural for an adult Dwarf to be carrying on in this way.  At such a reception as this, with these child-like Hobbits, it would be insupportable. It would be a punishment to me to stand up with any of them.”

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open in enraged astonishment at this last part, but Dís was continuing.

“I would not be so fastidious as you are, for all of Erebor,” she exclaimed. “Upon my honor, these are the kindest, politest, most pleasant people you will likely ever meet, and some are uncommonly handsome.”

“Fíli is dancing with the only handsome one in the room,’ said Thorin, looking at Mistress Brandybuck and her red-gold hair.  

“Oh, she is the most beautiful among them, but there are her cousins, everyone handsomer than the rest, and all of them very agreeable. Do come and let me introduce them to you.”

“Which cousins?” and at that moment, having heard enough thank you, Bilbo stepped out from beyond the pillar and made his way back to the assemblage, making straight for Dora Hornblower and taking her arm to whisper into her ear.  Then Thorin coldly said: “I suppose he is tolerable by his own people’s standards, but too dainty and soft to tempt me. These Hobbits are kindly, I grant you, but I am in not in the mood feign any sort of intimacy with them. Stop wasting your time with me and mind those sons of yours instead.”

Dís, with a growl, gave up on him and Thorin left afterward with Dwalin and a few other Dwarrow who had lost interest in the reception.  This second impression of Thorin remained, for Bilbo (like many Hobbits) had excellent hearing and had detected the entire exchange. He did, however, develop a liking for Thorin’s sister even as his disappointment in Thorin grew.  He told the story of the conversation, however, with great humor among his compatriots; after all, rudeness was best met with light-hearted indifference.

Overall, it had been a pleasant evening. A few seedling friendships had begun with the younger Dwarrow, and Amaranth in particular had felt she had made a good start on charming her way into the Durin family. Although the king’s refusal to dance had been a blow, he had thought her beautiful, and had in almost the same breath called cousin Bilbo “tolerable,” a personal triumph as she was well aware that Bilbo was her main rival. The Thain felt, too, that it had been a partially successful attempt to share their culture’s traditions, although it was disheartening that the more traditional Dwarrows did not dance socially.  

They returned to their quarters in good spirits. The Hobbits who had chosen not to attend were given a descriptive narrative of how it went, with pointed references to Amaranth’s popularity with the princes and the king’s rudeness to the assembly and Bilbo in particular.

“No!” cried several voices in astonishment, and leaned in to hear the details. Bilbo took up the narrative then, imitating the king’s growly voice as he called Bilbo “dainty and soft” and everyone laughed, shaking their heads at such an idea. Bilbo Baggins, soft?

“Perhaps if you’d worn your sword,” Tom Cotton suggested with a twinkle, “and dragged in an orc corpse of two, you might have won his admiration! He would have knelt down on his knees-” Here, he got down for Bilbo and grasped the gentlehobbit’s hands in his own, earnestly gazing up into Bilbo’s amused face. “- and confessed his undying admiration. How would a Dwarf say it, I wonder?”

Dora called out: “I find you the least intolerable Hobbit here, and I will lower myself to confess a few, very small, infinitesimal intimate feelings for you.”

Everyone had to laugh at that and Bilbo cuffed Tom to get him to stand up.

“Well, he had good taste in finding Amaranth attractive, and she without a beard,” the Thain said philosophically. “Although I have to say the princes were much more palatable.”

Yes, they certainly were, everyone admitted. Price Fíli was particularly handsome and charming. A shame about the king, but then perhaps he was one of those older folks who found refuge in the “old ways” of doing things, in which case it was best to be polite to their host and not make a fuss.

This last part was communicated with many pointed glances at Bilbo Baggins.

“How very vexing!” Amaranth said, all sweetness and sympathy. “To be only just tolerable .”

“I did wish to see him dance,” Dora added, thoughtfully, “and wouldn’t it had been a sight if he’d danced with Bilbo? Perhaps we can convince the king that he should not be so proud as to deny himself such pleasures.”

“I beg you don’t suffer on my account,” Bilbo replied with outward good nature. “I may safely say I will never dance with him.” This was, of course, pure hubris to even suggest that Thorin would ever want to have anything to do with Bilbo in the first place, and that Bilbo would have the strength of will to refuse such a proposal if he did.

“His pride, if that is the cause,” said Rosalda unexpectedly, “does not offend me so much as it would with many others, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a Dwarf, who has won back home and fortune, should think highly of himself. If I may say, he has a reason to be proud.”

“That is very true,” replied Bilbo darkly, “and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.’

Chapter Text

Bilbo awoke in almost pitch dark, disoriented for the moment. The fireplace was down to barely glowing coals and he could see faint light limning the edge of the door.

He felt he had slept longer than he ought to have. Sitting up in bed with a huge yawn, he rubbed his eyes and swung his legs over the side and his feet onto the carpeted floor.

He could hear a little movement out in the common area, so he shrugged into his robe and stuck his head out of his door to find Daisy and Dora sitting at the table with steaming cups in their hands. Neither looked quite awake and were still in their robes. Amazing what informality developed after weeks on the road!

Dora noticed him and waved him towards them. “Just woke up?”

“Mm, yes. Is that tea?”

“It’s fairly decent tea at that, though I don’t think they drink it with much milk and sugar.”

“A shame.” He joined them and accepted a cup with a hum of thanks. “Do you know what time it is?”

“That’s the problem,” Daisy rasped. “There’s no sun; it ain’t natural.  Master Took was talkin’ to Milord Balin about a clock, and they went wanderin’ off talkin’ about this or that chime or whatsit. Lady knows what else.”

“Dwarf clocks can be quite complicated,” he agreed, “but one that chimes the hour can at least help us to know when it is, even if we’re in our rooms.” He covered his yawn. “My stomach says breakfast time.”

Dora nodded. “We ate late last night, so I think it’s second breakfast.”

Bilbo lowered his tea and sighed. “I know we’ve probably missed so many breakfasts and suppers and teas in the last months, but somehow I want to protest that it’s just uncivilized.”

Daisy giggled. “I’m going to have me some fun with those fancy baths. Now that’s civilized.” She finished off her tea with a flourish and waved at them on the way down the hallway.

“That does sound like a pleasant goal,” Dora admitted. “Pretty much from what I heard, these Dwarves have fires going for their forges all day and night, which means hot water without end.” She gave Bilbo a wide grin. “And I do think I’m game to test the water supply. You?”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows at her. Invitation or not, there really was only one reply: “I wish you much success in your quest.”

She laughed. “That’s what I thought.” She stood, tightening the belt of her robe and leaned over to whisper in his ear: “That Dwarf king looks rather delicious. Might be worth a person’s time to give him a chance before you check him off your list.”

Bilbo gave her an arch look. “Enjoy your bath, Mistress Hornblower.”

Dora grinned and walked off with a jaunty step. Bilbo rolled his eyes and sipped his tea. A bath was sounding more and more appealing. When Tom Cotton shuffled in, bleary-eyed and half-dressed, he found it even more so.

Tom had encountered Dora on his way in. “If I were a gambling Hobbit,” he commented as they located an empty bath; there were five in all and it was tradition, according to Balin, to judge occupancy from the shed clothes in the outer chamber, “I would bet that Mistress Hornblower will find herself a Dwarf suitor by the end of the week.”

Bilbo sighed. “The point of gambling is to have at least two different outcomes to bet upon.”

Tom guffawed at this. “Right you are. What do you think, though?”

The scribe thought back to the night before. “Too early to say about suitors. Conquests on the other hand? One of the princes, I think, but only for a while.”

“Or both,” Tom added with a wink. Bilbo made a tortured sound.

Second breakfast was kindly brought in while they were bathing, so that -finally dressed- Bilbo sat down with Paladin and Rosalda to calm their rumbling bellies and talk of plans. In the middle of discussing a tour of Erebor, a sharp knock announced a return of Balin and another, a cheerful looking Dwarf in plain clothes and the look of a craftsperson rather than a miner.

The male Hobbits swiftly put down their napkins and stood as the new Dwarf bowed with a sweeping arm. Balin introduced him as Bofur, a maker of fine mechanicals. In other words, a clockmaker among other things.

“I hear you Hobbits need a timepiece,” Master Bofur.

“We’re used to the sun telling us the time,” the Thain replied. “Here in the mountain, we’re at a bit of a loss.”

Bofur scratched at his beard. “Tha’s a right shame,” he sympathized. “We Dwarrow don’t need the sun for time - it’s in our blood, I’d say.”

Bilbo mentally noted that this little fact for his journal.

“Anyhow, I’ve got some clocks here, for you to choose from.” He waved at someone waiting outside the door. An immensely stout red-headed Dwarf came in, followed by another with a distinctive three-pointed hairstyle, introduced as Bombur and Nori. They were both carrying contraptions that Bilbo realized after a moment of puzzled contemplation might be clocks, but nothing like any clock the Shire had ever seen.

After a quick clearing of breakfast things, the two objects were set down and at the Hobbits’ silent and wondering gazes, Bofur cleared his throat. “Right,” he said. “So I’m thinkin’ there aren’t many Dwarven clocks where you come from.”

Rosalda coughed over a laugh and Bofur grinned at her. “Er, so this one -” He motioned to a solid gold tower of four small stories and no hour dial in evidence. The stout Dwarf touched something behind it the golden tower and every single Hobbit jumped back as a door opened on the bottom story and, as a chime played in an unfamiliar song, a little white moon rose into view.

More Hobbits had appeared from their rooms and as a group they leaned in, mesmerized. Bombur then proceeded to set off all the remaining sets of chimes, called “water shifts” by Bofur.

“Why ‘water shifts’?” Dora wanted to know around the stem of her pipe.

Bofur shrugged. “Bells to signal work shifts used to be struck when a certain amount of water passed into basins cut into the rock.”

“Four shifts a day?” Bilbo assumed as the remaining stories revealed a rising sun, a Raven, and then an owl. “Midnight, dawn, noon and dusk?”

Paladin Took scratched his head. “Well, I suppose those are important times of the day, but only four?”

“Ah,” Bofur interjected, “but here is another clock.” They turned their attention to second mechanism, which was silver and indeed had dials - six dials to exact, and only half of them were numbered dials. “We make these for Men.”

The Hobbits studied this one and all its dials. Bilbo glanced at the Dwarrow in the room as several of his own people began to guess what they all represented, and met the gaze of Nori who was clearly studying the Hobbits with perhaps a similar agenda, with a much more analytical look than he’d encountered so far in Erebor. He registered Bilbo’s glance straight away, and gave him a friendly smile which Bilbo politely returned before refocusing his attention on the growing debate.

One of the dials was clearly for counting twenty-four hours, and one was measuring the seconds in a minute. One had a rain symbol, so that was perhaps air moisture, and another dial measured between an icicle and a blazing sun, which mean temperature. The rest were anyone’s guess.

None of them measured mealtimes, but they would have to improvise no matter what. “We thank you, Master Bofur,” the Thain said to the craftsman. “Although the first is a work of exquisite skill, the second measures closer to how we think of time. Now if only we could have a combination of both!”

The Hobbits agreed with their leader.  As Bofur took the second clock and conferred with the Thain on where to place it, Nori approached Bilbo and bowed. “Bilbo Baggins, the scribe?” he asked with a small smile.

“Yes, Master Nori. At your service,” Bilbo responded, confused by the attention.

“I’ve been hearing about you all morning,” the Dwarf said, and added at Bilbo’s alarmed look: “My little brother is Ori.”

“Oh, Ori! Yes, yes of course,” Bilbo managed, beaming. “He gave me such a beautiful book. I think I am meant to write in it, but it’s so lovely I can hardly think of besmirching it.”

The Dwarf laughed. “It can hardly be a book without writing in it, can it, Master Scribe? But I am glad to have met you; you left quite an impression among several of my friends, so much so that I was sorry to not have made your acquaintance last night.”

Bilbo tried to think back to what sort of impression he may have given, and uttered a confused, “Oh dear” because it really depended on which “friends” Nori might be referring to.

“All to your advantage, I assure you,” Nori said kindly. “You are a skilled scribe and a nimble dancer. Is there anything you can’t do, I wonder?”

“I’m still rather pants at swordwork,” Bilbo said artlessly, and then bit his lip at Nori’s intrigued look. “I’m afraid I’m all book learning and etiquette most days,” he added quickly. “We Hobbits are all rather naturally nimble, so I can’t say it’s through any particular effort on my part that I can dance. All Hobbits dance.”

“So I take it,” Nori replied with a tone that seemed to suggest he’d been told a few details of the night before beyond the usual who-danced-with-whom. “But did you say ‘swordwork’?”

“Ahem, yes, sorry. My mother was an adventurer in her day and lent me a sword for the journey, one she got from a troll hoard in her youth. I’ve learned a few things from fellow travelers and had to use it when we were attacked on the road, but I can’t say I’m very good at it except I’m reasonably sure I won’t cut my own head off by mistake.”

Nori laughed. “That is the first skill to learn, certainly. You should talk to Dwalin. He trains the princes in warfare and might be able to give you a tip or two. I myself have not trained in swords; I use a staff in a pinch. Swords are for royalty and eldest sons, of which I am neither.”

Bilbo nibbled on his lip and leaned in. “I don’t think Lord Dwalin took to me much,” he whispered in a confidential tone. “Or Hobbits in general. He and the king seemed to think our dancing beneath them.”

Nori’s eyebrows raised and grinned conspiratorially. “Oh truly? Is that how it was? Well, not to worry, Master Baggins. Some Dwarrow are just more full of their consequence than others; pray don’t judge all of us by their standard. You stick to the Ri’s and to the Ur’s-” He nodded in the direction of Bofur and Bombur. “- and we won’t put on any airs.”

“That’s very kind of you, Master Nori,” Bilbo was saying when Bofur returned with a suspicious glare at his friend.

“And what is this, Nori? Sweet-talking this handsome lad already? He’s the Thain’s cousin as well as scribe, don’t you know, and much too refined for the likes of you .”

The Dwarves were almost nose-to-nose by the end of Bofur’s reprimand, and Bilbo made a startling jump in comprehension as to their relationship. “Oh dear,” he said again, hand to mouth. “You needn’t worry. He wasn’t flirting, Master Bofur. We were just speaking of the reception last night.”

Both Dwarrow moved quickly away from each other, and stared at him in something like amazement. Their silence lengthened and Bilbo, fearing he’d overstepped, apologized. “I’m so sorry - have I offended? I didn’t mean to.”

The stout, red-haired Dwarf, Bombur, came upon them then, and gave Bilbo an amused glance. “Ease yourself, Master Hobbit,” he said. “You’re just very perceptive is all. They’re not used to be sussed out so quick. Bombur, at your service.”

“Oh, pleased to meet you,” Bilbo replied quickly, bowing to this new acquaintance. “Am I to take it from your names that you and Master Bofur are related?”

“Indeed. We’re brothers. They said you were quick,” he added as if an afterthought. “We’re three of the original Company of Thorin Oakenshield. Has anyone told you the story yet?”

“Everyone has been very secretive about everything about the retaking of Erebor, actually. Even King Bard redirected the conversation when I asked, and no one seems to know the details of the tale.”

Bombur and Bofur exchanged meaningful glances. “Why don’t you come down to the kitchens after lunch, Master Scribe?” Bombur suggested. “Keep me company and share some recipes with me. Who knows what sorts of things we might speak about?”

Bilbo grinned in delight. “I thank you kindly, Master Bombur. I would be very happy to exchange recipes.”

When Balin began to talk of the Hobbits being shown about Erebor, Bilbo excused himself from the three newly met Dwarrow to listen to the plans for the day. The day seemed to be a weekly market day in Erebor, to the happiness of all the listeners. The Hobbits had been a long time on the road and as guests of others, without the variety of personal choice and very few opportunities to shop for gifts or items for themselves.

For Bilbo, it felt like an opportunity to see what crafts Erebor was producing and trading, as well as the possibility of seeing something new. He knew Paladin would be looking for items that Erebor might need, something the Shire could export and last the long distances between the two kingdoms.

As everyone went to get their spending coin, Dwalin arrived, two large axes on his back and looking particularly suspicious to see Bofur, Bombur and Nori as they left with cheerful goodbyes. Bilbo could hear him mutter: “What are they doing here?” to Balin.

It was perhaps Bilbo’s greatest glee that the Dwarrow had not yet understood how keen Hobbit hearing was.

There seemed to be a rift between certain parts of Thorin’s allies, at least personal ones. It was a potential weakness if the rift was deep; Bilbo merely noted it for the moment. He was neither a friend nor an enemy of the king, but he could continue to observe for the sake of observation.

After all, it was what he did best.

Chapter Text

Thorin set down his pen with some finality and glared at the pile of papers on his grandfather’s desk. A slight change of air pressure was enough for him to realize the hidden door behind him had opened, but he did not turn around. “You have a report?” he acknowledged as he stood and pulled on his outer robe, tracking the familiar shadow out of the corner of his eye.

“Some grumblings from the emerald mine on the fourth level - seems the safety repairs have slowed down and the miners are getting antsy. Also, the Hobbits are under the impression you’re an uppercrust twit with a stick up his arse,” his Spymaster drawled, “and that you don’t like them. So, congratulations on that. Other than that, everything is quiet, Your Majesty.”

Thorin assertively resisted knocking his forehead onto the desk’s surface, or knocking his spymaster’s head on the aforementioned surface, which was the more attractive of the two ideas. “Thank you,” he rumbled blandly. “You may go.”

When he turned to leave, no sign remained that he had not been alone. He sighed and rubbed at his brow. Spymasters were a necessity in a kingdom of close-mouthed people like Ereborian Dwarrow who were by nature reluctant to speak out about anything, even grievances, until it was usually too late to head off volatile feelings.

Knowing this did not lessen Thorin’s reluctance in employing an official king’s spymaster; it smelled of deceit, and Thorin was a straightforward Dwarf by nature and despised underhandedness. It was only a little reassuring that his spymaster was a loyal Companion, because the Dwarf in his employ did not hesitate to imply, if only in tone, when he thought Thorin was being a rock-headed idiot.

All right then , he told himself sternly, time to make an effort .



It was clear that Dís had taken a shine to Rosalda Took and Bilbo Baggins, the more mature of the educated Hobbits, if not the most handsome… if one liked dark-eyed and intelligent people.

He found her, her sons, Balin, and Dwalin escorting most of the Hobbit delegation down to the market. Fíli already had the pretty Brandybuck on his arm, and Kíli was entertaining the white-blonde Hornblower lady. They were accompanied by a few male Hobbits, one of which was Dodi Brandybuck, clearly his sister’s chaperone.

Dís and Balin strolled with the Thain, his sister and their kinsman, the inestimable Bilbo Baggins, who had Dís on his arm. Balin was clearly solicitous of the Thain’s sister, almost hovering in case she needed any explanations or translations. Thorin frowned; Balin wasn’t one of those Dwarrow who looked for intimacy - his love had always been his service to the crown. Seeing him this starry-eyed over an unmarried miss was something of a concern, mainly for her family’s expectations that might arise from such attention.

The Thain, however, seemed unconcerned and thankful for the help.

Bilbo Baggins, Thorin pondered as he and his guard neared the group of shopping visitors, was … he wasn’t sure what he was, which created that sense of unease. Magnetic, striking, quick, and with a placid countenance, he seemed so self-contained and easy, even with his arm linked about a Dwarven princess’s and in an unknown place. They were paused in front of a fabric sellers, and the Hobbit was reaching out, but withdrew his hand at the last moment.

“You may touch the wares, Master Baggins,” Thorin assured as they came up from behind. The little spine stiffened and the Hobbit turned to regard Thorin with a cold politeness clearly only meant for him, the king.

“I thank you, Your Majesty,” he said flatly and bowed with perfect form.

It looked like Thorin hadn’t been forgiven for his rash words of the night before, but for some reason the flash of Bilbo’s beryl-green eyes bolstered him. There was not indifference, not at all. The Hobbit was furious with him, and that fury was attractive, even reined in as it was. Especially reined in as it was, and the longer Thorin regarded the Hobbit, the more flushed and irate he seemed to get, until he turned his head away and focused his attention back at the wares for sale.

Dís merely gave her brother an amused glance and a lifted eyebrow as if to say Now, what are you doing?

“Good morning, King Thorin,” the Thain greeted, nodding. Thorin returned the polite greeting. “We are very much enjoying your market, so different from our own. It is truly a wonder.”

“How is it different from the Shire’s?” Thorin asked, curious.

“Oh, we are farmers, so markets are mostly products of our farms - vegetables, meat, dairy, baked goods, beer, pipeweed … that sort of thing. Perfectly pleasant to be sure, but we don’t have crafts as you Dwar-Dwarrow seem to have. We’re rather metal-poor you see, and only have a bit of trade with the Blue Mountains now and then.”

A good beer and a smoke sounded a bit like heaven to Thorin. “I wouldn’t sell yourselves short, Master Took. We are not metal-poor but we do not have an abundance of produce, meat, or beer.  And pipeweed, you say?”

“Mistress Hornblower over there is heir to acres of the finest pipeweed in the Shire. She brought some along with us specifically for your use and to demonstrate its quality to your people, although I wouldn’t put it past her to have depleted her own share and dipped into a barrel during the journey. We Hobbits prize very little above a sit and a smoke to while away the long hours.”

“Eating and talking among those prized?” Thorin added with a twitch of a smile. When the Thain laughed, he added, half an eye to Bilbo’s back: “...and dancing?”

The Hobbit leader employed a very authoritarian finger and wagged it at Thorin. “Now, here, King Thorin, dancing is a very civilized pursuit I’ll have you know. Unites folks, expends some energy, creates good will. Met my wife at a dance; wouldn’t have given her a second look, she was so shy. Now we’re expecting our second child. Nothing bad comes out of a dance except bad dancers. Who said that, Bilbo?”

“Hm?” Bilbo’s feigned disinterest amused Paladin, as did the obvious interest the Dwarf king had in Bilbo. Judging from Princess Dís’s expression, he wasn’t the only one so entertained.

“Nothing bad comes out of a dance…?” he prompted.

“The Old Took.”

“Yes, yes of course, Grandfather Gerontius. I should have known.” Paladin returned his fierce, emerald gaze to Thorin. “The point is, King Thorin, Dwarrow will have their own ideas about things and Hobbits will, too, but there’s no reason not to be friendly nevertheless.”

Thorin Oakenshield was not used to be scolded by anyone outside of his immediate family, and this was a novel experience. It was difficult, though, to be offended by this little man, so kind and well-meaning. “I will take that under advisement, Thain,” he replied gravely.

He was rewarded by Bilbo Baggins, who had turned to stare at him in stunned amazement as if he’d been convinced that Thorin was incapable of admitting he needed correction. Dís’s eyebrows could not possibly elevate further.

Then a Hobbit lass in an amazing, multi-colored shawl appeared at Bilbo’s elbow and bobbed a curtsy. “Ah, Master Baggins,” she said, “Sires,... sorry to interrupt. Master Baggins here owes me something and I think I’d like to take him up on it.”

This snagged everyone’s attention. Bilbo nodded. “Oh, right. Certainly, Daisy, what can I get you?”

Dís grinned and wandered off with the two Hobbits. The Thain stroked his chin and then grinned. “Oh, yes, now I remember. She’s talking about the scarf that snagged the arrow!”

Thorin blinked, intrigued. “Do go on.”

Paladin laughed. “Well, Daisy is a spinner and knitter by trade. She ran out of yarn before Greenwood, so she was experimenting on any fiber she could spin into thread. We came across some strange spiderwebs coming out the mountains and she spun them and knit them - turned into a really strong and fine fabric, but she only collected enough for a scarf, which she gave to Bilbo as a joke.”

They were watching Dís and Bilbo follow an increasingly excited Daisy over a fine tool merchant. “And the arrow -?” Thorin asked.

“It wasn’t more than a few days after she gave it to him, when we were attacked by Goblins. In the fray, one of those black arrows almost went through Bilbo’s shoulder. We’re pretty sure it wasn’t meant for him, but it certainly knocked him forward. Looked like the arrow was sticking right out of him, but that spider-shawl over his jacket kept the point from going in.”

Thorin blinked at this outlandish story. “Are you saying that a spiderweb shawl…” Then the king recalled stories about spiderwebs on the other side of the Greenwood that were so gigantic that people could get caught in them. “Hm.”

Eventually the two leaders parted ways, the Thain as keen on shopping as his people. Thorin kept half an eye on his sister and more than half an eye on her handsome escort while gauging the reactions of the merchants to these small guests. He caught a fleeting glimpse of Nori once. Balin remained firmly at Rosalda Took’s side, although Fíli and Kíli had left the Hobbit women to the older advisor, probably bored with the slow pace through the familiar merchant stalls.

Thorin had a right to be proud of this market, which hadn’t existed until the previous year, when enough interest in trade goods and Dwarf exports had encouraged an opening of the gates to a select group of tradesmen and a loosening of laws that allowed artisans amongst his own people the freedom to set up temporary shop. The first few markets had been small, but as word spread and King Bard had sanctioned it on his end, they became rather large and varied in merchandise.

The plan was to move the markets down to Dale’s gates, but Dwarrow were not yet comfortable with being that far outside the Lonely Mountain and Dale’s restoration wasn’t yet up to the task of supporting that large of a commercial area just yet.

It was a new beginning, a fresh outlook, the first tentative opening up.

Later, Dwalin joined him as purchases were being concluded. “Let me guess,” the captain of the guard muttered, crossing his arms against his chest. “Just like me, you’re starting to realize that you’re going to have to endure babysitting these halflings the whole time they’re here.”

“Quite the opposite,” Thorin admitted, not taking his eyes off of one of the Hobbits. “I was just thinking about the effect of fine eyes in a handsome face.”

“Whose eyes?” Dwalin began then saw the direction of Thorin’s stare. “Master Baggins, is it?  Congratulations. When should I expect to see your courting gifts in hand?”

Thorin finally glanced at his friend, acknowledging his sarcasm. “It’s merely admiration. Let’s not make the leap to declaring undying devotion quite yet.”

Dwalin huffed a laugh. “That’s good. Do you even think they know what courting gifts are? And imagine having half of the Shire as in-laws. Dances and feasting every day and night, I should think.”

 

Dís appeared then, drawing on her pipe and eyes glinting. “This again?” she admonished. “I thought you’d given up the disapproving old men in the corner routine, considering the outcome of last night’s utter fiasco.”

Dwalin merely grunted and pretended to not understand. Thorin, however, took a deep sniff, and then a second. “Whatever are you smoking, sister?”

She grinned. “Hobbit pipeweed, so kindly provided by my gentle escort for today.” She leaned in. “If you don’t start trade negotiations with the Thain, I certainly will. They may be ‘soft and dainty’ but they sure know their growing things.”

With this, she sauntered off to haggle about a piece of fabric (not for herself, Thorin noted, for it was patterned copper-brown) and the king beckoned Balin over to discuss pipeweed futures.

 

Outwardly, Amaranth Brandybuck appeared to be the silliest girl in Buckland, with her obsession with dresses and a penchant for flirting. She gave the general impression that her head could only hold one thought at a time, and the odds were that that thought was about frivolity.

Those closest to her, and those who stood to rival her, knew the truth of the matter. Amaranth had ambitions, and as an educated daughter of the Master of Buckland, her birth and status had provided her with a good foundation. Unfortunately, her circumstances had not been so kind, Buckland being remote from the center of fashionable Hobbit society. In other words, the bucks of Buckland were a known quality, for which she had little interest. The Shire hadn’t turned out much better.

Things might have been different if some of the well-to-do Shire males had been obliging enough to less closely related or more interested in traditional marriage, for Amaranth had a certain standard, and no ordinary gentlehobbit would do. But alas, Bilbo Baggins, the only unmarried male with more status than she, had little interest in pretty much anyone, as far as she could tell.

Until last night, when it became very clear to her that something was going on between him and the Dwarf king. She couldn’t identify it as courting, per se. The king made no inroads in that regard due to last night’s “tolerable” comment, and Bilbo (being Bilbo) was a watchful stationary object. But there was a lot of staring, and it wasn’t necessarily hostile, although Bilbo was making a great show of being the offended party.

She supposed it could be fascination she was seeing, and she wasn’t sure that would do. She had no preference for the king herself; he was handsome and rich, for sure, but not the only handsome and rich Dwarf in Erebor. Although being a King’s consort sounded like the highest endeavor for a Buckland girl, she did also want a true marriage; his preference for staring at Bilbo Baggins might hint at his overall preferences. Also, he was rather grumpy and stoic, and that wasn’t much her preference.

But Bilbo Baggins, King’s consort? Oh, surely not. Amaranth’s ambitious heart rebelled at the idea of her cousin’s triumph over her in this this regard.

She did like Prince Fíli quite a lot; he was rather handsome if one got used to a lot of facial hair, and had a certain charm she recognized as similar to her own - a tool rather than innate. This fondness did not stop her from putting a few rumors into his ear about her dear cousin Bilbo Baggins, the longtime bachelor who would rather spend time with his books than with his friends, and whose very long, private conversations with King Thranduil of Greenwood had nearly scandalized his traveling companions.

She might have also let slip that Bilbo’s purpose in being on this journey was not to be the Thain’s scribe, but to marry well, and the farther up the better. His family had ambitions, you see.

Once the two princes had gone their way, she concluded her market shopping with the air of smug satisfaction. After all, Bilbo had always had an easy time of it; why not make his path a little more complicated?

Chapter Text

Bilbo closed his eyes in bliss and barely kept himself from humming his pleasure. “You, sir, are a genius.” He slowly chewed his last bit of venison and mushroom pie and put his fork down with a sigh; he looked up at the beaming face of Bombur who was drying a pan on the other side of the kitchen worktable. “What else did you put in there?”

At his side, Bofur chortled behind his mug of ale. “ Love ,” he crooned.

Bilbo laughed. “Bombur, your love is so good !”

“That’s why he has three babes and another on the way,” Bofur chuckled, eyes twinkling.

The Hobbit grinned. “Oh, congratulations! That’s a good start!”

The Dwarrow stared at him and began to laugh. “A good start!” Bofur gasped.

They were still laughing when Nori and another Dwarf appeared in the kitchens. To Bilbo, this new dwarf was something different - he possessed a certain style, an elegance. His silver hair and beard was neatly and ornately braided and looped, and he wore robes of perfectly cut and hemmed patterned velvet. In fact, Bilbo realized, the cut of those robes looked very familiar - one might say, royal.

“Master Baggins,” Nori greeted cheerfully, “this is my brother, Dori, master of the wardrobe.”

“Oh!” Bilbo cried in recognition. “How do you do? I thought I recognized the cut of your robes.”

Nori exchanged a quick glance with Dori, as if to say ‘I told you so.’

Dori bowed. “Pleased to meet you, Master Scribe.” His bright blue eyes thoroughly examined Bilbo as if evaluating everything he was wearing, and what he wasn’t wearing. “Have you ever thought of teal?”

“I-” Bilbo replied, puzzled. “I suppose at one point or another I’ve thought of teal. I have … good feelings about it?”

Nori snorted. “You see, brother. He’s adorable.”

“I beg your pardon!” Bilbo cried in reproach. “I am a fully grown gentlehobbit!”

“And adorable!” Bofur giggled, slapping Bilbo on the back. “Don’t you worry nought about it - it suits you.”

Bilbo grumbled into his ale cup as the two new arrivals pulled up stools to the table.

“So, here is my question,” Nori said, accepting his own cup from Bombur. “Why do you suppose no one has told you about the retaking of Erebor?”

Bilbo frowned at him. “I’m not sure. It’s not like it can remain a secret - apparently hundreds of Free Peoples participated in some way or another. Lord Elrond said those who write histories that are not of their own people are not trustworthy. King Thranduil said that Dwarrow are secretive, while he himself avoided explaining what happened. King Bard also said that Dwarrow are secretive and then changed the subject. It’s all rather confounding. I’ve come to the conclusion that only Dwarrow can tell the tale of the retaking of Erebor, yet no Dwarrow have.”

“Well, now,” Bofur breathed. “Hear him. Out of the mouths of the innocent.”

Bilbo scowled. Nori lifted a eyebrow. “Not so innocent, are you, Master Baggins?” he murmured and when Bilbo gave him a quizzical look, he added: “For example, how does a simple Hobbit scribe get taken into the confidence of three great leaders of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth?”

Bilbo sighed, and pushed his ale away, resting his cheek on his hand and looked at the four Dwarrow staring at him as if he was a puzzle to solve. “Really, it’s not a conspiracy,” he said. “And I should tell you that, in the Shire, there’s no such thing as a ‘simple scribe’. Reading and writing beyond a rudimentary level are rare. Any ambition to know more than what will get a fellow from day to day is rare. So a Hobbit merely has to be useful, is all, and competent, and a good listener. You’d be surprised how few people can manage just those.”

“...and Thranduil?” Dori wanted to know. “The king of the Greenwood just needed a ‘good listener’?”

“Ah,” Bilbo sighed. “So word’s got out, has it?”

Bombur and Bofur stared at Nori and then at Bilbo. “What word?” Bofur asked.

“Seems Mr. Baggins had some long, private conversations with King Thranduil when the Hobbits were staying in the Greenwood,” Nori replied.

Bilbo huffed. Ridiculous Dwarrow! Rosalda had been right; “suspicious of Elves and Elf friends” was very accurate, and suspicious of Thranduil was an Ereborian trait. “I also have had long, private conversations with my Thain and Lord Elrond, but I take it those conversations have no bearing on this dialogue?” Bilbo asked tartly. He waved a hand dismissively. “Yes, I am aware that King Thranduil is not trusted by Erebor, Dale, or Lake-town. I was unaware of this when he hosted us, and even so, it is rather hard to learn about other cultures if you’re unwilling to talk to them .”

“And how did you like Thranduil?” Nori asked in a challenging tone.

“Well enough,” Bilbo responded, a bit rebelliously, well aware of the Dwarrow staring at him. “He can be charming and was surprisingly interested in my thoughts on matters as I saw them. But, to be fair, he had no good thing to say about Erebor.”

Bofur smacked the table. “I knew it!”

Nori crossed his arms and chewed his lip thoughtfully. “And since we’re being so very candid, Master Baggins, what favors did he ask of you and what promises did he make to you?”

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open in outrage, but it was Bombur slammed a pan onto the table. “Now wait just a minute, you!” he shouted at Nori, so loudly that everyone jumped in surprise. “We invited Master Baggins here friendly-like, or so I thought, and here you are accusing of him of who-knows-what! Since when do we interrogate our guests, House of Ri?”

Nori raised his hands in surrender and Dori tapped him in the shoulder in commiseration. “He has a point, Brother. It’s not done to prove to our guests all that poison the Elves like to drip into people’s ears about Dwarrow.”

Bilbo considered them warily but smiled at Bombur when the stout cook put down a plate of sausage in front of him. “Master Nori,” he relented, “I’ve been told more than once that the Dwarrow of Erebor are suspicious and paranoid. I’ve yet to be shown otherwise, it seems, but I must remind you - I’ve only ever been outside of the Shire once in my life, and I defy you to find a reason why I should undermine your home or your people.” He took a bite of sausage, chewed and then sighed. “Especially since you cook much better than the Elves of Greenwood.” He shook Bombur’s hand heartily. “Have you thought of potatoes?” he inquired of the cook with a cheeky smile.

“I really don’t understand Dwarrow,” Bilbo said to himself as he made his way back up from the kitchens, head down and fumbling with his pipe. He wasn’t sure if it was wise to smoke inside the mountain with no flue in sight, but he could distract himself with the idea of smoking it when other thoughts were trying to crowd in.

He was only half watching where he was going, and got turned around a bit, and was retracing his steps with a sharper focus on where he was when he nearly ran headlong into Princess Dís. “Oh, I do beg your pardon!” he exclaimed, initially startled by the pale blue eyes and dark hair, reminiscent of another royal. His lovely long-stemmed pipe slipped from his hand, too fast for him to catch. Down it dropped and smashed into three pieces on the stone floor. “Oh.”  He looked at its corpse sadfully. The object had made it the entire journey just to be fumbled and broken in a moment’s inattention.

“Oh, Master Baggins, your pipe!” Dís cried in dismay. That was one thing Dwarves and Hobbits had in common; they knew the value of a good smoking pipe.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Bilbo said rather unconvincingly, and knelt to pick up the pieces. “Poor thing. I was so looking forward to-  well, never mind.” He straightened and glanced at the Dwarven princess. “I do beg your pardon. I’ve got turned around; I’m usually much better at finding my way underground, but I think my head was somewhere else.”

“It can happen. Some of these halls look exactly alike. Where were you coming from?”

“The kitchens. One of the cooks was kind enough to let me sample some amazing recipes.”

“Which cook?”

“...Bombur?”

“Ah, yes. You’re indeed lucky. Bombur is the best of taking simple things and making them delicious.”

Bilbo nodded, and began to wonder how to extricate himself from this awkward meeting, when a strain of music caught his ears and he turned without thinking to listen closer; it was a harp. Dís watched him with a little smile, then said: “Are you musical, Master Scribe?”

“Me? No, not at all, although I do enjoy listening to it. Musical talent always amazes me.”

“We Dwarrow are taught that music inspires and instructs; we start with teaching songs when we’re very young. Every one of us is taught an instrument, even if it’s only a drum.”

“Truly?” Bilbo replied, happy to learn something new. “How delightful.” The harp drifted into silence and he tried to hide his disappointment.

“Shall I set you upon the right path?” the princess inquired politely and Bilbo nodded. They were turning into a corridor that was looking very familiar when Ori appeared around the corner ahead of them, looking a bit desperate. As soon as his eye lit on Bilbo, he cried: “Oh, Master Baggins, you’re needed quickly. There’s fight between the two Hobbit ladies!”

“A fight?!” Dís exclaimed, but Bilbo was already hurrying after Ori, with a feeling of dread.

It didn’t take long for him to hear screaming, the kind of yelling that only happened when two genteel Hobbit ladies were in strong opposition. He recognized the voices, of course. Dora Hornblower was saying “You little petty snake-in-the-grass!” And Amaranth Brandybuck was screaming, “How dare you!”

As he got to the door to their quarters, he spied Balin and the Thain rushing from the opposite direction, clearly having overheard as well. He threw open the doors and saw that both ladies were being held back from each other - Dora by Tom and Amaranth by Dodi - and Amaranth’s face showed the distinct red handprint of a violent face-slap. The other Hobbits were standing about, aghast at this behavior.

Bilbo stopped, also flabbergasted, but Paladin marched straight in, his expression thunderous. “Now what in Arda is happening here?” he demanded. “Is this the sort of behavior we display to our hosts?” He spied his sister behind Dora and Tom. “What is this all about?”

“She hit me!” Amaranth wailed before Rosalda could even open her mouth, and tears spilled down her cheeks.

Dodi, holding her by one arm, shook his head and said gruffly: “Dora slapped her after she insulted her and Bilbo.”

His sister glared at him as if he’s committed high treason, but clearly Dodi had enough of whatever was going on, and refused to be a part of it. “Everything I said was true!” she cried.

Paladin’s head turned and his glare made Amaranth gulp down what she would have said next. Bilbo was beginning to suspect what insults had been discussed, and he too was frowning at Amaranth. The Thain glanced at him, and taking him quickly by the arm, murmured into his ear: “I need you to take care of things out here - I’m talking to Mistress Brandybuck and her brother in more private surroundings.” His green eyes slid to the direction of the door, and Bilbo knew, without looking, that there were witnesses there that should not be seeing this particular Hobbit conflict unfold.

Reluctantly, he agreed as Paladin approached Amaranth and Dodi, and left with them. Bilbo turned to the doorway and raised an eyebrow at the set of Dwarrow standing just outside, looking remarkably uninterested in what was happening until he strode back to them.

“Will there not be a weapons challenge?” Dís asked with dead serious curiosity. Balin and Ori’s attention focused on Bilbo’s answer, obviously enough that the Hobbit felt this was a normal Dwarven occurrence.

“Ah, no. We Hobbits don’t go in for that sort of thing. Someone might get hurt. For Hobbit ladies, it’s mostly loud voices and perhaps a slap or two. Hobbit lads might go for a few punches if particularly riled, and spirited Hobbit lasses may do that as well.”

“How disappointing,” the princess commented. “But then, you are Hobbits, and not Dwarrow. It is to be expected. What is the Thain doing?”

“Reprimanding Mistress Brandybuck, no doubt, and getting the facts of what led to the altercation. He’ll come back for Mistress Hornblower to check the truth of their statements and dole out punishment accordingly.”

All three Dwarrow looked startled. “Punishment?” Ori asked in a high tone of surprise. “Aren’t all the lady Hobbits adults?”

“Oh, they are! By “punishment,” I mean a reduction of social privileges, or advisement not to speak to certain people. Usually it’s families who decide these things, but as we’re out here away from families, the Thain has the authority to make these sorts of judgments upon those he currently protects.”

“You don’t have the authority?” Dís wanted to know.

“Dear me, no. I’m not an authority at all. I’m only a -”

“Scribe.” All three Dwarrow recited.

“Er, yes.” Bilbo tried not to show his consternation.

“And kinsman to the Thain,” Balin added with a friendly nod.

“Well, yes…”

“Only heir to the Bagginses,” Ori said thoughtfully, as if recalling a family tree.

Bilbo refused to respond, lest they continue, and just gave them an even stare. They all beamed at him and he rolled his eyes. “I have to speak to Dora,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me.” He couldn’t quite tell his hosts to go mind their own business, but they seemed to understand and stay outside the door, if not walk a further distance off.

“Bilbo,” Dora said, standing up from where she was sitting with Tom and Daisy. “I am so sorry. I’ve just made everything that much worse.”

“You’ll have to explain, because I couldn’t start to guess what went on.” Not exactly the truth, but he wanted to hear their points of view without prejudicing them with his own.

“You won’t like it,” Tom warned him with a sympathetic look.

“I don’t expect to like it,” Bilbo assured him. “Just give it to me sheared down to the skin.”

Tom and Dora exchanged glances, and then the lady nodded. “All right. You know how Amaranth is a complete backstabber?”

“Yes.” He took a breath. “Am I the one getting backstabbed?”

“She knows you’re here for adventures and not to catch a rich husband, despite your Ma’s wishes,” Tom offered. “That’s what makes this such a laugh, because we all know that’s the only reason she’s here is to find someone who will marry her. She tickled one of the princes’ ears about you being holed up with Thranduil for a few conversations, and then let drop that you’re looking for a rich husband.”

Bilbo shook his head, sucking at his teeth to stop from inventing some creative invectives for Amaranth’s clever and spiteful maneuver. Really, she hadn’t been so off the truth, but just enough to make Bilbo intentions sound sordid. He glanced askance at Dora. What was her part in all this drama?

“At the market I saw her whispering something to Prince Fíli ,” Dora said. “And when he and his brother left soon after, I wondered what she’d said because she was looking awfully proud of herself afterward. I like to think the best of people, Bilbo, but Amaranth Brandybuck has never given me a reason to do so, if you know what I mean.’

Bilbo did know, quite intimately. Dora’s friendly nature and lack of subtlety had pitted her against Amaranth from the first day they’d met, and the long journey in each other’s company hadn’t improved that dynamic. Not that many thought a hound and a snake could ever get along, anyway.

“So I kept an eye out, thinking to ask Kíli about it, but the Lady gave me luck, and instead I encountered both the princes. After a bit of time together, it all came out… what Amaranth had said. I was so angry, for her to treat you this way, you who has only ever been good to everybody! It drove me mad!” Daisy, next to her, gave her hand a consoling pat. “So I tell her what I think of her, and off she goes about me and my private business and you advertising your wares to the royals-”

Bilbo nodded grimly. Of course. Despairingly, he said: “And that’s when you slapped her.”

“Yes, that’s when I slapped her. No matter how the Thain might see it, I am only sorry that things got so loud…” Something by the door, over his shoulder, caught her attention, and her eyes went wide. “Oh Bright Lady, Bilbo…” she breathed.

Bilbo could feel his spine stiffen up. Without looking, he knew who was there. “I’ve already been interrogated this afternoon, Your Highness,” he said. “I really don’t know what else I can say to assure the Dwarrow of Erebor that I am not a spy for the Greenwood.”

“Nevertheless,” replied the dark, rich voice of King Thorin, “I would ask you to come speak to me now, Master Baggins.”

Chapter Text

The first whispers of suspicion about Bilbo Baggins came from an unlikely source. Thorin was just starting to overlook the plans for reinforcing several unstable tunnels, when his eldest nephew burst through his door, with his brother on his heels. They began talking over each other until Fíli shoved his brother out the door, locked it, and turned to Thorin with his story of Mistress Brandybuck’s murmurings about her cousin Bilbo.

At first Thorin listened to this story with some concern, assured Fíli that he would look into it, then summoned his spymaster to actually look into it. However, after handing off the plans and retiring by the fire to think, he began to regard the details of the information Fíli had brought to him.

More than one person had intimated that it was no coincidence that the Hobbits were almost all unmarried. This was not a surprise, and not astonishing that someone as comely and accomplished as Bilbo Baggins might want to find a mate. That in itself was not a concern, and more of a distraction, if Thorin was to be honest with himself.

The other part, that of confidences with Thranduil, was more than a bit of a concern. Sitting and plucking at the strings of his harp in contemplation, he tried to imagine Bilbo, little and observant, sitting with the proud and haughty Thranduil. It was rather laughable, the idea that the Elf king would even lower himself to consider such a being as a protege. The more Thorin thought about it, the more absurd it seemed.

When he heard Dís ’s alarmed voice in the corridor and a bit of a commotion, he followed after, only to find that indeed, this was also about the rumors, the origin of which had been discovered. He saw a brief glance of Bilbo as he explained the nature of Hobbit “punishment” to Dís, Ori, and Balin before the scribe turned back into the receiving room of the Hobbits’ quarters. Dís  started when Thorin laid a hand on her shoulder and put his finger to his lips so he could listen to the murmur of the Bilbo, Mistress Hornblower and another male Hobbit, both seemingly on intimate terms with him, if their tones were anything to judge by.

“I like this Dora,” Dís  whispered to him as it was revealed who had discovered Amaranth Brandybuck’s perfidy. “She has too much spirit for a Hobbit.”

Bilbo seemed to think so, too, from the defeated drop of his head and fatalistic tone of voice. It was most probably that tone, Thorin reflected later, that inspired him to step forward and and say, “I would ask you to come speak to me now, Master Baggins.”



If Bilbo was nervous about any of this, it wasn’t revealed in his expression or posture. Thorin closed the study door behind him and pointed to a chair in front of his grandfather’s desk (he really needed to have it replaced; the thing was far too ornate for practical purposes). He watched as the Hobbit did a small hop to reach the too-tall chair; his hairy feet barely cleared the floor.

“You have nothing to fear from me, Master Baggins,” he said, guessing that perhaps Nori may have been intimidating enough to cause some trepidation. “I hardly think King Thranduil Oropherion would lower himself to recruit a Hobbit scribe, no matter how annoyed he is with me.”

Bilbo’s eyes flashed at him and Thorin almost smiled. Finally, there it was, that spirit he could rarely catch glimpses of. “It is I who could scarcely lower myself , as you say, to be a spy,” the Hobbit responded in a cold, measured voice, “Your Majesty.”

Thorin did smile then, and Bilbo blinked, clearly taken aback by the Dwarf king’s humor. Well, perhaps he had a reason to be surprised; Thorin hadn’t done much smiling lately.

The king reached over to his cabinet of correspondence and motioned to a large stack, ordered neatly in its own cubby. “Do these look familiar?”

The Hobbit glanced over. “Are those my -  the letters by my hand?”

“Indeed they are, every one. It’s not often I see such a good hand at scribing, and I have a Scrivener's Guild these days, although sadly depleted still from what it was in my grandfather’s time. I particularly like this one.” He slid one from the top. “Can you guess which one?”

Bilbo shifted in his chair, and glanced aside, avoiding Thorin’s gaze and a better look at the letter. “I can guess.”

Thorin decided to be merciful to Bilbo’s embarrassment and placed the paper back with the others. “Beyond the subject matter of this particular letter, I did learn quite a few things about Hobbits, particularly their methods of diplomacy.”

Bilbo cleared his throat. “Diplomacy, Sire?”

“Of all the people of Middle-earth that I have known, Hobbits must be the most forthright of them all, politically speaking. Even though this subject was mortifying to you, what you wrote revealed a lot about your people in it, and so have your dealing with us thus far.”

The Hobbit frowned to himself. “If you say so, Sire.”

Thorin shook his head and sat down behind the desk, contemplating the soft creature and his inscrutable eyes. “There are few races in this world who consider friendliness and diplomacy as the same thing.”

Bilbo looked up, green eyes gleaming. “Men and Hobbits.”

Thorin allowed his smile to grow. “You do not include Elves?”

Bilbo’s responding small smile was pressed and contained. “I wouldn’t call Elves friendly . They’re… reasonable, if they even take the time to talk to you.”

“And Dwarrow?”

Bilbo sniffed. “It’s difficult to be friendly with people who never talk about themselves. You lot are too secretive.” Then he seemed to realize his gaff, and added: “Your Majesty.”

“King Thorin will do for now,” Thorin replied, already finding Bilbo’s scrupulous politeness as frustrating as he was finding his honesty refreshing. “So you see, I do not think you a spy. Even the most duplicitous among you is a mere novice. It took her only a few hours to be caught at it.”

“And you think you Dwarrow are so very subtle, in contrast, King Thorin?” the scribe replied tartly, rolling his eyes. “I’m surprised Nori doesn’t have ‘spy’ embroidered on his coat.”

Thorin chuckled. Bilbo stared at him wide-eyed until Thorin shook his head. “Nori isn’t a spy, Master Baggins.”

“Well, it’s not like you’d own up to it, anyway!”

Thorin leaned forward. “You’ve already met the true spy. I’ll give you a second guess.”

The scribe gave him a suspicious look. “Why?”

“Perhaps I want to know how you think,” the king returned easily.

“Hm.” Bilbo looked up at the stone ceiling, nodded, then chewed his thumbnail.

Thorin waited, saw the Hobbit pat his pockets in the universal gesture which meant ‘looking for my pipe,’ and then exclaim: “Blast!”

“Forgot your pipe?”

“Broke my pipe earlier today and didn’t have time to get my second.”

Thorin almost asked how many pipes Bilbo had, but restrained himself. “Do you smoke when you want to think?”

Startled, the Hobbit nodded. “Er, yes. Rather common; I picked it up from my father, that habit. You?”

“Sometimes a pipe, or I play a song.”

The scribe opened his mouth, changed his mind and pursed his lips thoughtfully. “So I’m thinking…” he began slowly, “... that if Nori isn’t a spy, he’s a decoy. If he’s a decoy, he is diverting attention from someone else. It’s either… no, not Bombur. He stopped the conversation earlier when more information could have been revealed.” He slapped his knee. “Bofur. It’s Bofur!”

“Why do you think so?”

“My other guess was Dori, but it would be too easy to spot him in a crowd, and a spy really has to fit in to hear things. Can’t be your nephews, pardon me but they’re the least subtle Dwarrow in the world, and Balin would never. It has to be Bofur.”

Thorin sighed. “You really are quite clever, Master Baggins.”

Bilbo grinned at him triumphantly and Thorin could feel his own cheeks heat up in response; it was dawning on him that he was in a room alone with this captivating creature, who was smiling at him, receptive and open for once.

So of course Thorin had to ruin it by asking, “And are you still angry at me, Bilbo Baggins?”

Without a pause, Bilbo immediately replied: “Of course I am.” Then he sniffed. “However, there might be hope for you to redeem yourself... eventually.”

Unfortunately, a knock on the door interrupted Thorin’s natural inclination to find out what that meant.  It was Balin, and the advisor looked worried on the other side of the door. “We haven’t come to blows quite yet,” Thorin assured him, pointing to Bilbo sitting in his chair, eying the open door curiously.

The white-bearded dwarf huffed out a relieved breath. “Oh, I admit to a wee amount of worry,” he replied, “but there’s been a development.” He held up a scroll. “This is from Dale. Lord Elrond has arrived.”

Sighing, Thorin motioned Balin in and said to Bilbo: “Would you care to do the honors?” and Balin handed him the scroll, with wax seal still intact.

The Hobbit’s small fingers were able to open the seal without breaking it, and he unrolled it, eyes already scanning down the length of the missive. “Word by word, or…?”

“Summarize please,” Thorin said with a little impatience.

Bilbo raised an eyebrow at him but obeyed. “The usual salutations. Lord Elrond and company left two days after we did from Imladris, and would have caught up with us… but they encountered Goblins in the Misty Mountains, and also Gandalf, but lost him some place in the Greenwood. They’ve retrieved some … um.. artefacts that are a bit concerning. He waits on your convenience to meet, and also proposes a council of kings once King Thranduil arrives. That’s about it,” Bilbo concluded and handed the letter over to Thorin. “That’s strange. We were attacked by Goblins when we were leaving the Misty Mountain passes, as well. If they were a couple of days behind us…”

“Something’s stirred them up, and this thing about artefacts…” Balin began but Thorin shook his head sharply and Balin stopped.

“That seems to be my cue to take my leave,” Bilbo observed wryly, sensing secrets he should not be privy to. He slipped down from his chair and bowed.

Thorin moved quickly and caught him just outside the door. “Master Baggins,” he said.

Bilbo stopped and waited with a bland look of expectation which was so strangely infuriating that the Dwarf stepped forward and took the Hobbit’s lax hand. “Will you dance with me the next time?” he asked, bending towards the hand as if to kiss it.

The scribe’s cheeks flared red and he pulled his hand back with a huff before Thorin could make good on the threat. “ Certainly not! ” He turned and stomped off. “The cheek!” Thorin could hear him complain before he turned a corner and was lost from view.

Balin chuckled as Thorin helplessly grinned after the smaller form. “Lad, what are you doing?”

“I honestly can’t say,” the king responded, returning to the desk.

It was a long time before his smile truly faded.



When Bilbo returned to the Hobbits’ quarters, the Thain was waiting there with Dora at the table; both stood up when he entered.

“I’m all right,” he assured them. “The king doesn’t suspect me.” He couldn’t quite keep the tartness from his tone and he knew he was flushed. Oh, that Dwarf! What was he playing at?! “May I ask what happened after I left?”

Dora said softly: “I apologized for striking her.”

Bilbo nodded; that was a standard consequence.

Paladin sighed. “For Amaranth: the usual, for three days.”

Bilbo couldn’t help his gasp of surprise. Three days? “T-that’s rather, er, extreme?”

“If this were the Shire, I might agree,” the Thain returned with a stern look. “However, Mistress Brandybuck not only sought to undermine an Only Heir, but also her cousin, and in a manner that exposed us to potential ridicule to our hosts. I say three days is more than fair.”

Stated that way, it did seem less of a cruel fate. “Yes, I see,” Bilbo replied, already thinking on what he knew of the next few days. “She won’t miss the coronation, then.”

“Just so,” Paladin agreed.

Chapter Text

“They say he died and came back again from the halls of Mandos,” Fíli whispered, eyes wide.

Kili added in awe: “He once killed a Balrog with a hairpin.”

Thorin rolled his eyes heavenward, glancing apologetically at the Thain. Their small party of Dwarrow and Hobbits was arranged on the walkway of the curtain wall of Erebor, looking down upon the approaching party of Imladris Elves. Bilbo stood a full two steps back from the embrasures that exposed them to the terrifying drop hundreds of feet down, and he was refusing to think about the potential of that sort of fate.

“Is it Glorfindel?” the Thain asked him, lifting his eyebrows at Bilbo’s evident fear of the edge of the wall. “Can you tell from here?”

“If his hair is gold, long and wavy, it’s Glorfindel,” Bilbo replied, refusing to be tempted closer to a possible falling doom. “There’s really only one Elf in Imladris that has that hair. Remember? They’re mostly dark-haired.”

In fact, except for a few outliers, this seemed to be true of most Elves Bilbo had encountered so far.

“Oh, do come and look, Bilbo,” Dora implored from between the Dwarven princes. Bilbo shook his head and crossed his arms.

Thorin regarded him as the others sighed at the scribe’s recalcitrance and returned their attention to the pageantry below. He approached slowly, smiling reassuringly as Bilbo considered him with suspicious eyes. “In my memory, no one has fallen, outside of battle,” Thorin assured the Hobbit.

Bilbo gave him a skeptical look, and Thorin chuckled. “Do you doubt the word of a king, Master Scribe?”

Bilbo took a deep breath. “That’s a long way down, and we Hobbits are not as stable on the ground as Dwarrow,” he said plaintively.

Something in Thorin softened alarmingly. “Shall I keep a hold of your -” Thorin glanced over Bilbo’s green velvet frock coat. “- sleeve?”

The Hobbit stared at him with dark green eyes, only slightly darker than the color of his coat, and blushed. It was so charming and unexpected that Thorin froze, staring. The tableau might have continued had not Balin, with Rosalda on his arm, cleared his throat. When Thorin, startled, glanced at him Balin pointedly raised his eyebrows at Bilbo who had his elbow extended. Thorin quickly cupped it with his hand and the Hobbit cautiously advanced to the embrasures to look down with a wince, roasting under his growing blush.

After an awkward moment, Bilbo observed: “Of course that is Lord Elrond at the fore, with Lord Glorfindel… and Elrond’s two sons are there…”

“The Goblin hunters?” Fíli and Kíli breathed almost in unison. If Thorin wasn’t self-consciously aware of the one point of contact between himself and the Hobbit by his side, he might have been tempted to crack his two nephews’ skulls together in irritation. As it was, he stood frozen with his palm underneath Bilbo’s elbow, faithfully protecting him from an unlikely fall.

“Er, yes, they do often go out on errantry, or so I’ve been told. There’s some historical contention between them and the local Goblins, although I’m not sure of the exact cause. They were kind enough to ride with us some ways when we left Imladris, in case we should encounter any, but we never did until we were on the other side of the mountains. Oh, and I think that is Lord Elrond’s adoptive son and… oh, I am pleased! Erestor!”

Balin coughed and mouthed “scribe” in explanation to Thorin’s confused look. Of course, both Balin and Bilbo would know Imladris’s scribe very well through correspondence and common interests. Thorin glanced worriedly down and located the Elf of Bilbo’s regard - a slender, rather small male with long unbound black hair and a pale oval of a face who was riding next to what could only be Glorfindel of the long waving, golden hair, a complete physical foil to Erestor. Glorfindel was, Thorin had to admit, a physically impressive Elf, not merely tall but also broad shouldered and strong-thighed, created from a mold very different from the Imladris Elves.

He glanced at Bilbo, trying to judge if the Hobbit’s attention was particularly engaged to anyone down below, but the Hobbit had turned his glance up at Thorin and the king found himself scrutinized in turn. “Have you met Lord Elrond before, King Thorin?” Bilbo inquired.

“No, not in person,” he replied. “The Misty Mountains are an effective barrier to such allegiances. We have written some, recently.”

Bilbo nodded. “He is very wise, and Imladris itself so peaceful and beautiful.” The scribe laughed softly. “Not that I went out much; his library held me captive.”

Thorin swallowed. “Have you seen our library yet?” he asked, trying not to sound desperately jealous.

The Hobbit shook his head. “I was hoping to do so, soon. Although I imagine everything must be written in Khuzdul, which of course I cannot read.”

“Not at all. Most of it is in our language, I grant you, but we have whole sections in Westron.”

Bilbo gave him a small, amused smile. “Not Sindarin?” he teased.

“Some in Sindarin,” he grumbled in return, making Bilbo’s smile grow.

When Thorin glanced away, he saw Rosalda Took looking rather pleased, with Balin’s head inclined down to hear what she would say in his ear. Thorin did wonder at their connection and their preference for each other’s company, which was starting to concern him. Yet Rosalda’s brother seemed perfectly content; they would have to talk about it soon.

He excused himself and his nephews to precede the others to the throne room; out of the corner of his eyes could see Bilbo tracking him with a bemused expression, while both Rosalda and Dora converged on him, already asking him questions.

Once they were down below and striding past the gate guards, Fíli caught up to Thorin. “Have you seen Amaranth?” he asked in furtive and concerned whisper.

The Brandybuck lady was nowhere to be seen the day after the Thain had pronounced her “punishment,” but what punishment this was, not one of the Hobbits would say. “I have not,” he replied, having no facts with which to reassure his nephew. “Shire-folk impose restrictions on rule-breakers.”

Fili remained silent and somber as they entered into the throne room, and behind them came the court of advisors, lords, and other hangers-on that had mingled outside the room until his arrival. As Thorin settled onto the throne, he reflected that having already greeted the Shire delegation, it was less difficult in welcoming this new one.

The only awkwardness now was that he was close to glaring sourly at his nephews who were beginning to almost vibrate with anticipation of seeing legendary Elven warriors. When Dís appeared to stand next to him, her smile quizzical, he merely sighed.

Soon Balin strode in, followed by the delegation from Imladris led by Lord Elrond in rich robes of copper tinged with green, with a simple silver circlet to indicate his status. Behind him came two Elves who were mirrors of each other except that one wore his hair unbound and the other’s hair was braided back; these could only be the “Goblin hunters,” Elrond’s twin sons Elladan and Elrohir. Unlike their father, they wore light ceremonial hauberks.

Behind the twins came Glorfindel, half a head taller than those about him. Unlike his companions, his expression showed a lively interest in the audience of Dwarrow, the architecture of the chamber, and Thorin himself. There was a hint of an ever-present smile on his bowed lips, and even from a distance Thorin could see his eyes were blue-green.

“Greetings, Lord Elrond of Imladris,” Thorin said, standing. “We are glad indeed to see you have fared well on your long journey. Erebor welcomes you and yours to partake in our ceremonies and celebrations, in hopes of deeper understanding between our peoples.”

Elrond bowed his head in a manner that suggested politeness from one ruler to another rather than humility or fealty. “We thank you, Thorin King under the Mountain. The majesty of your kingdom and the generosity of your people have indeed cheered us after our lengthy progress.”

Thorin introduced his sister and nephews, which prompted Elrond to do the same with his companions, twenty in all. With the exception of Glorfindel, they all were dark-haired and gray-eyed; this was not surprising because it was also the pattern in the Greenwood amongst the majority of its Elven inhabitants. Thranduil and his sons were from a different line, even from Glorfindel, who was tall and blond enough to compare, but whose body type and cast of facial features placed him in some other population Thorin had no experience of, if indeed they existed in Middle-earth at all anymore.

To Dwarf eyes, Elves weren’t especially attractive, far too reedy and angular, but Thorin understood that throughout Arda the Elven race set the standard of beauty, admired and envied by all other races. He supposed this explained why the slender male Bilbo had named Erestor seemed to be protected on all sides at the center of the front group; he was the most slender, delicate-looking thing Thorin had ever seen, with a foxy, triangular face and great dark slanted eyes. Lord Glorfindel had been at his side when they were introduced and although the two never touched, it was fairly clear to Thorin (who was recalling the awkwardness at the curtain wall with Bilbo) that they were very aware of each other.

...and apparently Elrond’s adoptive son was a lanky youngish Man.

Once the introductions were concluded, the Hobbits appeared from the back of the hall to greet the Imladris Elves. Thorin watched as the Thain exchanged bows with Lord Elrond, followed quickly by Bilbo. This didn’t last long, as the twins bounded up (strangely reminiscent of Fíli and Kíli) began to monopolize the scribe between them. Dora and the human son, Estel, seemed pleased to see each other. Erestor hesitantly approached and waited until Bilbo turned and grinned at him; they actually shook hands, and then Bilbo began to look around and waved at Ori to come and meet the other scribe.

“Mahal wept,” Fíli muttered at the picture the three comely creatures presented. Ori, the epitome of shy Dwarven beauty, alongside elegantly petite Erestor and handsome, intelligent Bilbo.

Then Glorfindel followed to stand watchfully behind Erestor and Dwalin stepped up at Ori’s shoulder. The two warriors eyed each other over the shoulders of their companions and Bilbo’s expression turned wry, but then he frowned and glanced at Thorin, offering him a small smile when he saw that the king was watching them.

Fili chuckled from behind his shoulder. “I think you’re being summoned, Uncle.” When Thorin looked at him blankly, the prince rolled his eyes, grabbed his arm and propelled him from the throne dais toward the main floor of milling Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits (with one Man). “How are you this awkward?” the golden-haired Dwarf asked him with some humor, Kíli laughing as he followed.

Their arrival diverted the attention of many of the Elves, who seemed more interested in Fíli , at least until Thorin answered Bilbo’s silent summons and stepped over to join him and his fellow scribes.

“King Thorin, may I introduce Erestor of Imladris?” Bilbo said eagerly. “He is one of the lord’s advisors and also chief scribe.”

“A pleasure, Master Erestor,” Thorin responded dutifully, earning a beaming smile from his Hobbit. “I imagine you and Master Baggins exchanged many letters between you.”

The solemn-looking Elf, hardly taller than Thorin, offered a hesitant smile. “A few, Your Majesty. It was a delight, to learn of the kindly Halflings of the west were not just fables, and that indeed among them were adventurous souls and hungry minds.”

Bilbo sighed. “Always so doubtful, Erestor. You truly can’t believe anything until you’ve seen it.”

The petite Elf sniffed. “That should be the way of every scholar who wishes for the truth of things.”

At the edge of his vision, Thorin could see Fíli and Kíli standing there, gaping stupidly over Erestor’s shoulder at Glorfindel. Inwardly he sighed. “Master Erestor, Lord Glorfindel, I would introduce my nephews, Prince Fíli and Prince Kili. They seem to have heard of a few tales involving the slaying of a Balrog with a hairpin.”

Erestor glanced thoughtfully back at his companion as Glorfindel’s smile spread. “Only the once, and only because my sword had fallen out of reach.”

Fili made a faint high-pitched sound. Thorin took a deep breath and glanced down just in time to see Bilbo pat him on the arm and give him a commiserating look before turning to Ori. “Shall we see this great library of yours soon? I am all impatience to view its wonders.”

Ori nodded. “I was hoping to show you.” He glanced at Erestor. “Dale has an ancient library, but it was long exposed to the elements in a way that Erebor’s was not, although the Master’s librarian tried to gather and preserve the ancient tomes in trying times.”

“It might be an intriguing challenge,” Erestor murmured, chewing on his lip in consideration, “to aid the kingdom of Dale while we reside there; King Bard is our kind host, after all.”

Bilbo and Ori nodded in fellow feeling.

Behind him, Thorin heard Kíli say: “There’s an welcome assembly tonight. Wait until you see the Hobbits dance!”

Chapter Text

Bilbo sighed and smoothed his vest over his stomach, dissatisfied with the way the fabric hung limply; he’d lost enough weight on the journey to be noticeable in the fit of his clothes. Well, until he had time to locate a tailor to take in the sides, or more likely to fill back out again on steady rations, he would have to make do. At least the material, green with copper embroidery, had survived unscathed. He lifted his brown velvet coat, brushing off imaginary dust and slid it on, settling it across his shoulders. Unlike the vest, it was tight, mostly in shoulders.

There was a tap on the door and when he called to enter, Daisy stuck her head in. “Bilbo? The king is here.”

Bilbo nodded, and followed her out into the common room where indeed Thorin, with his nephews and Balin, were speaking with Paladin and Rosalda quietly by the great table. Someone had laid a swath of fabric over bits of something on the table, but Bilbo found himself diverted by Thorin’s brightening smile to such a degree that it made Bilbo self-conscious of his own widening grin.

The king stepped forward, his hands conspicuously behind his back, This did not escape Bilbo’s attention in the slightest and his curiosity was piqued. “Good evening, Master Baggins.”

“Good evening, King Thorin,” he replied politely, admiring the deep blue of Thorin’s tunic and the black and silver over-robe that seemed to accentuate the impressive breadth of his shoulders.

“I have been told that it’s customary in the Shire to put a flower in one’s lapel before proceeding to a gathering,” the Dwarven king continued. “But alas, we do not have a ready supply of flowers here in the mountain.”


“That is a tragedy,” Bilbo agreed, playing along. He thought he knew, now, what Thorin was hiding. From the mischievous grins of Fíli and Kíli behind their uncle, it must have been a remarkably interesting flower, and judging from the surprised reactions of Paladin and Rosalda who could see it from their vantage.

“We are not wholly without. Perhaps something like this might suffice?” Thorin ventured, bringing his hands forward to present Bilbo with a flower.

And it was an exquisite flower made entirely of metal and gemstones, not merely a flat broach with vaguely leaf-shaped stones and simplistic petals as one might find in the Shire, but an identifiable flower, a type of mountain aster. Bilbo blinked, shocked. He knew very little about gemstones, but surely the gold by itself was worth quite a lot, and the detailed inlay of flashing gems ranging from the darkest green to a delicate lavender shade had to have taken quite a bit of skill. “I-” he sputtered, not knowing what to say about such an unexpectedly extravagant gift.

“Laddie, you’re giving the poor boy a heart attack,” Balin scolded Thorin. “It’s all right, Bilbo, there are many more here on the table for all your people to choose from. His Majesty is being overly dramatic.”

Bilbo breathed a great, relieved sigh as Balin drew back the fabric on the table to reveal at least twenty more such flowers of different colors and styles, upon which Paladin and Rosalda descended, transfixed. He then considered the one in Thorin’s hand and the Dwarf’s expression, somewhere between hope and amusement. “Is this one particularly special to you, King Thorin?” he inquired, leery of offending the Dwarf by discounting the offering.

“It was crafted just yesterday,” the Dwarf replied with a little smile. “We opened a cave of beryls this winter and this is the first use of them, our first export by our own hands.”

Bilbo took it from Thorin’s large hand and held it up to the light. “All of them are beryls?”

“Yes. The mine produces varying colors of green and purple.”

“It’s lovely,” Bilbo breathed, then responding to Thorin’s intense scrutiny: “Will it go through the buttonhole, do you think?” He gave the Dwarf what he hoped was an inviting look.

The king stepped close, taking the flower back. “We shall never know until we try,” he said, but having bravely begun, he faltered a little in daring to take the lapel properly in his hands. Bilbo took pity on him and slid his fingers under the material so the buttonhole could be accessible. Once inserted, the gold stem was long enough to allow the head of the flower to rest against the outside of the fabric like a boutonniere. “Perfect.”

Bilbo, who had been watching Thorin’s suddenly serious face and pale blue eyes only hummed in agreement.

Behind him, Daisy made a delighted noise as she found her namesake among the offerings. Bilbo turned to watch his compatriots examine the pieces in awe as Thorin stood at his shoulder. He caught Balin looking at them with a bland expression, as if he were reserving judgment.

Word had spread and the other Hobbits, minus one, emerged to gasp over the sparkling flowers. Fíli seemed particularly distracted, and eventually murmured to Thorin his concerns. Bilbo turned attentively when Thorin said his name. “Where is Mistress Brandybuck?” the king asked in a low voice.

The scribe winced. “In her room.” At Fíli ’s shocked expression, he added quickly: “She’s not a prisoner.” He sighed. “It’s her choice. She can come out into the common room.”

The Hobbits, one after another, stopped talking. And, as if summoned, Amaranth appeared quietly in the doorway to the dining room, with an unfamiliar pensive and tentative expression. Most likely hearing the excitement of her kin and fellow travelers, she’d come to see what was causing such a reaction.

Bilbo closed his eyes in sympathy, then turned to the Dwarrow and watched their expressions as Amaranth advanced slowly into the room and the rest of the Hobbits, one by one, turned away from her and silently withdrew until only she stood by the table.

Thorin’s mouth dropped open at the sight of it and then stared down at Bilbo questioningly. The scribe tried to convey without words the implacable pity necessary to inflict this punishment. Thorin, uncomprehending, looked over his shoulder at the Hobbit lass as she sadly examined the bejewelled flowers, selected one, and sniffling, went away again like a ghost.

“What - what was that?” Fíli exclaimed, blue eyes wide and disconcerted. “Why did you-?”

“It’s her punishment,” Bilbo said softly. “Three days.”

The Hobbits were turning back around to look at the table again as if nothing had happened. Paladin approached, sighing. “It’s hard on her, but it’s supposed to be. It’s hard on everyone. Soon it will be over.”

The Dwarrow were all staring at the Hobbits, perplexed. “I don’t understand,” Kíli whispered plaintively. “This is a punishment?”

Scuning , to be precise,” Bilbo explained. “Do you not having this punishment?”

The Dwarrow shook their heads slowly. The Hobbits murmured in surprise.

“You use exclusion as a punishment,” Balin concluded thoughtfully.

Paladin nodded. “It is effective, for Hobbits.”

“It would not be, for the Dwarrow,” Thorin commented drily. “Many of our kind gladly work in complete isolation, or live without companionship. It is generally not a hardship to be alone.”

“What is a hardship, then?” Paladin Took asked, frowning.

“As punishment? Shaving off of the beard, banishment from the ancestral home,” Balin supplied.

“...a boot to the backside,” Fíli offered with a grin.

“Taking away of the tools or weapons,” Kíli added, mournfully enough to indicate that he had experienced that particular consequence.

“... or breaking them, if the offense is dire,” Thorin amended, giving his nephew a stern look.

“Our peoples are different indeed,” Bilbo managed, after clearing his throat. “After all,” he added, attempting to inject some lightness into the conversation, “we have no beards.”

“That is a tragedy,” Thorin agreed, in the exact tone Bilbo had used earlier in regards to the lack of flowers.

Dís had taken upon herself to precede her brother and sons to make sure everything had run smoothly during the Elves’ tour of Erebor and to supervise the setting up of the hall for the evening’s festivities.

What she found was that the Elves had split up into groups. Some had followed Ori to the library, but the bulk had split between looking at the mines and crafting halls, and touring the trade quarter. She had little worries about Ori’s group of scholars, but she did find herself anxious about some Dwarrow encountering Elves in their places of work.

When she made her way down toward the diamond mines, she was intercepted by Glóin, who bowed and quickly let her know that his brother Óin was explaining the finer points of stone selecting, cutting, and polishing to the delegation. A few, he said, had asked about seeing the process of forging weapons, but since that entire process was a closely guarded trade secret, he had thought instead to ask permission for these particular Elves to see the armory instead.

Dís considered this. There were no weapons in the royal armory that would embarrass the house of Durin, nor any that were so precious that they could not stand the scrutiny of strangers. Such weapons were locked securely in the royal treasury or quarters. She gave Glóin her permission, and decided to go ahead to make sure the guards knew that this was permitted within the limits that those weapons would not leave the armory.

She was still there when Glóin appeared, and with him came Lord Glorfindel, and Elrond’s twin sons followed by a few of their guards, some of which (on closer examination) were female, and the one Man.

The guards at the armory doors stiffened but at her glance unlocked and opened the doors. The Elves seemed startled when the lock set off a series of mechanical processes within the door before opening. Really, did they think a simple lock guarded the weaponry of Erebor?

Servants and guards entered first to light the torches, and the flaring light sparked off the myriad of racks of swords, axes, spears, armor, and shields. The armory had survived the desolation of Smaug merely because the attack was so sudden that it had not been opened, and the weapons that had left with the Dwarrow when they’d fled were those pieces which were ceremonial, personal, or at hand in the guard posts by the gates. Years of dust had lain over everything, but Dwarrow knew their priorities. As soon as the forges had been lit and everyone had a place to lay their head and food to sustain them, the old armories and treasuries had been opened and everything cleaned, restored, and accounted for.

In alcoves, full sets of armor stood on their racks gleaming silver and gold. Helms with the symbols of Durin, and variations of his descendants upon that theme, were displayed in rows. Mounted swords fanned out upon the walls, and walls of spears and long-shafted battle axes marched in rows.

The Elves stepped through this collection of carefully crafted weaponry with admirable reverence. Glorfindel stopped in front of the spears, while Elladan and Elrohir paused at the swords. Estel, their foster brother, meandered until finally coming to rest at a display of royal helms that represented an old-fashioned and curious style of combining battle helmets surmounted by crowns or other indicators of rank, such as replicas of raven wings and circlets of gems. The other Elves interspersed themselves, and one black-haired female guard in a hooded cloak examined the axes. She was slender, as many Elves were, but Dís did not discount her strength. Elves very rarely looked as strong as they were.

“You may handle them,” she said and the woman glanced down at her, startled. Here eyes were a very light gray, rather disconcerting. “If you care to. My favorite was always the glaive here.” She drew one from the rack. “Rather elegant solution to needing a longer reach.”

The Elf took it from her when offered and weighed it in her hand. “It’s different from a spear.”

“Oh, certainly. This is never meant to be thrown, Mistress Elf.”

The woman laughed. “I am Daeris. I am not any sort of person of importance.”

Dis found her eyebrows going up. “Oh, I see.” That certainly did not sound like the truth.

Elves . They were supposed to be subtle, but as she turned to look at the other inhabitants of the room she really wondered if that was just a fable. Elrond’s sons were being overly excited to the point of almost salivating over matching broadswords, and golden Glorfindel had picked the longest, most ornately carved spear in the whole collection to admire, and keeping the two of them in his sights the whole time. Estel was doing a poor job of disguising the fact that he was watching Daeris with the sort of stare a jeweler might reserve for a perfect emerald. The various guards had stopped pretending to keep an eye on the others and were peering intently at the craftsmanship of various pieces of armor.

She wouldn’t say that that they were up to any sort of serious deception, but something was definitely afoot.

Chapter Text

By the time the Hobbits and royal Dwarrow entered the great hall, some of the Elves were there already, standing by the fire with wine in their hands. Lord Elrond was notably among them, and exchanged bows with Thorin and Paladin Took.

When Elrond turned his attention to Bilbo with an intimate friendly smile, Thorin actively resisted his own jealousy. Elrond was tall, willowy and authoritative, with warm gray eyes and an air of scholarship.  Even his voice was rich and deliberate, as if he chose each word ever so carefully. “Master Baggins, always a delight. Such a lovely flower. Aster is it? And so appropriate.”

Thorin’s heart dropped to his stomach. He glanced at Balin but his advisor only responded with a slight shrug. This was then not a particular ignorance on Thorin’s part, but rather a cultural lack of knowledge. The question that formed in Thorin’s mind, with no little amount of dread, was: “Are there inappropriate flowers?”

Bilbo laughed softly, turning half an eye to Thorin. The other Hobbits giggled conspiratorially, and at first Thorin believed he’d asked the question aloud. “I imagine Dwarrow do not understand flower language?” the scribe inquired.

“There’s a flower language?” Kíli asked, answering the question with his confusion. Dora, flanked by the two princes, chuckled.

Thorin looked at the different gem flowers tucked in various Hobbit lapels and bodices. Bilbo made a commiserating sound. “They all say good things, Your Majesty,” he assured him with smile. “Luckily.”

Lord Elrond’s eyes moved from Hobbit to Hobbit, lingering on Dora, who grinned back at him. The lord of Imladris cleared his throat and turned to watch Glorfindel and his sons enter into the hall, following Princess Dís and two big-bearded Dwarrow with broad jeweled belts, one silver-haired and one fiery red. These were Óin and Glóin , brothers, and members of Thorin’s Company, who came to their king directly and bowed low.

Music began to start in the form of a few musicians beginning with simple songs until the rest arrived, and the Elves in mass looked at them in a type of astonishment that could be offensive if it wasn’t so amusing. Elrond blinked. “I was told we would see dancing,” he recalled, and arched an eyebrow at the Thain.

Kíli and Dora immediately advanced to oblige, to the clear approval of the Hobbits and the staring surprise of the Elves. Bilbo crossed his arms over his chest and scrutinized that particular couple, even as more joined in. Thorin watched his expression, which did reflect general approval but also a sort of sardonic resignation.

Thorin looked at Kíli and Dora and saw nothing untoward, except that Kíli had definitely improved since the last time, and clearly though much of the white-blond Hobbit lady, if his air of enjoyment was to interpreted correctly.

Balin remarked: “The prince has certainly come a long way in so short of time.” Thorin caught what might have been the beginning of a laugh from Rosalda before she covered her mouth with her hand. Thorin frowned a little at this, then glanced down at Bilbo, whose lips also seemed to be clamped down to avoid a similar reaction. He wasn’t sure what the joke was, but the Hobbits apparently felt there was something amusing going on.

Another Hobbit, one Thorin had yet to speak to directly, approached from Bilbo’s right. He was taller and broader in the shoulder than most Hobbits, and with blue eyes and brown skin, gave the impression of physical skill under a warm sun. A farmer? He bent and whispered something into Bilbo’s ear and the scribe shook his head with a sigh, dug into his pocket, and handed over a coin.

The other Hobbits finally laughed, albeit softly. “A bet?” Thorin asked, perplexed.

Bilbo nodded. “Dora is a fine teacher, but even she might be challenged by a Dwarf.” The winner of the bet winked at Thorin and strolled off, leaving the king no more enlightened than before.

More Hobbits, and some Dwarrow, began to join up to dance, and the rest of the observers stepped back to give them room. Bilbo made no move to join in, nor did anyone approach him, although several people were keeping their eyes on him as if waiting for something. When Thorin glanced over to his advisor, Balin gave him an expectant look and Fíli rolled his eyes upwards and made a rolling hand gesture as if to say “Go ahead. What are you waiting for?”

What was he waiting for? He glanced down at Bilbo’s wavy, dark red hair with its threads of summer gold and wondered what gold beads would look like in that hair - would they gleam or would they be lost in competition with the gold already there? He might have stood there lost in contemplation had movement from the Elves caused him to make a decision.

One of the twins, Elladan or Elrohir, mischief in his eyes, came strutting his way towards Bilbo and in that second, Thorin made his decision. “Master Baggins,” he said to catch the Hobbit’s attention. Bilbo gave him an attentive and inquisitive smile, ignorant of the Elven interloper. “Would you-” All talking about them seemed to have stopped, and Thorin stumbled briefly in his words, self-conscious. “- would you do me the honor of dancing with me?”

Bilbo considered him, pursed his mouth thoughtfully, and sniffed. “I wasn’t thinking of dancing tonight; I thought we already had this conversation.”

Thorin opened his mouth to argue, only to see Dís frantically shaking her head and then gesturing him to go on. Go on, how? He glanced back at Bilbo, who had half an eye on him and seemed to be waiting for something. Was that a hint of a smile? Was Bilbo teasing him?

“Could you, perhaps, change your mind, if I …” Mahal, why was this so hard? “If I make reparations for my ill-thought comments of the night before?”

The scribe regarded him. Then he glanced around, seemingly becoming aware of the pocket of silence and the attention they were receiving. “I think yes,” he said. “But not this dance.” His sardonic eye indicating the romping pace of the current song and its attendant dancers.

Thorin breathed out in relief. Suddenly, as if a spell had been lifted, conversation came flooding back around them. Balin bent to say something to Rosalda who was smiling. The old Dwarf patted her hand which was, as always, on his arm. The Hobbits were murmuring among themselves and the son of Elrond had turned aside to stop and speak to one of the female Hobbits, the one who always wore a shawl. Lord Elrond himself stood observing all this with a bland expression.

The last of the Elves returned, led by Ori. Erestor the scribe drifted over to Bilbo, and by default Thorin, bowing. “ Ai , Master Bilbo, you have missed out on a wonder,” the lovely thing said. “There are a few volumes that you will find most interesting in the library of Erebor.” The large dark eyes slid to Thorin. “I congratulate you, Your Majesty, on the fortunate preservation of your library.”

Thorin wasn’t sure what he should say to this. “We are indeed fortunate,” he agreed and watched as the scribe made his way to the Imladris Elves, and in particular Glorfindel, which seemed to prove Thorin’s personal theory about them.

Bilbo gave Thorin a smile. “Erestor is beautiful, is he not?” the Hobbit commented in a dry tone that suggested that he was aware of the overall admiration the Elven scribe garnered.

“If one cares for such…” Thorin murmured with an answering smile. “At least he’s not so tall and angular like most Elves.”

Bilbo laughed. “I keep forgetting - Dwarrow are different.”

“I should hope so.” He tried not to sound affronted.

“It’s good,” Bilbo commented, but did not elaborate. The song had ended and the strains of something slower began. The Hobbit gave Thorin a familiar half-glance, which Thorin was already starting to interpret as Bilbo requiring him; he dutifully offered his arm to the scribe and walked with him toward the area opened up for dancing.

There was a hush and many curiously avid eyes following their progress. Balin followed with Rosalda and Fíli this time escorted Dora with much more formality than his younger brother. Dís snagged Óin, the reason becoming clear when the older gentleman gracefully spun her into the dance space. Thorin blinked in shock. For a Dwarf of the older generation, public dancing was almost unknown. He narrowed his eyes at his sister who gave him a playful smile as she swung past. He found himself chuckling at her blithe expression, and when he glanced down at his own partner, found the Hobbit examining him as if he was something new and strange.

Facing Bilbo, Thorin took his hand in one of his and that scrutinizing look faded into astonishment when the Dwarf placed the other hand on his waist and confidently moved them into the dance. Thankfully, the rhythm was a familiar one, and it was a couples dance, not a structured social dance. He could concentrate on the warmth and strength of Bilbo’s hand in his, the solidness of him under layers of coat, vest, and shirt. His green eyes looked up into Thorin’s face, as if trying to study it.

“What would you like to know, Master Baggins, that puts such a look on your face?” he asked.

“I am trying to make out your character,” Bilbo responded in a peeved voice.

“And how is that proceeding?”

“Very ill. I have so many impressions of you, and none of them agree.”

Thorin, who was not often accused of having a changeable nature, puzzled through this. “This is perhaps not the best time to try to capture my character, with so many new experiences diverting my usual path.”

The scribe’s eyebrows quirked. “If I do not do so now, when shall I?”

Thorin was struck, then, by the unpleasant reminder that Bilbo and his party of Hobbits were a temporary presence. He could feel his mouth lose its smile, and his eyes dipped momentarily and alighted on the beryl-studded flower in Bilbo’s lapel. The Hobbit, looking concerned at this change of countenance, glanced down too.

“What does it mean,” Thorin asked roughly, trying to regain his momentum. “What does … aster mean in flower language?”

Bilbo’s smile was small and gentle. “Aster means love and patience.”

In that moment, suddenly Thorin knew many things. He knew that this small being with his observant eyes and sharp mind was more to him than just a Hobbit scribe visiting from a far away land. He knew that he wanted to know Bilbo more than he had every wanted to know another, and that surprisingly he was willing to be known in return if it meant the growth of warmth he felt every time he saw the Hobbit. He knew that the impulse to give Bilbo golden crafts from his own hand was the farthest thing from gold sickness that he could travel, for the impulse came not from the love of gold, but a love of a very different sort.

And he knew that he wanted Bilbo never to leave.

Chapter Text

In Erebor, there were Dwarves whose job it was to take messages up the Ravenhill and back down again. This Bilbo discovered when he’d asked Ori how he could speak with Karaic and give her his letter to his parents in the Shire; the scribe had stared at him blankly.

It appeared that the scribes of Erebor rarely ever spoke to the Ravens, and never walked up to Ravenhill. The Scriveners Guild wrote the messages. The Messengers Guild took the messages where they needed to go.

“Oh, dear,” said Bilbo. “I have so wanted to speak to Karaic.”

Ori chewed his lip, and then brightened. “Oh, well, if it’s a visit to a Raven, then that would be all right! Strange, but all right. Just don’t hand your letter to the Ravens. Give it to a messenger.”

Bilbo shook his head. He was beginning to realize how compartmentalized Dwarf society was. Certainly, Hobbits had jobs and skills, but it was common practice for folk to oblige when there was a need. The farmer didn’t take offense if someone grew their own vegetables and shared them with their neighbors; the wagonwright did not resent the carpenter for repairing a stranded traveler’s cart.

However, if Bilbo dared to deliver his letter to Ravenhill, circumnavigating the Messengers Guild, he could earn the enmity of every messenger in the mountain.

“I do not understand it, but I’ll hand it over even though I could just as easily deliver it when I go up to Ravenhill.”

“Dwarrow take their jobs very seriously,” Ori said, rather unnecessarily, Bilbo thought.

Not a single Hobbit had an interest in making the trip to the Ravens; the large birds seemed unnatural to them, if not frightening. It was, surprisingly, Dwalin who showed up to take him up to Ravenhill. Bilbo couldn’t recall exchanging more than two words with the strong and stoic Dwarf, although he was very much aware that Dwalin and Thorin were very close. To the casual observer, perhaps, their relationship appeared to be that of a king and his captain, but Bilbo wasn’t a casual observer of anything. It hadn’t taken long to see that Dwalin had Thorin’s ear as well as his back.

Bilbo suspected that Dwalin would eventually have something to say on the subject of the King under the Mountain, but the hike up to Ravenhill was mostly done in silence; Bilbo didn’t mind. Part of the journey was outside, a carved path skirting crags of stone, winding upwards until he could see wheeling Ravens circling a massive outcrop of rock, black against a cloudy sky. After days in the mountain, Bilbo felt a bit exposed under the open sky, and from Dwalin’s occasional glances upwards, Dwarrow were not unfamiliar with that sensation.  

As the path skirted the great outcropping, a building carved into the side of the mountain presented itself, ravens carved on either side of the massive doors. Dwalin stopped there, even though the path ventured past it and on up to the mouth of a massive cave. Bilbo wondered what sort of Dwarf would willingly live this close to the surface.

A large, black haired Dwarf with an intricately braided beard was waiting for them just inside and came forward when they approached. He looked at Dwalin with barely a flicker of emotion, but then glanced down at Bilbo and nodded. “Yes, you must be the Hobbit who feeds Karaic cake,” he said with every sign of approval.

“Ah, yes,” Bilbo replied, bowing. “Bilbo Baggins at  your service.”

“Azan, Master  of the Rookery, at yours,” the Dwarf returned, regarding him with very pale eyes. “She will be pleased. And perhaps she will cease her endless chattering about Shire.”

Bilbo coughed. “The Shire,” he corrected. “She did seem to have some partiality for our little country.”

“Ravens are ruled by a few rudimentary drives, and the Ravens of Mandos are no stranger to them either,” the Master said, motioning them out the door and walking with them up the path. “Food is foremost. A Raven who can scavenge well is physically healthy, attracts an equally healthy mate, builds a good nest, and produces strong chicks who can carry on the mandate of Erebor.”

“And after food?”

Azan sighed. “Bright things.” He glanced down at Bilbo. “You might want to consider a hood. Many a bird might prefer strands of your hair in their nests; it is nesting season, after all.”

Bilbo ran a hesitant hand through his hair. Come to think of of, Azan wore not a single item made of metal or gems, almost unknown among even the plainest Dwarrow, although his thick, black leather tunic was a wonder of design - the image of feathers worked into the shoulders and along the back.

Karaic had not asked for shiny things, and Bilbo could guess why. The Shire was not particularly metal-rich, and gemstones were rare except for special occasions. It was, of course, food -rich. Karaic’s appetite had accepted almost every offering Belladonna Baggins could cook up, but her favorites had been corn cake and seed cake, neither of which Bilbo had discovered in Erebor yet.

They climbed the path up to a great shelf of stone in front of the massive cave entrance. Ravens called in grating cries, and some came circling down lower, clearly recognizing the Master of the Rookery. A few alighted on ledges carved in the rock face next to the cave opening.

“Someone fetch Karaic, if you please,” the master told them and one took to the sky and flapped into the great cave itself. He turned to Bilbo. “No Dwarf may enter into the cave of Ravenhill; the nests are diligently protected here by the unkindness of Ravens.”

“Like a murder of crows?”

“Or a building of rooks.”

Dwalin made a sound that communicated a general disdain for the topic of conversation but Bilbo rolled his eyes and a small smile quirked the lips of the Master of the Rookery. And out of the mouth of the cave came the large wingspan of the iridescent black shine of Karaic.

“Bilbo Baggins!” she shrilled.

“Good afternoon, Mistress Karaic,” he called back, waving.

She swept up to them, and dropped down onto Master Azan’s gloved fist. Standing on the ground, she came up to Bilbo’s shoulder. She was was still immense, but less intimidating compared to the height of the master. She cocked her head one way to examine him with one round black eye, then turned her head and regarded him with the other. “They feed you in the mountain,” she said baldly.

Bilbo laughed. “Yes, all the meals.”

“You will find a mate and be fed, and make your nest-” She chortled, making a gurgling sounds like a fast moving creek. “Your bed,” she amended. “You are male and cannot lay eggs, but there are always chicks to watch over, to feed, and to teach.”

Dwalin coughed into his fist, and made a show of watching one or two smaller Ravens who were walking about them, examining them. One sidled up to Bilbo and Karaic shrieked: “You go away, fledgeling. Cake-giver is mine!”

It hopped back, making deep-throated sounds, and Dwalin guffawed.

Bilbo, disconcerted, stared at the big Dwarf, eventually deciding he wasn’t going to encourage this sort of behavior, and turned to Master Azan.

“Bilbo Cake-giver,” the master mused with an odd little smile.

Bilbo, to his horror, began to understand. Dwarrow used epithets which described an admirable characteristic of a person. Balin had not hesitated to tell the Hobbit delegation about the battle that had earned Thorin the appellation “Oakenshield.” Now, Bilbo was looking at the possibility of being labeled with “Cake-giver” and he was not amused.

“That would be the surest way to inspire me to relocate to Dale,” the scribe warned with a malevolent look at Dwalin, who was still chuckling.

Karaic hopped down to the ground and tipped her head at him. “Not Dale!” she cried. “Dale men throw stones at us. Rude Dale men.”

Bilbo looked at the master, surprised, but Azan shook his head. “Usually when the Ravens get too close to their fruit trees and gardens.”

“Cake-giver should stay here, find a mate, build a bed, and I can take his letters to his beautiful mother.” Karaic seemed pleased with this statement and chuckled to herself, as if to congratulate herself on her cleverness.

“His mother who bakes cakes,” Dwalin guessed.

“And since Mistress Karaic has planned out my future, perhaps she had better tell me who she has picked out for my mate,” Bilbo drawled, shaking his head in exasperation and crossing his arms.

The Raven fluffed up her feathers. “Only mate knows mate,” Karaic scolded.

“Well, thank goodness for that!” Bilbo exclaimed. “I am glad to hear I will be able to make that decision myself.”

Karaic’s deep sounds of amusement rang in his ears.

 

Dwalin still had a bit of a smile when they hiked back down into the mountain. Bilbo doubted it had much to do with Karaic’s antics but with some inner humor that the Hobbit did not yet understand.

“I have never thought to see Thorin dance in public,” the captain said finally.

Bilbo blinked, and glanced up at the Dwarf. “Now that is interesting,” he mused. “He clearly can dance. He never stepped on my toes, and even I have to admit, Hobbit toes are far easier to step on than those of other partners he might have picked.”

Dwalin grunted in assent. Now that was more like the behavior Bilbo expected from the Dwarf. “I didn’t say he couldn’t . I only said he hasn’t .”

Bilbo hummed to himself, smiling. “I hope you’re not implying I have some sort of nefarious power over your king, for all the whispers my cousin began.”

Dwalin snorted. “Thorin is stubborn and hardheaded like all children of Durin,” he said. “The only power over him is his own doubts.”

Bilbo frowned. “I would think that the King under the Mountain would have few doubts, but I will be the first to admit that I do not know the whole story of King Thorin or the reclaiming of Erebor. Not for lack of trying; no one seems willing to speak of it with any detail.”

The captain said nothing for a long moment, then sighed. “Then, Scribe, if it is of any import to you, get you to the library.”

Bilbo supposed that was as much a blessing as he would ever get.

Chapter Text

The atmosphere of the Library of Erebor was dramatically different from anything Bilbo had experienced in the mountain so far. There was depth to the silence there that informed the Hobbit of all the unobtrusive sounds he’d been unaware of elsewhere. Here, sound was muffled by something under the gleaming black stone walls, mined (Ori said) from ancient obsidian deposits deep inside the mountain.

Light was also more strategic; glass-enclosed geometric lamps created a field of bright stars, clustered over tables and desks. In many places in the mountain, natural light could be guided into certain public spaces through reflection tunnels, but except for the doors into it, the library seemed to have no connection to the outside world.

Ori sent him to a quiet table behind rows of oak shelves filled with scrolls and books. He could smell the tree resin from the wood intermingled with aging paper, and inhaled deep, smiling. Ori followed him with a stack of books and a thick cushion for one of the dwarf-sized chairs. Bilbo had brought his own writing kit, journal, and papers.

“These are the books in Westron, on various subjects concerning the people of Middle-earth,” Ori explained. “Some are the Scriveners Guild’s narrative of the reclaiming of Erebor. And this…” Ori pulled a tome from the top, innocuously bound in plain leather. “Is my account.”

“You were there, were you not?” Bilbo inquired. “One of the Company?”

“You’ve heard of the Company?”

“It may have been mentioned in conversation” Bilbo temporized, unsure of how much of a secret the information was supposed to be. “Isn’t it in Khuzdul, your account?”

“As my master’s piece, I transcribed my original journal, then translated it to Westron and SIndarin.” The Dwarven scribe blushed at Bilbo’s astonished look. “This is the Westron.”

“Good heavens,” Bilbo breathed, picking up the tome and opening it reverently. “What an amazing achievement!”

Grinning, Ori ducked his head. “I’ll leave you to your reading. I’ll be working at the main desk.”

Bilbo waved his thanks and sorted his work space, pulling out paper and uncapping his ink bottle. His quill pen needed trimming. Finally, he dedicated his time to reading Ori’s account. It read something like this:

I Ori, son of Frori, shall tell the true account of Prince Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, who would have been King under the Mountain but for the calamity of the dragon Smaug, and how with twelve companions he reclaimed the Lonely Mountain for the Dwarrows of Erebor in the year 2931 of the Third Age.

Bilbo scratched his head at the very formal style, but flipping ahead a few pages it didn’t relent. He supposed it was the established way of writing for historical narratives.

Shrugging, he dipped his pen and began to take his notes of the facts, as Ori’s writing flowed sequentially from Thorin’s decision at the maturation of his nephews to form a company to ascertain if the dragon Smaug yet lived within the Lonely Mountain. Bofur had stolen into an ancient side passage found in the annals of Ered Luin’s writings but the heat of the dragon had driven him back out, to confirm that it yet lived.

Thus, Thorin had returned to Lake-town to negotiate with the Master there.

Bilbo paused, frowning to himself. He stood, stretched, and found his way towards the front of the library where Ori was deep in study of a huge tome. “Master Ori,” he asked and waited until Ori could redirect his attention. “Could you tell me about the Master of Lake-town?”

The scribe rubbed at his eyes, sighing. “It isn’t a  particular secret, Master Baggins, but it is rather shocking. The Master of Lake-town was a man who had inherited that title from previous masters, and kept that position through bribery and hoarding of tax monies. King Thorin’s arrival was an upheaval of the established way of doing things; the guilds wanted to back our plans for retaking the Mountain, but the Master was reluctant to relinquish his power in the town. When our king started to negotiate with the Greenwood, the guilds interpreted this as potential loss of gold because of the Master’s greed. He was…” Ori chewed his lip. “He was forcefully removed from office, and the masters of the guilds took up as a ruling body to negotiate with King Thorin in his place. When they finally got the master’s keys from his lackey and opened the treasury, they were shocked to find enough gold to feed the whole town for years on end. It hadn’t been a particularly good year to begin with, with some unfortunate deaths the previous winter, and I’m sorry to say the general grief hadn’t died down. Someone killed the Master not soon after.”

Bilbo’s eyes had grown bigger and bigger at this story. “I suppose I should read on, then, to find out how Bard became king.”

Ori grinned. “It’s a good story. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.”

So Bilbo returned to his place at the table and read on. He was noting down facts from Ori’s retelling of Thranduil’s army arriving in Lake-town (what a spectacle that must have been!) when a flicker of movement diverted his attention. He looked up, and there was Thorin, standing by the bookshelves, watching him.

“Ah, good afternoon?” Bilbo said, after clearing his throat.

“Actually, good evening,” the king drawled with a small smile.

“Oh?” Bilbo paused, evaluating. Yes, he was actually rather hungry, now that he was paying attention. “Oh dear. How long have I been at it?”

“Ori says since mid-morning, and it is now going on late afternoon.”

Bilbo chuckled. “Isn’t that just typical? I used to do this all the time when I was a tween.”

“‘Tween’?”

“In my twenties. I’d hole up with this or that book, and the next thing I knew, my mother was taking me by the ear and marching me off to dinner.” He shuffled his notes together, dried off his pen tip, and capped his ink bottle. “Am I needed elsewhere? I hope I haven’t inconvenienced anyone.”

“Some of us missed your company at the common meal,” Thorin replied with a brand of nonchalance that immediately caused suspicion in the Hobbit’s mind.

Bilbo paused in his general closing-up-shop movements and regarded the Dwarven king. As always, his first thoughts were not meant to be said - about broad shoulders, hooded pale blue eyes and a wealth of thick black hair only slightly tamed by braids and glinting silver beads. Thorin was so terribly and regally handsome that Bilbo often had to inwardly reprimand himself when he caught himself staring.

Tonight, Thorin’s expression was not as stony as usual, that is to say, vaguely telling of his mood. He looked… well, on a Hobbit it would be admiration, but what was there to admire in Bilbo scribbling away at his notes? Certainly, it was a softer expression than the scribe was used to seeing.

Bilbo tilted his head, scrutinizing. “Oh? I did not think I had that much to contribute. But I am sorry to miss the company of so many pleasant people.” He dared to raise his eyes directly to Thorin’s and watched them darken. A moment, charged with some nameless emotion, held that connection suspended until Ori appeared.

“Bilbo, did you -- Oh, Your Majesty. You are still here?”

Thorin sighed, turning. “Dwalin has been asking for you, Master Ori.”

The scribe visibly gulped, face flushing. “Oh, yes, well, perhaps it’s time I finished up for the day…” and then he wandered off, mumbling to himself.

“Subtle you are not,” Bilbo laughed teasingly. “What are you up to?”

“I was hoping to walk with you later, and show you the new mine,” the king said softly.

“A mine? You mean, like a cave? Of what?”

The king shook his head. “Hobbits,” he murmured. “Will you let me surprise you?”

Bilbo smiled helplessly. He could imagine a great many surprises he’d be willing to allow Thorin. “Yes, King Thorin. You may surprise me.”

He heard Thorin inhale sharply, but all the Dwarf said was: “Good.”


It had been three days, and as he had promised, the Thain ended the restrictions of Amaranth’s scuning . The whole while, mealtimes had been a strain, whether Amaranth chose to take her meals in her room, delivered by Dodi, or to eat in the common room where no one could acknowledge her presence.

For the afternoon meal, Dodi disappeared in the back rooms and emerged some time later with his sister on his arm. BIlbo had tried to predict Amaranth’s reaction to the end of her social seclusion, and the only thing he knew was that whatever she did it would be to her own benefit. No three days of scuning could change the fundamental elements of a Hobbit’s character, and all her life Amaranth’s main concern had been her own promotion. Would she attempt to solicit pity or admiration? Would she resent Dora, Bilbo or the Thain for the parts they played, and act accordingly?

Amaranth’s golden curls were pulled back in a severe and low chignon and the entirety of her hair was covered by an open-weave snood sewn all over with glittering black beads. It would not look amiss on a rich widow in the Shire.

Instead of one of her brightly colored sophisticated dresses, Amaranth wore her darkest teal skirts, a crisp white shirt and a black bodice embroidered all over in jet beads in swirling lines.

At Bilbo’s side, Dora made a low sound. “She’s been embroidering this whole time,” the lady commented, in a tone somewhere between awe and confusion.

As the Brandybuck lady came forward to curtsy deeply to the Thain, and then contritely to Bilbo, the scribe realized that Amaranth was acknowledging the consequences of her actions - she’d endangered, and perhaps ruined, her own chances of finding a match in Erebor. Her clothing and hair reflected this, symbolically labeling her as a widow.

As Amaranth turned to greet her fellow companions, Bilbo also realized that her apparel gave her the look of a high born lady of experience. It gave her a look of maturity. With the glittering net on her hair and her bodice showing off her handiwork, she was also advertising her wealth and skill.

Just like the Dwarrow.

Chapter Text

Paladin regarded Bilbo soberly. “The king wants to take you to see the mines?” he clarified. “Alone?”

Bilbo glared. “Cousin, I am a grown gentlehobbit, and King Thorin isn’t …”

“Isn’t -?” the Thain prompted. His sister Rosalda’s eyebrows rose inquiringly as well. They were seated at the end of the dining table with Bilbo after the other Hobbits had drifted away to their own endeavors after Amaranth’s return to society.

Bilbo chewed his lower lip self-consciously. “... courting me.” He winced at how forlorn that sounded. “Or even romantically-”

Rosalda Took giggled, covered her mouth, and then gave it up as a bad job and laughed . Even her brother stared at her. “Bilbo Baggins!” she chuckled. “Even you cannot be that naive!”

“I beg your pardon,” he responded stiffly.

“Cousin,” Paladin began in a conciliatory tone, ‘it has been clear to us almost from the first day that Thorin Oakenshield had a special interest in you.”

Bilbo opened his mouth, closed it, and scratched an ear. “I hate to argue…”

“He danced with you - the Dwarf who never dances,” Paladin pointed out.

“And I did not imagine that moment on the wall,” Rosalda added.

Bilbo blushed against his will, recalling Thorin’s large hand at his elbow, his strong unmoving presence

“And now he wants to take you, just you, to see the mines,” Paladin concluded. “Bilbo, you need a chaperone.”

“I am not some lily-maiden,” Bilbo protested. “What do you imagine might happen in a mine , for heaven’s sake?”

“So you have considered what might happen while you’re alone with him?” Rosalda delved, dark blue eyes alight.

“That is - That is none of your business, Mistress Took!”

Paladin guffawed. “Come now, cousin! You should be honest, especially with yourself.”

“Hope and knowledge are two different things,” Bilbo admitted. “I am never sure, but I hope.” He rubbed at his eyes. “I still think the odds of him wanting -” He glanced at Rosalda, unwilling to finish that sentence in her company.

“Oh, he certainly has designs on your virtue,” she said with a smile.

As Paladin laughed, Bilbo stomped his foot. “No chaperones!”

Tom Cotton lounged by Bilbo’s fire, smoking thoughtfully as Bilbo laid out his waistcoats, bushing the wrinkles from them with light hands.

“Well well, my dear Bilbo,” the farmer observed, with a smile, “it appears this isn’t a mere stroll you’re contemplating.”

His friend stood back from the selection of clothing spread out on his bed to consider all his choices. “Well, it may turn out to be a bit of a stroll,” the Hobbit murmured, his head tilted this way and that in contemplation.

“The King of Erebor doesn’t go walking with just anyone,” Tom countered, practicing a smoke ring. “If I were a betting Hobbit…”

Bilbo sighed. “Which you are.”

“Which I am, yes. I would definitely bet in the favor of the king initiating something tonight. He has the look of someone with important questions on his mind.” Tom chuckled. “If he’s anything like his nephews, I should think we would know what questions those are.”

“That is my point of confusion, certainly,” Bilbo replied. “He has not shown himself to be like his nephews, but how am I to know anything about Dwarven customs?”

“You think they’re like us, all for bedsport when young and expected to settle with family at a certain age?”

“I don’t think so. Most Dwarrow appear to be unmarried, and the princes seem to be the only ones actively, er…”

“Tupping?” Tom supplied with a smokey grin, using the old and rather agricultural word.

“If you must,” Bilbo responded primly, and then picked up a gold embroidered waistcoat triumphantly. “This, I think, with the bottle-green coat.”

“Mm,” Tom agreed. “You always look your best in green.”

Bilbo sighed, turning. “Look, Tom, are you quite all right with all this? I’ve never asked, and only assumed -”

“Oh, I’m quite all right, old man,” Tom Cotton replied easily. “Don’t go bothering yourself over what’s past.” He knocked the ash from his pipe into the fireplace. “I certainly don’t.”

Bilbo paused in putting away the unwanted pieces of clothing and turned back to look at Tom thoughtfully. There were more than a few reasons why their youthful dalliance hadn’t matured into a more faithful and long-lasting arrangement, and one of them was Tom’s airy nature, and his general refusal to take things seriously. “Yes,” he said, “I see that you don’t.”

“Well, I wish you all the luck,” his friend responded with a glint in the eye. “He’s impressive, if rather a stick in the mud, but perhaps you can bring him around. You’ve always had a way with bringing folk around.” Tom rose, touched his knuckle to his forehead, and left.

Bilbo frowned at this abruptness and then sighed. “Well, that’s that,” he murmured to himself.

Outside the main hall, he met Thorin, whose dour expression lightened when he caught sight of the scribe approaching. Bilbo bowed politely and Thorin nodded back. “Shall we?” he asked, and swept his arm toward one of the many arched passageways.

“It didn’t occur to me to ask just how much walking we’d be doing,” Bilbo remarked as a wide stone stairway presented itself and they began to descend. “Although I’ll admit that the walk down isn’t the part that concerns me.”

Thorin chuckled. “It’s not the worst walk - only four levels down.”

“I thought it was a new mine?”

“You recall correctly. It was discovered when damage was being cleared. Smaug’s destruction had cracked open new caves, and when we cleared the rubble, this particular cave was uncovered for the first time not far from existing mines.”

“A pleasant surprise?”

Thorin quirked a bitter smile. “It was a much-needed surprise at the time.”

“Ah.” Yes, Bilbo could try to imagine what the Dwarrow may have discovered while taking back their mountain. Morbidly, he wondered if there had even been skeletons left after dragonfire - had there merely been sad artefacts like echoes of those who had died so long ago?

Guards in armor were standing at the foot of the stairwell, and stood to attention at Thorin’s appearance. Thorin nodded and led Bilbo down another set of stairs. By the third set, the lack of railings was beginning to concern the Hobbit, particularly as the stone were increasingly damp the lower they went. Torches lined the walls to provide light but beyond the steps it grew darker and darker until he could only see a few steps ahead and behind with any sort of detail.

At the head of the fourth stairwell, Bilbo paused. Thorin looked at him with concern. “What is it?”

“Dwarrow can see in the dark?” Bilbo guessed with a smile. “For all I can tell, one misstep and I’ll be falling for ages.”

The king’s expression eased. “In the dark, we see better than any other race except perhaps Goblins.”

The other mountain dwelling race, Bilbo noted.

“But I thought Hobbits also lived underground?” Thorin added.

“We do, and we’re comfortable underground, but it’s merely a place of safety and rest. We’re really built for life above ground… including our eyes.” He glanced at the stairs before them. “And these eyes see imminent death.”

The king chuckled. “Just stay to the side of the wall and I’ll keep the dangerous side.”

Bilbo snorted as Thorin maneuvered to his right. “So, for me, actual death or political death? If the king of Erebor goes down, you realize, I might as well take the leap too.”

“Cheeky,” Thorin muttered, and offered his arm. “We’ll go down together, then.’

Bilbo laughed. He sobered as they made their way down, too anxiously watching his own feet to make light of the situation. Thorin found himself very aware of the Hobbit’s light touch on his forearm and when the clutch of his hand tightened at a particular treacherous-looking step. It felt a bit like stepping into role he was made to play, quite unlike the dissonance of stepping into his grandfather’s place in Erebor.

Soon they were on the fourth level, and Thorin guided Bilbo through various guarded doors, and then a couple he had to unlock and were unguarded. The final door was clearly new, and the locking mechanism created a lot of interesting sounds as the Thorin turned the key, although Bilbo could see very little movement from the outside until the king grasped the handle and giving Bilbo a significant glance, opened it. He took a torch from the wall and thrust it high inside.

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open as the light from the flame began a cascade of bright radiance across green glittering pillars that seemed to have fallen off kilter this way and that. As the light moved, the scribe saw that the pillars were growing out of the floor, and were in fact shards of giant crystals reflecting green and purple light across a great cave filled everywhere. “By the Lady,” he breathed, amazed, staring around them.

Thorin crossed his arms and watched, pleased at the reaction as Bilbo stepped forward as if in a dream, turning slowly. The Hobbit turned wide eyes to the king, and he said: “What are they?”

The Dwarf blinked, and frowned at the Hobbit’s ignorance. “Beryls.”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows expectantly. “And what are ... beryls?”

Thorin exhaled a long breath. Was this a particular Hobbit lack of knowledge? “A type of crystal that we shape and cut into gems.”

Bilbo’s eyes grew round, and he spun to stare at the immense beautiful crystals. Thorin expected amazed and awed praises to the skills of the Dwarrow, but the scribe said, “Why would you cut them? They’re amazing!”

Thorin opened his mouth, and then closed it again, perplexed. “... because they must be used. Beauty is the fulfillment of not just appearance, but of functionality and purpose.”

The Hobbit’s eyes blazed, and he planted his fists on his hips. “Thorin Oakenshield, that is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard!”

Chapter Text

“Are you telling me that something cannot be beautiful in of itself? A tree cannot stand without it being cut down for some purpose? A rock cannot abide without it being carved?” Bilbo ranted, throwing up his hands in exasperation.

Thorin watched him, stunned, as the little scribe circled in the small space cleared along the floor of the cave of giant green and lavender crystals, his voice raised in passionate protest.

“Look at these! They’re majestic and amazing. In the Shire, Hobbits would see these as monuments.” Bilbo turned to look at Thorin, and paused. Thorin’s silent staring had made an impression.

In the silence, Thorin cleared his throat. “You used my name,” he rasped.

Bilbo stilled, eyes growing wide. “Oh?” he replied uncertainly. Then: “ Oh .” Thorin Oakenshield, that is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard! “I - I do apologize, Your Majesty!”

Thorin shook his head. “No. No, that’s not-” He took a deep breath as Bilbo’s dark green eyes watched him, wide open. “...I liked it.”

Bilbo’s mouth softened in surprise. “Oh?” A charged beat later, he managed: “That - that’s good? You may call me Bilbo, you know.”

“Might I?” Thorin murmured, stepping closer. “Thank you… Bilbo.”

The scribe blinked, and something made his eyes darken, something that Thorin instinctively reacted to, swallowing.

“I-” Bilbo turned, gesturing about them. “I can see why you wanted to bring me here. It’s beautiful, Thorin.” He smiled up at him, tremulously.

It was something in that look that gave Thorin the courage to say: “This wasn’t the only reason to bring you here, Bilbo. I have … some questions.”

The scribe drew a sharp breath, but did not look particularly surprised. “I see. Should I be sitting down for this?”

The king was about to say no, but then examining the Hobbit peering up at him, he thought that perhaps he had a good idea. Bilbo snorted at his expression, and turned to hop up on a carved shelf, a small figure underneath towering crystal pillars. Thorin carried the torch he’d been holding and found the sconce by the doors, then returned to stand almost eye to eye with the Hobbit who was starting to bite his thumbnail in obvious nervousness.

When Bilbo self-consciously dropped his hand, Thorin impulsively took it in his own and raised it to his lips. What he saw in Bilbo’s wide eyes and heard in his held breath answered his first question straight away. Pressing his mouth to the smooth firmness of the back of the small hand in his answered a more private doubt he had held in secret as he felt his own heart start to quicken. “Bilbo,” he asked quietly, “may I kiss you?”

Bilbo’s eyelids drooped and his hand tightened in Thorin’s. “Oh, I think you had better,” he breathed. That was enough consent for the king to take the final step closer and slide his free hand around the Hobbit’s waist. A small soft sound from Bilbo was all Thorin needed to surge forward and capture his lips in a determined kiss. They both groaned into the contact, clutching fast and mouths opening urgently. Bilbo grasped Thorin by the shoulders and Thorin’s large hands nearly encompassed Bilbo’s waist as they strove to press closer. The urgency of the kiss sustained them for long moments, but Bilbo’s hands slid up into Thorin’s hair to hold his cheeks and slowly they calmed and he opened blue eyes to stare at Bilbo. Foreheads together, they breathed in tandem.

“Are you-?” Thorin began but Bilbo sighed.

“You kiss like a charging army,” he murmured with a soft smile.

“Yes?”

“I’d rather you kissed like saying hello,” the Hobbit murmured.

This did not seem such an onerous task and Thorin pressed softly this time. When Bilbo opened to him, making a high, yearning sound, the Dwarf felt everything in him ignite and burn. This slow exploration turned molten, and they shifted so close that Thorin’s mind - or what little of his mind was available to him - began to question propriety.

Eventually Bilbo seemed to come to the same conclusion and they slowed and gentled their kisses until, sighing, they pulled away enough to see each others’ eyes.

“Was that your only question?” the Hobbit finally whispered.

“It definitely leads to another.”

Bilbo’s hand lifted, tracing down an unruly length of black hair and gently pushing it back from Thorin’s face. “I’m listening.”

“How do Hobbits court?”

“What? Oh,” the scribe breathed, startled. “Oh. Mm. Well, we walk together, attend social events together, introduce each other to our families, exchange gifts, and if that goes well, we exchange rings and announce an engagement for marriage. If that doesn’t go well… the lesser in status keeps the rings to recompense for a potential blow to their reputation.”

Thorin recognized most of these as familiar except for the last. “Why would reputation be at risk?”

Bilbo dropped his face into Thorin’s collar and mumbled: “Well, folks are allowed to be, mm, together after the announcement of courting.”

Thorin found himself smiling foolishly into Bilbo’s wavy hair. “Oh, that does sound promising.”

Bilbo snorted. “How do Dwarrow court, then?” he challenged teasingly.

“A formal request to court, public announcement of courting, exchange of beads and crafted gifts, engagement, marriage. It may end at any time, but usually any incompatibility is discovered early on.”

Bilbo nodded thoughtfully. Thorin added: “My only worry is that you would leave before I could ask.”

“Ask.. to kiss me?”

“Don’t be coy.”

The clever little Hobbit bit down on a smile. “So, ask then.”

“Will you accept me as your suitor? Will you allow me to court you?”

The Hobbit inhaled sharply and said shakily, “That’s a big step; we don’t know each other.” From his hopeful look and leading tone, Thorin knew with some relief that it wasn't rejection, but it was caution.

“And how am I to get to know you if you leave after my coronation?”

Bilbo nodded. “Yes, I have also thought about that, but I didn’t know- I didn’t know if you were even…”

“I am. Are you? Bilbo, do you want to try?”

“Make no mistake. From the first moment I ever saw you, Thorin Oakenshield, I have wanted to know you, and be known by you.” Bilbo clasped the Dwarf’s face between his hands, regarding him with solemn, assessing eyes for a long moment before beginning to grin. “I do want to stay; I want to try.” He kissed Thorin, pecking at the king’s lips playfully until the Dwarf pecked back, chuckling.

They were caught up in a wordless communication for long moments until Bilbo’s keen ears picked up sounds and echoing voices approaching. He pulled from Thorin, frowning toward the door, and Thorin took warning, whispering: “What is it?”

“Your sister, and …” Bilbo’s countenance darkened considerably. “... the Thain.”

Thorin muttered a curse in his native tongue, stepping regretfully back from Bilbo. His own ears were now beginning to hear two voices, indistinct. Bilbo slid from his perch and neatened himself and closed his coat completely in front; Thorin grinned and the Hobbit gave him a mock glare.

Just as the voices seem about to come within a stone’s throw, Bilbo without warning exclaimed: “Not everything in life has a practical application, Your Majesty!”

Startled, Thorin stared, but Bilbo’s expectant and encouraging expression spurred him to respond loudly: “Oh, is that so, Master Baggins?” He cleared his throat and Bilbo shook his head, exasperated by the king’s stilted acting. “You didn’t seem to mind when these beryls were inlaid in crafted flowers!”

It was perfect timing. In the corner of his eye, Thorin saw Dís appear in the doorway, and right behind her came Paladin Took, just as Bilbo made a loud, frustrated sound, threw up his hands, and cried: “ Dwarves !” He then marched out of there, apparently incensed and fuming.

Paladin turned on his heels and ran after him, calling his name, and Dís crossed her arms, regarding her brother with narrow eyes. “Well,” she demanded, “did you even ask him?”

Thorin heaved a great breath as if in disappointment, but then laughed at Dis’s alarmed look. “Yes,” he assured her, unable to keep himself from smiling.

“Mahal is with you, Brother,” she murmured, awed. “I truly doubted he would consent.”

Thorin huffed, rolling his eyes and fetching the torch to light their way out. “It warms my heart, Sister, that in times of emotional upheaval, your support is so enduring and unwavering.”

“Oh you have my support ,” the princess replied grimly. “I think you’re going to need every bit of help you can muster to impress this particular Hobbit enough to marry you.”

“One step at a time,” Thorin muttered. “Let’s not slaughter the sheep for the wedding feast just yet. Let me at least savor each step as we go.”

“Ah yes,” Dís agreed, remembering her own courting with fond nostalgia, “the announcement. When shall it be?”

The king of Erebor smirked. “Do you know, I think I’ll wait until that prancing clothes-pony of an Elf comes nancing into my court. After all, I wouldn’t want King Thranduil to miss such a momentous event.”

Chapter Text

There were not many young male Dwarrow in Erebor, or at least young enough to be identified as such by a Hobbit; once male Dwarrow grew in their beards, they seemed to be indistinguishable from other adults.  Princes Fíli and Kíli and scribe Ori seemed to be the youngest, but Bilbo saw in their company a shortish Dwarf with an impressive wealth of red wavy hair and a dense short beard. He was introduced as Gimli, son of Gloin, and very much took after his sire, with quick bright amber eyes and a way of standing as if bracing himself - but from what or for what, one couldn’t tell.

It seems that Gimli had been wanting to be personally introduced to the Shire group, having a peculiar curiosity about different people and cultures, not a trait that was admired in the mountain, but Gimli bore the good-natured teasing with a will and pushed forward. This is how Bilbo met him on the morning after Thorin and he had come to “an understanding,” as they said in the Shire. Oh, in a fit of contrariness he had not yet let on about it to his fellow Hobbits, which might account for his almost giddy mood at second breakfast.

Fíli and Kíli arrived with this new acquaintance, and Fíli  introduced him as “Our younger cousin, Gimli” to the Hobbits finishing up their tea. Gimli, less tall but much hairier and mature-looking, grinned and bowed deeply. “At your service,” he said in a deeper voice than his cousins. You would think him the elder next to taller and more slender royal relations.

The Hobbits as a group took a liking to him, inviting back for supper. He stayed with Fíli and Kíli to talk to the Thain, and then to Bilbo, waiting until the rest had left before the princes leaned forward.

“Uncle told us all about it,” Fíli whispered confidentially, leaning over a cup of tea. “For now, it’s not public knowledge.”

Bilbo smiled at that. Secretive Dwarrow ; he was not surprised. “All right,” he agreed genially, more interested in the nephews’ reactions to the idea of the relationship between their uncle and a Hobbit. “It’s new anyway; I’d rather not be under scrutiny yet.”

“I knew it!” Kíli cried, jumping up in his excitement. Both Fíli  and Gimli reached out from either side of him to hit him and he fell back into his chair. “Ow!” Gimli had landed a hit.

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open. “Do you mean to say that Thorin didn’t actually tell you?”

“He and Mum were up to something,” Fíli  supplied, patting the sulking Kíli on his back while Gimli just appeared triumphant.

“That is- That is far too sneaky,” Bilbo complained crossly.

“That’s because Gimli thought about it, and he is really sneaky,” Kíli groused. “It’s his job.”

Bilbo raised an eyebrow at the Dwarf in question. “Oh?”

Gloin’s son grinned. “I’m a scout. We’ve been skirting the road this last month, making sure there’s no problems that might make a person’s journey to Dale and Erebor unsafe.”

“Is that a polite way of saying you hide along the road and kill Goblins and rogue Men?” the Hobbit asked.

Fíli snickered at Gimli’s surprised expression. “I told you,” he crowed. “Not much gets by Master Baggins.”

Gimli peered at Bilbo and stroked his beard, then he smiled. “Oh, I know there is something special about the Shire scribe Bilbo Baggins,” he said. “One day we met up with another scouting party and they gave me this.” He pulled a scroll from his belt and set it down on the table. “They said, ‘Give this to the Hobbit scribe.’ And I said, ‘What is a Hobbit?’ And they said, ‘A Halfling from the West.’ Well, I can admit that I was startled. I thought Halflings were just stories. But then I did remember that a delegation was coming from the West, so I reckoned what could it hurt? I could always send it West with any visitors returning in that direction.”

“What other scouting party was this?” Fíli  asked, clearly having just heard this story for the first time.

Bilbo, who had taken the scroll in his hand and turned it over to look at the seal on it, said: “Elves of the Greenwood.” He waved it. “That’s the royal seal.”

“Ooooh,” Kíli moaned. “Uncle will not like that!”

“I’m not stupid, knuckle-brains!” Gimli retorted, aiming another blow; Kili, having learned to his detriment, quickly moved out of the way. “This was written in front of me by their captain.”

The Hobbit frowned at Gimli. “Captain? What was the name?”

Gimli shook his head. “Oh, no, you’re not getting the best of me quite yet. You tell me.”

“It depends. If a female Elf, then Tauriel. If a male Elf, any number depending on the description.”

The Dwarf grunted. “Male, silver-haired.”

“Oh!” Bilbo cried and began to open the scroll eagerly. “That has to be Legolas!”

Gimli sat back, crossing his arms and heaved a sigh. “Yes, that would be him.”

Something in his tone had both princes staring at their cousin in astonishment but Bilbo was already reading the contents of the letter, although he did check the bottom signature to verify his guess.

“Who is this Legolas?” Kíli demanded. “Why is he writing to our Hobbit?”

That caught Bilbo’s attention and over the edge of the paper he gave Kíli a raised eyebrow. “Since when am I your Hobbit?”

“He’s our uncle; you’re now our Hobbit,” the young prince announced.

“No officially,” Fíli  reminded him but Kíli just rolled his eyes.

Well, that seemed to answer the question of how the two felt about the burgeoning romance, Bilbo thought, and returned his attention to the missive in front of him.

“Is he handsome?” Fíli asked Gimli with a sort of sly tone one used for teasing intimate friends.

“No idea,” Gimli replied blandly. “He’s just an Elf.”

“Oh, he is!” Kíli cried. “Silver-haired, you said? Probably tall like most of them, skinny, pointy-eared, bendy and …”

Gimli growled and shot out a hand; Kíli barely avoided being grabbed by the throat and was hauled in by his collar instead. “Watch your words very carefully, Cousin.”

“... graceful?” Kíli squeaked. “Kind?”

Bilbo chuckled. “Add observant,” he advised. “He says here that the delegation from Greenwood should arrive in Dale when the Moon is waning, and that he accounts Gimli son of  Glóin as respectfully trustworthy to carry this to me. He also says that there are signs that Gandalf might arrive before them.” He did not also describe Legolas extending the king’s greetings; that would be too inciting.

The imp in him, though, urged him to say: “What did he tell you his name was?”

“Legolas Greenleaf,” Gimli said, sitting straighter. “Was that a deception?”

“Not at all. That’s his name, or should I say his name and a translation of his name - Laegolas means green leaves in Sindarin, you know.”

The Dwarrow looked at him blankly.

“Oh, of course, you wouldn’t know. It’s actually a very interesting name, rather old-fashioned. But I digress.” The princes’ expressions seem to agree to this, although Gimli’s attention was caught. “His last name might interest you.” He gestured with one finger for Gimli to lean in. He then whispered Legolas’s patrilineal name into the young Dwarf’s ear and sat back to watch as Gimli’s eyes widened and his cheeks paled.

“What? What is it?” Kíli clamored. “Gimli? Bilbo?”

Bilbo just gave Gimli a look of pity but did not respond.

Gimli just shook his head heavily. “Ay, I should have known.”

Fili merely looked from Bilbo to Gimli and nodded to himself. “Kíli, leave off. If you thought for half a second, you would understand the problem.”

But Kíli just looked more confused than ever until Gimli dropped his head back and said “Thranduilion” to the stone ceiling.

Bilbo smiled and looked back at his letter as Kíli sputtered: “What? What do you mean ‘Thranduilion’?”

Bilbo stared hard at the postscript on the letter as horrified silence descended. “Oh, Mahal,” Kíli breathed. “Thranduil convinced someone to sleep with him and hatch him a chick?”

The Hobbit hurriedly picked up his tea and retreated from the fracas that followed. The bellows and howls, accompanied by crashing furniture worried at his concentration for a while before it finally died down and a knock resounded on his door. It was Fíli , who was holding his left arm awkwardly.

“Master Baggins, I forgot to say that Uncle expects you at lunch and to not get caught up in the library today, at least not until afterwards. I suppose he’s rather anxious you might miss it.”

The scribe found that reasoning sound. “I won’t miss it. Are you all right?” He nodded at Fíli ’s arm.

“Eh, it’ll be fine. Should have known Kíli would land us in the middle of it with Gimli. That whole side of the family are hot-heads and Kíli doesn’t know when to stop.”

“Do you really think he likes Legolas? I would think that would be rather … unconventional.”

The prince rolled his eyes. “Gimli lives to be unconventional. He’s also shy of being of age. It’s all right to be, shall we say, open-minded when you’re that young. He can’t start making permanent decisions until he’s fifty, anyway, and that’s not until his next birthday. Even then, no one takes attractions seriously that young.”

“F-fifty? Really?”

“Certainly. When are Hobbit adults?”

“Thirty-three.”

Fíli’s eyes grew wide.

“I’m almost forty, and that’s approaching middle-aged for Hobbits,” Bilbo quickly assured him.

The prince shook his bright head. “Don’t tell Thorin.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “He’s closer to two hundred these days.”

“Wait, what? T-two hundred ?!” Bilbo sputtered as Fíli  sauntered off. “Two hundred…” he whispered to himself.

This required something stronger in his tea.

The Thain tapped on his door just as he was about to emerge to start out for the great hall for luncheon. Paladin was looking a bit wide-eyed, and Bilbo grew immediately concerned.

“Is anything the matter?” he asked.

“Nothing I can put a finger on,” the Thain replied thoughtfully as they passed through their own dining room, attracting a wake of Hobbits who’d been loitering about for apparently just for the purpose of following them to the hall. “King Thorin has requested that all of us be at this lunch.”

That seemed to explain why Bo Brownlock, a Tuckborough lad, and Rowain Clearbrook, a Buckland bounder, were following them. They were usually absent from the more political (and crowded) meal which was shared between Dwarrow and Hobbits at midday.

However, when they came to the main hall, a pair of guards were standing on the outside and only letting Hobbits and select Dwarrow in, pointing others to a separate hall. Dwarrow being Dwarrow only grumbled at this, and cast a few mildly suspicious glances at those being let in.

Bilbo also looked over those Dwarrow taking their places at the table, which usually was too crowded for everyone to sit at and on previous days served as a place to pick up one’s food instead of eat it. He realized he recognized almost all of them. There were of course the princes and Dís, Balin and Dwalin, Dori, Nori and Ori (surprisingly not holed up in the library), Bofur and Bombur, and Glóin and Óin , with Gimli. One male Dwarf with black and white hair and one female Dwarf with black hair standing next to him (and Bofur and Bombur) were the only strangers to him.

And then, of course, there was Thorin, whom Bilbo was attempting to not immediately home in on. The attempt at impassivity was helped a bit by the king’s bland regard of him in return, although there was a glint in his blue eyes that forced Bilbo to look away.

Once the remainder of Hobbits had entered, the king signaled to the guards and the doors were shut from the outside. Most of the Hobbits turned to look at this rare development, and Dori rose quickly to secure some mechanism on the lock before walking the perimeter as if looking for something.

Bilbo shook his head to himself and refocusing his attention to Thorin, started at the king’s intense look that seemed to summon him forward. Bilbo took a breath and walked to him, and bowed. “Your Majesty,” he said and gave the king a private look of query. Thorin crooked a smile at him and then glanced at the inhabitants of the room.

Bilbo understood the unasked question, and smiled back, nodding. The king put out his hand and the scribe placed his in the large palm, smile widening as the buzz of conversation dimmed abruptly. When Bilbo turned his head to see, all eyes were staring at them.

“Friends and kin, allies old and new,” Thorin intoned, “I would have you hear of my glad news. I have asked Bilbo Baggins of the Shire to accept my courtship, and he has consented to be courted.” He was forced to pause as the Dwarrow began to shout in Khuzdul and the the Hobbits clapped and cried out ‘Good old Bilbo!’ It was loud enough the Bilbo worried that there might be protests hidden in all of that Dwarvish shouting, but Thorin’s expression remained pleasant and untroubled. In fact, he raised Bilbo’s hand to his lips and pressed them tenderly to his knuckles.

Turning to smile at Thorin, Bilbo caught sight of Dís ecstatically hugging a laughing Kili.

Once the furor had died down somewhat, Thorin continued: “I have been told the Shire way of courting involves attending events together and introducing the family, so it follows I must do my part and introduce Bilbo to my family.” He gestured to the Dwarrow in attendance. “I give you, then, my One, my intended, Bilbo Baggins.”

Bilbo felt he had to add to this announcement and bowed to the assemblage, his hand still in Thorin’s. “At your service!”

WIth a great scraping of chairs, every Dwarf in the room stood and bowed in return. The Hobbits, startled, turned uncertain eyes to their Thain for the correct response to this situation, who stepped forward confidently.

“As Bilbo’s closest kinsman, I feel it is incumbent on me to take on a parental role, and acknowledge the beginning of this courtship. I will send a letter to Bilbo’s parents…”

“No need,” said an equally confident voice and everyone stared in astonished silence at Rosalda Took, who was smiling with glinting blue eyes. “I have done it already, as were my instructions from Bungo and Belladonna Baggins, Bilbo’s parents.” It seemed even her brother was surprised, and in this silence, she added: “Before we left the Shire, I was given the task of watching over Bilbo’s marital interests. I have kept a correspondence with his parents in the last few days, when certain positive signs presented themselves.”

Bilbo ducked his head, recalling all of the ‘signs” from the last few days, and then his head snapped up. It was all his Tookish mother’s doing, he was sure of it! Who else would secretly assign him a matchmaker of all things!

“I admit,” the lady continued, “that King Thorin has moved at quite some speed, far faster than I anticipated, and I had not thought to bring the latest letters from Bilbo’s parents, but I assure you, if he has Bilbo’s consent, then theirs follows. Bilbo’s mother, Belladonna, was born Belladonna Took, but some of you here might know her as Beldan Tûk, the adventuress.”

This did seem to get many of the Dwarrow speaking to each other, but the Hobbits were in general confused. Most Hobbiton folk knew that Belladonna had gone on “some adventures” in her youth before she married Bungo, but in true Hobbit style, it was something to be embarrassed about and so the less said the better.

“She’s a great busybody, that’s who she is,” Bilbo grumbled. “She’s the one who was all about me finding a husband.”

Thorin smiled at him and Bilbo forgot what he was complaining about and found himself smiling back. The murmur of voices faded from his awareness as the two of them sat down together and went through the motions of eating, very rarely taking their eyes off of each other.

“Those two will cause a scandal, mark my words,” Dora Hornblower commented to Daisy Under-hill.

“The sooner they post the banns the better,” her companion agreed. “It’s a good thing Bilbo can’t find himself in the family way, at least.”


Kíli, on the other side of Dora, spit out his cider.

Chapter Text

Bibo was speaking with the Thain and Rosalda when out of the corner of his eye he saw Amaranth Brandybuck approach Thorin and curtsy deeply. The Dwarf king watched her with cool eyes, and nodded when she straightened and began to speak. There were too many people talking, laughing and clinking their silverware and plates for Bilbo to catch the words, but it was clearly an apology.

Paladin and Rosalda watched this, also. Thorin listened to the lady’s words and watched her contrite posture with a half-smile, then replied lightly. Amaranth’s tense shoulders eased, but then Thorin leaned in with a dark expression and Amaranth’s head sunk forward as he spoke to her again.

“This is where he warns her that if she ever attempts to hurt you again, it will be much more than three days of scuning ,” Paladin predicted. Almost exactly then, Amaranth nodded, curtsying again, repentance personified. After she withdrew, the king made his way to Bilbo and took his hand with a soft smile, a smile that Bilbo was still growing accustomed to. “And did your threaten my cousin on my behalf?” Biblo teased.

Thorin ducked his head, color flashing in his cheeks. “Perhaps,” he rasped. “She apologized prettily, but I will not stand for her attempting to discredit you ever again.”

The Hobbit sighed. “You shouldn’t bother yourself with her anymore; leave that to me. My relatives -” He cast a meaningful glance at Paladin and Rosalda Took. “- are an unnecessary burden, when you have more serious matters to attend to.”

“Bilbo Baggins!” Rosalda gasped in outrage.

“Oh, don’t start, you clandestine matchmaker !”



That evening, in an attempt to find a place they would be left alone, Thorin visited Bilbo at his quiet table behind the library stacks. The Thain had taken the courting restrictions of an unpublicized courtship seriously and had made certain that Bilbo always was in company when Thorin was there, but even Paladin Took who was relatively educated could stand so much time watching Bilbo diligently noting down his research.

Thorin paused at the end of the bookshelves, hoping to catch the scribe in an unguarded moment, but alas, the Hobbit had heard his approach this time and rewarded him with a delighted smile. “Hello! Have you escaped your warden as well?”

“I’d like to see anyone dare to tell me where to go,” Thorin returned with a laugh.

“True,” his Hobbit mused, sliding down from his chair and putting both hands to the small of his back and arching backwards with a groan. “It is your mountain, after all.”

“...yes,” the Dwarf replied faintly, distracted by Bilbo’s stretches. He cleared his throat. “Ori told me you two had gotten an invitation from Bard and Erestor?”

“Oh, yes! Where did I put that thing?” Bilbo moved a couple of paper piles and produced a bit of parchment. “Erestor is helping the local Dale scribes set up a scriptorium and organize the library, and has asked for help.”

“And how shall you reply?” Thorin asked, already knowing the answer.

“I hope to go tomorrow for the day, and Ori with me if he can be spared. We have a few days before the delegation from the Green Wood arrives, so I’d like the use the time constructively.”

Thorin smiled. “As long as Dale’s king knows that you two are only on loan.”

“I was told Dwarrow were possessive,” the scribe mused, rounding the table and stepping into Thorin’s space, gazing up with him with those green eyes.

Thorin cupped the smooth cheek before him, his eyes hooded. “We like to keep our precious things close, it is true, and leery of those who might take such things from us. You are not an object, Bilbo Baggins, but you are precious to me. I hope you will forgive me, but I would have the world know.”

Bilbo tilted his head, examining Thorin. “And how, may I ask, and when, do you propose the world should know?”

Thorin’s smile grew. “Do you know how many beryls I could adorn you with, in rings, and chains and diadems? You would be exquisite, and clearly the king’s consort.”

The scribe sniffed. “That seems rather impractical, and wouldn’t I look a sight!”

“Perhaps simply wear my flower for now.”

Bilbo nodded in acquiescence. “And when do we let the world know, Thorin? When Thranduil enters your hall? You do realize that Amaranth’s insinuations were shots in the dark, that there’s nothing between myself and the king of the Green Wood?”

Thorin’s eyes darkened. “Nothing?” he prodded.

“A few conversations in a library,” Bilbo said, eyes glancing about to acknowledge their current location. “But those moments never included this.” He reached up and  covered Thorin’s, still resting on his cheek. With his other hand he tugged gently on the braid running down the side of the king’s face until their lips met.

It was a soft, exploratory connection; Bilbo hummed when Thorin encircled his waist with a strong arm and pulled him closer and then laughed approvingly against his lips when the Dwarf used both hands to lift him up to sit on the edge of the table. Thorin pressed whiskery kisses against Bilbo’s throat, something he could not do with the angle of their heads when they were standing; he inhaled against the skin there and Bilbo made a deep sound of pleasure and clutched at the broad shoulders that were now in reach, fingers sinking into the coarse fur in the collar of the king’s overcoat.

“Not like this at all?” Thorin murmured, pressing the edge of his teeth against tender skin.

“I should say not!” the Hobbit breathed and wriggled without forethought. Thorin chuckled. “...and is this why you came to the library?”

“Mmm?”

“Was there anything you wanted to say before Balin, or Dis, or Paladin, or Rosalda discover us in here?”

Reluctantly, the king eased back and admired Bilbo’s pink cheeks. “You’re far too practical-minded for someone I’ve been kissing. There should be a law.”

“I do beg your pardon, Your Majesty Sir,” Bilbo sassed, pecking Thorin’s prominent nose. “Shall I be silent in awe of your stunning seduction skills?”

“Impertinent,” Thorin huffed.

“You like my impertinence,” Bilbo pointed out, quite rightly. “And you haven’t answered my question.”

The Dwarf huffed. “Courting, the next steps of it. I must give you a gift, something by my own hand.”

“And I have to give you a gift I’ve crafted? Well, that should be interesting. All I can do is cook pies, raise award-winning petunias, and write. I’m a poor candidate, I’m afraid.”

“You are an amazing and skilled scribe,” Thorin murmured, leaning back in and nuzzling Bilbo’s hairline along his brow. “I’ve kept everything you’ve ever written… and can I finally ask about Hobbit feet?”

“N-not until it’s official,” Bilbo stammered, flushing up to the tips of his ears. Thorin found his intended’s embarrassment endearing. He glanced down at Bilbo’s large, hairy feet; each Hobbit, even the women, exposed their feet, and kept the hair on the top of them well groomed.

“Any other part of you I should be keeping until later?” the king asked wickedly. “... beyond the obvious clothed parts, that is.”

His Hobbit sputtered. “You Dwarrow cover everything except-” His eyes lingered after scanning across Thorin’s face.

“Ears?” the king guessed, noting where the wandering gaze rested. He examined Bilbo’s ears, and recalled a titillating rumor he had once heard about Elves and sensitivity of their ears. “Hm. This is certainly an educational exchange.”

“I’ve had enough education for today,” Bilbo observed. “Perhaps a more practical approach is in order.” … and kissed him. Thorin was more than willing to see Bilbo’s view of things.



Later that night he wrote to his father and mother, telling them of Thorin and his decision to commit to the courtship. He reprimanded his mother on her and Rosalda’s complicitness and told her in no uncertain terms that she was to keep her nose out of things from now on. He drew a sketch of his jeweled aster Thorin had given to him and found himself smiling softly as he traced the shape of the petals and leaves, shading hints of the tiny faceted beryls. Finally, he folded his letter and addressed it to Bag End, Hobbiton, feeling only the faintest twinge of homesickness for his family’s smial.

He encountered Dodi Brandybuck with the two other Bucklander bounders in the outer room, drinking ale between themselves. He was afraid he hadn’t gotten to know these two: the girl was Briar- no Bryony Goldworthy. The Goldworthies often married into Brandybuck and Bolger lines in Buckland and were scattered about. She wasn’t like Daisy, with wild hair and trousers under her skirts, but she managed to be fierce all the same in a serious, stoic sort of way. The other was Rowain, a rather cheerful Hobbit, averse to much socializing except in small groups of those he knew.

“More letters?” Dodi asked congenially. The other two watched Bilbo curiously.

“To my parents. It’s probably too much to ask, but I’m telling my mother to stop meddling.”

“That crop’s already gone to seed,” the Brandybuck observed.

“Your mother’s Belladonna Took, right?” Bryony asked, with a dark blue intense stare, as if she could read his mother in his face.

“...yes?” Bilbo replied.

“They tell stories about her in Buckland, how she outwitted three Trolls, winning a sword and a chest full of jewels.”

Bilbo scratched his nose. “Well, the sword is true enough, obviously; you’ve seen it. The chest of jewels? None such.”

“Never mind Bryony; she’s a great admirer of adventurous ladies,” Rowain said with a wink. Bryony cuffed him and stole his ale, downing it one long gulp. “Hey!” the bounder cried but Dodi and Bilbo laughed, cheering her on.

Bilbo poked his head outside and told the guard he needed a messenger and kept the door ajar, waiting. He’d discovered that because they were not far from the royal quarters, there was never much of a wait for anything, and true to form a youngish Dwarf wearing the distinctive livery of the messengers’ guild trotted up to take the letter, seemingly disappointed at singular nature of his errand. Or so it seemed, until he perked up at something happening past Bilbo’s shoulder, and there was Rosalda with a whole pile of correspondence in her hands.

“Mistress Took,” the Dwarf said eagerly.

“Good evening, Master Vali. I hope I find you well?”

The youngster blushed. “I am very well, I thank you. Oh, let me take those for you!”

Bilbo stepped aside so that Rosalda could extend her bundle to the messenger, and as the stack passed under his eyes, he could see Bag End, Hobbiton clearly written on the top letter. “Now, wait just a minute-!” he began but Rosalda was already waving farewell to the Dwarf and closing the door.

“Rosalda Took!” Bilbo scolded.

The matchmaker gave him an enigmatic smile and glided away with a smug air.

Chapter Text

“Well, Master Baggins, this is an expected pleasure,” Dora Hornblower commented blandly, opening her door to admit Bilbo. “I can give you an hour before I have my own plans to pursue. Care for a smoke?”

“Yes, please.” Bilbo responded with a sigh, following Dora within and drawing out his second-best pipe. 

Dora, ever observant of all things pipeweed-related, raised an eyebrow. “Whatever happened to your lovely long pipe?”

“Broke it,” her guest replied despondently.

“Whyever didn’t you say so before? I’ll carve you a masterwork in no time. I started one for you when we were on the road but I was sidetracked once we arrived at Dale. In fact…” She opened a drawer in a great wooden chest and pulled out a lovely cloud-pipe, the bowl half-carved of the white mineral called “cloud-stone” and the stem carved of briarwood. “... see how you like this. It should draw very sweetly.”

They packed their pipes in companionable silence in front of the fire and Dora provided a lit stick to light up. They settled with twin sighs and after a few draws, Dora broached the reason for his visit.

“I imagine you have some questions,” she stated with a half-smile.

Bilbo cleared his throat. “You have had... experiences that I haven’t.”

“I’ve heard what you were up to in your tweens, Bilbo Baggins. You’re not exactly a novice,” she returned, “but I know you don’t like being ignorant in any unknown situation.” She gave him a saucy wink. “Even in bedding, I reckon.”

Bilbo rolled his eyes and tried not to blush.

“They’re not all that different from us,” Dora assured him. “Bigger, of course. But we all know you like bigger.”

“Here now,” he protested.

She laughed. “You’ve nothing to fear, Bilbo. The differences aren’t so much physical except size, strength, and all that hair - I hope you like hairy chests, because I can almost certainly predict -”

Bilbo waved that off. “What differences beyond the physical?” It was actually a relief that he wouldn’t be subjected to detailed descriptions of male Dwarf anatomy. That he could wait for until confronted by the… specimen himself.

“Let me talk about Prince Fíli,” Dora said slowly and paused to see if Bilbo would protest. When he gave her a long-suffering look, she continued: “He was the more ardent of the two in the beginning; he’d had experiences in the Mountain and in Dale, the rascal.” She said the last with a distinct tone of affection. “But I have to say, everything had to be talked over very carefully and negotiated - everything very straight forward and no secrets. He told me he was too young to take things seriously quite yet, and if I was all right with dalliance, it would have to be very quiet about it. How did he put it - “No making love out in the open. Everything stays in the bedroom.” It is the way of things in the Mountain, and he was certainly honest about that . They take all of this very seriously, no joking about it, no gossip.”

“You said Fíli , but aren’t you and Kíli-”

“Ah, yes. I was feeling generous. Kíli hadn’t had any bedding pleasure at all, the poor lamb, and we got on very well - better than Fíli and I, to be truthful.”

They pondered this in silence, then Dora added hesitantly: “You know how there is the accepted way of doing things in the Shire, once one is of age?”

Bilbo eyed her dryly. “Yes.” Dora and he ranked among the minority of those who hadn’t done things the “accepted way,” hadn’t married and had families, or even partnered up when families weren’t possible.

“Here, there are two “ways”: more than half of Dwarrow dedicate themselves to a craft and are celibate for all their lives, apparently not needing anything else.” She shook her head. “Like Rosalda, I suppose, or my cousin Ludo. Except that’s what’s considered the more common way of things. The second way is Thorin’s and Dis’s, the royals and others - to look for their “One,” their romantic and sexual partner, to court, to partner, or to marry. Apparently most Dwarrow just “know” which path to choose from early on. It’s the way they were made by Mahal, Fíli says. A Dwarf just knows if it will be the love of his craft or the love of his One.”

“Good Lady,” Bilbo breathed, trying to think through the implications of this. “It’s quite literally all or nothing, romantically? And there are no exceptions?”

“No. It’s not custom, it’s … hmm… instinct? It’s how they’re “made”.”

“So Fíli will look for his One eventually.”

“It’s expected that royals need heirs, and it’s rare that they completely dedicate to craft, which Fíli …” She blew out a ring of smoke and shook her head. ”Fíli considers this a burden.” She paused for effect. “A burden , Bilbo!”

Bilbo couldn’t decide if he should laugh or cry at this idea, and Dora seemed to be having the same struggle. There were times when the desire for pleasure wasn’t very convenient or practical, but Bilbo could never call it a burden .

“I take it Kíli does not look at it quite that way?” Bilbo guessed.

Dora laughed then, grinning. “No, Kíli likes the idea much better, and has a very open mind about such things, which I appreciate.”

Bilbo reflected on this. “...and there are no great physical differences?”

His companion laughed. “Cheeky. Let’s just say, you won’t be disappointed in the particulars, but you may want to compare how long it typically takes to recover.” She grinned, leaning forward. “Fili was so very surprised when I -”

“Oh, look at the time!” Bilbo cried. “Thank you so very much. I did like the draw of this pipe. Here you go.” He thrust the item in question in to Dora’s shaking hands, ignoring her laughter. “Have a good evening!”

Her helpless giggles followed him as he hurried out the door and down the corridor. He turned the corner into the shared dining room in time to meet Prince Kíli coming from the opposite way. The young Dwarf smiled and bounded forward, giving him a quick hug. “Uncle Bilbo! You’re all red in the face!  Are you all right then?”

“Fine, fine, my lad, don’t you worry yourself. You get along now and enjoy your evening.” He grimaced at himself; no need thinking on what kind of evening it would be. “I’ll be in Dale all of tomorrow; is there anything I can bring you when I return?”

Kíli gave him an angelic smile. “No, nothing. Quite the opposite. I suspect you’ll be getting a gift when you get back to the mountain, or I don’t know my uncle. Good night, Uncle Bilbo.”

“Yes, um, good night, Kíli .”

He watched as the Dwarf made his way down the hallway, and sighed before going to his own door. Really, when he’d imagined the things he’d learn on this journey, he hadn’t figured how uncomfortable that knowledge might prove to be.

Chapter Text

Bilbo hadn’t gotten much sleep for two reasons: firstly, his mind had been somewhat occupied with his conversation with Dora, and secondly he, Ori and two (unnecessary, to Bilbo’s mind) Dwarrow guards had to be saddled and moving before dawn in order to get to Dale and have enough daylight for the work they meant to do.

Bundled in a borrowed cloak, with his face tucked behind the fur collar, he guided his pony behind Ori’s, half-awake for most of the ride in the dark, breath-clouding cold in the early hours before dawn. The slopes of the Lonely Mountain were bleak and stony, but a line of trees started halfway down the mountain. There were signs of the newness of many portions of the road from Erebor to the gates of Dale, and Bilbo imagined he could judge that it was Dwarvish stone craft. The sun was just coming up as they clattered through the gates onto Mannish cobblestones.

Two Men were waiting at the gates wearing red-dyed leather coats bearing the insignia of the Black Arrow. “Masters Ori and Baggins,” the elder of the two greeted, nodding.

Ori pulled his pony aside, frowning. “Since when are there guards at the gates towards Erebor, Sirs?”

“Ah, well, there’ve been - King Bard will explain. He is waiting breakfast on you,” the guard replied nervously.

Ori tilted his head, quizzically, then nodded. However, their Dwarven guards moved their ponies closer to theirs as they made their way to the royal residence and Bilbo could see that they were much more alert to their surroundings. They had barely come within sight of the steps when Prince Bain dashed down them, having clearly just pulled on his coat in a hurry. Immediately on his heels came his sisters, and behind them, two servants.

“Welcome back to Dale!” the prince gasped out breathlessly before his sisters almost careened into him in their excitement. “Please do come up. There’s hot … well, hot everything, and Master Erestor is here.”

“Hot everything?” Bilbo teased, sliding out of his saddle and flexing his legs and arms with a silent groan. “This I have to see.”

Ori chuckled and followed suit and they ascended the steps together. “Your Highnesses,” he said to the children arrayed before them, bowing very correctly. “At your service.’

The girls bobbed abbreviated curtsies and Bain did his short bow; clearly the niceties had been recently drummed into them. They repeated this with Bilbo before they moved en masse to the top of the steps and through the guarded doors. Bilbo did not remember this many guards from their last stay; obviously something had happened to make Bard cautious.

They followed the familiar corridors to the main dining hall, Bilbo twitching his nose at the smell of baking spices and tea. Coming into the warm hall lit with fireplaces on either side, they were greeted by Erestor, Glorfindel, and King Bard who rose from his seat and motioned them to the table.

“Come in and warm yourself. You’ve must have had a cold ride.”

Bilbo and Ori relinquished their cloaks and saddlebags to helpful hands, and settled themselves at a couple of empty place settings. “Cold and long, but the end is worth it,” Bilbo said diplomatically, exchanging cordial smiles with Erestor who was sitting across the table from him.

“The end being food?” Tilda giggled, settling next to him and nodding at a servant as she placed items on their plates.

“Exactly, Princess,” the Hobbit responded, gesturing with a piece of bacon before biting down on it. Talk gave way to consuming heated drinks and steaming bread along with meat and stewed fruit.

It was inevitable that eagle-eyed Tilda would spy Thorin’s flower in Bilbo’s lapel, and in between spoonfuls of fruit, she cried out in delight: “Oh, what is that ?!”

At the head of the table, Bard cleared his throat and the youngest princess curtailed herself, settling. Her sister’s attention was caught as well, and the two girls stared until Bilbo maneuvered the glittering thing from its place and extended it to Tilda who took it with exaggerated care to coo over the gold and beryls.

“A gift,” he said. “All the delegation received one.”

When Bilbo looked up from his food, his eyes met Erestor’s, who smiled and said, “A kingly gift. Master Baggins, you must have some interesting stories to tell.”

Bilbo decided it was best not to respond to Erestor’s keen perception and merely smiled in return as the princesses rhapsodised over the piece.

At one point in the mostly silent meal, Glorfindel excused himself and exited out of the hall’s door; Bilbo could see a Rivendell Elf standing just outside before the doors closed. The intense look on the lady Elf’s face alerted Bilbo to the seriousness of the conversation likely taking place outside.

Bilbo turned an inquisitive glance to Bard. “We noticed a few more guards here. Is there something we should know about, Your Majesty?”

The king of Dale sighed. “Some odd, worrying things have been happening in the last two days - a young man found strangled and drowned, rumors of strange creatures in the shadows. I first thought that some Goblins might have followed Lord Elrond’s retinue out of the mountains, but I’m not sure of that. I’ve set some guards, and Lord Glorfindel has his own people watching the town and reporting in.” He glanced at the shut door with sober eyes. “Until we resolve this, caution is key.”

Bilbo considered this. “Why would anything follow Lord Elrond? That seems a bit dangerous, doesn’t it? What could they be after, to risk being caught by both Men and Elves?”

“Something important, one might imagine,” Erestor mused.

Glorfindel returned, and said nothing.

The library of Dale had been a sad, stone shell of itself at the beginning of the reconstruction of the city. Very few documents had survived the long years of Smaug’s dominion, mostly from age and weather. The Master of Lake-town’s librarian had held onto papers passed down from generation to generation, and when her master had been murdered, she had secreted them away until things had stabilized and the newly-crowned Bard had begun organizing as much of Dale’s literature.

All of this, Erestor explained as they walked the short distance from the royal residence to the library, no longer just stone walls, but fully restored with a new tiled roof and metal doors. This library, dragon or not, would not burn.

They paid their respects to Shan-li, now the head librarian, a woman with pure white hair and dark, oblique eyes. Bilbo had not met very many women beyond Bard’s daughters, and certainly not a “granny” like Shan-li, with her fingers curled inward from aged joints. It was a familiar pattern of aging in Hobbits and Bilbo’s ingrained respect for his elders rose up and he found himself sitting with her and listening to her husky voice recount the history of librarians of Lake-town while Ori and Erestor went on to talk to a builder about where to place the scriptorium and its requirements for scribes to work properly.

Later they ate luncheon on the floor of the library amidst piles of sorted papers.

“How are the Elves of Imladris faring here in Dale?” Bilbo inquired.

Erestor quirked a wry smile. “We have been given what used to be the palace, which has been cleaned and repaired adequately, so we cannot complain.”

“And yet you have the look of someone who would gladly complain, if given an opportunity,” Ori observed quietly.

The Elven scribe laughed softly. “The kings of Dale of old were not particularly tall, and given depicting their intimate acts with their concubines.”

BIlbo laughed into his hand while Ori’s face turned bright red.

“Oh, dear!” giggled Bilbo, imagining Lord Elrond bumping his head on low doorways and various Elves averting their eyes from risque murals. “Oh, oh dear…”

“I rather envy King Thranduil, who plans on erecting his own pavillions for his people when they arrive. But I suppose the Sindarin king of Silvan Elves may be comfortable sleeping outside.” Here, Erestor’s tone turned doubtful.

The rest of the evening was spent helping Shan-li organize some of the more esoteric documents in Elven and Dwarven scripts.

At one point, Erestor left to talk to Glorfindel, who had been ferrying back and forth between them and Lord Elrond’s business.

“Ori,” Bilbo whispered furtively, eying the doorway for Erestor’s return, “before the others get back, I have a question about courting gifts.”

“Oh? I’d be happy to help you, if I can.” The Dwarf obligingly set aside the scroll he’d been studying to give the Hobbit his full attention.

“Oh, I’m so glad. I have to make a gift for Thorin, and all I can think is that he likes my writing, but whatever should I create for him? I haven’t a clue.”

The scribe scratched his sparsely bearded chin. “How are you at genealogies? He’s been keen to get a complete one drawn up, and I wouldn’t wonder that he’d be very happy to have one created by you.”

Bilbo brightened. “My dear Dwarf, Hobbits are born designing family trees! Do you think he would appreciate the Shire way, or should I follow the Dwarrow traditions?”

Ori opened his mouth but a familiar voice rang out, causing them both to spring to htie feet.

“My dear Bilbo! How well you look, and up to your ears in paper as always.”

“Gandalf?!” Bilbo cried in disbelief as the old Wizard appeared in the doorway, tall pointy gray hat and staff the same as always.

Thârkun?!” Ori exclaimed in almost the same tone.

The two scribes turned to look at each other while Gandalf benevolently twinkled at them.

Chapter Text

“Do you mean to say that you know Gandalf?” Bilbo asked Ori as they began the long ride up the mountain, following the wizard on a new and very beautiful white horse.

“I know Thârkun ,” Ori clarified. “Do Hobbits call him Gandalf, then?”

“Yes, Gandalf the Grey. I knew the Elves called him Mithrandir, but I hadn’t thought he traveled as east as Erebor.”

“Oh, yes, he knew the king’s -” Ori stuttered to a halt. “Perhaps that is a tale the king needs to tell.”

Secretive Dwarrow , Bilbo inwardly cursed but smiled understandingly at the Dwarf. “I do think I will ask about that. I’m beginning to wonder just how much meddling this Wizard has been doing across all of Arda.”

“Meddling?” Gandalf called back to them. “A Wizard never meddles, Bilbo Baggins. He advises .”

Ori muffled a laugh.

 

Great braziers were lit at the gates of Erebor, and a large group seemed to be warming themselves at them, waiting. Bilbo scanned the figures for that one familiar Dwarf, half-expecting not to see him because of the lateness of the hour. At first, he could only recognize Dwalin, but then Thorin circled from around a brazier with that distinctive stride he had, hands behind his back and head raised imperiously.

Bilbo found himself smiling besottedly, then coughed, glancing quickly at Ori, who had a fairly intense look himself. Bilbo didn’t have to investigate to figure out at whom he was staring. Guards came to take their ponies’ bridles, and Dwalin was there to help Ori down.

Bilbo shifted to get himself down, imagining Thorin would greet Gandalf first. Considering that their courtship had only been announced to family and friends, their public interactions were currently fraught with indecision, at least for Bilbo. Dora’s recounting of Fili’s admonitions about showing affection in public also preyed on Bilbo’s confidence.

He was surprised then that Thorin appeared to grasp him by the waist and lower him safely to the ground. Gandalf’s eyebrows went up at this and Thorin’s smile was small and private, but Bilbo felt a little better, especially when the king quickly and furtively kissed his hand before turning and welcoming them back to the mountain.

“You’ve had a long day, my scribes. Go take your rest and we will speak tomorrow of your experience in Dale.”

Bilbo followed Ori and Dwalin through the gate, and glanced back to see Gandalf bow to Thorin and hear him say: “Hail, Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror, King under the Mountain.”

Bilbo just wanted a hot bath and his comfortable bed. He waved to Ori when they parted ways, and passed through the Hobbits’ shared dining room, empty that late at night, and finally closed a door behind him and dropped his saddlebags with a groan.

He began to unbutton his coat when a rustle of sound caught his attention. “Who’s there?” he called, turning.

But there was nothing, even when he threw back the covers of his bed, suspecting some vermin. Shrugging, he picked up his linen and change of nightclothes, and left for the baths.



The next morning, he didn’t wake for first breakfast but was able to join the Hobbits for second breakfast. He determined that he didn’t have a large enough work surface in his room, and was considering the dining table which was moderately less accessible to possible intrusions from Thorin.

Ori showed up with a notated copy of the Durin family line, and Bilbo stared at it, then spun it upside down to get a sense of how a Shire family would draw it. All the names were in Dwarvish runes, and Ori had to mark the Durin kings for Bilbo. The Hobbit chewed his lip, nodded, and thanked the Dwarf before hunching in and starting.

He began lightly with a pencil and sketched out a stylized tree with intertwined roots, a sturdy trunk, and a knotwork of spreading branches where Bilbo envisioned Thorin’s cousins Balin and Dwalin might reside. It was something he’d done more than once for neighborhood families on birthdays or other special occasions. The first steps were similar, but the careful transposing of the runic names, starting with Durin the Deathless at the roots and working his way up the trunk, required much more concentration. There were kings and queens, sometimes two queens. Bilbo marked the kings with the symbol of a crown.

When lunch came, he put the project back into his room and made his way to the great hall. Thorin wasn’t there when he seated himself with the other Hobbits, but as food was being set out, he appeared with Balin and Dwalin, with Gandalf following. Thorin’s expression was thunderous but Gandalf as always was congenial. They parted as the Dwarrow sat, and the Wizard came to Bilbo, leaning down to whisper into his ear.

“My dear Bilbo, do come and join me at the gates for a smoke, when you’re done here.”

Bilbo nodded uncertainly, half an eye on Thorin, who had tracked Gandalf’s progress down the table and was now frowning. Something certainly was up. Bilbo exchanged a glance with Paladin Took and whispered: “Do you know what that’s about?”

The Thain shrugged. “There as Dwarrow council meeting, I think. Looks like the Wizard had something to say.”

“Nothing good,” Bilbo guessed, turning back to look at the Dwarf king, who was holding up his cup to be filled and tilting his head towards Balin next to him.

The meal proceeded pleasantly enough, with Amaranth Brandybuck joining into conversation with almost her former brightness. She clearly still had admirers among the Dwarrow - three of them took seats next to her and engaged her in conversation. None of these suitors, Bilbo noted, were of the royal family. Not all of them, surprisingly, were even male.

 

“Master Baggins,” the king said as Bilbo stood from the table.

“Your Majesty? he inquired, and approached Thorin politely.

“I would speak with you before dinner,” the king said mildly. “I will send Balin to escort you at sundown, if you are amenable.”

The entrapping intense look from those blue eyes made Bilbo’s breath come short. So unfair! “Y-yes, yes of course,” he managed, flushing and cursing himself. He did not imagine a tiny answering smirk on Thorin’s face. He bowed hastily and bustled out to the gates to find Gandalf.

The gray Wizard stood high on the skirt wall, smoking with a contemplative, long-distance stare. He blinked and turned when Bilbo cleared his throat. “Oh, there you are,” he murmured.

“Here I am,” Bilbo agreed, getting out his second-best pipe and beginning to pack the bowl. “Why am I here, Gandalf?”

Gandalf smoked in silence for a moment, then said: “I mean to ask you about your journey here.” He dug into his sleeve, producing a bit of twig and lit it from his own pipe.

“Certainly.” Bilbo took the twig and applied it to his own pipeweed, puffing to get it to ignite. He waved the twig out, and eyed the tall being next to him. “What about it?”

“Can you recall anything unusual happening, anything at all, from when you left Imladris to your arrival to Dale?”

Bilbo raised an eyebrow at this. “Well, we did have this Wizard who kept appearing and disappearing.”

“Aha! Yes, yes… very amusing. Other than that, my good Hobbit.”

Bilbo chuckled, then rubbed his nose thoughtfully, thinking back. “The whole bother with the Goblins was a bit peculiar. We were told it was dangerous, crossing the mountains, and we had escorts but eventually they had to turn back to Imladris. The sun was just going down and we were talking about perhaps riding through the night because the weather had cleared; we were a bit nervous, you see, because Elrond had told us that if we were to be attacked, it would be between the mountains and the Greenwood. Then the ponies began to panic and there they ...were. And you know, for a moment I thought the Goblins looked as surprised to see us just as we were surprised to see them. But then we were all scrambling to keep the ponies from running off and finding our weapons, and I quite forgot how it began.”

“How did it begin?”

“That’s the strange part. One of them screeches out ‘Thieves!’”

Gandalf removed his pipe from his mouth and repeated: “ Thieves ?”

“Yes, exactly! Very peculiar.” Bilbo drew on his pipe.

“Do you know what it meant, who it could have referred to?”

“Not at all! It was the first time we’d seen Goblins, and I can’t recall anything along the road that we could have ‘stolen’. Once we left Rivendell, it was all camping and traveling in the wilderness.”

Thieves ,” Gandalf mused to himself. “Interesting.”

Balin came to retrieve him and took him down a few strange but not unfamiliar corridors; he’d gotten lost once and had encountered Dís here. As he recalled that moment, he heard again the strains of harp music he’d heard before, beautiful and haunting. He inadvertently stopped to listen, and Balin chuckled when he belatedly realized the Dwarf had stopped, too: “That’s all right, laddie. We’re here anyway.”

He opened the nearest double doors with both hands, revealing a great room with a fire at the far end, richly carved trestle tables and chairs on either side, and by the fire itself two more comfortable looking chairs, one of them occupied by Thorin who looked up from the instrument in his lap.

“I have brought you your intended, Sire,” Balin said with elaborate courtesy and a deep bow.

“Leave off that now,” the king said with an inelegant snort and set aside the lap harp to rise. “It sounds like a joke without an audience.

“Bilbo,” he said with a sudden affectionate smile and an outstretched welcoming hand, with such an altered tone that it was almost comical. “So the wizard didn’t turn you into a toad.”

“Oh, he can hardly do that,” Bilbo scoffed, advancing into the room, summoned by that lovely warm glint in Thorin’s eyes. “I’m his second favorite Hobbit besides my mother, and transforming Belladonna Took’s son would be far too dangerous for him.”

Thorin grasped his hand and lingeringly kissed it, then raised his eyebrows to the doorway where Balin remained standing. “Was there anything else?” he asked of his cousin.

“Nay, lad, just doing my duty.”

“You and your duty may stand in the corridor,” the king replied dismissively. “This courtship step is done in private.”

“Oh, I see,” the Dwarf replied with a bland insinuation in his tone. “I’ll be right outside then. Just call out if need be.”

Once the door was closed, Thorin laughed. “Old-fashioned, my cousin Balin.” He examined Bilbo’s face, still holding his hand. “Come sit by the fire; I have much to ask and a gift to give.”

“Oh,” Bilbo replied faintly, following and sitting in the other chair by the fire. He’d already perfected the hop that was necessary for a Hobbit to sit in a Dwarven chair. As Thorin settled back into his own seat, Bilbo’s eyes settled on the small harp. “You play beautifully, Thorin. I could hear it in the hallway.”

Thorin smiled at that. “Thank you. Do you play?”

“Oh, not at all. I did a bit of singing when I was young, but never took up an instrument except the pen. I do love listening, though.”

“Most Dwarrow play something, even if it’s whistle,” the king explained. “They also sing. Sometimes, in the dark of the mines or in the solitude of one’s work, it’s the only thing that keeps one company, and a great unifier too.”

“Hobbits, I am afraid, are sadly lacking great songs. If it can’t be sung in a pub or while occupied by daily endeavors, it’s considered too fussy and usually doesn’t catch on. Not that I’m of that opinion! But I am not any Hobbit.”

Thorin’s smile curled larger. “No, indeed, you are not.”

“You said you had questions?” Bilbo asked in charged silence, resisting squirming in his chair. “...about Dale?”

‘Ori told me some of it. He said that you mostly organized and spoke to the head librarian.”

“I did. I didn’t have much in the way of advice for the scriptorium, as I have yet to really experience one, but I have a lot of practice in talking to elderly ladies, who seem not to differ too greatly whether they be women or Hobbits.”

Thorin nodded. “And Gandalf.”

“Showed up from out of the blue, though there were some indications he’d be preceding the delegation from Greenwood.”

“Yes, letters from Greenwood Elves … to you.” The king rubbed at his lip. “Some might find that-”

“Now you stop that right now, Thorin Oakenshield!” Bilbo huffed, not liking the disapproval he could see forming. “I have friends both in Imladris and the Greenwood, and yes they are Elves, which is as much of a crime as being a Hobbit or a Dwarf! There is good in every race - well, perhaps Goblins might be the exception there - and because I receive letters now and then -!”

The king raised his hands in surrender. “Peace! I was going to say that some might find inside information to our benefit.”

Bilbo crossed his arms and eyed Thorin suspiciously. “Were you now?”

Some might. Others might find such friendships disturbing. I wouldn’t gad about, telling Dwarrow you’re in regular correspondence. There are still deep-seated resentment toward Thranduil among Ereborians. Almost every family here lost someone or something dear to them because our “ally” did not come to our aid.”

“Do you blame him for Smaug?”

Thorin looked startled, then something flickered across his face… guilt? “No, not him. We blame him for what came after.”

Bilbo examined Thorin’s expression, then sighed. “Very well. And what else do you need to know?”

The king took a deep breath, leaning forward, arms resting on his knees. “Will you, Bilbo Baggins, accept my courtship gift and allow me to announce our intentions tonight?”

Bilbo’s heart jumped into his throat. “Tonight? At dinner?”

“It will be more than family and friends this time.”

Bilbo swallowed, and nodded. “Yes, although I’d rather not be surprised by the gift in front of strangers.”

“Nor should you be.” The Dwarf stooped and picked up a flat, square box from beside his chair, extending it. “I present you the fruits of my craft, my endeavors, and my affection, Bilbo son of Bungo of the Shire. May all know, from this, that I am yours.”

Startled by the wording, Bilbo nearly dropped the box. With trembling fingers, he lifted the lid and gaped.

It was a smooth circle, a bit like a cuff but thinner, of shining red gold and bright silver. It was too large for a bracelet, too small for a collar and as the Hobbit lifted it from its box, he could see a tiny hinge. But then he was too distracted by the design - black obsidian ravens and green leaves inset and intertwined with a curling channel of bright blue and green gems.Turning it, he realized that the silver was too bright to be silver, but he had no word for it.

“Mithril,” Thorin murmured. “Most precious of all metals in Arda.”

“It’s beautiful,” Bilbo said sincerely. “And those are ravens for you and oak leaves for me?”

“The Thain told me that the oak is associated with your home?”

“It is! A great old oak grows at the top of Bag End. Acorns and oak leaves are a favorite … motif, I suppose. Isn’t it curious? And the oak tree, the wood, is yours.” Bilbo pondered the exquisite thing. “Leave it to a Dwarf to make something so amazing, and as with most Dwarf-made things, I do not know its purpose.”

“Do you not? I did ask your Thain what was appropriate for a royal consort. May I?”

The Hobbit nodded. Thorin took the circle and clicked it open. He stood and abruptly knelt, staring meaningfully up into Bilbo’s eyes as he lowered both hands and cupped Bilbo’s left heel with one, holding the cuff in the other.

“Oh,” the Hobbit managed, almost squeaking. He cleared his throat, and definitely was not squirming, but this time from arousal. “It’s - it’s an anklet?”

The king gave him a decidedly predatory look, hand tightening momentarily. “Yes,” he rasped, fitting the bright, glinting circle around the Hobbit’s ankle and snapping it shut.

Bilbo swallowed, leaning forward and staring intently at the king’s large hand on his foot. “I think,” he husked, “that you shouldn’t touch me like that... in public. I can’t be accountable-”

Thorin rose up on his knees and abruptly kissed him, and it was not a polite kiss. Bilbo groaned and grabbed, completely done with propriety himself. If Thorin could hold his foot so possessively, he could touch that thick black hair and give as good as he got. Thorin teased with his tongue and Bilbo held on, returning each elicit caress with one of his own unti a repetitive sound impinged on their awareness.

Someone was pounding on the door and shouting. Balin . They both groaned, and then began to laugh as the older Dwarf began counting down and came through on the count of ten. He stopped short, confronted with both of them back in their chairs, but with red faces and a shining circle around Bilbo’s ankle.

“Well done, my lads,” he said with a satisfied smile. “But from now until the announcement, you’ll not be alone. We won’t have anyone bringing our king’s courtship into any doubt.”

Bilbo and Thorin exchanged long suffering looks. “Fine,” Thorin said. “We’ll manage through tonight.”

Bilbo considered this and smiled. “Yes we will,” he agreed.

Chapter Text

Thanks to Balin’s interference, Bilbo had a bit of time before dinner to neaten himself, comb his hair on both his head and on his toes, and change into his most formal coat which he’d only worn once in Imladris. Ironically, it was a deep blue reminiscent of Thorin’s blue coats, but with the very Hobbiton theme of acorns and oak leaves embroidered in copper on the sleeves and along the lapels.

He was staring at waistcoats (something he found himself doing a bit more often in Erebor than he ever had in the Shire) when a tap on his door announced Dora Hornblower. “I bring a gift,” she said with a grin and he waved her in, wrinkling his nose at his choices spread out on his bed. She joined him there with a bounce of white-blond curls, tilting her head. “You wore the yellow weskit in Rivendell,” she recalled. Dora’s memory, and business sense, were par none.

“I’m not sure about that choice for tonight,” he mused, then turned. “And good evening! Did you say a gift?”

She batted her eyes at him. “Why, of course. A Hornblower always honors her word.” She pulled a cloud-stone pipe from the pocket of her smartly tailored coat and presented it dramatically with both hands, bowing and grinning.

He took it from her gently, turning it this way and that to really examine the artistry of the carvings around the bowl - an open roll of parchment surmounted by an inkwell and pen, Karaic surrounded by flowers, Bag End’s round familiar front door.

“Dora, love, this is amazing! I must do something for you in return; this is much too fine to give away.”

“Oh, Master Baggins,” the lass returned coyly, “I think this can be a befitting betrothal gift to the future Consort under the Mountain.”

“Oh, you!” Bilbo laughed and gave her a quick hug. “I shall smoke it with pride. Are you aiming for trade agreements, you cunning miss?”

‘My dear Bilbo,” she replied, chuckling and shaking her head as if disappointed by his simpleness, “I already have trade agreements in hand. Princess Dís signed them yesterday. So, my sweet, you needn’t fear that it’s all business with me. That’s all taken care of, and now it’s only personal pleasures.” She audaciously went to pinch him, but he evaded, smacking her hands.

They laughed for a while, then calmed enough to look over his waistcoats. “That one,” Dora said eventually, pointing to a rather sedate garment of pale gold and cream stripes. She snickered. “It’s appropriately bridal.”

Bilbo promptly kicked her out.

 

He had naturally given Paladin warning that the public announcement would take place, and his Took cousins were therefore waiting to walk with him to the great hall. Bilbo could see right away that Balin had alerted key Dwarrow - Dís had made an effort and was wearing a Durin-blue velvet dress that flattered a figure often hidden in loose clothes. Female Dwarrow seemed comfortable wearing clothing similar to the males; Bilbo had only seen Princess Dís dress so finely when she was standing on the dais with Thorin during official events. Her black hair, so like her brother’s, was intricately braided and looped; the very fine beard dusting her cheeks and chin supported fine chains that looped back to elaborate hooped earrings.

In comparison Thorin seemed plainly, although richly, dressed in his blue tunic and heavy silver belt. His bare head only supported the two braids on either side of his face, braids that the king had explained to BIlbo were symbolic of his family and his status. The rest of that dark mass of hair hung temptingly free in long waves. He stood at the head of the high table, head high and imperious, and Bilbo could see that familiar box on the table in front of him.

Apparently everyone else had seen the box, too, and guessed its significance. The hall was packed except for the Hobbits’ habitual table, and a slow hush fell among the Dwarrow there when the Shire delegation entered into the hall. Bilbo nodded to his compatriots and parted from them, walking instead up to the expectant Thorin, his family and closest advisors. There, he took the king’s outstretched hand, triggering a startled murmur amongst the Dwarrow who had not been privy yet to their courtship, namely most of the Dwarrow in the hall.

Bilbo merely smiled up into Thorin’s eyes. “Your Majesty,” he said mischievously, “how handsome you look, almost as if there was some special tradition you have planned here tonight.”

“Enough of your cheek, my Hobbit,” the king returned, mock-sternly, his eyes falling down Bilbo’s body and rising up again. “Nice coat.”

Familiar snickers came from the right side of the table, where Dís, her sons, and Balin sat.

Bilbo glanced to the left side of the table, spotting an empty seat for himself next to Thorin; Dwalin, Ori, Dori, and Nori were seated on that side. His observant mind was trying to tell him something about the logic and pattern of this arrangement, but understandably he was distracted by the King under the Mountain waiting to publicly initiate courtship.

“Thank you. I thought it appropriate,” he murmured, then gave Thorin an encouraging look.

“Bilbo Baggins, son of Bungo and Belladonna, scribe of the Shire,” the king entoned, and there was a general drawing in of breath and hardly any sound beyond that, “I offer a gift of my craft, that you may see my earnest heart and skilled hand, and accept, too, my courtship.” The Dwarf picked up the box, opening it and holding it so that BIlbo could take the anklet from within. The Hobbit held it up and turned it, not having to feign his awe at its beauty as he beheld it again, and the watching crowd seemed to sigh.

The Hobbits craned their necks to see as Bilbo turned the gleaming thing, and opened the latch, unhinging the circle of mithril and red gold. “Thorin, son of Thrain and Aldis the Golden, King under the Mountain,” he replied, “I accept your gift.” He paused, handing the open anklet to Thorin. “...and your courtship.”

A surge of voices rang out, joyous Hobbit voices rising up over the deeper voices of the Dwarrow, but when Thorin knelt to affix the jewelry about Bilbo’s ankle (kindly not touching him, thank the Lady), the sound became a roar of approval, seemingly startling even Dwalin, whom Bilbo could see over Thorin’s shoulder. The captain was clearly keeping an eye on the crowd, but tellingly, Bofur didn’t even glance over, and therefore Bilbo was reassured that all was well in the moment.

The king rose, grinning boyishly, and suddenly they were being converged upon on all sides by family and friends laughing, hugging and in some cases, crying. Eventually it all died down, to Bilbo’s relief, and everyone returned to their seats to toast the couple a few times and finally to eat, also to Bilbo’s (and the Hobbits’) relief.

A few very pleasant surprises appeared from the kitchen, joint efforts of Bombur and the two Hobbit cooks, Honey Aster-Burrows and Olo Proudfoot. Amongst their efforts were a great mushroom and venison pie and a plateful of black currant scones, a personal favorite of Bilbo’s. He offered one to Thorin, eyes twinkling, and although the king look vaguely confused at his gesture, he opened his mouth and accepted to it, almost choking on it when the Hobbit contingent cheered from further down the hall.

“Shire tradition,” Bilbo laughed, handing him the Dwarvish equivalent of a napkin. “Mostly for weddings and such, but often a sign of conjugal bliss.”

“You Hobbits and food,” Dwalin groused good-naturedly. “And I suppose there are to be all manner of things to eat at the wedding.”

“Certainly - a great breakfast for the family the day of the ceremony, and a lavish feast for the guests after. Also, a giant cake.” He added that one with some relish, grinning in delight when Thorin’s look of astonishment quite equalled his own private prediction.

Thorin squinted his eyes at his intended, looking him up and down. “Are you Hobbits hollow on the inside?”

“No, although it’s standard to maintain a healthy, plump figure when one comes of age. Many of us lost a bit of weight on the road, sad to say, so you are not seeing us at our peak.”

“Mahal preserve us, Thorin,” Dís chuckled into her wine. “We’d better step up trade if you want to keep your consort fed!”

“That’s already been seen to, Your Highness,” Balin assured her, discreetly moving the wine flagon away from her side of the table. “Ravens have been sent along the old spice roads east and Dale is starting to cultivate.”

Bilbo sat up at that. “I imagine all that ash has made good fertilizer?”

A general bemused silence met this remark.

Bilbo scratched his head. “You know, things grow very well in ash fields. I was surprised to see so much land left to seed when we passed through Dale.”

“Oh,” Fíli said. “That’s right. Hobbits are farmers .”

“Farmers, brewers, bakers, herders, butchers, merchants, cloth-makers, carvers, beek-keepers, potters, and landowners,” Bilbo clarified, giving the crown prince a narrow-eyed look. “To name a few.”

Fíli held up both hands. “Peace, Uncle.”

Dís, in the middle of a silent battle with Balin over a new flagon of wine, paused to cuff her eldest son. “Someone has to grow and raise the food yout stuff in your face, brat. Don’t use that tone when you say ‘farmers’.”

“Yes, Mum,” Fíli replied obediently, ducking and second, more affectionate cuff. He gave Bilbo an apologetic smile and Bilbo smiled back.

“I am aware that Mistress Hornblower is from a farming family. Are there others in your group that Bard could consult?”

“Oh, yes. Tom Cotton,” Bilbo replied. “He’s been farming since he could walk, and from my area of the Shire. He’s the tall, blond fellow there next to Daisy Under-hill.”

Dis glanced down at the Hobbit table. “Oh, the handsome brown one with the wide shoulders?” she asked with a trickster gleam in her eye. It wasn’t hard to see where Kíli got that look from when she was focused on mischief. “Are all Hobbiton Hobbits uncommonly attractive?”

“Stop, you,” Bilbo laughed, blushing even when he knew that Dís was teasing him. “If you must know, only six of us are from the Hobbiton area. The rest are from Tuckborough or Buckland.”

Half of the Dwarrow were now clearly trying to figure out how to tell and Bilbo rolled his eyes, turning to say something to Thorin, only to find the king looking at the Hobbits intently himself.

“Most of the Bucklanders have black hair except Amaranth,” Fíli said with the tone of someone who had inside information.

“And the tallest ones are Tooks,” Balin added in the same tone.

“Now, come on, I don’t think that you can actually tell-” Bilo began, amused despite himself with Dwarvish stubbornness and single mindedness.

Thorin glanced down at him with a smirk. “You, Dora, Tom, Daisy, Olo, and that youngish girl with red hair, the one that helps with the laundry.”

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open, then he hung his head with his fingers massaging his closed eyes. “Right, you have the list.”

“Unfair!” Kíli accused. “Now, hush, Uncle. Leave the Tooks and the Bucks to us.”

“Bucklanders,” Bilbo corrected half-heartedly, and decided to concentrate on the wine for now.

Eventually, after some errors, Balin won this strange contest, and Thorin seemed to take it as a sign to stand. “All right, you lot,” he said with a certain warm affection. “Pay attention, because is the last time you’ll see this in public.”

That definitely did inspire the focus of their table and the others besides, especially when Fíli stood and came to stand behind Bilbo. “You’re going to have to stand for this,” the prince muttered under his breath and the Hobbit hastily complied.

The king reached out and gently divided out a section of Bilbo’s hair wavy hair, which once it had grown to a certain length had lost some of its tendency to curl this way and that. His large fingers were surprisingly deft as he began to braid, saying: “This is my promise to you; that I am yours as long as you would have me - your shield, your sword, your helpmate, your One. This is the sign of my heart’s intention never to falter.” Fíli handed him a gold bead, which he clasped at the end of the plait.

He hadn’t mentioned vows, the secretive bastard, Bilbo fumed, so when Kíli came up and placed a stool for him to stand on to reach Thorin’s hair in turn, he gave his intended a tart look that promised comeuppance (and there would be plenty of opportunities, as Hobbit customs were different enough that he could effectively “surprise” Thorin for days on end). “This is my vow,” Bilbo said and began a braid he had been taught by his mother; for she had often enlisted his help or his father’s when she wished her long hair to be pulled back from her face for gardening. It was a good thing, too. Most Hobbit men had never braided in their lives unless they were fishermen or basket makers.

The braid was a four-strand, and after he sectioned up the hair behind Thorin’s Durin braid, he got in the rhythm of the over-and-under pattern and was able to think about what he was saying, a variant on wedding vows common among Hobbits. “I will be yours for as long as you will have me - your mate in plenty and in famine, your foundation and your shelter. This is a symbol of my intention to be true to you alone.” Kíli handed him an intricate little bead, already opened so that all he had to do was click it closed about the end of the braid.

When he lifted his hands away and looked into Thorin’s face, the Dwarf was staring at him in a sort of dazed wonder, a flush pinkening his cheeks. Aha , Bilbo thought. “You Dwarrow and your hair,” he whispered with a smile in the exact same tone as Dwalin had used earlier in the evening when he’d said You Hobbits and your food .

“How is it done in the Shire, then?” his intended whispered back.

“A kiss, silly Dwarf. Just a kiss.”

“In front of everyone ?” Thorin returned, clearly scandalized, affirming both Dora’s accounts and BIlbo’s own estimation of how public affection was received in Erebor.

It was time, though, to turn and acknowledge the cheers and congratulations. Fíli leaned in and muttered: “Good work with that little speech, Uncle.”

“Er, thank you. What about it?”

“You didn’t have to make a vow. That was all on Thorin, as the initiator.”

Bilbo had to laugh at himself; that explained Thorin’s expression then.

FInally the dinner guests began to leave (without being given tokens, presents, or anything!), and Thorin stood and offered his hand. Bilbo knew he should be nervous about what they had begun tonight, but the anticipation eclipsed any sort of anxiety he might have. After all, whatever Thorin might desire of him, Bilbo had equivalent desires - even it was a cup of tea in front of a fire or the touch of a hand. He had not lied when he’d claimed that he wanted to know Thorin.

He stood and walked out with the king, and when the Dwarf leaned down and murmured, “WIll you abide with me tonight?” Bilbo blushed and nodded his consent.

Chapter Text

“How do- how do Hobbits -?” Thorin panted between kisses, grasping Bilbo by the waist and hauling him up so the Hobbit could wrap his legs about him. The door was barred behind them, the fireplace the sole light in Thorin’s private rooms, and Bilbo was only really interested in the tangible feel of his Dwarf’s strong arms as he was carried across an unknown room.

“I imagine it’s the same as everyone does, and it can’t happen until we take off our clothes,” Bilbo gasped, pulling ineffectively at Thorin’s collar.

The king huffed. “I did assume that, yes,” he rasped and let Bilbo down onto the side of a bed and straightened to release his own heavy silver belt and pull his tunic off. Bilbo shrugged out of his coat and started unbuttoning his own waistcoat but then forgot all about it when he saw the Dwarf standing there in nothing but his trousers and boots.

“Great green Mother of all,” Bilbo breathed, astounded. He had known Thorin had wide shoulders, and Dora had warned him about the hairiness, but this was far beyond anything Bilbo’s mind could have imagined. Thorin looked like he could lift a tree - the muscles of his shoulders and arms were hard and defined, and black hair covered his arms and chest, growing denser on the way down to disappear under his waistband. Bilbo hadn’t seen anything quite like it; Hobbits really only had hair on their heads and feet, and a dusting at the groin. “That’s -”

“What?” Thorin asked, looking uncertainly down at himself.

“N-nothing - I’m just afraid I’m rather … without so much hair as you might be used to,” the scribe stammered and forced himself to finish opening his waistcoat and begin on the shirt beneath only to find Thorin kneeling between his knees, looking him in the face with a little concern.

“And what are Hobbits used to?” he asked, his fingers gently helping Bilbo shrug out of his waistcoat and braces. Bilbo marveled that someone with such big hands could do such delicate work; he’d seen Dwarrow crafting incredibly small gems and jewelry but it was always a shock.

“I suppose you’ll find out soon enough,” he replied cheerfully, pecking a kiss on Thorin’s rather sizable nose because it was right there and who wouldn’t want to erase that serious expression with a playful buss?

“Cheeky Hobbit,” his Dwarf muttered. “ My cheeky Hobbit,” he added, his hands finding Bilbo’s chest under his shirt for the first time.

Both of them inhaled sharply, and Thorin looked poleaxed. “So soft,” he murmured, spreading his fingers and cleary reveling in the sensation of Bilbo’s hairless chest.

Bilbo had a split second urge to protest that males weren’t soft - that’s what boys said to girls, but then his own hands meandered up over Thorin’s shoulders and it was like touching stone covered by a thin warm skin and coarse hair. Thorin was solid, hard, and anything but soft. “Hard,” he returned, barely understanding that he was talking as he traced his fingers over shoulders and down the heavy muscles of the chest.

“Oh yes,” the Dwarf agreed, his voice deepening, strain entering in its timber. “Bilbo, you have to tell me-” He kissed the Hobbit desperately, lifting him and moving him further onto the bed. “Tell me - I have to know -”

“Thorin,” Bilbo gasped, finding Thorin’s strength so arousing he could barely think a thought, much less make sentences. “Surely you can’t imagine I’d deny you anything?”

“Mahal,” the Dwarf groaned, a pleading whine in his voice. “You’re going to kill me.” But he paused above him, staring down at Bilbo, his unbound hair falling forward and obscuring everything except the dim flickering of light from the fireplace. “Tell me where I should stop, or I will take everything .”

It occurred to Bilbo that Thorin knew very little of a Hobbit’s capacity for pleasure, and clearly had not asked, or known to ask, his nephews about it. He grabbed Thorin’s braids, and staring deep into those pale blue eyes, said, “I do not like pain, but beyond that I have no hesitation to say that you may have of me anything you wish,” And because he was looking into Thorin’s eyes when he said it, he could see the king’s pupils dilate outward. “And I have no compunctions about telling you what I want.”

“Good, that’s good,” Thorin rasped. “I will not ask if you are sure; I see that you are. My only hesitation is that I am not familiar with Hobbits, nor you with Dwarves. I fear my own strength.”

“I am not frail or dainty, Thorin Oakenshield!” Bilbo scolded, propping himself up on his elbow with a scowl.

“I will take you at your word,” the Dwarf responded hoarsely, suddenly kissing him with an air of desperation and greed, licking into the Hobbit’s mouth. Bilbo pulled him down with him, accepting the weight of the heavy body on top of him with great enjoyment, while Thorin groaned and thrust against him.

It was perfect, so perfect; Bilbo melted in pleasure and slid his feet up along Thorin’s trousered thighs, holding on and enthusiastically encouraging the press and movement of their bodies. Thorin’s muscles bunched and shivered along his back as the Hobbit trailed his fingers up and down the hot skin.

Mahal, ” Thorin swore, breaking the kiss. Foreheads touching, they gasped, smiling.

Bilbo fingers had encountered the waistband of Thorin’s trousers and now followed it around to the front to find the laces that held the fabric closed over the bulk of his sex. Thorin made a faint hissing sound and moved to sit back, eyes wide.

Bilbo merely waited a beat, then sat up and snagged at the laces again with light fingers, asking permission with a raised eyebrow and watching Thorin’s eyes. The Dwarf swallowed then reached down and started loosening the bindings himself; Bilbo crawled to him to nudge his face under the king’s lowered head and fall of hair. He was a little disturbed that his intended was shaking, eyes almost closed. “Shh,” Bilbo comforted. “We don’t have to.” He gently moved the hair back behind Thorin’s hunched shoulders, taking his head in his hands. “Am I wanting too much?”

Thorin opened his eyes and stared straight into Bilbo’s; he took one of the Hobbit’s smaller hands and firmly guided it down to the laces. “You can never want too much,” he growled. “I can barely move from wanting to give you everything, arsûn .”

Bilbo let out a great, relieved breath, and huffed a laugh. “Well, I was willing to drink tea with you by the fire, but I think we’ll like this a little better.” He tugged the laces loose, the back of his fingers bumping against a tempting bulge. “Perhaps ‘little’ isn’t a word I should use,” he added with a chuckle.

Thorin huffed and gently bit at Bilbo’s bottom lip as the Hobbit curled his fingers around an impressive shaft of heated and rigid flesh. Bilbo hummed with pleasure as Thorin’s chest heaved.

“You know,” Bilbo breathed, glancing down, “I think I’m developing a bit of an appetite.”

 

Thorin was not only a furnace, Bilbo thought groggily, but a great mountain of a furnace, and a heavy arm around his waist like a felled tree - if a felled tree was also a furnace covered in hair.

Half awake, he petted the arm absently, trying to figure the time. The fire had died down completely and it was pitch dark and cold; he was happy for the king’s naked warmth and heavy blankets and pelts. Then Thorin stirred slowly, and in a rasping murmur asked: “Awake already?”

“What time is it?”

“Early morning, I reckon. I’ll start up the fire if you’d like.”

“I think you’ve already done that,” Bilbo quipped with a giggle, “although I won’t protest if you yourself are cold.”

“How could I be cold,” Thorin whispered into Bilbo’s hair, nosing along his nape, “when I have you by my side, arsûn .”

“You called me that before,” the Hobbit observed sleepily. “What does it mean?”

“He who is hot,” Thorin replied after a slight pause, clearly attempting to arrange the words of the definition in a way that was the least offensive.

Bilbo turned under Thorin’s arm to face what he assumed was Thorin’s face. “The forge I’m sleeping next to is calling me ‘hot’?”

The Dwarf kissed him unerringly, confirming that indeed Dwarven eyesight far excelled in the dark. “Heat is desire, my One.” He drew Bilbo against him and Bilbo could feel the truth of that statement easily enough and sighed into Thorin’s strong, bare chest, as Thorin’s big hand rubbed up and down his back until it stopped along the swell of his buttocks.

It turned into a definite grope and Bilbo chuckled. “Yes, Your Majesty? Is there something you’d like?”

“Oh, something ,” his Dwarf husked.

Bilbo propped himself up. “All right. We’ll need oil, but otherwise things will… fit.”

A beat of silence followed this pronouncement. “You’re so bold ,” Thorin said, but it didn’t sound like a complaint. It seemed like admiration.

“I should hope so. I’m sleeping in the king’s bed, after all. That takes some courage, I think.”

“Do you need light?”

Bilbo thought on this while the Dwarf shifted, clearly looking for the prerequisite oil. “Something tells me I won’t be seeing much besides the bedding, even if there was light.”

Something crashed in the dark and Bilbo giggled. “ Wicked and bold,” Thorin managed, returning to Bilbo’s side. “How do I-”

That question clarified so much for Bilbo, both Thorin’s shakiness and his surprise at the some of the happenings of the night before. Odds were that Thorin had very little experience. “Start gently with two fingers and I’ll let you know,” the Hobbit explained. Inexperience was fine, he mused. No one ever began things expertly.

Then he crossed his arms on the pillow and rested his head against his wrists.

By dawn, Bilbo knew what Dora had tried to tell him about Dwarven “recovery.” As Miss Hornblower had indicated, Bilbo was not disappointed, but there had certainly been some misunderstandings until finally Thorin had merely stated: “Your two for every one of mine,” and set out to follow through with that philosophy.



arsûn (“hot one”, “he that is hot”) https://thedwarrowscholar.tumblr.com/post/138099632134/first-off-your-work-is-incredible-and-its

Chapter Text

Bilbo sluggishly woke to faint sounds from the outer rooms beyond Thorin's barred door, and sadly no heavy, warm Dwarf by his side. He mumbled something into the bed clothes and may have whined a little bit when, on curling forward, his lower back gave him a pronounced twinge.

A dip in the bed announced Thorin's return to his side, and a large hand gently rubbed into the dip of his lower back. “And how are you feeling?” the dwarf King asked in an indulgent tone.

Bilbo refused to open his eyes quite yet, but he could predict that Thorin's expression shared that same smug male look that Bilbo’s previous lovers would get after love making. He wasn't quite ready for that expression just yet.

“What would you say to a hot bath?” Thorin continued.

Bilbo opened one bright eye at that. “I would say that first, if you are joking right now I might actually kill you. And secondly, hello hot bath, I love you.”

Thorin chuckled, crossing his arms. HIs hair had been stripped of its beading, his braids unravelling, and he wore a geometrically and richly embroidered robe that was doing very little to cover up anything. Apparently, modesty was only for public spaces.

“How far is it, and will you be joining me?” Bilbo inquired, running a languid hand along the dangling ends of the embroidered cloth belt and eying the acreage of broad hairy chest very much not covered by the robe.

In response to Bilbo’s flirtation, Thorin’s eyes dropped and so did his voice. “Steps away, and an army of Goblins could not stop me.”

Bilbo smiled and sat up slowly. “Well, then.”

The suites in the royal apartments had private baths, and so Bilbo walked naked with Thorin through an arched door and into a wonderland. “You know,” Bilbo said as he examined the exquisite marble walls, gold fixtures and giant pool, with a slightly open mouth, “it’s a good thing that Erebor’s unending hot water isn’t one of the ‘treasures’ bandied about, else you’d have half of the Shire immigrating.”

The king shrugged out of his robe, hanging it on a metal hook in a row of them. “Hobbits like baths?”

“It takes third place behind eating and drinking and probably ties with sleeping, but yes. We love our comforts, we Hobbits.” He eyed the nude Thorin up and down, and bit his lower lip. “...among other things.”

The muscular Dwarf returned his lascivious look with a curled, teasing smile and lidded eyes. “Am I not a comfort?” he husked.

“Nothing comfortable about you, Thorin, but I love you anyway,” the Hobbit replied breezily, but the Dwarf would have none of it, snatching him up and advancing down the stone steps into the hot water. Bilbo struggled, laughing, but another twinge in his back silenced him.

Thorin looked down at him in concern and slowly lowered him onto the first step. “You are in pain?” he asked slowly, frowning.

“My dear, I am only sore, and if you cannot understand how that could happen, I shall be disappointed in your memory.”

Thorin’s face reddened. “I will fetch you a salve.”

Bilbo grabbed Thorin’s forearm and even though his grip did not have the strength to stop the heavier Dwarf, Thorin stopped as if Bilbo’s hand was iron. “Love, are you going to walk out there and order a Dwarf to find a salve for your consort-to-be?” And when Thorin scowled and opened his mouth, Bilbo pressed on: “I know that half of the inhabitants of this mountain can guess what we did last night, but let me tell you, if you want those events to be repeated any time soon, you will not go out there and confirm it.”

Thorin’s frown eased and he gave a rueful little laugh. “I see. My apologies. I was not thinking clearly.” He pressed a kiss to the Hobbit’s forehead. “I do not care to think I have hurt you.”

“You haven’t hurt me, obstinate Dwarf. Certain muscles have not been used in an age, and they’re bound to be sore. Hot water will do me a world of good.”

Thorin nodded and descended deeper into the bath, offering a hand to Bilbo until he got his footing on steps a bit steeper than he was used to, but thankfully not by terribly much. Once he was able to sit comfortably, the Dwarf went deeper still, submerged, and rose again, pushing his sodden hair out of his face. Bilbo’s tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of his mouth at the sight. How he could be both arousingly accessible and unbearably majestic was a mystery, one that Bilbo was willing to solve.

He closed his eyes and rested his head back against the rim of the bath, letting the heat soak into his muscles, The eddies of the water moved and the king settled next to him. Thorin ran a hand down his leg and found his anklet, unlocking it and setting it safely away from the water, but the hand stayed, a thumb rubbing along his instep. The Hobbit smiled, eyes still closed. “You’re playing with fire, there,” he murmured laconically.

In the intensity of the previous night, both he and Thorin had not truly explored the differences that their bodies harbored; they been too involved in discovering their similarities, too impatient to experiment. Clearly this had just occurred to his lover. “Am I now? I like the sound of that. Tell me more.”

Bilbo opened his eyes then, to find the king bent over him, staring at him as if he could drink up every inch of skin, every expression. Bilbo carefully levered himself out of the water onto the lip of the tub, widening his stance and letting the Dwarf see what his touch was doing to him.  Thorin’s sudden inhale followed, his grip tensing then easing. “Beautiful,” he said with a rush of breath. “How can you be so perfect and unadorned?”

Somehow Bilbo doubted that would be a problem for very much longer, if Thorin’s propensity for giving him shiny ornaments continued on as it had begun. The avid focus of covetous eyes seemed to measure him for the trinkets to come. “We Hobbits are a simple folk,” he said. “We find pleasure in uncomplicated things. Why should I be adorned in my natural state?”

Thorin slowly wedged himself between Bilbo’s knees, lifting one leg to a brawny shoulder and turning his head to run his rough cheek across the calf, making Bilbo shudder. “Nature gives us the raw materials,” the king growled, eyes glowing in lust, “to refine and adorn. I would shape bracelets to pronounce the delicacy of your wrists, and crown you in flowers made of gold to reflect the nobility and beauty of your soul.”

This was perhaps the strangest pillow talk Bilbo had ever participated in, but odder still, it took the breath from his lungs all the same. “And you?” Bilbo asked, “I cannot make you … jewelry, or any of those things.”

“Dwarrow are not all shapers of metal and gems,” the king muttered, turning his head and run the edge of his teeth along Bilbo’s ankle, his pale eyes never leaving the Hobbit’s face. “Some may simply choose adornments for their lovers, to accentuate what they admire of their bodies.”

Bilbo gulped, both at Thorin’s caresses and his words. There were parts of Thorin’s body that he indeed had come to admire, but they were usually quite clothed in the course of a regular day, damn Dwarvish modesty! He licked his lips and realized his eyes had dipped fo find those attributes once again and admire them.

Thorin chuckled darkly. “Ay, jewelry even for that.”

“Oh sweet merciful Lady,” Bilbo whimpered. “Really? That can’t be - that can’t be-” He lost the path of his thoughts, however, as Thorin’s head dipped further still, and he gave up in thinking altogether.

Breakfast was cold by the time they were dressed (the Hobbit’s clean clothes appearing in Thorin’s rooms as if by magic), and there were two grinning nephews sharing a pot of tea between them, waiting there when they came to table.

“Good morning!” Kili cried. “Oh, but you are looking well.”

“Good morning,” Bilbo replied blandly. “Pass me the scones there, will you?”

Fíli guffawed and flourished the platter so that Bilbo could pick. “You should have known, brother. Hobbits take such things in stride.”

Thorin ignored this, as he generally ignored most of the princes’ mealtime prattle, digging into a ham steak with some energy. Bilbo glanced at him, shrugged, and held up his cup for tea. “And what mischief is afoot today?” he asked.

“Oh, you will adore this. Gimli’s Elf-love is with Balin now. He’s the vanguard to his father’s progress.”

Bilbo, cup halfway to his mouth, paused, and glanced at the king, who had set down his fork and knife ever so carefully at this. Oh dear.

“Repeat that please,” Thorin said in a mild voice. That voice was a hundred times scarier than his growling, Bilbo was coming to find, because it meant the king was attempting to start at a reasonable frame of mind.

The Hobbit sighed, shooting Fíli a baleful, disappointed look. “What Prince Fíli meant to say, is that Thranduil’s captain of guard, his son Prince Legolas, is most likely here to announce the imminent arrival of his father’s retinue into Dale.”

“Prince Legolas, the one who writes to you?”

Bilbo raised an acknowledging eyebrow, not even deigning to answer. If Thorin wanted to start an argument over that, he would suffer the consequences. The immediate switch of subject that followed seemed to confirm that the king was unwilling to go down that path.

“What was that about Gimli ?”

“Your nephew was being an insufferable brat and sticking his large nose where it doesn’t belong ” the Hobbit said breezily, ignoring Fíli's indignant ‘ hey !’. “Remind me to import some jam for these scones.”

“Gimli is in love with an Elf ?!”

“He’s a very attractive Elf,” Bilbo commented, gnawing on a piece of bacon. At Thorin’s glare, he added: “ I am not attracted to him, but it’s not like I’m blind.”

“Oh, he really is good-looking!” Kíli exclaimed, his excitement about the topic eclipsing any common sense he might have had. “And not at all the sort that one would mistake for a lady Elf.”

Fíli shook his head and sighed. “You needn’t worry, Uncle Thorin. Gimli formed an attachment to who he thought was a plain captain; he wasn’t aware that this Legolas as Legolas Thranduilion .” He seemed to relish pronouncing that patronym.

Thorin sighed, and returned to cutting his meat, giving Bilbo a smiling glance.  “Legolas Thranduilion can cool his heels until I’ve sated my appetite.” Bilbo had to giggle at the horrified expressions on the princes’ faces.

“I need to remember that for next time,” Bilbo laughed as the two younger Dwarrow beat a hasty retreat from the room. He snagged the teapot. “Tea?”

Chapter Text

Thorin had to admit Legolas Thranduilion was attractive in that sort of willowy, Elvish way. The Elven prince stood smoothly from his chair by the desk when Thorin entered into the study, bowing his blond head without hesitation. Lithe, strong, and dressed in intricate silver chain and plate armor shaped like overlapping leaves, he cut a fine and lethal figure. Definitely the spawn of that white-haired oath-breaker, at least in form.

“My king, may I introduce-” Balin began.

Thorin waved a hand. “Prince Legolas Thranduilion, welcome,” he pronounced as he made his way to his own chair and left Balin nearly sputtering in outrage.

Elves did not show surprise readily, but Legolas’s brows did a subtle twitch at the king’s unexpected knowledge of his lineage. When Bilbo closed the door behind them, and Thorin glanced his way, the Elf followed suit. His expression immediately went through a dramatic change, brightening in clear astonishment and delight. “Master Baggins!” he cried, smiling.

“Well met, Prince Legolas,” Bilbo replied, as equally delighted. “Welcome to Erebor.” He took the chair Balin placed for him next to Thorin’s and gave Legolas a cheeky smile, watching for the realization to come. Thorin sped it along by taking Bilbo’s hand and kissing it.

The Elf’s blue eyes danced. “Bilbo Baggins,” he admonished, “ what have you done ?”

“Why, my lad, I convinced him to court me, of course,” the scribe replied laughingly, winking at Thorin.

His intended snorted, taking messages handed to him by Balin. “More like I decided to win myself a consort,” he returned, and Bilbo could forgive the note of triumph in his voice at that moment. It did feel like a victory that they had come this far, and well, if Thorin wanted to lord it over the Elf, so be it.

Legolas smiled, although there was a shadow there for just a moment that most folk might think they imagined, for what sadness could there be in this beautiful creature?

What sadness, indeed. Bilbo looked at Thorin, then motioned to Balin. “Fetch Glóin’s son,” he murmured, knowing full well that the Elf could hear anything he said. Both he and Balin waited for Thorin to dispute them, but he merely nodded. Legolas’s face had smoothed of all expression, which confirmed Bilbo’s suspicions.

“Has Balin given you tea and fed you? You must have had quite a ride up here,” Bilbo asked congenially. “I’ve made it twice recently; it isn’t pleasant.”

“Pleasant enough,” Legolas replied distractedly. “The sky here is so clear and blue. I am not used to being able to see from horizon to horizon.”

In the middle of scanning down papers from Thranduil, Thorin glanced up, opened his mouth, then closed it, frowning to himself. Yes, think of that, Bilbo thought. This is an Elf who has always lived in the forest. “Did you not participate in the retaking of Erebor?” Bilbo asked in a conversational tone.

“I was unable. My older brothers did, but I was left behind to rule in my father’s place.”

Thorin cleared his throat, setting aside the papers with a sigh. “Is that usual, to have the youngest son act as regent for the kingdom in his father’s stead?”

The prince’s mouth pressed into an unhappy smile. “There are no rules save my father’s. If he says I stay behind, that is how the world proceeds. We do not often leave the kingdom of the Greenwood; we do not have traditions for such an event, at least not since I was born.”

This was definitely an interesting piece of information, thought Bilbo, and Thorin seemed to consider it, too. Legolas was rather young as Elves went, although Bilbo could not say how one could tell how old an Elf was once they were fully grown. Perhaps it was the openness of expression, a certain lightness that left Elves as they matured into more somber, introspective beings.

 

Soon enough, Balin returned with Gimli behind him. The Dwarf’s impressive wealth of red hair was damp, braided with several intricate beads, and bound in a thick cable down his back. He was clearly wearing his best tunic, for it was spotless and richly appointed. It occurred to Bilbo that both he and Legolas had made an effort in grooming and dressing he had not seen previously in either one of them.

Gimli bowed to Thorin, and then to Bilbo’s surprise, the Hobbit himself, before turning to Legolas and bowing yet again. “Your Highness,” he said coldly, crossing his arms.

Oh dear , Bilbo thought, putting a hand over his mouth and glancing at Thorin. The king took his free hand and squeezed it reassuringly.

“Well met again, Gimli son of Glóin,” the prince replied, standing politely to greet the young Dwarf, although his face had dimmed at this unfriendly welcome. “I am glad to finally see the wonders of Erebor you described to me with such deserved pride.”

Gimli tilted his head, his bright brown eyes glinting. “What wonder can an Elf of the Greenwood find in Erebor?”

The Elf regarded him with blue eyes, clear as crystal, clear as the skies he would seldom see from his own lands. He lowered them after a moment and sighed. “I suppose you must be right about that. A Dwarf cannot admire a flower or a star, so it must follow that an Elf cannot love metal and stone.”

Bilbo bit his lip, turning his head away from this bit of cruel cunning and caught Thorin’s eye, who was looking vaguely impressed at Legolas’s audacious manipulation. It was not subtle to those watching the Elf and Dwarf, but Gimli was young and there was no telling how he would take such a statement.

Well, Bilbo should have known. Young Dwarrow like Fíli and Kíli were more than eager to meet a challenge. “You think so?” Gimli growled in a tone that prompted Balin and Thorin to actually turn and look at him.

“I fear it must be true,” Legolas replied in a regretful manner. “As you say, how can an Elf find wonder in a mere mountain such as this?”

“A mere mountain ?!” cried Gimli. “You call one of the greatest Dwarrow kingdoms in Middle-earth a mere mountain?”

“Perhaps,” Bilbo ventured in the ringing silence that followed, “we might show Prince Legolas the marvels of Erebor? I am sure he will change his mind when he sees the many splendors of the Lonely Mountain.”

Gimli turned, his face lighting up. “Ay, that we might!” Over his shoulder, Legolas beamed at Bilbo but quickly schooled his expression when the young Dwarf spun to point an authoritative finger at him. “When you are free of your duties, I will show you Erebor, and you will see it is much more than a mountain!”

Legolas bowed his head and Gimli stomped from the room after a grunt of acknowledgement. Once the door closed behind the Dwarf, the Elven prince grinned, eyes bright and exuberant.

Thorin had ignored most of this exchange once he’d ascertained that a fight between Gimli and Legolas was not likely. He picked up the papers from the table. “There is a token mentioned?”

The prince looked uncertainly between Bilbo and Thorin. “Yes, my father sent me with a small thing for the Scribe Baggins.”

The Dwarf king sat up straighter and Bilbo closed his eyes in despair. “Your father is sending Bilbo a gift,” Thorin clarified.

“That’s very kind of King Thranduil,” the Hobbit said and ignored how his Dwarf’s head snapped around to stare at him. “He is of course unaware that I am now being courted by the King under the Mountain. Perhaps if you would pass it to my intended, he and I will discuss the appropriateness of accepting such a gift.”

Prince Legolas darted a look at Thorin, and whatever he saw in the stormy expression there seemed safe enough for the Elf to take a fabric-wrapped package and place it before them.

Bilbo excused himself to attend to personal matters, and when he returned, a new teapot had arrived and Legolas was standing and bowing to Thorin, preparing to leave. “Prince Legolas,” the Hobbit said, offering his hands, “I hope to see you soon.”

“I will of course happily return, especially now that Gimli has agreed to show me the loveliness of his home.” The Elf’s eyes gleamed at him in appreciation. “Until we meet again, farewell Master Baggins.”

“Goodbye, Your Highness,” Bilbo replied and saw him out before turning and shutting the door.

“We have much to discuss, you and I,” Thorin began and Bilbo held up a hand.

“Before you say another word, Thorin Oakenshield, I will tell you that I have received many gifts in my lifetime and none of them were courtship gifts until yours.” Thorin’s scowl eased only fractionally. “I know you do not trust Thranduil, but you must see that he is not the one I would know for the rest of my life.” Bilbo placed a small hand on the Dwarf’s larger one. “He cannot drive me away from you; only you can do that.”

Thorin drew a long, deep breath and turned his fist over to take Bilbo’s fingers into his gentle grasp. He met the Hobbit’s eyes. “Please sit,” he said. He then slid the gift to Bilbo’s place at the table. “I do not put it past Thranduil to attempt to make things difficult for me, but for you? I will try to trust in his benevolence to you .”

“It is a book of some kind,” Bilbo assured him. “That is mostly what we spoke of, that and the histories of our people.” He turned the parcel over and loosened the fabric about it, revealing the predicted book. It was bound in dark green dyed leather, embossed with lovely leaf patterns, and on top of it was a folded paper. Bilbo sighed and opened it up. “It is in SIndarin. Shall I translate it aloud?” He was aware that Thorin only knew very basic phrases in the language, spoken and written. It was a strange point of pride among the Durin kings that they would not sully themselves with the language of the “First-born.”

“If you would,” Thorin allowed.

Bilbo glanced down. “It says ‘To the Scribe Baggins of the Shire, greetings from Thranduil Oropherion King of the Greenwood’.” Bilbo winced at the next part, but plowed through; Thorin had Dwarrow who could translate this letter and it was best to be honest in his translation. “‘I have longed for your delightful discussions, dearest Bilbo, and recall how you lamented the lack of information about other peoples of Middle-earth. I recall your’ -” Bilbo coughed. “‘I recalled your fondness for the retellings of creation stories and the’ - uh, ‘lines of kings’… sorry, Thorin, some of these words are a bit archaic. ‘I hope this book shall start your journey on the path of knowledge, and hope for a reciprocal book someday’.” The scribe lowered the paper. “‘May a star shine upon our next meeting’.”

Thorin shook his head. “You translate so quickly. It would take Ori a day.”

“Well, besides my own language - that is, sorry, Hobbitish Westron - there is only Sindarin available to study in the West. I would not touch Black Speech if my life depended on it, and there is no scholarship on Khuzdul or Southron to be had for love nor gold.”

“But you studied our runes, although you cannot read our language.”

“I can read your names at least,” Bilbo said, but then stopped himself. He didn’t want to hint about his current use of runes in his courtship gift. “I enjoyed addressing my letters to Balin, and to you, in what I hoped were the correct symbols. It was a delight to put my scholarship into practice.” He opened the book carefully, glanced at a few pages, shrugged nonchalantly, and closed it again.

“Will you not read it?”

“Certainly, but it isn't important enough to do so now.” Thorin visibly brightened at this. Oh, Bilbo had to be so careful. Thorin was beginning to be so easily anticipated, and Bilbo did not want to find himself manipulating the king by using the Dwarf's affection against him. It was necessary this time, because this book had clearly been copied for Bilbo and contained ancestral lineages, and in no way was Bilbo endangering his courting gift to Thorin with comparisons to this one. “My love, second breakfast is approaching and now I must deal with my own people, which will be a trial, I can tell you.’

Thorin leaned over to kiss him. “Why a trial?”

“Mmm. There will be invasive and impertinent questions about us, but I must get through it; there's no avoiding it.”

The king’s confusion was evident. “They were there for the announcement. Was it not clear?”

Dear dear Dwarrow, thought Bilbo, in some ways so innocent. “It's not the announcement that they will have questions about, but all the things that occurred afterwards. Especially Dora.”

Thorin's look of incomprehension shifted swiftly to shock. “You will tell them about-?!”

“Oh, certainly not!” Bilbo exclaimed tartly. “ Hobbits are naturally just a community of busybodies and rumormongers. They will try to ask, but mostly it will be couched in innuendo.” At the king’s blank look, he clarified: “...hinted at.”

The Dwarf looked mystified enough that Bilbo supposed that innuendo was not something often encountered among Dwarrow. He turned to pick up the book and almost missed Thorin’s twitch. “Would you rather have Ori read it first?” he asked, troubled that even now, the king was unsure of the gift’s effect.

The Dwarf shook his head after a small pause. “No, no, it was meant for you. You should have the pleasure of it…”

And yet, although Thorin attempted to hide it, he seemed very unhappy about it still. “I will pass it on to Ori when I finish reading it,” the Hobbit reassured his intended gently. “He would best know if it contains anything concerning, after all. But honestly, Thorin, it’s most likely Thranduil is showing off his many talented copyists and bookbinders.”

This got a small smile from Thorin. Bilbo kissed him again. “If you don’t see me before dinner, come and rescue me.”

“Rescue you?” Another kiss, playful.

“Preferably in a heroic manner, with sword drawn.”

“Hobbits are so strange,” Thorin muttered.

Chapter Text

 

Bilbo took a deep breath as he rounded the corner and approached the doors to the Hobbit’s quarters. They were ajar, and he could just see a flash of a face peering out and then ducking within.

He was naturally suspicious then, as he opened the door to enter and was immediately set upon on both sides by Tom Cotton and Dora Hornblower. He was marched over to the dining table and set down at the head to the cheering of the entire Hobbit delegation, who began throwing little bits of flower-shaped papers over his head. Paladin appeared with a paper crown and Bilbo endured the indignity of being crowned like a child at his birthday party. He had to admit that they’d done the best they could considering the dearth of fresh flowers in the mountain.

Once the cheering died down, Bilbo shook his head with a laugh, although sitting so abruptly had not been without a bit of discomfort. “What is this, now? My birthday isn’t until the autumn.”

“It’s how we honor our queen!”  Daisy Under-hill exclaimed and threw one last handful of paper flowers over his head.

“If I were your queen, Daisy, I’d have power of life and death,” Bilbo grumbled. “I dare say you wouldn’t like that part.” But he good naturedly accepted a celebratory glass of wine as everyone settled to the meal, chatting and laughing.

“So, how was he?” Dora asked, leaning in with a grin as she shoved her way into the seat to his left, partially dislodging Daisy Under-hill.

“None of your business, Miss Hornblower. Although I will only say, he is a lovely Dwarf and I am lucky he thought to look my way.”

“I should say so,” Amaranth Brandybuck said to his right. Bilbo blinked in astonishment; she hadn’t approached nor spoken to him since her scuning . “But luck has never been a problem for you, Cousin Bilbo, has it?”

“Hey now,” Dora said sharply at the other’s waspish tone. “You’re a fine one to speak of luck , Mistress of Buckland .”

Bilbo shook his head at Dora with a sharp smile and the lady snorted, shrugged and went back to her plate. He turned to Amaranth with a raised eyebrow. “Well, out with your grievances, Cousin. How has my luck got anything to do with you?”

“Oh, Bilbo. I despair of you,” the pretty Hobbit sighed, and turned to her brother who was inevitably sitting next to her. The poor lad, thought Bilbo, had the thankless task of chaperoning his sharp-tongued sister the whole while to the mountain and was still stuck in her orbit. Doubtless her current suitors were inspiring a tighter watch.

Dora shook her head at his confused look. “The nerve of her. Has she even apologised yet for what she tried to do to you?”

Bilbo quirked a wry smile.

“Ah well, she’ll get to it in her own time, I suppose.” She snagged a wine bottle and refilled his glass and then her own. “So what are the next steps?”

“I present my gift to Thorin. It’s almost done, by the way. I’ll work on it today when all this dies down.”

“And then?”

Bilbo inhaled sharply. “Then we see how we like each other, and if we want to marry.”

Dora’s smile became sweeter and kinder. “I don’t think your obstacles will have anything to do with whether you like each other enough, Bilbo. It will be all of this,” She gestured around them with her wine glass. “This mountain, these Dwarves, and this way of life. It’s not the life we were created for.”

Bilbo contemplated Dora for a moment as she gazed into empty space. “I don’t think it’s impossible to live this life,” he said, “or to try to. It’s not so different that it can’t be attempted.”

“If anyone would dare to try, it would be someone like you,” Dora said, although her eyes flickered to Amaranth. “You’ve the pluck and the open-mindedness, I’ll give you that.  Most of us couldn’t and wouldn’t want to do it. No soil, no green, no sunlight…” She caught Bilbo’s gaze and they said together: “It just isn’t natural!”

 

Bilbo had a bit of time to work on the Durin family tree before lunch, adding lines with colored inks and working on the design of the tree itself. He put it back in his room to dry when it was time to take a break, and when he returned to the dining table found a pile of correspondence left there. He sorted it out into piles and found two envelopes for him: one from Bag End and one, interestingly enough, from Elrond in Dale.

The Hobbits began gathering, as they usually did in the dining room before making their way to the great hall. By then Bilbo had read through the letter from his parents (mostly his father, who was the writer of the family, with a personal note from his mother at the end). The main point was support; Bungo was a Baggins through and through and his happiness for his son’s courtship was couched in subtle terms of affection. Belladonna, on the other hand, was full of “my flower”s and exuberant triumph, ending with an adamant promise to attend the wedding. Lack of confidence had never been Belladonna’s problem, Bilbo reflected, smiling as he put the letter aside.

 

Hobbits were looking through the piles of correspondence when Bilbo opened the letter from Elrond. At first, he was surprised by the formality of the document, which was covered in ornate calligraphy and illuminated with gold. Just opening it had the Hobbits around him diverted and curious.

“What is it?” the Thain asked, looking up from several letters in his hands.

Bilbo shrugged. The calligraphy was so fancy and in Sindarin to boot that Bilbo had to concentrate on what he was looking at it. A few moments as the others were reading their letters, and he said: “I think it’s an official congratulatory document? From Lord Elrond.”

Paladin Took smiled. “Well, that didn’t take long.” In response to Bilbo’s bemused look, the Thain laughed. “You may become one of the most powerful beings in Erebor, Bilbo. People will want to acknowledge that.” He took a look at the letter and scratched his head. “Well, that’s pretty restrained. The Master of Buckland once sent me two ponies with custom saddles.”

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open, and looked down at Elrond’s paper in consternation. “Ori told me that consort wasn’t a political position,” he muttered.

“Oh, cousin,’ Paladin sighed, shaking his head fondly.

Bilbo gave him a sour look.

 

Thorin wasn’t in the hall at the beginning of the luncheon, but that was not unusual. What was unusual is that Dwalin strode up to Bilbo as he was about to sit down with his fellow Hobbits, and directed him to the high table, to the left of Thorin’s empty chair. It was a Dwarf-sized chair but someone had added a little step for him. As he sat, he recalled the previous day and the niggling little thought about the symbolism of being on the same side with Dori and Nori. This time, Ori was not present, and Dwalin was now seated on the right with Balin,  Dís and her boys. This made even more sense to Bilbo’s growing idea.

“Balin,” he said to the advisor as they waited to be served, “what is the significance of the left side of the table and the right side?”

The white-bearded Dwarf beamed approvingly at him. “Well, laddie, we Dwarrow believe the left and right hands are both important for balancing every aspect of life, but most Dwarrow feel the right is the strongest and most direct, and the left supports.” Balin glanced at large, broad-shouldered Dwalin, captain of the guard. “The right.” He looked to Dori and Nori. “The left.”

Bilbo glanced down at his own chair’s position. “I see,” he said, then glanced up with a cordial smile when bread and cheese was laid down before him.

Halfway through the meal, the king entered and gave a casual wave of a hand to indicate that people shouldn’t take special notice of him. He pressed a warm hand to Bilbo’s shoulder before taking a seat at his side. “I see I will not have to bring my sword around,” he murmured, eyes gleaming.

“They were surprisingly civilized,” Bilbo admitted.

Thorin affected a surprised expression. “Hobbits? Civilized? Now that is a shock.”

“Oh, don’t get me started, you,” Bilbo chuckled and poured him a cup from a pitcher of ale. “On a different note, I was a little surprised; I received a lovely piece of writing from Lord Elrond with the early mail delivery. It looked very official and seemed to be congratulating me on my courtship.”

Thorin looked at him over the rim of his tankard as he drank. When he put it down, he seemed to be weighing his words carefully. “Was it unwelcome?”

Bilbo sat back and thought for a moment, scratching his nose. “Not unwelcome. Somewhat disturbing and unlooked for. I’m not quite sure why I should be congratulated for a… relationship?”

The Dwarf king smiled at him. Balin, at Bilbo’s elbow, chuckled. “The more I learn of Hobbits, the more charmed I am by them.”

Thorin shrugged. “Bilbo, you can expect more of the same as the news finds new ears. If it’s any consolation, it has very little to do with our courtship.”

“Yes, yes,” the Hobbit responded, a bit testily. “I understand the politics of it, in general. I was told Consort under the Mountain wasn’t anything that important, politically.”

The king opened his mouth as if to dispute that claim, then frowned and seemed to decide against it. “I supposed that is true. It isn’t so much a royal status as a marital one. I suppose you’re thankful you’re not a prince.”

Bilbo wasn’t uneducated, obviously, but the Shire didn’t hold with royalty of any kind and it took him some few seconds to muddle through the implications. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I am indeed grateful that I shan’t be Queen of Erebor.”

Nori guffawed and pounded the table, which prompted Dori next to him to cuff him on the side of his head. The tussle quieted with Thorin growled something under his breath.

“...sorry,” Bilbo muttered, tempted to slide low into his chair from all the attention his one comment, clear in an unfortunate pocket of quiet, had caused.

Thankfully, Thorin seemed amused. As the lunch wound down and both Dwarrow and Hobbits began to leave, he turned to Bilbo and caught his hand in his. “My Heart,” he said, “the Company is meeting after dinner and it would please me if you could join us.”

Startled, Bilbo squeezed the big hand back. “Are you quite sure? I wouldn’t want to impose on you and your, um, companions.”

“How could my intended impose upon us? Spouses and partners are always welcome. And,” Thorin continue, his voice lowered to a rumble, “I was hoping, if you aren’t too…”

“Too…?”

Thorin’s eyes followed the Dwarrow shifting and leaving around them. He lowered his head closer to Bilbo’s. “Too tired from last night…”

Bilbo chuckled, glad the Dwarf had avoided the word “sore.” “I am indeed still tired,” he said and watched Thorin’s expression fall. “But I think we can work around the kind of tired I am.” He smiled as his intended’s expression predictably brightened.

“You’ll come, then?” the king asked, then flushed red all the way to his adorable round ears.

“Yes, my love,” Bilbo laughed kindly, “I will indeed.”

Chapter Text

When Bilbo returned to work on the gift for Thorin, another little pile of letters had appeared on the table, consisting of some parcels as well. He studiously avoided looking at anything quite yet, determined to get through the more detailed designs on the family tree. This was only partially successful, since he wasn’t the only Hobbit using the common room, it being the space all the Hobbits had to transverse to get to their rooms and the baths.

After a third Hobbit looked through the pile and made meaningful noises at him to pay attention to it, Bilbo put away his project with a sigh and knocked on Paladin’s door. The Took answered with a letter in his hand and a pipe in the other. “Cousin?”

“Could you do me a favor and help with the incoming congratulatory bric-a-brac?”

Paladin’s green eyes gleamed. “Oh, certainly. It is an important chore, the sorting of bric-a-brac.”

Bilbo had to chuckle at that, and he was in a better mood when they returned to the table, until the door opened and Dís , followed by her sons, entered. They were carrying yet more papers and parcels, and in the case of Fíli, a sheathed weapon.

“What in Arda?” Bilbo exclaimed, taken aback.

“Oh, none of that,” the princess said, although she was smiling in a way that seemed to communicate a cruel enjoyment of the situation. “Set those down on the table, my gems,” she directed the princes. “Now, Bilbo,” she began, giving him a stern look, one that strangely resembled his own mother’s when he was about to get a ‘talking to,’ “this is part and parcel, excuse the saying, of being associated with the King of Erebor. You’re just going to have to tighten your belt and get on with it.”

“I beg your pardon?” the Thain said, shocked.

“Oh, Paladin. That probably means something different,” Bilbo said, patting his cousin’s arm. “Apologies, Princess Dís . To tighten one’s belt means that one is starving, and in the Shire that’s the very last thing a Hobbit wishes on anyone.”

“I didn’t mean that at all,” the Dwarrowdam replied, raising her dark and braided eyebrows. “It means… getting ready for a difficult task.”

There was general relaxing of shoulders at that. “Well, that makes sense,” Bilbo murmured and they all congregated at the table to stare at the pile. “Paladin, could you-?”

“I’ll take the papers,” the Thain volunteered cheerfully and began sorting.

Bilbo’s eyes was on what seemed to be a small sword a little longer than his mother’s and decidedly not Elven nor Dwarven, judging from the almost sickle-curve shape of the sheathe and the blade within. Fíli brought it to him.

“It’s Man-made,” the prince said. “It came with a letter from Dale. Probably the gift of Bard’s people.” He said this with a bland tone that suggested that the quality was suspect. Dwarrow .

Nevertheless, Bilbo took it, examined the sheathe which was embossed silver, and pulled the sword out a few inches. The grip was the right size for his hand and was made of a piece of pale green stone, polished smooth; it felt cool to the touch.

“That’s a stone from the East,” Kíli chimed. “Dale used to get a lot of import from the East and they’re starting it up again.”

The Hobbit turned the sheathe over and raised his eyebrows at the looping designs there. It appeared to be a sort of writing he’d never seen before. Suddenly, this gift made much more sense. Of course, King Bard had found something new for him to research.

In the meanwhile, Paladin had sorted the papers by language. The greater pile was in Westron but there were some Sindarin examples there as well. Bilbo looked through the Westron pile and was quickly able to sort it into Mannish Westron and Dwarvish. Nothing from the Shire yet - the news would have necessitated a longer Raven’s flight and would take letter writers there a day or so to respond. Hobbits, in large, did not write hasty letters.

The princes were clearly excited to see what was in the parcels, so Bilbo motioned them to go ahead and open them, although Dís cautioned them to take care, threatening bodily harm if they damaged any of the items.

While they were opening his gifts, Bilbo began investigating the Sindarin documents. Unsurprisingly, one was from Legolas, a charming missive full of affectionate language written by a deft but practical hand. Another was from Erestor which in contrast was full of gorgeous calligraphy but a rather blunt message, typical of the very straightforward scribe. The princes were giggling over something, so he gave up and stepped over to see what they were reacting to.

“That’s a bold statement,”  Dís commented as Fíli lifted a gold coronet made of twisted wire, with leaves, berries, and flower petals carved of various pieces of stone. It was far too delicate for Dwarven work Bilbo had seen - and Dwarrow tended to facet their stones and these stones were carved into natural shapes. It was small, fitted to his size, and really very pretty. “Elven,” the princess added. She poked at the packaging and found a folded piece of paper. “Well, how nice, it’s in an actual understandable language.”

She passed it to Bilbo, but Kíli craned his neck to see the writing and crowed: “Glorfindel!”

“Really?” Fíli breathed but the Hobbit snatched the paper to see for himself before the older prince could intercept it.

“Good Lady,” Bilbo murmured. The note merely read: ‘A prince among Hobbits needs a crown.’ “I am not a prince !”

Paladin took the paper, examining it. “Well, you are the grandson of-”

“Don’t you even start, Paladin Took!” the scribe scolded. “ You’re his great-grandson.”

Dís and her sons were suddenly very quiet and interested in this interaction. “I thought you Shirelings didn’t have kings and queens,” Dís said.

“We don’t ,” Bilbo said, giving Paladin a hard stare.

“What is your equivalent, then?”  Fíli asked.

Bilbo smirked and pointed at Paladin. “Thain.”

Paladin pointed right back. “Grandson of a former Thain.”

The Dwarrow looked back and forth between the two.

“He has a lot of grandchildren, including Amaranth and Dodi!” Bilbo pointed out.

Paladin shrugged, grinning. Bilbo gritted his teeth. “ Still not a prince, Cousin .”

“Oh, just wear your crown, Bilbo,” the Took retorted and plonked the gold thing on the scribe’s head. “What else have you got there?” he asked the princes.

 

Despite all the interruptions, Bilbo was finally able to finish the family tree by early evening. He even had enough time to write responses to the letters and gifts he had received which had included a lovely quill pen from Ori, and a mithril medallion from Balin, in the shape of a Raven looking remarkably like Karaic. It looked old and traditional, and Bilbo stared at it a long time until he could form the words to thank the older Dwarf for passing it down to him.

He rolled up the finished gift and stuck his head out of the door to ask the guard there if he might ask the king if he would come by before dinner. The guard, without a single reaction, somehow still managed to convey a knowing air as he walked off with a purpose, and Bilbo sighed.

By the time Thorin came, Bilbo had put all the missives and gifts away, dreading that more would arrive in the interval, but fortune was on his side, and he could face the king with a smile as unburdened as any Hobbit might when meeting his intended with a clear conscience and a courting gift behind his back.

“My Heart,” Thorin said, after glancing about to ascertain that they were indeed alone in the normally utilized space, “you asked for me?”

“Indeed, I did. I wasn’t sure if this was to be done publicly, but I am playing a safe game tonight and giving you this now.” He brought the roll of parchment from behind his back and presented it. “I also do not know the words, if there are any, so I suppose I should say that this is a symbol of my craft that I am giving to you, as a sign of my intentions.”

Thorin’s slightly puzzled expression cleared and brightened by degrees through this speech until he was smiling outright, always a victory to Bilbo’s mind. “You made me something?” the king asked in wonder, taking the heavy paper and unrolling it. He gazed upon it and Bilbo held his breath, then released it when Thorin looked up again, veritably beaming. “This is a work of beauty!” the king exclaimed. “How did- oh, Ori.”

“I wasn’t sure what would a Dwarf might need of my skill, and Ori said you’d wanted a full family tree, including the dams. Well, family trees are a bit of an obsession for folks of the Shire, and I am skilled at making them, mothers and all.” At this point, Thorin had carefully rolled it back up and placed in on the dining table, before stepping forward and sweeping Bilbo into a very enthusiastic embrace, that led to a very intense kiss and two very red faces when a few Hobbits came in to see what was afoot.

It wasn’t long before the entire contingent was in the room, looking at the work Bilbo had done. Many of them had seen portions of it, but no one had seen the finished product, and even Bilbo, his own harshest critic, had to admit that he’d outdone himself. With the various inks he had been able to acquire in Erebor, including some with mineral compounds that made metallic colors, the tree glowed off the page.

“It doesn’t have to be public,” Thorin confided as the Hobbits oohed and ahhed over it. “Although I will have it displayed publicly, so you will have to own up to it eventually.”

Bilbo smiled at him and the Dwarf tucked him up against his side while they watched Paladin bat away various Hobbit fingers getting a bit too close to the parchment.

 

After a not very eventful dinner, Bilbo followed Thorin to the king’s quarters where the Company was beginning to converge. Many carried instruments, Bilbo saw with some surprise. With them came a few Dwarrow and Dwarrowdams associated with various members of the group, including Dís who held court in a corner for those not participating in what turned out to be a rather rowdy few hours of drinking, smoking, playing, and singing, with random recountings of deeds large and small, polite and bawdy.

Bilbo, at first seated with Thorin like some other relatives and loved ones, eventually excused himself to sit with Dís and be introduced to the other related Dwarrow who were not particularly keen on the rowdy celebratory tone of the main table. These included Bombur’s wife Fari, one of the few other golden-haired Dwarrow he had seen, Bifur’s niece (whom he had apparently raised), and Óin ’s husband. These Dwarrow and Dwarrowdams were a bit wary of Bilbo at first, but eventually Dís got him talking, and fairly soon Fari was showing him her knitting project, a wee little robe for an expected blessing.

The laughter from the high table often drew their attention, and Thorin’s laughter in particular drew Bilbo’s. Thorin was looking especially handsome tonight, red-cheeked and smiling, the beads in his hair flashing when he turned his head.

“Something on your mind, Master Baggins?” Dís teased when he’d been caught a second time staring at his intended across the room.

“Don’t make the poor lad uncomfortable,” Bombur’s wife admonished. “It’s always that way when it’s new. They’re allowed to be distracted, the loves.”

“Thank you, Mistress Fari,” Bilbo said, attempting to hold onto his dignity. “You see, I gave him my present earlier.”

“Oooh!” Bifur’s niece exclaimed. Her name was Pivar and she seemed a little younger than Gimli, and abnormally fascinated with any talk of courtship. “I hope he liked it.”

“He liked it very well,” the Hobbit assured her.

“Oh, I see. And then it was dinner, and now it is this congregation, and you haven’t had any time alone since,” Óin ’s husband, Kulil, observed with a keenness that was disconcerting. Kulil, Dís had explained when he’d be introduced, was an Iron Hills Dwarf. He certainly looked different to Bilbo’s eyes, a bit swarthier and angular in the face than even the Durins and with black hair braided close to his scalp, glinting with many beads in a style wasn’t used to seeing in the mountain. He was an herbalist by trade, which is how had met Óin many years before.

“Just so,” Bilbo acknowledged.

When the ale made it around the tables again, he raised a hand against it and began drinking water, and this made Dís smirk. When Bilbo frowned at her, she tilted her chin in Thorin’s direction; Bilbo saw that the king wasn’t drinking anymore either and Dwalin seem bent on embarrassing him about it, leering and muttering things that made the king turn and push him off his chair. Bilbo stood in a decisive manner and walked back to Thorin’s side, tilting his head to look at Dwalin on the floor.

“My dear Dwalin!” he exclaimed with innocent eyes. “Are you quite all right? Not too much to drink I hope?”

Nori cackled and Bofur began singing some ridiculous song about a Dwarf who experienced a growing number of ailments from excessive drinking (or at least that was what it sounded like). Thorin slid an arm about Bilbo’s waist and encouraged the Hobbit to lean against him. Turning his face against his intended’s ear, he muttered: “I’ve missed you. How are you faring?”

Bilbo merely smiled at him.

“Will you stay tonight?” the king then asked.

The Hobbit stared right into Thorin’s eyes. “That depends,” he whispered, “on how well you can take directions.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo endured the knowing looks Thorin and he received as the last of the Company left for their beds. He was particularly tempted to put out a foot and trip Dwalin, who was the worst of them all, with is snide remarks and leering.

“He’s jealous,” Thorin said as he finally closed the outer door, barred it, and led Bilbo through to his personal quarters and barred that door as well.

“How so?” the Hobbit asked as they took off their coats.

“He can’t officially court Ori. Dori and Nori are making him wait. They’ve always been absurdly protective of Ori; their mother gave them the raising of him and they’ve taken it to extremes. Also, other Dwarrows have tried to court him in the past when he was too young and hadn’t mastered his craft yet.”

“Really? Ori ?”

His intended gave him a quizzical look. “You don’t find him handsome?”

The Hobbit blinked. “I like Ori fine, but I wouldn’t call him attractive . Is he particularly lovely to Dwarrow, then?”

Thorin’s laugh was affirmation. “ Dori is the loveliest, but all the Ri’s are sought after. Ori is young and attractive, so you can imagine his brothers have had a time of it. And well, Dwalin hasn’t made a good impression as a potential husband for someone as quiet and intellectual as Ori. Let’s say Dori and Nori have many reservations.”

Bilbo pictured Dori, a broad Dwarf with a round face, big nose, and immaculately braided hair and beard. Nori and Ori were not as broad, but they shared luxurious hair and big noses. The Hobbit always imagined someone like Glóin would be the Dwarrow ideal, and said so.

“Should I be jealous?” Thorin wondered aloud, stooping to kiss his intended for the first time since Bilbo had presented his courting gift. This derailed their conversation considerably, but Bilbo managed to answer eventually.

“You’re my ideal, Thorin Oakenshield, and that’s what you need to remember,” he retorted but ruined it by pulling Thorin back to him for a second round.

“To answer your earlier question, I do very well following directions,” the king said at last. “And I think I will be especially motivated to follow your directions.”

The Hobbit grinned. “I think you will be, too. So here are the first two: take off your clothes and lay back on the bed.”

Thorin’s eyes widened and he swallowed. “I approve,” he said hoarsely.

“I thought you would. Well, then get a move on, Your Majesty,” his intended responded pertly.

He watched as Thorin moved towards the bed, working on his heavy belt. Bilbo began at the buttons of his waistcoat then forgot them for a moment as the Dwarf pulled off his tunic. Thorin was indeed ideal, Bilbo thought, pulling his lower lip between his teeth and staring.

The Dwarf was solidly built like a great oak tree; there was nothing slender or soft about his body’s proportions, even to his waist and thighs which were broad and strong. And yet, Bilbo found him powerfully arousing in a way that Hobbit bodies rarely were to him. And hairy , he told himself. Let’s not forget the hairiness. Black hair covered almost every part of him, sometimes lightly (as on shoulders and back) and sometimes densely, especially as it arrowed down towards his groin.

Thorin paused with his hands on his waistband and curled a knowing smile at Bilbo’s lack of progress with his buttons. The Hobbit started, flushing, and managed to get the garment off and tend to his braces and shirt. When he looked up again, Thorin was sitting on the edge of the bed removing his boots, his trousers falling down his hips. Bilbo tilted his head and licked his lips before recalling his own task, removing his trousers and setting aside his clothes.

Thorin was grinning and sitting back on the bed on his elbows, fully naked, when Bilbo turned back; the Dwarf’s attractively proportionate sex on prominent display. “Are you sure you are clear about the directions?” Bilbo inquired with a smile.

The king sighed and stretched out on the bed, watching the Hobbit. Bilbo took a slight detour to retrieve the helpful oil kept in a corked bottle, before sitting on the edge of the bed to lean over his intended. “I would know your plan,” Thorin stated, his muscular arms stretched over his head and his thick black hair spread out behind him.

‘Hm, well, I suppose I could share it with you,” the Hobbit teased. “I was thinking of taking a long, leisurely ride on you, to work out the kinks you see.” When Thorin’s mouth dropped open, he added: “And if all goes well, perhaps a gallop could be in the offing, if I’m warmed up enough for it.”

Thorin slid a large hand through Bilbo’s hair, pulling his face down to kiss. “Clever Hobbit,” he breathed approvingly against his mouth, the kiss scorching. “I like this plan.”

“Uh huh,” Bilbo hummed, running his hand through the hair on Thorin’s chest, up and then down, enjoying the heat of the skin under the scratchiness of the hair, and the thudding of Thorin’s heart. He let his hand continue down until he was grasping his hardening length. Thorin’s breath rushed out and he groaned long and low.

The strength and girth in Bilbo’s hand sidetracked him. Thorin wasn’t particularly big, but he was proportionate and so was larger than most Hobbits, and well, Bilbo had always been attracted to larger Hobbit males. Among those who knew him well, it was something of a joke. Here in Erebor, it was a feast for the eyes, surrounded by bigger males and confronted by the magnificence of Thorin Oakenshield.

Bilbo bent to suck gently on the thick head, smiling to himself as Thorin hissed and shuddered. Blindly seeking fingers found his hair, rubbing his scalp restlessly as the Hobbit opened his mouth to take as much as he could, closing his eyes to the feel of it. Thorin said his name breathlessly but it wasn’t until those large fingers tightened and pulled at his hair that Bilbo pulled slowly off and opened his eyes.

His lover look wrecked, eyes glazed and flushed from face all the way down his chest. “You-” Thorin rasped, and coughed. “You said you wanted a long ride… if you keep on with that, the ride won’t be as long as you might need.”

He had forgotten. The morning before, he’d discovered for himself that Dwarrow were gifted in longevity when it came to sustaining during sex, but that came with a longer recovery time. If Bilbo rushed Thorin now, he would have a lengthy wait for the next opportunity, if a second could be had. “It’s your fault,” he said, sitting back and reaching for the oil, “for being distracting.”

Thorin huffed out a strained laugh; Bilbo warmed the oil in his hands and applied it to Thorin with worshipful motions. The king swore like rocks moving and grabbed at him with the closest hand; Bilbo evaded, giggling, then let himself be caught and dragged up the Dwarf’s body to be kissed, those deft hands lifting him up to straddle Thorin’s waist and then moving upward to caress his chest and rub at his nipples.

Thorin had revealed himself to be a marvelous kisser from the start, but Bilbo had been surprised by the tactile nature of his intended. Thorin’s aloofness had impressed upon him from earlier in their acquaintance; he could not have predicted just how much courtship would change the Dwarf, how much he seemed to need to touch Bilbo as soon as they were in private, his initial hesitancy fading. So far, these revelations were nothing but pleasant and the Hobbit could only hope they continued.

Finally, Bilbo pulled back and took up the oil again. Rising to his knees, he eased two fingers into himself, gnawing at his lower lip as he concentrated. Thorin’s hands shook as the held to Bilbo’s waist. “Does it pain you?” his intended whispered, concerned.

Bilbo huffed. “Aches a little.”

He added more oil and saw that Thorin was staring at his fingers as they disappeared into his body with an unwaveringly lustful focus. “Are you ready for your ride?” he murmured, licking his lips.

“Mm. I think so. Would you-” He didn’t even have to finish his sentence before Thorin was effortlessly helping him lift up with one hand and holding himself in the other, and Bilbo slowly pressed down.

Thorin cursed in gravelly Khuzdul, and Bilbo imagined that the Dwarf’s words were probably very filthy, because Bilbo’s thoughts were equally in the ditch, all about how big Thorin was and how he seemed to fill Bilbo up, pressing into every internal surface as the Hobbit slowly worked himself down to take him in.

“Oh Lady,” Bilbo whimpered as finally he settled. The ache was there, but he was beginning to not care about it. “It’s good , Thorin.”

Thorin’s hand rose to cup his face, his thumb tracing Bilbo’s lower lip. “Take all you will, ghivashel .” He groaned when Bilbo began to rise and fall, and lapsed back into incomprehensible cursing while the Hobbit could only make helpless noises in the back of his throat. He bit at Thorin’s fingers and the Dwarf growled and sat up, pulling Bilbo into a desperate kiss. Bilbo whimpered, rubbing up against the hard plane of Thorin’s stomach, and throwing his arms over Thorin’s shoulders to help him maintain his rhythm. Thorin nosed along his temple and down his neck, breathing hotly, stiling his own impulse to thrust up. His Hobbit felt so perfect and made such needy sounds that it took every effort for Thorin to remember that Bilbo needed to control the pace. It didn’t stop him from nibbling at the Hobbit’s ear that earned him a high-pitched whine and, Mahal bless him, a sudden cry as Bilbo climaxed.

The lovely creature melted into his arms, gasping and boneless; Thorin felt a certain smug triumph, holding his lover in his arms.

“Mm,” Bilbo hummed laconically. “That was what I needed.”

“It pleases me to hear it,” the king rumbled. He ran a gentle hand up and down the Hobbit’s back, warm and moist from his efforts.

Bilbo stirred, reaching up to tug at Thorin’s courtship braid. “The next one’s for you, my dear.”

“Shall I take care? Are you in pain?”

The Hobbit gave him a sated smile. “I am feeling no pain. Do as you will.”

Thorin took him at his word, lifting the Hobbit and sliding from him. He ignored the pouting this earned him, and went to fetch a wet cloth. He had to walk very carefully and Bilbo was giggling when he returned, but a wipe-down produced appreciative sighs and allowed Thorin to press Bilbo back into the bed with little resistance. He oiled his fingers and pressed into the Hobbit, keeping half an eye on his lover’s reactions, but Bilbo merely hummed, closing his eyes and languidly stretching up his arms. Thorin stared down at him in awe. “You are so perfect, my intended, my One. Have I dreamed you into being?”

Bilbo opened one eye. “You would dream up a “soft and dainty” scribe from an barely known country who scolds you at every turn?”

Thorin grinned. “You have more to offer than that , ghivashel .” He lined up and drove in, to drive in the point, and Bilbo squeaked so adorably that Thorin, who in any other situation but this would melt like butter at such a sound, instead took that as approbation and didn’t let up once he’d begun. Bilbo, embarrassed by the sounds he was making, covered his eyes with one hand, his already flushed cheeks turning bright pink.

Once Thorin’s mind and body both relaxed, knowing that he was free now to find his own pleasure after assuring his lover’s, he found himself losing any sense of restraint. He savored the clench of Bilbo under him, but he craved a fiercer rhythm. He fell forward, his hair falling forward about them, and buried himself over and over. Bilbo’s soft exclamations, his clutching hands and legs, the heat created from the surging of their bodies, swamped Thorin’s thoughts.

He was dizzy and lost in a fog of lust and excitement, and exultant as Bilbo kissed him, writhing with him and crying out in pleasure. Hobbits were amazing in many ways, he’d found, and one very private way, that they were creatures of physical pleasure, able to reach climax more than once, one after another. According to his scribe, both male and female were thus blessed, creating a sensual and fertile race.

“Thorin! Thorin!” Bilbo’s increasingly desperate cries were synced to Thorin’s pounding heart and rhythm. They were fast approaching climax and Thorin pressed his forehead to his lover’s; Bilbo grabbed at his hair and whimpered into his mouth. Their bodies heaved in unison in the last throes of passion, and Thorin roared, finally spending himself.

That night, Thorin’s dreams were sweetened by the bliss of his One curled against him. Bilbo’s tired smile was the last thing he saw as he fell asleep and the first thing he saw when he woke.

Chapter Text

Bilbo was starting to think that waking up with Thorin could become a habit that would be worth forming. The rock-solid body sheltered him, like sleeping curled in the hollow of a great tree. This particular tree had hands that were so large they could almost encompass Bilbo’s entire midsection and hold him cuddled into the curve of warm muscle behind him, and opening his eyes in the darkness of the king’s bedchamber, Bilbo smiled in his cocoon of lover and nest of blankets and furs. Something had woken him, and Thorin grumbled behind him, responding as well. Then they heard it, a knocking on outer doors, and a voice shouting for the king.

Thorin moved much more swiftly than one might predict of his stout Dwarf body. He murmured to Bilbo to stay in bed, and pulled on his robe before unlocking the door and moving through the outer room and unlock that door as well. Bilbo could hear gruff voices talking in Khuzdul and finally Thorin’s voice responding and the door shutting.

“Is all well?” Bilbo asked sleepily.

“A guard’s gone missing,” Thorin said curtly, setting down a lit lamp. “It’s not good timing, with Thranduil coming to Dale in the next day or so, so we need to find her before fingers start pointing in wrong directions.”

“Do you think it has something to do with the strange things happening in Dale?” Bilbo asked in concern. “Was she guarding the gates?”

Thorin paused in the middle of pulling on his pants. “You know about that?”

“When we were in Dale, we noticed more guards. Bard explained.”

“It may be related,” the king allowed. “Don’t get up for my sake; I may not return until after breakfast… breakfasts,” he added. Shrugging into his coat and thrusting his feet into his boots, he bussed Bilbo’s sleep-warm forehead with a quick kiss and left.

The Hobbit sighed, stretching, then curled forward again and fell back asleep.

 

Thorin had predicted correctly; he had not returned by the time Bilbo’s stomach began to tell him it was time for breakfast. He poked his head out of the door to find that someone had brought him more clothes in the intervening hours, and then used the king’s bath, and hurried to the main hall.

Paladin caught his eye when he came through the doors, so Bilbo diverted to him before making his way up to the high table. “Is all well?”

“Oh, well enough,” the Thain replied, although his expression seemed to say something different. “I need to speak to you after breakfast.”

“All right,” the scribe replied, wondering. He greeted Dís on his way to his chair, noting the absence of a few Dwarrow besides the king. Dwalin was gone, and so was Fíli.

“Come, sit with us, Bilbo,” the princess invited, glancing at her brother’s empty chair. “Tell me, have you been by the Hobbit quarters this morning?”

Bilbo grinned unrepentantly. “I have not.”

“You’ll find that more deliveries came in last night,” she said and laughed when his face fell. “Cheer up, master scribe. Some may be to your liking. Tell me,” she added, whispering. “Did you tell my brother about the coronet Lord Glorfindel gave you?”

“I am not that stupid,” Bilbo replied, loading his plate.

Dís laughed and Kíli, who had had his mouth full during the conversation so far, finally washed down his food with drink and said: “Well, if you ever want to get rid of it…”

“That would be unwise,” his mother said, giving her youngest son a narrow glare. “You will have to impress the Balrog-slayer in your own right to earn something so fine.”

Bilbo snickered into his breakfast as Kíli pouted into his breakfast.

 

He walked back to the Hobbits’ quarters with Paladin, who was clearly thinking deeply on something. “ Great Lady ,” Bilbo groaned when they opened the doors and he saw the pile of letters and parcels, as if magically resurrected from yesterday’s pile.

“Listen, Bilbo,” Paladin said worriedly. “There’s been a bit of upset between Amaranth and Dodi.”

This was not too terribly surprising except that Dodi was notoriously even-tempered; it was required if one were to chaperone Amaranth Brandybuck. Bilbo blinked, wondering why that should be so worrying.

“One of those big Dwarves,” Paladin continued, “came and offered a bit of sparring and training up with spears, axes, and swords. Dear Lady, swords . So those Bucklander bounders up and say yes, naturally, and Tom Cotton and Daisy Under-hill. No astonishment there. But then Amaranth Brandybuck says she’ll join in and Dodi nearly faints.”

The Hobbit frowned at the Thain. “Was she joking?”

“Not at all! She’s dead serious, and Dodi is saying he won’t allow it.”

This does get Bilbo’s attention. “She’s of age, Paladin. She can do whatever she wants as long as it doesn’t reflect badly back on her own people.”

“That’s what Rosalda said, almost in exactly those words, but Dodi says her father wouldn’t ever allow it and that she’s disgracing the family name.”

Bilbo and Paladin stared at each other.

Brandybucks, ” Bilbo swore. “Well, Thain, the Master of Buckland isn’t here to say yea or nay. I personally don’t like the sound of what Dodi is putting out and I’ll back you as the Baggins heir if her father truly disapproves. Her only chance may be to get a Dwarf husband, and from what I can tell these Dwarrow appreciate a lass who can swing an axe.”

Paladin’s eyes lit up at that. “True!” He slapped Bilbo on the back and strode off with a purpose.

Bilbo blew out a long breath, and then turned to the intimidating pile on the table. He would have to have it cleared by second breakfast, so he went to fetch a letter opener and started on the task.

 

He was halfway through the letters, when someone came up behind where he sat and stood there. He turned his head and saw Amaranth behind him, frowning. “Cousin,” he said cautiously, wondering if the letter opener in his hand would have to be a defensive weapon.

“The Thain is talking to Dodi,” the lady said in a confused tone.

Bilbo nodded to himself and opened the envelope in his hand. “Good. He needs talking to.”

When there was no response, Bilbo glanced over to find the Brandybuck had left. He sighed and began reading the missive, which was from Bard’s children and made him smile at their excited congratulations. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Amaranth returned and pulled out a chair next to him to sit down. She brought out a small dagger and picked up the next letter, opening it up for him and moving on to the next one. Bilbo gamely accepted her hellp and got to reading each one. By the last letter, Bilbo knew he would have to remove all the letters to his room and get on top of the parcels if he was to clear the surface for the upcoming meal. Before he could do so, Amaranth shuffled all the papers together and took them off to his room for him.

He scratched his head at this but set to work on a squarish parcel. Amaranth returned and took up a small one, opening it up. Something metallic fell out onto the stone floor with a series of chiming ‘tings” and the unmistakable sound of something circular spinning and finally settling.

“What is it?” he asked when his cousin knelt and picked something small from the floor. She held up her hand, revealing a gold ring between her two fingers.

“It’s not Dwarven-make,” Bilbo judged when she brought it to him. “Too plain.” And indeed it was, a simple perfect circle of bright gold.

Amaranth flicked her fingers at her ear, as if brushing off an annoying gnat, and frowned at it before giving it to him. “It’s heavier than you might think.”

He agreed, and shrugged, putting it on the table. Amaranth passed him the packaging, which included a note. It was from Dís.

“She says that there’s a little story with this. When they were unpacking from their trip from Ered Luin -that’s the Blue Mountains- they found this ring among their packages, but it belonged to no one and clearly wasn’t crafted by any of her people. They had passed through a few towns and been involved in a couple of skirmishes with Men and Goblins, but no one knew how the ring found its way into their belongings.”

The two Hobbits looked at the unassuming ring. “I’m not a great lover of rings,” Bilbo said, “although I like its plainess.”

His cousin looked at the ring with unexpected misgiving. “It felt strange,” she said. “What will you do with it?”

Bilbo glanced at the letter and then at the ring. “Well,  Dís likens its appearance to ours - “unexpected treasure” she says, so I’ll not give it away, but I’ll put it with other mathoms in my box for such things.”

Amaranth looked at him with an assessing expression. “You know, Cousin, I’ve misjudged you.”

The scribe regarded his difficult relative. “I should hope so, but in what regard?”

The lady sat back down and passed him the next package while she took another. “Primula, Asphodel and I are the Master’s daughters, as you know, and judged by a higher standard.”

“I do.” Bilbo frowned down at a particular confusing box.

“And both Asphodel and Primula have always wanted what everyone expects them to want. They want husbands and families. They’re not ambitious nor particularly interested in learning more than the very little they need to follow the common path. So when I came along, my parents were not prepared for the kind of daughter I became.”

Bilbo turned to look at her, but she was focused on a box in her hand. There was a crystal inside, and she was tilting the box to catch the light.

“I’ve had to fight for every inch of what I want, and no one in my family has had my side. You should have been just like them, Bilbo. After all, when have you had to fight for anything? Why would you even think to fight for me?”

Bilbo looked at her sadly. “Both Paladin and I will fight for any Hobbit, man or woman, who is not given their freedom. You are grown and of age, and as long as you hurt no one with your ambitions, your will is your own. Neither your brother nor your father should have a say in it.”

Finally, Amaranth turned to look at him. She wasn’t the sort of lady to cry in front of others, but her eyes were red and remorseful. “I am so sorry, Bilbo,” she said quietly. “I’ve been cruelly unfair to you.”

Bilbo managed a smile. “We’re going to be allies, you and I. I’ve got my Dwarf and we’ll find you yours, and we’ll be the prime Hobbits in Erebor, Amaranth.”

Her blue eyes widened and softened. “Do you think so?” she asked, but Bilbo could tell that she was very pleased by this idea.

“I do. I also think that if we don’t get through these packages in time, people will be serving food on top of them.”

 

He had to finish the packages later in his room, where Dora joined him to talk about the weapons training. “I want to go just to watch that Dwalin, and well, Tom is nothing to sneeze at. It would be lovely.” She gave Bilbo a smirk. “Not that either of us are ignorant of the loveliness of Dwarf bodies in all their natural states.”

“They don’t train naked, do they?” Bilbo asked, alarmed, looking up from a ream of beautiful, fine paper Nori had given to him.

“Not naked, no,” she replied, her tone so giddy that Bilbo stared. “Fewer clothes, though.” She playfully batted her eyelashes at him.

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open. “ When and where are they training ?”



Bilbo was unexpectedly escorted to Thorin’s study in late morning by a somber-looking Balin who would not answer his questions until they were in the room itself. Gandalf was there one corner, smoking a pipe thoughtfully, Dwalin in another corner sharpening a knife, and Thorin and Dís were seated facing a brown-haired Dwarrowdam with her arm in a leather sling and her leg strapped into a brace. They looked up when Balin locked the door, and Thorin extended a hand for Bilbo to join him at his side.

“Bilbo, this is Lotri daughter of Loni,” Thorin introduced, “a guard under the command of Dwalin.”

“Thorin, you aren’t making her sit here when she’s been so recently injured?” Bilbo exclaimed, shocked, and figuring that this was the guard who had gone missing. “Are you well enough, Mistress Lotri? Do you need to lie down?”

The guard stared at him with wide hazel eyes, then at Thorin, who was rubbing at his own eyes.  Dís covered her mouth. “I am well enough, Master Hobbit,” Lotri replied respectfully. “The healers have given me a pain draught.”

“We will let her rest soon enough,” Thorin assured Bilbo. “Her story must be told while it is fresh in her mind. Lotri, please tell us the tale from start to finish, if you will.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” replied the guard with a no-nonsense tone. “I and my watch-partner Molgr were on guard from the midnight to dawn, and we were set to watch the road from Dale. I took the west side and Molgr the east. A few hours in I thought I saw something slinking along the side of the road up towards the mountain, following the road but not on the road. It was too small for a Goblin, too thin for a Man (even a Man’s child) and even at a distance I could see that it had large hands and feet and was very quiet.”

Here, Gandalf interrupted. “I beg you to think carefully; are you quite sure it wasn’t a Goblin?”

Loni shrugged. “I’ve never seen such a small one. It was, pardon me, about as tall as Master Baggins here, but very thin, with big eyes. Thin, long fingers but no claws. The feet looked paddle-like.”

“Thank you. Please continue.”

“I watched for a while, to see where its progress took it and I made my way slowly to intercept it but lost sight of it by the steeper crags above the old blocked mining tunnels on that side of the mountain. Then I heard it muttering and hissing about “thieving Goblins” and “nasty Dwarves” and how his “birthday present” was stolen from him, but the sound was bouncing about from the stones that I wasn’t aware that he was as close as he was until he leapt onto my back. I took a tumble down the rock slope. I landed a blow or two and the thing went scampering off, wailing as if I’d cut it’s throat, but I’m happy to say it was heading back down the slopes and not up. I think I blacked out for a bit, and it wasn’t until I heard the search party call my name that I realized it was starting to get light and I had been lying there for hours.”

Dwalin added: “Her watch-partner hadn’t realized something was the matter until he returned to the mountain and she hadn’t check in.”

Bilbo looked at Thorin in growing alarm. “Have you told King Bard?”

“We sent a Raven as soon as we knew. I suspect, though, that this is the creature that has already been attacking folk in Dale. If it would attack an armed guard, then it would have no compunctions in attacking easier prey.”

“Did it actually say something about a birthday present?”  Dís asked, puzzled. “How very odd.”

“...and thieving Goblins, which is similar to a story Bilbo told me about his journey out of the Misty Mountains.”

Bilbo blinked. “Oh! Quite right.” He then recalled that Gandalf and he had discussed the odd happenings, and that the wizard had been very intent on what had happened. “The Goblins we fought with were calling us thieves. You were asking because another party, or perhaps the same one, attacked Elrond’s delegation?”

“Something’s stirred them up,” Gandalf admitted.

“Clearly the theft of something important,” Thorin mused.

“Ironic, as all their possessions are stolen from others to begin with,”   Dís sneered.

Balin soon escorted Lotri out so she could rest, and the meeting broke up with talk of discussing it with Elrond and Bard very soon, leaving Bilbo with Thorin and Dís who took one look at them, winked knowingly, and waved jauntily as she left.

Bilbo leaned against the seated king, pressing a kiss to his hair. Thorin sighed. “I regret having to leave you so early,” he said, pressing a soft kiss to Bilbo’s hand.

“Yes, this kinging business is an inconvenience to sleeping schedules,” Bilbo mused. “And meal times, I have also observed.”

“Hmm,” Thorin agreed, then blinked and turned his face to the Hobbit’s. “Is that why Hobbits don’t-?”

Bilbo laughed in surprise at Thorin’s look or realization. “That is possibly one of the reasons that we don’t go in for kings, but I’m fairly sure it has to do with how immovable Hobbits can be when they don’t want to follow someone else’s orders.”

“Stubborn?” Thorin gasped in exaggerated astonishment, his hand to his chest as if the shock was simply too much.

“Shut it, you,” Bilbo replied playfully and kissed him on the nose.

Chapter Text

The library of Erebor was quiet, especially behind the stacks where Bilbo had settled with his piles of books and paper. Across the table, the master scribe of Erebor had set up camp behind his own projects.

“Master Ori?” Bilbo asked, glancing up from his notes.

“Yes, Master Baggins?”

Bilbo put his finger on the line of the narrative he was reading. “Was Thorin wounded or ill after the death of Smaug?”

The Dwarf visibly hesitated. “What do you mean?”

The Hobbit knew when was being redirected. “I mean that it says here that after the retaking of Erebor, Fíli was regent for a month, with no mention of Thorin who by rights should have been first and foremost in the history.”

If a Dwarf could look shifty, Ori was doing a good representation of one. “Well, yes, he was ill. I can’t really tell you much about it, but it took a month for him to recover.”

Bilbo sighed. Secretive Dwarrow . Thranduil had hinted that there was “a weakness in the line of Durin” and the scribe had taken those murmurs with a grain of salt. So far, this so-called weakness had not shown its face to Bilbo, but Ori’s hesitance seemed to indicate Bilbo may have stumbled upon it.

“Oh!” the Dwarf exclaimed, as if just recalling something. “Did you hear? The king’s cousin, Lord Dáin of the Iron Hills, will be arriving almost on top of Thranduil.”

Bilbo recalled the name Dáin on the family tree he’d created. “They share the same… great-grandfather, if I recall.”

“Yes, Dáin I. Lord Dáin is Dáin II, just a King Thorin is Thorin II.”

Bilbo reflected that Dwarrow seemed enamored of certain names in their royal lines. “...and doesn’t Lord Dáin have a son, also named Thorin?”

“Yes, his heir, a great warrior.”

Wait , yes,” Bilbo exclaimed. “ Dáin ’s wife is deceased, correct? And his father had two wives; I was surprised when I was doing the family tree. I thought Dwarrow loved only once.”

Ori flushed. “Oh, well, yes. We love only once, but sometimes marriage is necessary to continue the family lines. It’s mostly forgiven when royals marry after losing their Ones, especially if they have no heirs or if their heirs are very young when losing a parent. Your average Dwarrow wouldn’t think about remarrying. Fidelity to the One is sacred.”

“Hm,” Bilbo responded, pondering this insight. He certainly had much more to write about Dwarrow, considering how much he was learning about Dwarvish courtship and marriage.

“Don’t Hobbits have Ones?” Ori asked curiously.

“What? Oh, not so much. But you shouldn’t worry for Thorin. Married fidelity is the cornerstone of Hobbit culture. Once we take the vows, it’s a lifetime commitment.”

Ori looked adorably relieved. “If you don’t have Ones, how do you know who you’re meant to be with?”

Bilbo snorted. “It’s not so much who we are “meant” for;  I don’t think Hobbits think that way, as if love is destined. We’re more pragmatic than that. We choose someone who shares the same goals, desires, and interests. Marriage is meant to last, so we choose someone who we could see growing old with, having a family with.”

The master scribe frowned. “So you just decide ?”

The Hobbit wasn’t sure if he should be offended by the doubtful tone. “I should hope not! It’s an important decision; of course, we don’t just decide. We decide very seriously.” When Ori just appeared more confused, he asked: “How do you decide that someone is your One?”

“You don’t decide; you know . It’s a feeling that if you you step too far away from him, your soul cries out. It’s - it’s mutual, so there can be no mistaking it.”

It sounded uncomfortable, but Bilbo wasn’t about to say so. “Someone told me that most Dwarrow don’t have a One.”

“That’s true. It’s rare, which I think is why we revere it so much.”

“It’s occurred to me that Dwarrow most likely don’t find their Ones in other races all that often.” Bilbo said this with a light airy tone of ‘oh, and by the way, the tea is ready’ and kept a casual-seeming eye on Ori’s reaction to this statement.

The Dwarf blinked. “I’ve never read of it happening before,” Ori said carefully. “Although, if it had, I doubt it would have been included in any of our public chronicles. Dwarrow, we’re rather -”

Secretive , Bilbo groaned to himself. “Yes,” he said, hanging his head in exaggerated defeat.

Ori reached over and patted him on the shoulder. “Cheer up, Bilbo. You’ll figure us out eventually.”

 

At dinner, Thorin leaned over and whispered into his ear: “I need to show you something tonight.”

Bilbo laughed into his goblet. “Likely story, Your Majesty.”

“You might not like it,” his intended continued soberly and the Hobbit’s eyebrows shot up. “You need to take me to your room tonight.”

“All right,” Bilbo replied, bemused. “In the meanwhile, tell me about  Dáin.”

Thorin’s pained look was almost comical. “Do I have to?”

“The alternative is that I investigate for myself,” Bilbo replied, giving him a keen glance, which communicated mischief.

“My cousin Dáin is ruler of the kingdom of the Iron Hills in the East,” Thorin said quickly, blanching. “He’s got his hands full with trading iron with the Easterlings and the Southern countries. He’s -” His face made an expression Bilbo hadn’t seen before.

“Unconventional,” Balin said from the other side.

Thorin rolled his eyes but did not argue.

Bilbo scratched his nose. “I am struggling to picture what that means.” He glanced at Thorin’s curdled face. “Oh, Green Lady, do you mean to say that there is a Durin out there who is embarrassingly outgoing and charming?”

Kíli laughed, almost choking on his meat, which confirmed Bilbo’s suspicions.

 

Thorin looked slightly self-conscious following Bilbo through the Hobbit main reception room under the eyes of curious Hobbits; Bilbo would never mention that he was not the first Dwarf to visit the Hobbit guest quarters. He wasn’t even sure Thorin understood the Kíli was a regular visitor.

“Home sweet home,” he quipped, showing him into his quarters. “I like this room. Whose were these before?”

“Children and family,” the king responded. He lightened the potentially somber moment with a small smile. “It’s the warmest part of the mountain, and the safest.”

Bilbo had to peck Thorin on the cheek for that. “We appreciate it.”

“Hm.” The Dwarf caught hold of Bilbo by the elbows to still him. “This is the part you won’t like. Stay here.’

Puzzled, the Hobbit complied, and watched as Thorin picked up the lamp from his small desk and approached one of the tapestries that covered the back wall; he pushed it aside to reveal the dark green marble wall. It seemed nondescript, but the king put his hand against the smooth surface and pushed. Suddenly a whole rectangular section opened, revealing a dark space beyond. There was a secret door. It was in Bilbo’s room.

“Thorin,” he asked in an even voice, “why wasn’t I told that there is a secret door in my room?”

The king leaned against the edge of the entrance and let his head fall forward, silent.

In that fraught moment, Bilbo realized why the passageway was there. He approached the silent Dwarf and touched his elbow gently. “It was an escape route, wasn’t it?”

Thorin nodded, glancing under his lashes. “It was, to the royal apartments, but they only made it that far. Smaug’s breath suffocated more than it burnt, in the end.”

Bilbo wordlessly pressed himself into Thorin’s side. “I’m so sorry, Love.”

The Dwarf’s arm encircled his shoulders and held him close for a long moment. “Thank you,” he murmured into the Hobbit’s hair. “Come with me?”

“Can I bring a change a clothes this time?”

Thorin’s breath huffed into his curls. “... and take away Dori’s pleasure in choosing your daily clothing?”

“Oh, is it Dori who’s been magically delivering my clothes in the morning?”

“He’s master of the wardrobe, so do please allow him to expend his imagination on your clothes instead of mine.” He pressed a kiss to Bilbo’s temple. “Please?”

Oh, Thorin’s soft plea had power over Bilbo’s heart rate. He wasn’t about to tell Thorin that, so he merely nodded  and followed him into the dark passageway. Thorin turned up the wick on the lamp in his hand so that Bilbo could see a perfectly rectangular, carved corridor receding into the darkness.

They walked a few moments before the passageway split. Thorin took Bilbo’s hand and placed it on the thin slice of wall separating the forked passageways. “Do you feel that?” he asked.

There were faint indentations in the stone, one that felt like a short horizontal line and below a cross of two lines. “Yes.”

“The top symbol is for the left passage, and the line means the way is straight with no other connecting tunnels. The symbol underneath is for the right passage, which means it intersects with other tunnels.”

Bilbo glanced back at Thorin with a cheeky grin. “Are you sure you should be teaching me your secret Dwarven symbols?”

The king snorted. “These are only mine-signs, and hardly the more complex ones. I think Erebor is safe with you knowing them.”

“Well, which way?”

“The straight, direct corridor,” Thorin replied, and Bilbo huffed and turned left.

It wasn’t a long walk and it ended with a door that was partly open. Thorin paused, frowning, and pressed the door slowly, glancing past it, then grunted and opened it all the way. Bilbo saw that it opened into Thorin’s outer room, to the left of one of the fireplaces, and Bofur was waiting there in a chair, carving a tiny wooden figure. The spymaster looked up with a quirked grin.

“Bofur!” Bilbo exclaimed. “Oh, of course you would know about these tunnels.”

Thorin grumbled something under his breath and Bofur stood, bowing with a sweep of his hat. “Master Baggins, good evening. I feel I ought to apologize.”

“Whatever for?” Bilbo asked.

Bofur scratched his nose. “Well,” he said sheepishly, “I’ve used these tunnels quite a bit.”

Bilbo frowned, and then realized what Bofur was saying. “You- you spy , you! You’ve been in my room!”

“More than that,” Thorin said baldly. “He’s been to everyone’s rooms.”

When Bilbo spun to stare at his intended, the king added baldly: “I ordered him to.”

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Thirty-five:

Bilbo Baggins crossed his arms and tapped his foot. “Bofur, if you will excuse us, I have some words to say to Thorin, and I’d rather not burn your ears off.”

He gritted his teeth as Bofur waited for his king to nod his permission before the Dwarf bowed and left expediently, but he kept his hot glare on his intended, whose expression had closed down and become stony.

Once the door click shut, Bilbo closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and said: “Why did you show me this, Thorin, knowing how angry I was going to be?”

Gruffly, the Dwarf replied: “There is a creature trying to get into the mountain, and another creature who I would not trust a hundred leagues distant who will soon be within a day’s journey of my home.”

Bilbo sucked at his teeth. “So, you told me about these secret passageways because of safety.”

Thorin inclined his head.

“,,, and what excuse do you have for Bofur using those passageways to spy on myself and my fellow Hobbits?”

Thorin opened his mouth, then closed it.

“No excuses, except paranoia, I imagine,” Bilbo ground, “although my people have done. Nothing. To. Earn. Suspicion.” He threw up his hands. “But, of course, we’re not Dwarrow, so that is cause enough.”

Silence fell and Thorin finally admitted: “You are not wrong.”

Bilbo let out a disappointed breath, shaking his aching head. There was just too much wrong with this whole situation, and he wasn’t sure that he could make Thorin understand!

“Bilbo, I may be king, but I have not been king all my life; I do not trust my own judgment. When I began to think that I wanted to know you better, I had to be sure. My decisions do not affect myself alone anymore.”

The scribe shook his head again. It made some sense, but... ‘If you don’t trust your own judgment, then why not ask for advice from those you do trust, like Balin, or Dís? Why risk diplomatic conflict by sending your spy to our quarters?”

“It seemed the more efficient way.”

Dwarrow ,” Bilbo sighed.

“Bilbo -”

“I know it’s important that you protect your people; I would never counsel you to ignore your instincts. But, Thorin, the world outside of Erebor will never shrink to only the people you know and trust, and you cannot go about protecting yourself in this way!”

Thorin scowled. “When you are Consort under the Mountain, your counsel will be appreciated. Until then -”

Bilbo felt himself become incandescent in shocked anger. “ If I become Consort of the Mountain, the likelihood of which is less certain than it was moments ago, I will be the first foreign Consort in the Mountain and you, as king, will have to define my role. This here, right now, is not filling me with confidence!”

Thorin’s face went pale at the beginning of this and brittle by the end. Bilbo saw neither acceptance nor softening and bit down down on another angry outburst. He instead strode out, wishing he had the Dwarven strength to slam the outer door.

He did storm all the way back to the Hobbits’ quarters and did not stop until he could slam his own door.

He was fuming when he went to bed and dreamed that Smaug was alive in the mountain and was looking for him. He woke several times in the night, cold and regretting that Thorin was not sleeping next to him.

 

Dáin’s procession was due to following day. Unlike Thranduil, he would be staying in the mountain and would proceed straight into Erebor.

Despite knowing this, Bilbo did not go to the public breakfast, feeling unequal to facing Thorin quite yet. He instead lay abed longer, took time in bathing, and held his anklet for a long time in his hands as he contemplated his clothing.

He did make it to second breakfast in the reception room. The Thain, with a subdued Rosalda beside him, greeted Bilbo somberly. “Are you quite well, Bilbo?”

“Well enough,” the scribe responded, unwilling to discuss the last evening’s debacle. “You?”

Paladin glanced subtly in Rosalda’s direction. “Perfectly fine.”

It was apparent that Rosalda was not in good spirits, but inquiring into that sort of thing was not usual mealtime conversation. “I see.”

Amaranth appeared, unsubtly dressed in a bright blue dress under a black spangled shawl acquired at market day, her golden hair intricately braided and wrapped around the crown of her head. She cheerfully poured herself tea and said to Bilbo: “We missed you at breakfast, cousin, although the king did not have much to say about it. He seemed to expect your absence.”

Bilbo smiled. “Oh, just tired, cousin, the cause of which he knows very well.”

Paladin laughed while Amaranth flushed.

“Any news about Dáin’s arrival?” Bilbo asked.

“They predict a bit after lunch,” Paladin supplied. He eyed Bilbo’s relatively casual attire and Bilbo nodded in silent understanding of the unspoken critique, although he wondered if Thorin would want him there, considering the previous night. He wondered if he wanted to be there, considering the previous night. He was still very angry about his stubborn Dwarf, but he did still love him, regardless.

He read for a while in the library, although his mood interfered with true focus, then returned to change into his good coat. He neatened up his courtship braid, stared at the gem-flower before placing it carefully into his buttonhole, and stared longer at his courtship gift before closing it about his ankle. Thus armored, he joined his kin to walk over to the dining hall, telling himself to be brave, that whatever Thorin chose to do or say, Bilbo would find a way to respond.

Following Paladin into the great hall, Bilbo glanced at the high table. Dís was standing with Thorin, clearly in the middle of a low-voiced argument. Everyone else was there with the notable exception of Balin. In addition to the advisor’s empty chair, they had also left an empty seat for Bilbo, so he nodded to Paladin and walked up to the high table as if walking to his own doom, unsure of his reception.

He kept his eyes on Thorin’s face as he ascended, determined to know the truth of how the Dwarf’s regard for him had changed. When Thorin’s gaze shifted over Dís’s shoulder to Bilbo, his eyes alighted on the flower in his buttonhole and then traveled to Bilbo’s face and braid, cautious and as uncertain as Bilbo. The Hobbit smiled hesitantly, hopefully, and Thorin returned the smile, subdued.

Dis turned to look at Bilbo, eyebrows raised, clearly sensing something tenuous in this interchange. “Good afternoon, Master Baggins.”

“A pleasure to see you again, Princess Dís,” he returned, with a short bow, although he could hardly take his eyes off his Dwarf.

The Dwarrowdam huffed. “Sit down, will you, and tell your intended that he needs to calm himself. Dáin’s arrival is causing too much unneeded anxiety.”

Bilbo nodded and took Thorin’s hand. “Come, Love, sit by me.”

Thorin’s blue eyes widened and softened. “My Heart,” he murmured, but that was all he said, obeying Bilbo’s summons.

Bilbo poured wine for Thorin and then for himself, smiling at servants as they brought platters. “Paladin said Dáin arrives sometime after lunch?”

“Thranduil comes from the west to Dale and Dáin comes from the east to the mountain sometime this afternoon. The Ravens are flying back and forth.” The king picked at his food, clearly distracted.

Bilbo eyed Thorin’s plate. “Eat something, even if it’s just a little. You won’t be happy with yourself if the King under the Mountain collapses in front of everybody today.”

“It’s just Dáin today,” the king muttered, but put some meat into his mouth and chewed as if it was a job he was determined to endure.

That was a blessing, at least, that Thranduil’s official reception would be delayed. Bilbo knew that receiving the Elven king of Greenwood the Great would be the hardest diplomatic ordeal Thorin would have to face before his coronation ceremony.

He concentrated on his own lunch and got caught up in listening to a story about Dáin that Dís was regaling her sons with, something about his misadventures trying to break in a giant boar as a war steed. Bilbo turned to comment on how unbelievable that was, but one look at Thorin’s pinched expression verified the outrageous story. He was starting to see why the king was anxious about his cousin’s arrival.

Platters and cups were being cleared when Bofur appeared, bowing quickly to Thorin and then to Bilbo. “Lord Dáin approaches, My Liege.”

“It begins,” Thorin grunted rising and holding a hand out for Bilbo. “Will you stand by me, Bilbo?”

“Always. You need never doubt it,” the Hobbit returned sincerely. This seemed to calm the King under the Mountain; he straightened and conducted Bilbo’s hand to his elbow. They proceeded to the throne room together, followed by Fíli with his mother, and Kíli following behind with the other members of the Company. Dwarrow made way for them in the hallways, staring and murmuring. The closer they got to the the throne room, the more excited the inhabitants seemed to become, Dáin’s name heard here and there, and the hall was already full with anticipatory excitement. Thorin made straight to the throne, guiding Bilbo to stand at his left, a position Bilbo was beginning to become accustomed to. He did notice the king’s throne occupied the right side of the shallow dais, leaving a curiously empty section on the left… for another chair, perhaps?

Thorin settled onto the throne, head held high, Fíli flanking him on the right and Dís and Kíli one step down on that side. Dwalin had not joined them, but it became apparent why when he reappeared at the doors followed by a large group of strange Dwarrow in ornate armor and weapons, led by a large dwarf with dark skin and bright red hair.

This new Dwarf didn’t seem to resemble Thorin much until Bilbo saw that his eyes were a pale, bright blue and he was taller than most Dwarrow in the room, much like Thorin was. His wealth of coarse fiery hair was braided and adorned with a multitude of grey-silver beads and clasps. He was using a giant warhammer as a prop as he walked forward. If the Hobbits had thought the Ereborian Dwarrow appeared warlike, these Dwarrow proved them wrong.

Dáin stopped and bowed, and his companions followed suit. “Hail, Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror, King under the Mountain!” he bellowed, and his folks cried out after him.

“Welcome my cousin, Dáin son of Nain son of Gror, Lord of the Iron Hills,” the king returned in a more subdued tone, but his lips were turned up. “You know my heir, Prince royal Kili, and I would have you know my Consort-to-be, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire.”

When Dáin looked at Bilbo with bright blue eyes, he grinned and bowed; Bilbo returned it. “The word reached us on the road; congratulations on finding someone who will put up with your broody self, cousin.”

Silence followed that statement, and Bilbo bit his lip, looking at Thorin to see his reaction, but surprisingly the king bowed his head and laughed. He stood and stepped down to Dáin, who opened his arms and embraced him, pounding him on the back and muttering in Khuzdul and laughing.

When Dáin began to introduce the Dwarrow with him to Thorin, Dís motioned to Bilbo to come with her and Fíli down from the dais. Kíli took his arm with a smile and Bilbo smiled back thankfully, not sure what he would have done save keep awkwardly standing on the dais.

Dáin was introducing a young female, apparently a niece from his mother’s side of the family - Kíli whispered that eastern Dwarrow looked like her: round-cheeked, dark, with thick black hair and great dark eyes. She was particularly striking, Bilbo thought, almost as small as a Hobbit lady, but clad all in scaled armor with a greatsword on her back. Unlike Dís, she had very little facial hair.

Fili stepped up with his mother, and the lady bowed; her name was Bruni and Dís welcomed her, officially introducing her to Fili. Thorin had turned and held out a hand for Bilbo, and that is how Bilbo was introduced to Dáin Ironfoot.

“Thorin, however did you win this lovely, dainty gem?” Dáin boomed. Thorin winced, but Bilbo took it in stride.

‘I see the family resemblance,” the Hobbit remarked wryly, taking his intended’s arm. “The last time Thorin called me dainty was not his best moment.”

Dain laughed. “I can well see it, laddie, but tell me how it was. I’ve never seen him with strangers.”

Bilbo shrugged, not willing to embarrass Thorin too much. “It was the first assembly after we’d arrived, and I”m sorry to say he refused to dance, giving us such a glare! Prince Fíli instead became the star of the night.”

There was general merriment about this, and Bilbo squeezed Thorin’s forearm, reassuring him that it was all in jest.

“Well, little master, I see he has made amends since,” Dáin said, glancing at their linked arms. “After all, you must have a spine of steel to put up with Thorin, and I don’t imagine you would forgive him right away.”

The king snorted. “No, he did not forgive me that easily, but eventually I tricked him to letting me court him.”

 

Later, Thorin escorted Bilbo back to the library, which gave them time for private conversation.

“You’re still angry,” Thorin said.

“Of course,” Bilbo replied. “Wouldn’t you be?”

“I missed you last night,” the Dwarf admitted. With anyone else, Bilbo would assume it was a bid for sympathy, but Thorin’s tone was matter-of-fact.

“I had nightmares,” Bilbo returned with a grimace.

They looked at each other at the same time and Bilbo could see the moment when Thorin’s resolve crumbled. “Forgive me, ghivashel ,” he murmured. “The odds are that I will err in the future, but I know now not to let my doubts overstep reason.”

The Hobbit considered his Dwarf; he had a sad realization that such conflicts would be common until they understood each other better. They came from people who had never wanted to understand one another, and what was natural for one would not make sense to the other. “I forgive you, Love. Of course I do. And please forgive me for my own overreaching. It is not my place to advise you past my own concerns.”

Thorin glanced down the corridor; this close to the library, very few people passed by. The king bent down and kissed Bilbo swiftly. “I fear to say anything that might prejudice you against sleeping by my side tonight, so I will retreat accordingly.”

Bilbo laughed softly as Thorin suited actions to words.

Chapter Text

Amaranth clutched at Bilbo’s arm as they followed Paladin Took and his sister to the great hall. “Is it true? This new Dwarf, he’s unmarried?”

“He is a widower with a grown son.”

“Even better!”

BIlbo gave her a doubtful look. “You might not care for him. He’s…”

“He’s what?”

The scribe tried to find words. “Lively.”

Amaranth considered this. “If he dances, that might be forgiven.”

The majority of Hobbits had been unable to get into the throne room for all the crowding and had only caught glimpses of the new Dwarrow. Amaranth had been understandably frustrated, particularly as word got about concerning Dáin’s status and relationship to Thorin. She’d since gathered more information about the Iron Hills and told Bilbo that it was the center of iron trade in the east, and a fabulously wealthy kingdom in resources. Its close ties with Erebor were through shared blood and agreements, and when Erebor called for allies, the Iron Hills answered.

In return, Bilbo described the tall Dwarf and his young niece, Lady Bruni. As they came within sight of the great hall, he saw Rosalda on her brother’s arm ahead of them and remembered: “Isn’t Dodi coming?”

Amaranth shook her head. “He said he needed time to himself.”

“He’s talking to you?” Bilbo hadn’t heard the particulars, but he knew that the Thain had taken Dodi down a peg for impertinence to his sister and he’d naturally assumed things had  turned awkward between the siblings.

Amaranth quirked a wry smile at him. “I might resent Dodi, but I understand him. The more I understand him, the more I see that he has a harder labor than I in earning respect from out father. I’ve given up trying, but Dodi keeps at it. I’m not sure why.”

Bilbo frowned thoughtfully at this. Gorbadoc could hardly find fault in Dodi, a responsible Hobbit and a Bounder, but there were other siblings that may have found greater favor; there were seven children after all, four of them sons. Dodi wasn’t the eldest, but he wasn’t the youngest either. He scratched his nose and shrugged. “And you think that is why -?”

“Oh, most assuredly. It’s not my place to speak for my brother, but I know what motivates him, unfortunately.” She breathed out. “It’s a family failing.”

Yes, thought Bilbo, and it shone brightest in Amaranth, but that didn’t necessarily mean she was the only Brandybuck to have difficulties with her family. He patted her hand which rested on his arm as they entered into the great hall, which was already thronging with Dwarrow.

It was easily evident who the new Dwarrow were from their jewel-colored clothes and their intense curiosity when the Hobbits entered. Thorin’s head turned almost at the same moment as Dáin’s and he raised a hand to the Thain, who diverted over to be introduced. Bilbo raised an eyebrow at Amaranth and followed their cousins and paused to allow the King under the Mountain to introduce the Thain of the Shire to the Lord of the Iron Hills.

Scarlet-haired Dáin wore a tunic the color of oxblood, with gold and rubies sparking in his belt, collar and on his brow. Beside him in blue and mithril, Thorin presented a cool and restrained contrast, although his coat was as costly. Paladin had dressed himself as formally as a Hobbit could, in an immaculate velvet frock coat as green as his eyes and a gold waistcoat glimmering with rare metallic embroidery. He stood the height of the shoulders of his Dwarrow before him, but he managed an unintimidated bow, with Rosalda curtsying at his side, dignified.

Bilbo glanced about and once again, Balin was not present. His brother Dwalin stood behind Thorin’s shoulder. “Have you seen Lord Balin since yesterday?” he whispered.

Amaranth shook her head. “Rosalda isn’t happy about, either. No one knows where he’s gone off to.”

Bilbo nodded, sucking his teeth as he pondered. But then Amaranth squeezed his arm, and he looked up to find Paladin and Rosalda stepped aside and Thorin looking to Bilbo expectantly. Bilbo smiled brightly and escorted Amaranth forward.

He bowed to Thorin and then to Dáin, and was pleased that the Iron Hills Dwarf seemed to be caught by the sight of Amaranth, staring as if amazed. “Lord Dáin, it is a pleasure to introduce my cousin Amaranth Brandybuck. Amaranth, this is Lord Dáin of the Iron Hills.”

Amaranth curtsied prettily. “My lord, how do you do?”

The Dwarf cleared his throat. “Very well, now that I have met you, bright Gem of the Mountain.” He mustered an earnest and charming grin, but Bilbo could see in the corner of his eye that Thorin was surprised by Dáin’s words, and the Iron Hills Dwarrow about them were looking perplexed. Then Dáin laughed. “I thought Thorin had won himself a prize Hobbit, but I can see there are more beauties to be admired! Are all your cousins so fair, Master Baggins?”

Bilbo smiled. “Well, our mothers are sisters and famed beauties, but I wouldn’t discount there might be attractive Hobbits in other families.”

Amaranth gave him an amused side glance, expressing mischievous doubt. Dáin chuckled. “Mistress Brandybuck, would you do me honor of introducing you to my kith and kin? Or do you have an army of suitors awaiting your attention?”

The clever miss smiled. “Let them wait a little while, My Lord.”

With a pleased grin, the lord tucked Amaranth’s hand into the crook of his muscular arm. Bilbo watched them wander off, and glanced at Thorin to gauge his reaction. Thorin had his head tilted and had a wary look to his eyes, but when he saw Bilbo’s inquiring look, the expression smoothed out.

He offered Bilbo’s his own arm, his eyes warm and focused on the Hobbit’s face. “ Givashel , it is good to see you. It has been a trying day.”

“I take it Thranduil has made it to Dale?”

“He has.” Thorin wore that pinched look he got at any mention of that particular Elf. “And Prince Legolas has returned as his father’s liaison.”

“Gimli must have been elated.”

Thorin grunted and Bilbo grinned. “Oh, come now. Legolas can’t help that he’s Thranduil’s son, and you have to admit, he’s very polite and interested in Dwarrow culture, which is very rare among Elves, you know. I’ve only ever met one other, and his interest was scholarly in nature.”

“You mean Elrond of Rivendell.”

“I do.”

Thorin shrugged. “I do not have any particular dislike for Legolas, and if Gimli finds him a good companion, well then what am I to say to that?”

Bilbo gave his intended a look of pride. “That wasn’t what I would have predicted your reaction to be.”

“Do you think I hate all Elves? I mistrust them until their trustworthiness is proven, but it would be unwise to make an enemy of every one of them. They are better uneasy allies than certain enemies.”

Bilbo smiled up into his Dwarf’s face and Thorin returned the look quizzically. “What is it?”

“I want to kiss you right now, you know,” Bilbo teased, but he was quite earnest.

Thorin colored. “I am not prepared for the scandal that would cause,” he almost stuttered.

Bilbo laughed softly and winked. “Then I suppose I will have to wait.”

Just then Kíli came by with Dora at his side. “Shall we have dancing tonight, Uncle?”

Thorin nodded and the two were off to tell the musicians. When he glanced down to look back to Bilbo, the Hobbit puckered his lips slightly as if to kiss the air between them and the king laughed. Even Bilbo could tell that the Dwarrow around them were giving them shocked looks, but Thorin merely escorted his intended consort towards the musicians as they began up a familiar song.

Biblo took Thorin’s hand and tugged, also recognizing the tune as the one they had danced to that first time. “What do you call this song, Thorin?” he asked eagerly.

The king huffed. “It’s called ‘Forging for Strangers'.” The words were not particularly lighthearted, but it has become a popular festival song and a bit of rallying song when enough ale has been drunk down. “It comes out of the years of wandering in exile.”

“Oh,” the Hobbit exhaled in dismay. “Perhaps we shouldn’t -?” He glanced at the dancing couples doubtfully.

“Courage, my heart,” the king replied with a humorous glint in his eye, and took Bilbo into his arms.

 

Amaranth Brandybuck enjoyed the support of Dáin’s strong and solid arm as he spoke to various inhabitants of the mountain, and she listened carefully even as she smiled and kept her own counsel as she was introduced to Dáin’s friends and family.

Her stomach began to tell her that the food on the sideboard would be a delicious repast but the lord seemed not to be hungry, only tempted by ale when it was offered. In Hobbit society, a lady would be well within the realms of polite behavior to leave a partner to sate her appetite, but Amaranth was reluctant to leave her newly acquainted lord for fear of losing the advantage of his attention.

“Is it true, Lady Brandybuck, that Hobbits eat ten meals a day?” his niece Bruni asked, a very interesting Dwarrowdam swathed in garnet-colored silk embroidered with gold, and with great dark eyes lined in some dark substance.

Amaranth suspected the timing of this question, but smiled affably. “Oh, not so many as that. Five to seven is the usual.”

Dain’s large hand covered hers. “For such a wee thing, you must eat like a bird!” he exclaimed. “How are you not fainting, Mountain Jewel?” He promptly accompanied her toward the food, to her profound gratitude.

All the Dwarrow in Dáin’s entourage stared in amazement as Amaranth piled her plate and proceeded to decimate that and two others before feeling she would make it to late dinner. Having gone through something similar with the Ereborian Dwarrow, she wasn’t terribly disturbed by the fascinated scrutiny. “I suppose I do eat like a bird,” she quipped, “as I have seen how the Ravens of this mountain eat.”

This inspired a great bellow of laughter from the group and Amaranth accepted a goblet of wine to toast with her new friends, smiling at Lady Bruni over the rim.

 

Bilbo woke suddenly to Thorin’s voice grinding out Khuzdul words, a tone of pain and suffering so clear that the Hobbit sat up in bed and pressed his hand to the Dwarf’s sweaty shoulder in the dark. “Thorin?” he murmured. “Are you awake?”

His lover shook under his hand but continue to groan until with another firmer shove from Bilbo, he came awake with a shout, sitting up so quickly that Bilbo fell back onto the bed.

“Bad dream?” Bilbo guessed sympathetically. Thorin as a rule seemed to sleep like the rock Dwarrow were supposedly created from, and this was the first instance of any unrest.

Thorin breathed like bellows next to him, trembling, as Bilbo stroked a comforting hand up and down his back. At last the Dwarf rumbled: “Bad memories” and sank back, curling towards the Hobbit, pressing their foreheads together.

Bilbo stroked Thorin’s hair; he could see very little in the dark but sensed that the Dwarf was watching him. Finally the Dwarf muttered: “Would that a spider had eaten that white-haired wight on the road to Erebor.”

“Ah,” Bilbo murmured. So this was about Thranduil’s arrival.

“Ah?” Thorin breathed.

“I’m sorry his presence brings bad memories, love.”

Thorin breathed in the dark. “So many died in the mountain, and almost just as many died on the journey to the Iron Hills. My mother…” He shuddered. “It broke her, Bilbo. We lost most of all our elders, and several children, mothers miscarrying in the wild and so many fading from grief… I can’t forget it.”

Bilbo shut his eyes tight against the horrifying images Thorin’s words built in his mind, and clung to the Dwarf.

Chapter Text

The morning was dark and cold when Bilbo woke. Thorin had gotten up earlier and not returned to bed, so the Hobbit pulled on his robe (or, more accurately, a robe given to him by Thorin) and went out to the front room to find the Dwarf sitting by a newly laid fire and smoking. Bilbo sighed to himself, and leaned against Thorin’s chair. “Not a good morning?” he asked sympathetically.

Thorin shook his head, but raised a hand and ran it through Bilbo’s hair.

“Anything I can do?” the Hobbit inquired.

Thorin was silent for such a long time that Bilbo almost gave up expecting to get a response until Thorin stirred finally, taking Bilbo’s hand and raising it to his lips. The kiss pressed there was soft and gentle, but the king’s pale eyes staring over Bilbo’s fingers were more akin to a wolf’s.

Bilbo’s lips parted in response to that intense look.

“Are you mine?” Thorin rasped, continuing to stare him in the eyes.

“Or course,” the Hobbit replied without hesitation. “You need never doubt it.”

Thorin’s lips parted in a smile; it was vaguely unsettling and greedy but also immensely arousing. Something in Bilbo understood the need in Thorin, and he smiled in return, loosening the belt of his robe. Thorin’s blue eyes widened and then narrowed. “Not here , wanton creature,” he growled, standing and leaving his pipe on the hearth. He stooped, effortlessly picking his Hobbit up into his arms and strode back to the bedchamber.

In a short while, Thorin stripped Bilbo of his robe and placed him back into the bed. The Hobbit expected Thorin to divest himself and pounce, but instead the king turned aside, lit a lamp, and brought forth a small hinged casket, which he opened, spilling its contents onto the bed and onto Bilbo.  

As gold and gems, in the form of bracelets, chains, rings, and other less identifiable trinkets fell about him, Bilbo gasped. It appeared Thorin was following through with his promises to adorn his lover in treasures. Then the king shrugged out of his own robe and, nude, straddled Bilbo’s waist.

Bilbo was understandably distracted by the sight of the powerfully-built Dwarf above him, his strong thighs and hardening sex making it difficult for Bilbo not to start making covetous grasping motions with is hands. When he did raise his hand, Thorin took it into his own and began to slide different gold rings sparkling green, purple, blue, red and brilliant white, onto his fingers. “Clever, wicked fingers,” the king rumbled and then began to kiss and lick each finger tip, staring down at Bilbo the whole while.

Bilbo swallowed the saliva pooling in his mouth and then groaned when Thorin guided his hand down to enclose over the Dwarf’s hardening girth. “You like my clever fingers,” the Hobbit husked unnecessarily, caressing eagerly, caught by the gleam and glitter of own his fingers as they moved over Thorin’s ruddy flesh.

“I do,” his lover agreed, and proceeded to slide more rings on his other hand, each one intricate and glinting with colored fire. This hand, too, he guided down so that Bilbo could encompass Thorin with both hands; he glanced up to see Thorin, mouth open and breathing heavily, watching his every motion. The Dwarf bent slowly, his heavy hair sliding over his shoulders like a curtain around their faces as they kissed deeply and slowly. “Would that I could crown your clever head in gold as well, but I fear it is too soon.”

Bilbo laughed into the kiss. “There’s only one of us who should be crowned, My Liege. Are you not the conqueror today?”

“Unless you wish me to bring a sword to bed with us, I think not,” Thorin muttered, but kissed his nose lightly.

Bilbo’s hands stilled and squeezed around the length of Thorin’s sex. “Oh, you’ve definitely brought a great sword,” he giggled between kisses.

Eventually Thorin sat back, dragging his hair from his face. “And how shall I wield this great weapon of mine?”

The Hobbit nibbled his bottom lip, staring up with glazed eyes at Thorin’s upraised arms and powerful, hairy chest. “I think, today, you may wield that sword whichever way you like, to good effect.”

The king tilted his head, staring down at Bilbo. “So be it; I take you at your word,” he replied. He pulled away and slid off the bed, retrieving a few items which turned out to be oil and a large, hinged silver ring, too small to be a bracelet. “Raise your legs,” he ordered, then knelt close and used his own hands to set Bilbo’s feet on his own chest. He then unhinged the ring, and a devious smile deepening, reached down and fastened it around himself, wincing slightly.

Bilbo stared; he had never seen such a thing, but there it was, gleaming and snug behind Thorin’s scrotum. “What- what is that?”

“Why, it is a ring, my fine Hobbit,” the king replied, deliberately obtuse.

“But, why would you-?”

Thorin dripped some oil onto his fingers and slid them down between Bilbo’s cheeks. “It keeps me hard, so I can keep up with my energetic lover.”

Bilbo stared some more, perplexed. “Is that safe? It doesn’t look very comfortable.”

Thorin merely laughed and pushed into Bilbo slowly and steadily. The Hobbit’s eyes rolled back into his head and he groaned in appreciation. “All right,” he wheezed. “I can see, or rather feel , the benefits.”

Thorin then proceeded to slide his big hands up to Bilbo’s feet, which were still resting on his chest. One hand toyed under the consort’s anklet and the other investigated along the curly pelt atop the other foot. The Hobbit’s toes curled and he made a high pitched whining sound, and writhed. “Th-Thorin, that’s not - I can’t-!”

“You said whichever way I like,” the king reminded him, “and to good effect .” He lowered and turned his head so that he could nibble along the ankle and Bilbo convulsed, wailing.

“You- you-” he managed to slur moments later as Thorin continued to torture him with slow thrusts and caressing hands. “You fiend-!”

“Not very convincing, my heart,” the Dwarf purred. “Perhaps after the next one.”

No, Bilbo didn’t manage to be very convincing of Thorin’s villainy, not even after the next one, or the one after that.

 

Dís had a strange look on her face as she joined them on the royal dais. She looked hard at Thorin, then quizzically, and then turned to Bilbo. “What did you put in his food this morning?”

“Hm?” Bilbo responded, giving her a beatific smile. “Oh, nothing.”

Dís frowned, glancing at her brother again. “Why is he so relaxed?”

Bilbo yawned into his hand, and blinked at her. “All I can say that various sorts of rings were involved.” He waved his fingers at her, upon which still rested some of the morning’s adornment. Hobbits didn’t generally go in for rings, but Bibo felt that if Thorin needed proof of Bilbo’s continued allegiance, he would merely have to look at those fingers.

The princess clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle her startled laugh. She slid a sly look to her brother, but he was talking to Dwalin, who also seemed mystified by Thorin’s placid mood.

The time came when the doors opened and the delegation from the Greenwood entered; the tall forms of Thranduil and his son were distinctive at the fore. Bilbo would know King Thranduil anywhere - erect carriage, tall and slender like an unbending tree, a proud oval pale face with a fall of white-blond hair and flashing gray-blue eyes. His youngest son was of a similar type, slightly less tall but of similar proportion and coloring. The Sindarin Elves with them were of a different clan, it was apparent - darker of hair, not as tall, a hardier people. They wore green and brown, and carried intricate bows and arrows along with swords.

The Dwarrow in the hall were silent, staring, and Bilbo took note that the general atmosphere was not so hostile as it was of stony ambivalence. On the throne, Thorin himself merely waited with hooded eyes, seemingly unimpressed. Bilbo glanced down at his large hands on the armrests of his throne, but they were yet to tense up, and then returned his attention to the delegation, which was stopping, the king’s eyes resting on Dís, her sons, Thorin, and eventually Bilbo.

For a tense moment neither kings said a word, then Thranduil every-so-slightly inclined his head, crowned in yellow and purple flowers, while the rest of his people bowed lower. “Hail, Thorin, King under the Mountain,” the Elf drawled.

“Welcome to Erebor, Thranduil Oropherion, King of the Greenwood,” Thorin replied with a tone almost the exact equivalent of the Elf King’s and with a bow just as slight. “Glad we are to the see the face of our royal ally.”

Bibo saw the moment when Thranduil’s mouth twitched and braced himself for some impudence. “And hail Bilbo Baggins, scribe of the Shire and consort-to-be,” the Elf King said with a silken, affectionate tone.

Thorin glanced and nodded to Bilbo, and then took his closest hand in his, which was probably the most strident declaration of possession Dwarrow culture allowed during a formal event. “Hail, King Thranduil and Prince Legolas of Greenwood the Great,” he replied respectfully. “The road, I hope, was kind to you on your journey east.”

“It was; we thank you,” Legolas spoke then, smiling. He proceeded to introduce the rest of the delegation, some of whom Bilbo had met during the Hobbits’ stay in the Greenwood. Thorin focused with an attentive air, and in turn introduced his sister and reintroduced his heirs. Bilbo recalled with a start that the princes had been in Erebor as part of Thorin’s Company at the same time Thranduil had been bringing his archers to Lake-town.

In fact, Kíli and Fíli didn’t seem so awfully uncomfortable with the idea of the Greenwood Elves being within the mountain.

Bilbo did see Gimli when he examined the throne room, and found him standing with Glóin and his wife, and clearly distracted by Legolas. Very few would blame him; the prince was wearing a close-fitting tunic of silvery-blue which accentuated his wide shoulders and narrow hips. His wore only a simple silver circlet as a concession to his rank. Bilbo, trying to see him through Dwarven eyes, felt that his long straight hair called out to be braided, and that his thin close-fitting clothing begged to be layered over with more protective and structured pieces.

So thinking, he returned his attention to the rest of the Elven party being introduced, and squeezed Thorin’s hand with slight pressure. The king briefly returned the pressure without any other acknowledgement.

Eventually, Bilbo let himself look at Thranduil as the king waited for his son to finish introductions. The Elven king met his eyes, then glanced down to the Hobbit’s fingers in Thorin’s hand; no doubt he had no trouble seeing the wealth of gold on them. His brows twitched and his mouth curved.

Bilbo could feel the hair rise all over his body; Thranduil was amused.

Chapter Text

It turned out that King Bard and his older daughter had ridden up the mountain with Elrond and his sons in the company of Thranduil’s delegation. Because the newcomers and their escorts from Dale had a long ride back down the mountain later in the day, the assembly for that day followed fairly quickly after the official ceremony in the throne room.

Lunch then happened with Dwarrow, Elves, and Hobbits together. Bilbo, having been reunited with the excited Princess Sigrid and an uncomfortable Bard, invited the Dale royalty to sit at his side. Thorin, released from the restrictions of the throne hall, took Bilbo’s hand and kissed it as the Hobbit settled in his chair to the king’s left.

Bilbo took a moment to evaluate Thorin’s face and posture, now that he was allowed to show some concern beyond the subtle squeeze of a hand. The Dwarf had lost some of his mildness, and his expression had settled into unreadable lines, but at least he wasn’t scowling.

Thranduil and Legolas settled opposite Bard, and Elrond, Elrohir and Elladan quite cheerfully sat at the lower tables with the Hobbit delegation. When Bilbo’s eyes landed on that grouping, he saw Dwalin standing to the side speaking to Rosalda Took. She was clutching a scroll in her hand and shaking her head at whatever he was saying. Paladin, clearly having kept an eye on this interaction, rose from his chair, but too late. Rosalda had turned heel and left the hall, leaving Dwalin and Paladin talking together, both of them frowning.

The whole event puzzled Bilbo, but he was too distracted by Sigrid’s questions about the Dwarrow and Shire traditions of the courtship. While Bard quietly listened in with a neutral expression, the Hobbit told her about the steps involved. He was also very aware of Thranduil, the tallest being in the room, sitting across the table from Bard and looking as if he belonged somewhere else entirely, with an expression that said he wouldn’t mind being somewhere else as well.

Bilbo bit down on a smile at the thought, and listened as Sigrid talked about the arrival of King Thranduil’s train, how he had brought with him the archers who had won renown in the killing of Smaug and bows and arrows for Bain and Sigrid. “Bain wants a sword, but a bow is traditional in our family,” she confided. “Da wants him practicing with the bow first before he gets a blade of some sort.”

“And you?” Bilbo inquired. “Will you be practicing with the bow or the blade?”

He knew he’d made a gaff when Sigrid glanced quickly at her father, as if wondering if she could respond honestly. However, Bard’s eyebrows rose as if he’d never considered the question, and when Sigrid looked at him uncertainly, he smiled encouragingly. Bilbo’s estimation of Bard’s character rose significantly at that look.

“I wouldn’t mind the bow,” she said earnestly, “but not swords. There are too many swords already.” She shuddered in a way that led Bilbo to wonder how bad Lake-town had been before the resettling of Dale. “Brutal things.”

Thranduil came to life at his, apparently unable to restrain himself any longer at the provocation of the princess’s words. “They needn’t be,” he said laconically, finally putting his wine goblet down.

Sigrid flushed under the attention but rallied with: “I am sure Elven swords are different, Your Majesty,” she said.

Bilbo blinked. “Excuse me,” he said, and waved at Dora Hornblower, who happened to be facing his way, in a conversation with Prince Kíli. The lady walked around to his side of the table where they had a whispered conversation with Bilbo shaping something long and thin in the air. Dora nodded and quickly trotted off and out of the hall.

“Do you know about the adventures of Beldan Tûk , also known in the Shire as my mother, Belladonna Took?” he asked of those around him who had watched this strange exchange in silence. He was met with various expressions of confusion. “She was quite the adventuress in her day, and once went wandering with a varied group of travelers, among them a Dwarf, a Ranger, and a Wizard. One day, three giant Trolls stole their ponies to eat, and my mother went to bargain the ponies back. She involved the dim-witted Trolls in hours of bargaining and a discussion on the best way to cook cattle, until the sun rose and turned them to stone.”

Sigrid sat with hands over mouth, eyes wide.

“The Dwarf figured there had to be a cave nearby, and they found it. The foulest, smelliest cave, but it contained an accumulated pile of treasures and junk the Trolls had brought down from the mountains, found, or stole from their victims. They also found several Elven swords. The Wizard took one, which was named Glamdring, and the Ranger took a set of daggers. The Dwarf took another sword, called Orcrist.” Bilbo glanced at Thorin, and saw a look of recognition steal over his expression; the Hobbit was certain Balin had brought the sword back to Erebor eventually, even perhaps into Thorin’s hands.

“There were smaller and less robust weapons, of course, and Belladonna, being the smallest of them, took these. One was a large dagger, but because she was a Hobbit, it became her sword. When she saw me on my way, she gave me her sword, but she also contributed to various goods that we brought with us to Erebor. Once here, I understood Dwarrow sensibilities about weapons, and so this particular sword has been languishing amongst our boxes…”

Just then, Dora appeared, followed by two Dwarrow guards, and no wonder, as she held upright a slender, sheathed sword almost longer than she was. Once Thorin nodded that it was permitted for her to enter the hall with the sword, the guards retreated and Dora brought the sword to Bilbo, who thanked her.

“I believe this is what King Thranduil meant when he said that swords need not be brutal,” he said, carefully laying the weapon on the table where everyone could see its subtle curve and graceful pommel, grip and guard. He began to tug the stitched leather sheath off, but Thorin stood to help, clearly interested to see the blade.

“Princess, do you see the writing here?” Bilbo asked and Sigrid nodded. “This says ‘In Gondolin I was forged.’ Gondolin was an ancient Elven city.” He glanced at Thranduil, who was staring down at the blade. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Elrond approaching. He turned the sword over to reveal the other side of the blade. “This says ‘I pierce like the winter wind’.” He paused for Thranduil, who was looking at the inscription with narrowed eyes, then glanced at Sigrid. The young lady’s eyes were on the grip, which was clad in a blue-gray wood with inlaid silver wave and cloud forms.

Elrond had quietly arrived at Bard’s shoulder, and he looked at the sword with a grave expression. “There is one whom I know who still remembers Gondolin. Master Baggins.”

The Hobbit returned Elrond’s look with a bemused one of his own, casting his thoughts back to the Elves of Imladris. “Are you speaking of Lord Glorfindel?” he asked, alighting on the one Elf whose pedigree had remained a mystery to many, including Bilbo.

The lord inclined his head.

The Hobbit turned to Princess Sigrid. “May I ask a favor, Your Highness? Can you take this back with you to Dale and present it to Lord Glorfindel? I am sure he could show you the elegance of Elven swordwork.”

 

The tables were pushed back for open space, but not much music nor dancing began, as the guests would soon have to make their trip back down the mountain. At one point Bilbo was separated from Thorin, who had been waylaid by Dáin, and found himself finally speaking to the Elvenking.

“I see you did not heed my warnings about the line of Durin,” Thranduil murmured. He had claimed a chair for himself so that their heights weren’t as tremendously different, and even in a chair made to accomodate a Dwarf, he sat regally straight. He glanced at Bilbo’s fingers, clad in rings of gold. “But perhaps Oakenshield will again thwart the curse of his forebears.” The Elf tilted his head, leaning in. “Be wary, Master Scribe, lest you become the target of Durin greed.”

“Your Majesty shall have no cause to fear for me,” Bilbo replied with tart humor, which was always the best way to manage conversations with Thranduil. “Greed will not be our downfall, nor has it been a point of contention.”

“Oh, but there has been contention, then? Ah, well, all courtships find a few bumps on the path.”

“Hm, well, especially if the courtship is royal and between two different races.”

“Ah, yes, and how does your king find dealing with “halflings”?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Bilbo saw Thorin walking towards them with Fíli by his side, and both of them not looking an ounce amused. He grinned up at Thranduil. “And whoever started the whole “halfling” nonsense deserves a swift kick to the shins,” Bilbo announced loudly, arms akimbo and staring up at his conversational partner.

“Certainly, my friend,” Thranduil replied very gravely, but with a hint of a smile. “Shall we hunt this reprobate and deliver justice upon them?”

Bilbo laughed, nodding among his chuckles. “Do you also have the talent to travel backwards in time, Your Majesty? I did not know that was a skill of the Elves.”

“We have many skills you might not know of, Master Baggins,” the king replied smoothly, almost flirtatiously.

“Bilbo,” Thorin said, almost growling. His glare at Thranduil was impressive, just threatening enough to make the Elvenking raise his eyebrows. “Will you excuse us? The king and I have a few subjects to speak of.”

The Hobbit nodded cheerfully, bowed to Thranduil and then to Thorin, and meandered toward the Hobbits at the end of the hall, happy to escape the tension. He found them a rather somber group, and Paladin in their midst looked relieved to see Bilbo.

“Whatever is the matter?” the scribe asked, astonished.

“Bilbo, would you see to Rosalda back at our quarters? She’s been having a hard few days and this one might have knocked her down a bit.”

Bilbo raised his brows at this. “Certainly, although I doubt she’d want to speak to me.” Knowing the private nature of the particular Hobbit they were discussing, he was surprised her brother would suggest it at all.

“You are the closest to this problem than anyone, Bilbo.”

When the Hobbit shrugged, signalling his ignorance, Daisy added: ““It’s the beau of hers. Up and vanished on her, if you ask me.”

“You mean Balin? I had wondered at his absence recently.”

Dora Hornblower shook her head. “Apparently he wrote her a very unsatisfactory letter, which has merely increased her woe.”

Bilbo was growing increasingly concerned the more he heard about it. “It seems I’m not required here for awhile,” he said, glancing sardonically at Thranduil, Thorin, and now Bard standing together and talking heatedly. “I’ll go see if I can make heads or tails of it.”

Paladin clapped him on the back. “Many thanks, old man.”

Bilbo made his way quickly to their quarters and tapped on the door that led to Paladin and Rosalda’s chosen rooms. “Rosalda? It’s cousin Bilbo. May I come in?” He waited politely for a few long moments before the door unlocked and the lady in question peered through the opening.

Bilbo grew even more concerned at the lady’s red eyes and pale face. “Oh my dear,” he murmured, and took her by the arm to escort her to sit by the fireplace that had burned down to embers. He knelt to add a few pieces of wood, and when it looked to be promising, and given her enough time to compose herself, he pulled a chair close to hers and took the one hand not clutching a handkerchief. “Rosalda? What is it, my dear?”

Rosalda took a few shaky breaths, shaking her head as if she couldn't form the words.

“Balin, is it?” he prodded gently.

The lady sobbed and bowed her head. “Oh, Bilbo. I don’t know what to do about it. What is he thinking?” She pulled a scroll from the pocket of her skirt. “Can you make sense of it?”

“Is this from Balin, then?”

“It was delivered to me earlier today. What can he mean by it?”

Bilbo unrolled it. Right away he could see that Dora had it right; it was a very unsatisfactory letter.

My dear Rosalda:
I fear my king has need of me in the coming days, for I am sent to Dale to keep the ties between the Greenwood, Imladris and Dale strong. I fear I might not see your fair face until such time as we may part.

It was signed with the rune for B. “That is Balin’s hand,” Bilbo remarked, for he recognized the penmanship at once. It was, however, brutally short and lacking in any details.

“Yes, it is. But it’s so unlike him. Here.” Rosalda rose, drying her cheeks hurriedly, and hunting through a box to bring a packet of folded papers tied in a ribbon, a sure sign to any Hobbit of a long correspondence. She slid the top one out of the bundle. “He sent this by messenger two days ago.”

Dread pooled in Bilbo’s stomach as he looked at this example of writing, which was more like the kind he was used to seeing from the learned Dwarf. The content, however, revealed the more intimate nature of the relationship between the Balin and Rosalda, a deeper connection that many had not understood. Putting the two side by side was almost laughable. “You are right. This newest from him isn’t like him at all.” He handed back the older of the two letters, giving himself time to think. “In fact, I’m fairly sure it’s not him.” Which opened a whole new set of unsavory issues.

“But you said it’s his hand.”

“But not his words.” He was fairly certain it was not a letter Balin would have ever written on his own.

“Do you mean to say -” Rosalda stared at her hands in confusion, then up at Bilbo. “Surely you cannot mean anyone could tell Balin what to write!”

“And yet I’m fairly certain he wrote this under duress, and also that it was mostly dictated to him.”

Rosalda shook her head. “But who could dictate to Balin? There’s not a Dwarf in this mountain who can - Oh, no, surely not Paladin or the king!”

Bilbo swallowed tightly; he could feel the dread making his heart hammer. “I’m afraid so. There’s a spot of truth in this. The only person with this much influence over Balin’s movements is Thorin, and Balin says that he has been sent by the king.”

“Oh no, oh no Bilbo. Surely not.” She grasped his hand, desperately. “Please do not say something rash; I’m sure it can’t be as bad as all that. Balin, after all, can make his own choices, and I am sure I mistook his devotion to me. After all, what stops him from asking me to join him in Dale? Or sending me a letter of his own?”

Oh Thorin could stop him; besides Balin’s brother Dwalin, he was the only one who truly could.

 

Bilbo hadn’t the stomach to return to the hall, so he set his shoulders and marched to Thorin’s outer room to wait. He was not attempting to be secretive, and very aware of several sets of guards he passed on the way there.

He sat by the fire and mulled over every option, every idea, as his stomach turned sour and his head began to pound. He couldn’t afford to be optimistic that he was mistaken, but oh how he wished he were wrong.

He heard the door and Thorin’s voice. “Bilbo, I would have thought you would want to say farewell to Bard at least. You are well, I hope?”

Bilbo could barely stand it, and refused to pretend that his heart wasn’t cracking apart. He stood and turned to his lover, holding up Balin’s suspect letter. “Can you explain to me this letter from Balin, Thorin?”

The king stopped abruptly, his eyes landing on the paper. He glanced at Bilbo’s expression and back down at the letter. Bilbo’s heart sank at the caution already stealing across the king’s features. It was not the look of ignorance or innocence. “Balin wrote to you?”

“Neither. He did not write it, nor write it to me . For I would never believe that Balin could write such a short, discourteous, and heartless letter to my cousin Rosalda.” He stared hard at Thorin and saw the telltales of guilt shift across his face. He took a shaky breath and continued: “Which begs the question - who made him write this?”

Thorin slowly approached now, as if any sudden motion might cause the Hobbit to run. “Bilbo, I can explain.”

“How can you explain why Rosalda has been crying for days, because the Dwarf she loves and whom she thought loved her, has up and removed himself and this is the only excuse he has, that you have sent him to Dale? Tell me that it is a lie, Thorin.”

“It - it is not a lie. It was necessary.”

“Which part was necessary? That Balin go to Dale? That he separate from Rosalda? The he break her heart?”

“All of it. All of it is necessary.” Thorin sighed, rubbing at his own temples. “You don’t understand; he can’t be with her.”

“Then explain it. It can’t be because she’s a Hobbit, or otherwise that stipulation would certainly interfere between us. Is he married? Have either of them broken faith? Tell me.”

“He can’t be what she expects of him. He is bujbel - he can’t marry her, or make love to her. It’s not in his nature.”

Blbo waved a hand at that. Rosalda didn’t care about that sort of thing either - well, perhaps the marrying part, but not all the rest. “How would you know what she expects of him? How can you have one inkling of what any Hobbit might expect, you rock-headed Dwarf? Have you paused for one moment to ask someone who could illuminate you on the subject, or did you imperiously decide on the fate of both Balin and my cousin without a single thought to how you have ruined them?”

The king looked shocked and reached out with a helpless sound. “Bilbo-”

Bilbo was surprised to feel tears spill down his face and wiped at them impatiently. “Blast it, now what have you done?”

“Bilbo, it had to be done, no matter how hard, although if I had known their attachment was as severe, I wouldn’t have waited.”

“What? You would have nipped it even earlie r?”

“Yes, to avoid misunderstandings with her and her family, I would have. I needed to do it.”

Bilbo sniffed and wiped at his eyes, sitting down finally. Well, that was it then. “Did you indeed?” he muttered, half to himself, then reached down to his ankle. “Then I suppose I need to do this.”

Thorin’s voice cracked out: “Bilbo, no! You can’t!” The Dwarf fell to his knees, shackling Bilbo’s wrists with hands. “Please no, ghivashel , don’t act so hastily! You cannot -”

But his voice died as their eyes met. Bilbo felt his own face had turned to stone, but he did not know what Thorin saw in his expression that made him blanch and loosen his grip. “Please, think first,” the king added, more softly. “It is an act that will be… difficult to undo.”

But Bilbo, although he withdrew his hands from his ankle, would not be soothed by these pleas. “Thorin Oakenshield, do not tell me what I can or cannot do. You are no king nor husband of mine, and never shall be if this is how my people are to be so callously treated.” He stood and had to walk around Thorin, although it was the last thing he truly wanted to do.

“What will you do?” the king asked.

This was one of the questions Bilbo had asked himself, sitting by Thorin’s fire. “I’m leaving for Dale. This mountain oppresses me and I am done with its secrets. In a few days I will see what can be done, but for now I cannot stay here with you. You have ruined my cousin’s happiness and broken my heart, Thorin. This is not so easily forgiven.”

And even though Thorin called his name, Bilbo walked out and didn’t stop until he could slam a door between himself and any chance he’d change his own mind.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Thirty-nine: Precious

As much as Bilbo longed to dash impetuously to the stables and ride down the mountain like an angry fire to Dale, it was clear as he began packing his saddlebags that by the time he began the journey, he’d be making half of the trip in the blind dark. He’d rather wait until early morning, and take a portion of it before the break of day, which would allow him more than a quick note to the Thain.

Instead, he removed the rings from his fingers and put them in his small casket of treasures. Dis’s gift, plain, perfect, and gleaming, lay at the bottom, so in contrast with the ornately carved and gem-encrusted rings given to him by Thorin. It seemed to beckon him to put it on, but Bilbo was caught in the moment of disgust for rings in general and found himself staring at Glorfindel’s coronet instead. He retrieved the silver dagger from Bard and packed it, along with his mother’s sword.

He penned a letter to Bard and signaled one of the guards; minutes later the representative of the Messengers Guild came to take it. “It’s urgent,” he explained, “and I’d prefer it be taken Karaic if she’s available.” The way the Dwarf nodded and left quickly, it appeared that requesting a particular Raven wasn’t unknown in Erebor.

Taking a deep breath, he approached Paladin and Rosalda’s door and knocked. Paladin answered, took one look at Bilbo’s face, and let him in silently. By the fire Rosalda stood abruptly, her dark eyes wide and anxious. “Bilbo, did you -?”

“I haven’t given his courtship gift back yet,” her cousin assured her, “although it was a close thing. I’m still tempted to throw it in his face, that imperial idiot, but he said it was a gesture not easily undone so I stayed my hand.

“Rosalda, Thorin is convinced that Balin cannot marry for reasons I’m still unclear about, but I am going to Dale and I will talk to him about what Thorin thinks he’s doing. Also, I can’t stand to be in this mountain with that ass, so I’m riding down before dawn. If you have anything for anyone in the city, give it to me by dinner.”

Paladin followed him to the door and outside, corralling him before he could stride off. “What do you truly make of this sad business? For my part, I cannot find out if they were ever alone together,” he whispered furtively. “I made sure. I never saw him declare himself.”

“From the tone of his letters to her, something was declared. Rosalda is the last person to imagine affection where it doesn’t exist.” They both glanced at the door. “I think Balin is like her, and for some reason in Erebor that means they can’t marry. To be honest, I’m so angry now with Thorin I can hardly think straight, but I will get to the bottom of this, for Rosalda’s sake, and for my own, make no mistake.”

They embraced, and Bilbo made his way to the baths to soak some of the anxious strain in his neck and shoulders before returning to his room to finish packing. His appetite had fled, and he refused to eat in the great hall, so he asked the cooks to make him something comforting when they were done with their own meals.

He lay down and closed his eyes, but nothing could make his mind rest. He imagined the argument with Thorin again and his stomach churned. How could he have been so naive as to imagine that the King under the Mountain would suddenly change his nature and allow an outsider to advise him?

He eventually drifted off between the lands of sleep and wakefulness, and was startled at the tap on his door and Olo Proudfoot standing there with a concerned look and a covered plate. Olo was from Hobbiton, and Bilbo felt a surge of deep gratitude at the thought of eating good Hobbiton cooking, which was known to be uncomplicated.

“Thank you, Master Proudfoot.”

“Now, Master Bilbo, what is this I hear about you being off your food? That won’t do! It’s all those Dwarvish cooks and their heavy courses: meat, meat, and more meat. Not that I don’t appreciate a good sausage or roast, but by the Great Lady, a Hobbit needs some potatoes and greens now and then.” So rambling, the cook set down the covered plate on Bilbo’s small table and plucked the cover off with a flourish and a bow. “We got some potatoes in, and I know they’re uncommon pale, but that’s what you get for growing ‘em this far north. What do you think?”

“I think the smell alone has cured my stomach,” Bilbo praised, and he wasn’t exactly lying. There, in a light drizzle of butter and spices, lay a heap white potatoes and unidentifiable greens, studded with thin pieces of bacon and bits of herbs over the top. “I’m going to be very rude and shoo you out so I may start eating this masterpieces. Many thanks, Olo.”

“You don't have to thank me, Master Bilbo. You just say the word, and I’m there to help.” Typical of most Hobbiton folk, he was clearly dying for details as to why Bilbo wasn’t eating, but he would never ask him directly. Bilbo politely walked him to the door and implacably shut the door while thanking him again.

He did manage to eat. A folded letter slid under his door as he was setting the dish aside, and he added it to his saddlebags. He was unsurprised to note that it was addressed to Balin and the handwriting was Rosalda’s. As he was thinking to try to sleep, a tap on his door revealed a messenger with a note. Bilbo took it with consternation, but it was only a reply from Bard, saying that was happy to open his home to Bilbo, and that he would have representatives meet Bilbo halfway up the road at first light.

After a restless few hours of half-sleep, he rose, dressed. and took his saddlebags down through the front gate. Erebor at night was only slightly less busy than during the day - shifts of miners moved up and down the levels of the mountain, and the guards were always present no matter what the hour.

The guards did not in fact stop or question him, most probably because of who he was - he still kept the courtship braid and the anklet, and well, there were not that many Hobbits for the Dwarrow to keep track of. However, in the stables outside of the mountain, the Dwarf in charge insisted on keeping records of which ponies left, with whom and where to. Bilbo gave this information while saddling his Hobbiton pony, Myrtle, hoping to avoid any insistence of guards accompanying down the mountain.

He was not so lucky. He was barely on the dark road with his traveling lantern when two armored and helmeted guards trotted up, clanking with artilleries of weapons. Bilbo sighed and let them flank him.

They turned back without a word as the sky began to lighten on the horizon. The sudden quiet after hours of unsubtle armor sounds was vaguely unsettling, with only the pony’s hooves and the creak of Bilbo’s saddlery now filling the void.

A loud shriek from the sky startled him, but as he cast his eyes skyward a dark swift shape barreled into him. Bilbo fell sideways off of Myrtle, his foot wrenching in the stirrup before all of him hit the ground hard, his head especially. Bilbo’s breath knocked out of him, he could not scream and scream he would have, when a lean, dark creature with huge lamp-like eyes scrambled on top of him.

“Not a nasty, thieving Dwarf, no, but what is it, Precious? Dale Men say little, fat Hobbitses go up into the mountain. But does it have it? Does it have the Precious?” The thing’s long fingers were searching through Bilbo’s clothes while the Hobbit gasped for breath and felt about desperately for his sword.

He grasped it and pulled it from its sheath at his waist but the thing stomped a foot on his arm. Long, strong fingers closed over his neck and squeezed. Bilbo tried desperately to pry them off with his one free hand, but those fingers were strong and tightened further. He could not breathe.

The last thing Bilbo saw was black wings descending into his vision. Someone was shouting in the distance.

But the world was fading away.

 

A voice, a pleasant tenor, said his name. Bilbo did not want to answer, for he was tired and it was peaceful here. If he answered, there would be pain and memory of pain.

For a small while he drifted, but again the voice insisted. “Bilbo Baggins, lasto beth nîn, tolo dan nan galad !”

He reluctantly opened his eyes slowly. Lord Elrond’s concerned gray eyes met his, and a relieved expression suffused his face before he withdrew with a sigh. “He wakes.”

“What-?” Bilbo began, but his throat spasmed and a broken whisper emerged. He raised a shaky hand and felt along the bandages at his throat.

‘Do not speak; I have healed you but your throat will be sore for some time.” Elrond moved aside as Sigrid appeared at his side with a cup. “Drink this; it may help.”

With some help, Bilbo sat up and drank. As he did so, he saw with some dismay that there were many people in the room, amongst them King Bard, King Thranduil, Princess Sigrid, and Balin. They all looked very grave and worried.

He tried again. “What was that thing?” he whispered.

Bard stepped forward after exchanging glances with Thranduil. “We’re not sure. Karaic dealt it quite a blow, and she says it was your size but very thin with big eyes. Its hands and feet were very strong. By the time my men got to you, it had fled.”

“Karaic?” Bilbo whispered, and then remembered a shriek and black wings. “Karaic attacked it?”

“Plucked out one of its eyes, she said,” Bard said matter-of-factly. “Took it up to the mountain and yelled at the king about why her Hobbit was halfway down the mountain being attacked.”

“Oh no,” Bilbo moaned. He had hoped news of this hadn’t reached Thorin, but it was clear that that was a pipe dream.

“It got away,” Thranduil added, “but not without some damage.”

Bilbo glanced about the room. “Thorin?”

Thranduil looked displeased and Bard shook his head. Elrond clarified: “He was here until you began to rouse, then he returned to the mountain. I take it you two are not on the best of terms currently.”

“Argued. He’s an ass.” Bilbo wasted no words to clarify.

Bard coughed into his hand while his daughter’s eyes went wide. “But-!” she began but Bard shook his head at her and she subsided, but her eyes were a little wounded, whether for Bilbo’s or Thorin’s sake it was unclear.

Bilbo gave her a reassuring smile as Elrond sat on the edge of Bilbo’s bed and checked the bandages around his neck. He then tugged the blanket off of the Hobbit’s legs, exposing Bilbo’s legs. Bilbo’s left ankle was slightly red and swollen, and when Elrond gently manipulated it, Bilbo hissed at the twinge. He remembered being thrown sideways, his left foot caught at first in the stirrup, and the sudden stab of screaming pain that followed. By rights, it ought to be broken.

And then Bilbo felt his heart drop to his stomach. “Where is my anklet?”

Everyone turned to look at his feet, and Bilbo searched their faces, looking for one expression that told him someone knew what had happened, but it was not to be.

“It must have been lost in the attack,” Bard guessed. “I will send my men up the road to find it.”

Bilbo swallowed, distressed more than he thought he would be over the loss of his courtship gift. After so many moments of doubt, whether to remove the anklet or not, it had come to an accident of fate to take the decision out of his hands. Unexpectedly, the thing had become precious to him.

Bilbo started and motioned Elrond close so he could whisper. “It was looking for something, something it called its ‘precious.’ It was searching my clothes for it.”

The peredhel sat back from this with a considering look. “It is looking for a rather small object, then.”

“Most definitely.”


They left him to rest when it was clear he was losing focus and falling asleep. He slept, but uneasily, waking again and again as his dreams presented him with two glaring pale eyes and constricting long fingers squeezing his throat. My precious , it hissed. You steal my precious, and I steal yours . And yet, when Bilbo woke, he called for Thorin.

Chapter Text

After sleeping and waking through an indeterminable amount of time, Bilbo eventually awoke completely. His head, throat, and ankle hurt, but were relegated to dull throbbing. When he lifted himself up on an elbow and rubbed at his eyes, he spied a familiar white-bearded Dwarf standing just within the door.

“Master Baggins,” Balin said.

“Lord Balin,” Bilbo replied coldly.

The Dwarf bowed his head humbly. “Can you walk? There is something you need to see.”

The Hobbit rotated and put his feet to the floor rug next to the bed. For the first time, he looked about himself, not recognizing the room. It certainly followed the style typical of Dale.

“You are in the king’s residence,” Balin explained as Bilbo looked about himself and took an experimental step, which proved successful, if sore.

The Hobbit nodded and walked carefully to door, his ankle aching only a little. He paused to rifle through his saddlebags left by the wall, and pulled out Rosalda’s letter. He presented it to Balin with a reproving stare and proceeded out through the door, finding himself a familiar hallway. He was standing in the royal wing. He turned the corner toward the public rooms, surprised to find the place abandoned. He could hear hushed voices at the front of the building and let them guide him through the greater dining room, and then the statesroom that Bard used as a large foyer. The front doors were open and Bilbo could see many people standing just outside; they were all looking up into the northern sky, which was darkening towards evening.

Bilbo finally understood why as he stepped through the doors and had an unobstructed view of the sky towards Erebor.

The sky was full of wheeling Ravens, hundreds of dark wings circling the Lonely Mountain. They were surprisingly quiet, or perhaps too high in the air. Swirling eddies of black shapes flew outward in expanding spirals as Bilbo stopped next to Princess Tilda, who was half-hiding behind a pillar, her eyes riveted on the great birds in the skies of Erebor.

“Princess,” Bilbo said gently. She looked at him with wide, fearful eyes. “May I hide here with you?”

The little girl chewed her lip. “I’m not hiding ,”

“Ah? Surveillance, then?”

She peeked around her pillar at her father and siblings, standing out in the open at the head of the steps down into the courtyard. Then she straightened, tugging down the lower hem of her embroidered bodice and squaring her shoulders. “Yes, surveillance,” she said and paced forward with her head high.

Bilbo bit down on a smile and followed. King Bard acknowledged him with a nod, then glanced up. “This began not long ago. We’ve had no warning from Erebor.”

Balin followed and said, deferentially: ‘The Ravens of Mandos have one Master and one King,” he said. He glanced down at Bilbo. “And one thought, most likely, occupies the King under the Mountain.”

Bilbo sniffed. “Surely not.”

Bard stared down at him. “Do you doubt that King Thorin wants to find this dangerous creature?”

The Hobbit shrugged. “Yes, I think so, but I think Balin is implying that my attack has prompted this action.”

Now everyone was looking at him in disbelief. Before Bilbo could respond, a large Raven flew down through the courtyard and dropped on the lowest steps. She hopped up one step at a time, cocking her head one way and then another.

“Mistress Karaic?” Bilbo breathed.

The Raven hopped up the last step and bobbed her head. “Bilbo Baggins,” she croaked. Then she spread her wings, pushed up her chest, and strutted. The Hobbit could see she wore a gold collar from which  a medallion hung. She gave him a long look from one eye and then the other and pronounced: “You are better.”

“I am. My thanks to you, Mistress.”

She cackled, bobbing. “I pecked that creeping thing that tried to kill the Cake-giver and the king’s mate. Strange, cruel night-thing.” She ruffled up her feathers.

Bilbo guessed where the gold collar had come from and why. “I cannot reward you as you deserve, Mistress, but next time you fly to my mother, you just tell her of your bravery, and there will be corn cakes until you burst.”

Karaic shrieked happily.

Bilbo knelt. “But now, Mistress, I must ask for an important favor. I’ve lost something on the road, most likely during the attack, and I’d be ever so grateful if it were found.”

“Lost?” the Raven echoed. “What has Bilbo Baggins lost?”

“A courtship gift, a circle made from gold and mithril.” The Hobbit held up his fingers in a circle. “About this big. I think the lock opened when I fell from the pony.”

Karaic nodded her understanding. “A mate’s gift is important,” she agreed.

“Irreplaceable,” Bilbo concurred and swallowed.

“Ir-replace-able,” the Raven pronounced thoughtfully. “New word! New word! And Karaic will not forget to look for the mate’s gift of gold and mithril. I go. I go now.” She bowed to Bilbo, then to Bard as if an afterthought before launching into the air with a swift beat of her great wings.

“Clearly I do not feed her enough cake,” Bard remarked wryly.

“Oh, it’s not any cake,” Bilbo replied lightly. “She likes Shire cake made from corn, which I do not think you have here in the north, and most definitely you do not have the baker here either, my mother.”

The king sighed. “It’s hopeless to earn respect from a Raven of Karaic’s quality, then?”

“Oh, not so impossible,” Bilbo replied with a tired smile. “I’m sure there’s something from your kitchens she’ll find tasty. She’s sort of a warrior princess of Erebor - I think she can be won with both respect and loads of food.”

They watched the Ravens circle until the sun dipped beyond the horizon and the birds retreated to the mountain. Bilbo had become aware that he was in need of a bath, a change of clothes, and a good deal of dinner; he excused himself for the first two. Elrond followed him to look over his foot, his throat, and the back of his head before Bilbo was allowed in the bath with the Elf lord’s blessing.

He was dressing when Balin knocked on the door to escort him to dinner. From the Dwarf’s somber expression, Bilbo assumed he’d read Rosalda’s letter and that they would have to talk soon about the sad situation.

For now, though, eating was a priority. Bilbo was uncertain how long he’d slept, but he suspected he’d missed at least a full day’s worth of meals. On top of soreness in a variety of places, he felt quite hollowed out in both body and heart. The body part was the more immediate and easier solution, and the heart business would be a harder matter of thought and decision-making.

Bard’s table only hosted his own family, Balin and Bilbo - Elrond having returned to his own residence and people. “Where is Gandalf?” he asked Bard. The Wizard had been conspicuously absent from Erebor, but Bilbo had assumed he’d be in Dale.

“He’s been holed up with Elrond and Thranduil,” Bard said, “but he left in a hurry the morning you were attacked. He seemed to know where he was heading, but of course, has told no one where.”

“That’s pretty typical,” Bilbo assured him when he paused between bites to drink his wine. “He’s been in and out of our lives in the Shire, and stayed true to form during our journey here. My mother always said that he had a great duty, greater than any one kingdom’s destiny, but…” The Hobbit scratched his nose. “It’s hard to see it, if it even exists. In the Shire, he’s known for his fireworks and that’s about it.”

“Fireworks?” Princess Tilda asked.

“Bright, colored explosions in the air?” Bilbo clarified. “Very pretty on a summer night, if a bit loud.”

They all looked at him with strange, mystified expressions. “It’s magic?” Prince Bain asked.

“It probably is, at least the fire part.”

“I want to see pretty explosions!” Tilda cried enthusiastically.

“It wouldn’t be out of place the night of the coronation,” Bard mused. “Hopefully Gandalf will have returned by then.”

“Has the date for the coronation been set?” Princess Sigrid asked. “Aren’t there other delegations due to arrive?”

“We should know the date soon,” Balin provided, speaking from his own knowledge. “We may yet receive small delegations from the south. If they cannot make the journey, I should receive correspondence soon to that effect.”

The princess nodded. “I should like to see the people of Rohan. I’ve heard so many stories about their amazing skills on horseback.”

Bilbo, who had read only a few stories about Rohan, leaned over. “Are there books about Rohan? I haven’t found many stories about that country.”

“There are a few,” Sigrid responded, warming to the subject. “I have some myself; I can lend them.”

“I would appreciate it, your highness.”

 

“We need to talk,” Bilbo muttered to Balin as they began to disperse from the table to their rooms. The Dwarf nodded in agreement and followed the Hobbit back to his room.

Balin sat down heavily at the small table there and pulled out the letter, which looked small in his large hands, and already wrinkled. Whatever Rosalda had written had inspired more than one reading, and knowing the thoughtful mind and hand of the lady who had written it, Bilbo could well imagine the devastating effect of a few well-conceived words.

“You do not deserve Rosalda Took,” Bilbo said baldly, because he was still so angry at both Balin and Thorin, and whatever Dwarven idea that had led to this miserable turn of events. Considering Balin’s downcast look, the Dwarf clearly was feeling some sort of regret. “She is a queen among Hobbits, and I don’t say that just because she’s my cousin. The only reason she hasn’t married is that she has had the status to deny would-be suitors without a blow to her reputation. Yet, she met you and wanted to be with you ; can you imagine how lucky you are that she was brave enough to reach out and take that risk after years and years of thinking she could never find someone to love? It is a mystery to me that such a discerning lady chose someone who was willing to leave her-!”

Finally Balin’s head rose. “Not willingly, laddie,” he said gravely, shaking his head.

“Then why would you even-?!”

“Are there no Hobbits that have sworn their lives and loyalty to the good of the Shire, who have set aside their own lives in service to others?”

Bilbo, taken aback, frowned and chewed his lip before shaking his head. “Only in dire time, in defense of our families. No single Hobbit is required to take the burden; the closest thing are the heads of families, but the duties are spread out between individuals and no one is required to give up everything. Are you saying that this is what you’ve done, set aside your own desires to serve Thorin?”

“I am made to serve the House of Durin and the kingdom of Erebor. You know how we are related to the royal line; we have always served in some capacity. From a very young age, I knew I did not want a family and that my call would be the highest. I was happy to know that my life would be spent in the service of my king.”

Bilbo could feel a headache coming on. Dora Hornblower had hinted that most Dwarrow dedicated themselves to their craft, and a minority married and raised families. “And has no Dwarf realized later in life that they have mistaken the road they’ve chosen?”

Balin huffed. “You mistake me. It isn’t a choice I’ve made. It was who I was.”

“Was .”

The Dwarf nodded. “For over two hundred years, I have lived content in my role. I could not have foreseen Rosalda, nor the love I have for her.”

A great weight eased from Bilbo’s heart. “You do love her, then.”

“I have come to find that I love her more than anything. I know you feel that Thorin has overstepped-”

“He has overstepped!” Bilbo cried. “He never took Rosalda’s feelings into consideration!”

“Bilbo, it is for her sake that he sent me away. In his mind, a lady like Rosalda would want a family, a mate in every sense. He could not know that neither Rosalda nor I want a traditional family, nor are we interested in the means to create one. It is very rare in the Shire, what Rosalda is?”

The scribe opened his mouth, flushing. “Er, yes. It’s looked down upon, to be honest. Most wouldn’t even admit to it, because creating family is paramount and so there are many Shirefolk that would say it’s unnatural to not want … that.

“Does Thorin know that?”

“Oh, goodness, no. That’s not something that comes up in … conversation.”

Balin raised his eyebrows and pointedly said nothing.

“He should have asked Rosalda and you before going about ordering you to separate!”

Balin sighed. “He should have, but to be honest, I don’t think it would occur to most Dwarrow that an Outsider would be accepting of a union that cannot result in, well -”

The Hobbit rubbed his forehead, getting very tired of dancing around the topic. “Intimacy?” he suggested.

“Ah, yes. To be truthful, I wasn’t so sure if such a union would be enough for Rosalda, and I admit to giving in to Thorin’s orders without much resistance, although naturally I was saddened, for I feel she is my One and it was painful to think I would never see her again. It was far more painful to think she would be unhappy with me.” Balin looked down at the letter clutched in his hand.

“I take it Rosalda has dissuaded you of that idea.”

Balin smiled crookedly. “She has a way with words. I can see that I will never win an argument when she has her mind set.”

The Hobbit clasped his hands in front of his mouth, staring at the Dwarf over his fists. “You will make amends and fix this, then?”

Balin nodded. “I do not know Thorin’s reaction - but as long as Rosalda will have me back, I will accept whatever fate comes to me.”

“My advice to you is to talk to Paladin first and get him on your side. He never thought his sister would find somebody, so if you’re suitably penitent and Rosalda forgives you, you will have his support forever.”

The Dwarf stood, bowed, and took his leave. Bilbo sighed and put his aching head down on the table. He had a respite of a few minutes until a tap on his door. “Come in,” he called tiredly, but sat up when Princess Sigrid stuck her head around the door. “Good evening, Princess.”

“Oh, good, you’re still awake. I wasn’t sure if you needed to rest.”

“Soon, but not quite yet,” he said, managing to smile goodnaturedly.

“I’ve brought you those books we were speaking of,” the young lady explained, coming fully into the room and showing him the three thin books in her hands. “Also, here’s a note from King Thranduil. I volunteered to bring it along since I was going to bring you these.” She set the books down on the table and plucked a folded and sealed missive from the top if the pile to present to him with a grin.

Bilbo’s smile sunk into a grimace and Sigrid giggled behind her hand. “Good night, Master Baggins.”

“Good night, Your Highness, and thank you.”

She smiled brightly before she closed the door behind her, leaving Bilbo staring morosely at the note. He could predict the contents. He bit his lip contemplatively, then left it unopened on the table.

He would deal with the king of the Greenwood in the morning.

Chapter Text

Crowned and clad in full regalia, Thorin sat stone-still on the throne in the abandoned hall, staring straight ahead. His hands lay clenched in his lap. In the dimness, he was gray as a statue.

Bilbo stepped forward uncertainly, squinting in the gloom. “Thorin?” he called.

But the king did not move, even as Bilbo drew near, until the Hobbit could see that he was looking truly at a statue of gray stone, Thorin’s grim, stark face staring blankly forward. Bilbo reached out to touch, his palm landing on the carved knee when his eyes saw what was clenched in the hands resting there - a gleaming gold crown of aster flowers and oak leaves. Scattered petals dotted here and there across the lap and feet of the statue, gold fragments.

“No,” Bilbo whispered, and stared up into the stone face. He could not see his courtship braid, although all of the hair had been carved intricately in a variety of royal and family plaits. “No, Thorin! What have you done?”

A small cracking sound startled him, and before his eyes a fissure in the stone of Thorin’s face widened until the beloved face splintered and fell.

Bilbo woke up shouting.

 

“No, I am perfectly fine, thank you,” Bilbo stuttered at the parental and concerned frown Bard used to good effect. The king had crashed through his door, panicked that Bilbo was either under attack or experiencing pain. “A bad dream.”

The king of Dale blew out a breath. “That’s a pretty bad dream.”

“I’m worried about Thorin,” Bilbo admitted, wiping his forehead. “I don’t know why it should be so. He’s faced deadlier dangers before I ever met him.”

Bard pulled up a chair, examining Bilbo’s face with unabated worry. “So you do love him then,” the king mused. “I wondered. This is an altered Master Baggins from the one who defended Thranduil so strenuously.”

The Hobbit laughed softly, shaking his head. “I am so altered from that Mr. Baggins, I cannot recall what I was thinking then. I never knew myself until I understood how I had misjudged Thorin. It doesn’t help that Dwarrow are secretive, of course, but I was too proud of the power of my own judgment and too susceptible to flattery.”

Flattery ?” Bard asked. “Ah, Thranduil?”

Bilbo bowed his head. His eyes were drawn to the unopened letter on the table, and he grimaced. “There’s just enough merit between the two of them to make a perfect being, and it’s shifted about of late. For my part, I’m inclined to believe almost all the merit lies in Thorin.”

“I thought he was an ass,” Bard reminded him.

“Well, he is. I’m still of that opinion.” Morosely, Bilbo reflected that he really did not know whether he would ever have a chance to revise that opinion. There were many things he could trust Thorin to do, but they lived now in a territory of doubt. He passed his hand over his eyes.

Bard bent a troubled look onto the Hobbit. “I hope you will not hesitate to come to me if you choose to leave Erebor - not that I think it likely!”

‘Th-that’s kind of you,” Bilbo replied slowly, a bit warily.

Bard seemed to realize that he’d overstepped. “Just know that there can a place for you outside of Erebor, if you choose.”

The Hobbit nodded. “Thank you. I do appreciate that you’ve opened up your home to me.” He was vaguely unsettled by the idea that other people were assuming Bilbo might need a place to stay outside the mountain.

 

After Bard had excused himself, Bilbo managed to sleep a couple of hours before the sun rose. He bathed, dressed, and finally sat down to read the letter from Thranduil. As he suspected, it was an invitation to call on the Elven king at his people’s encampment in Dale.

Well, he thought, one must do one’s polite duty and call on one’s benefactors. Thranduil had been very hospitable to the Hobbits during their stay, regardless of his particular antipathy towards Thorin and his puzzling interest in Bilbo in particular. It was an acquaintance worth maintaining, especially since the Shire delegation had a return trip through the Greenwood in future.

He wrote a polite acceptance and brought it with him to breakfast, in search of a messenger.

 

Princess Sigrid invited him to see the strides Dale was taking in planting and cultivating around the royal residence; it was the beginning of what they hoped would be a continued and expanding project into the city.

Bilbo did not have to be asked twice. He was suddenly missing his own gardens quite keenly at the thought. He and Princess Tilda followed the eldest princess behind the stone mansion and Bilbo found himself gaping.

At one point, this place had once hosted an enormous garden - the remaining stone pavers, paths and fountains attested to that. Several folk were crouched over plots and wheelbarrows, adding soil or bits of small plantings. There was even a transplanted tree in one of the bigger, circular areas.

“Sweet Lady,” Bilbo murmured, and marched ahead to look at the plants and soil. Tilda giggled and followed.

They eventually seated themselves and Bilbo was sifting some of the soil through his fingers thoughtfully when the youngest princess straightened her spine abruptly.

“It’s Prince Legolas,” Tilda breathed.

Startled, Bilbo glanced up. “Oh, is it time already?” True enough, the blond Elf was striding towards them, glancing about himself curiously. The gardeners around him had stopped working, and gaped at the fair creature who approached gracefully with a benign smile. “Good afternoon,” the prince greeted, bowing a head to each of the princesses and then Bilbo. “This is a fair prospect. I did not know Dale had such gardens but for those of its history.”

Bilbo turned a questioning look to the princess, who nodded. “It was called the Garden City once,” she affirmed.

Bilbo tried to imagine this crumbling stone city as a kingdom full of gardens and perhaps cultivated trees. “It must have been beautiful,” he remarked.

“I hope it will be again,” Sigrid replied, her dark eyes far away.

“You know that Hobbits are mostly farmers, right?” Bilbo asked with a smirk. “You’re currently stuck with the more adventurous ones, but one of us is a farmer and a few are Hobbits who have worked gardens in their own homes. You might want to invite them down. Hobbits are happiest in the sun and air; they’d gladly help you lay out gardens and investigate what sort of plants do well here.”

The princess’s expression lightened hopefully. “Should I write?”

“Address it to the Thain and he’s sure to reply.” He glanced at Legolas, who was attending this conversation with a patient smile. “Please do excuse me. King Thranduil is expecting me.”

She acknowledged his bow with a nod and Tilda with a hug; he followed the Elf back through the gardens. “Are you well enough to walk to the encampment?” the prince asked with some concern.

Bilbo, who knew where all the delegations were located in the city, nodded cheerfully. “Lord Elrond is a master healer. I’m only a little slower and a little sorer. That is all.”

“Glad I am to hear this,” Legolas replied. “And so my father will be, as well. I hope he wasn’t too imperious with his invitation; he is more accustomed to summoning folk to him.”

“I am sorry to say that your father has never managed even a crumb of what Hobbits think of as polite behavior, but then Hobbits do not have kings, and kings make their own manners.”

The prince laughed softly. “That appears to be true, although there are always limits within each culture as to what is acceptable. My father has always skirted these limits, perhaps because we’ve been so isolated in the Greenwood. There are very few who would propose to tell the kings of the Greenwood how to behave.”

Bilbo eyed the slim Elf. “That is a rather dangerous situation.”

Legolas nodded but said nothing more.

 

Thranduil’s pavilion was not center of the encampment of tents, but at its fore. Bilbo was not surprised by this. The king of the Greenwood never wanted to appear to hide behind anyone, which was a curious attitude considering that his kingdom lay protected underground.

The Hobbit was also not surprised that Thranduil was drinking from a goblet the size of most Hobbits’ heads, dressed in pristine silver with a crown of flowers in his hair. Bilbo’s knowledgeable eyes interpreted those flowers within moments of seeing them - rebirth and hope, but he knew Elves read flower language differently.

“Hail, Thranduil king of Greenwood the Great!”

Thranduil lifted his head slowly, light eyes gleaming. “And hail to you, Master Baggins. Come and sit with me. Will you drink? I recall your extraordinary head for wine.”

“I could drink a cup with you; I thank you for your gracious offer,” Bilbo responded politely.

By the narrowing of the king’s eyes, Thranduil seemed to appreciate the courtesy. He waved for his attendant to bring Bilbo a cup, which the Hobbit received thankfully while settling on a smallish piece of furniture, most likely a stool.

“And how are you, after your grim experience on the road?”

“Well enough - I was just telling your son that Lord Elrond’s powers have healed me enough that it feels as I’ve merely exerted myself.”

Thranduil’s eyes hooded. “Yes, the peredhel is a wonder of his lineage, and powerful. So few of us in Middle-earth could have saved you; I hope you appreciate your luck.”

The scribe tilted his head. “I am aware that that creature could have killed me, had not several powers not intervened. I had two Erebor guards until dawn; I was only attacked once they’d turned back. The Raven fought off my attacker until Bard’s guards were able to take me into Dale, and to Lord Elrond. All these entities saved me. I do appreciate them, but I am not a great believer in luck.”

“Now that is interesting,” the king responded, setting aside his goblet. “Your journey across Middle-earth has been rather fortunate for all you meet, would you not say?”

Bilbo sniffed. “Some Goblins may nay-say you, and I rather think it is the other way around, truth be told.”

Thranduil bowed his head with a smile. “Yet, here you are… escaping Erebor.”

The Hobbit sighed, setting aside his own cup. He had been waiting for Thranduil to start insulting the Dwarrow; the king did not disappoint. “It is true that I have not heeded your warnings about the Dwarrow of Erebor. They have proven to be secretive and immoveable, I admit. But I cannot regret the acquaintance.”

The Elf king stared at him. “You may yet regret it. They are proud and do not admit Outsiders easily.”

“True, and they like to keep to their own ways and willfully stay ignorant of others’.”

“Yes. Master Baggins, I remain concerned. You cannot trust to their promises.”

The Hobbit shook his head. “All of your accusations apply to every culture I have met to a certain degree. I do not mean to offend, but it is my observation, even of Hobbits. Dwarrow are merely more secretive and stubborn than most - all else is true of every people.”

The Elf king glared. “Oakenshield has seduced you and meddled with your mind! His people have reneged on agreements, promised reward and been reluctant to honor those promises, and have cultivated greed as if it were a virtue!”

“His people, historically? Or are you laying incriminations at Thorin’s feet? For I would be interested to know if Thorin himself has reneged on promises or has been greedy to the point of harm.” He knew in his heart of hearts that Thorin could not be blamed specifically in any of these accusations, unlike Thranduil, whom both Bard and Thorin charged with dishonorable behavior.

He felt his heart drop when the king’s mouth widened triumphantly. “Oh, believe me, Master Baggins, when you hear the story I have to tell, you will know in what danger you find yourself.”

Chapter Text

When Thranduil stood to fill Bilbo’s cup with wine, and then his own, the Hobbit realized that the attendants had left. Legolas, having escorted Bilbo to Thranduil’s pavilion, had not lingered. The Hobbit was effectively alone with the Elven king, not a situation he had hoped to repeat, particularly when he imagined Thorin’s reaction to such an idea.

Well, he thought with some meanness, Thorin was not here to judge about how Bilbo conducted his business, and he had only himself to blame. “I wait in anticipation of your story,” he said, affecting a mild air, completely at odds with the sweat gathering at the back of his neck and his heart full of dread.

“You think I speak idly of such things, but you are deceived,” the king muttered. “No ruler wishes the world to know how they might be brought down, nor give the common folk reasons to doubt the strength of their sovereignty. Do you know of the Master of Laketown?”

“He was corrupt, was he not, and a thief?”

The beautiful king paused as he paced in front of his makeshift throne, wine raised halfway to his lips. “Indeed he was,” he replied silkily. “He kept the riches of his realm to himself, and once discovered, he was dead within a fortnight.” His voice had sunk to a whisper at the end, thoughtful. “These sorts of events give other rulers pause, you see. For once people understand that their kings can be removed, no one is safe.”

Bilbo imagined this to be true, although the fears of kings were usually beyond any Hobbit’s ken. “I see,” he replied, although he hardly knew how this applied to Thorin. “So although kingdoms may be in conflict, no king wishes for the death of another, for fear that the same might be visited on them?”

Thranduil sunk back into his chair, eyes gleaming. “I manage to forget the sharpness of your wits.”

“See that you don’t keep on with that,” Bilbo replied cheekily and took a swallow of strong wine.

The king smiled slightly, then said: “What do you know about Thorin Oakenshield - after the defeat of Smaug?”

Bilbo blew out a long breath, considering. “Not much, because no one says anything except that Smaug was shot down onto the side of the mountain, and then the Dwarrow began to restore Erebor, opening it up to their people. The coronation was announced, and therefore here I am. Oh, and wasn’t he sick for about a month? Fíli was regent.”

Thranduil had waited through this recitation with half-closed eyes until the last part, when he tilted his head and smiled widely. Oh, goodness. That was a bad sign. Suddenly, too late, Bilbo recalled Ori’s odd reaction when Bilbo asked about that time. “Master Baggins, you have lit upon the very story I have to tell.”

“What, the month he was ill?” Bilbo inquired.

“Why yes, let us speak of that time, after Thorin Oakenshield entered the mountain and found Smaug’s hoard. Can you imagine? Every bit of gold from Erebor and from Dale, caverns full of riches beyond the imagination of Man, Elf, or even Dwarf. Imagine, being the master of all of that gold after most of his long life of having to do without the merest scrap, hand to mouth just to get by day to day.”

Bilbo couldn’t help it; he glared at the Elven king. Yes, he well remembered the horror of Thorin’s nightmares, but he was also aware that part of the following years after the calamity had been a product of Durin pride. It hadn’t been enough merely to survive on Dáin’s charity in the Iron Hills; Thorin had set out to make his own way for himself and his people, to depend on his own strength instead of that of his cousin’s.

“And have you noticed, Master Baggins, that King Thorin wears not a single piece of gold? Now, isn’t that odd? He eagerly gives you golden rings and a gold-mithril anklet, but for himself, mere silver. Why do you suppose that is?”

“I suppose you are about to tell me.”

“There is a weakness in the line of Durin, a sickness. It drove Thorin’s grandfather insane with greed, and word of that greed called the dragon to the mountain.”

“Insanely greedy? How - What does that mean?”

The Elven king looked at him for a long time with a faintly disbelieving frown, then he shook his head. “Of course,” he said. “I imagine there are no greedy Hobbits.”

“Well, yes, Aunt Camelia covets my mother’s silver spoons, and every time my father’s relations come to call, they might as well be measuring the walls for their own furniture.” Bilbo scratched his nose. “But to the point of insanity? No. I can’t say we have many of those.”

He may have finally flummoxed Thranduil. The king blinked slowly, then said: “King Thror was rumored to shut himself in the treasury, and refuse to emerge for days. Those who attempted to inspire him to attend his kingly duties were accused of being traitors and thieves. Many were banished. His son, Prince Thrain, took control of the kingdom in the absence of his father.”

Bilbo tilted his head. “Then the dragon came.”

“Smaug came. Thorin’s people lived in exile until the retaking of the mountain, and as soon as the Mountain King returned, he vanished into the bowels of Erebor, and in his place his nephew was ruler. Rumors came, then, that Thorin had succumbed just as his grandfather before him.”

Bilbo opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. “Your rumors must be untrue, then. There has not been a moment of any sort of gold-greed as long as we have been in the mountain. If Thorin was indeed suffering from this strange malady, he’s recovered rather well, considering he is surrounded by gold every day.”

The Elf leaned forward intently. “And no untoward possessive behavior towards his One?”

“Here now,” Bilbo snapped, at the edge of his patience. “Your Majesty is well within his rights to be concerned about the stability of your allied kingdoms, but I am the best judge of how my courtship is proceeding and what I want from it.”

“And yet, here you are,” Thranduil breathed, with an expansive gesture with his arms. “For Thorin Oakenshield has few resources to keep his intended happy.”

That is between myself and Thorin. It is new, and we are from different peoples; there are bound to be difficulties, but they are not insurmountable.”

“Hm.” The Elven king sat back. “I wish you all happiness, Master Baggins, and you may rest assured that I remain your stalwart ally, whatever choice you make.”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows in surprise, and then jumped when a voice growled: “I would not take comfort in that, with your uncertain history of honoring your alliances, Thranduil.”

Bilbo turned in his chair to find Thorin standing at the pavilion entrance with two Elven attendants standing uncertainly between him and setting foot inside. The Hobbit stood up and swayed briefly, the effects of Thranduil’s strong wine rushing to his head. “Thorin?”

Thranduil nodded to his attendants and they allowed the king of Erebor to enter. Bilbo, meanwhile, reviewed that last parts of the conversation between himself and Thranduil, estimating which parts Thorin may have overheard.

‘You are well?” the Dwarf rasped, looking at Bilbo intently from head to toe.

“I am. And you?” Bits of Bilbo’s dream came to him, and he returned Thorin’s look. There were dark circles under the Dwarf’s eyes, but otherwise he seemed hale, and very well-groomed. In fact, he appeared to have dressed to impress, wearing more jewelry and gems in his hair and on his fingers than Bilbo had seen before. Of course, they were all silver and mithril, as Thranduil had said.

“As you see,” the king replied gruffly, but his pale eyes were drinking Bilbo in.

Thranduil made a sound of amusement. “I will leave you to your privacy,” he said and glided out. Thorin slanted an irritated glare after the Elf, but Bilbo was surprised that it wasn’t as intense as had been before.

The Dwarf and Hobbit regarded each other for a long silent moment. Then Thorin’s eyes dropped to Bilbo’s feet; Bilbo chewed on his lip. “It was lost in the attack,” he muttered, unsure of where to look, but knowing he did not want to see Thorin’s angry, betrayed expression.

“I know,” the king said quietly.

Bilbo jerked his head up in surprise, eyes wide. “Karaic?”

Thorin offered him a small, uncertain smile. “The lock bent and opened.” He reached under the cuff of his coat and removed something from his wrist. “It was a weakness in the design; I remade it.”

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open at the sight of his courtship gift in Thorin’s hand, then he gazed again at Thorin’s face, his tired eyes. “Have you slept at all in the last two days?” he asked, amazed.

“I slept,” the Dwarf said, his clipped tone affirming the Hobbit’s suspicion that the king may have rested, but it had probably been very little.

Bilbo gave him a doubtful look but said nothing, and the moment stretched until Thorin cleared his throat and said: “Would you wear it?”

“Oh.” Bilbo let out a shaky breath. “Yes. Yes, plea-” But the Dwarf was already kneeling and snapping it over the Hobbit’s ankle, as if he’d been poised to do so and BIlbo’s response had released him into action. He remained kneeling for a few breaths afterwards, head bowed, before rising again. His shoulders had softened and fallen enough that Bilbo realized he’d been tensed the whole while. “Thorin-”

“Will you not return to the mountain?” the king asked hesitantly.

Warily, Bilbo stepped back to look his intended in the face. “I will not yet, until all is resolved. I will not tread on my cousin’s happiness on the road to my own.” He tilted his head, staring hard. “I’ve told you - you will never have cause to doubt my loyalty. The only person who can drive me from your side is you.”

Thorin shook his head, his mouth thinning into a hard line. “You believe it is easy to set aside tradition?”

“Hobbits have traditions, too, and I know how hard it is to fight them. But who else can better challenge cruel rules than the king? You do realize that Balin is willing to face exile to be with Rosalda? That your choice is to accept his choices or lose him forever?”

This surprised the king and he appeared taken aback.“Balin would never-!”

“The Shire will welcome with open arms a wealthy suitor willing to marry Rosalda Took! There will dancing in every town square! If Erebor can’t be equal to the Shire in generosity, what is the point of any allegiance between us?”

Thorin straightened his shoulders and drew himself up, eyes blazing. “The Shire is not equal to Erebor! Any allegiance between us is not an alliance of equals!” he shouted, outraged. “Balin’s status in Erebor is decidedly elevated above anything he could be in the Shire or anywhere else in Middle-earth.”

Bilbo opened his mouth in blank astonishment which swiftly turned into incandescent rage. “Your Majesty, you have managed to insult myself, my kin, my people, and my land all at once. If you feel Hobbits are so decidedly beneath you, I should wonder that you even considered one as your consort.” Huffing out his anger, he knelt and fumbled at the anklet’s lock until it clicked open, all the while staring at Thorin whose face had rapidly faded from ruddy rage to a sickly white. Bilbo pressed it into the Dwarf’s limp hand.

As tempted as he was to say anything more, Bilbo was cognizant of the danger of saying anything that he would regret in the future. He stalked out, shaking in frustration and anger, past the astonished Thranduil and his court.

Halfway back to Bard’s royal residence, he began to cry silent tears but he wiped them away and set his face for the days ahead.

Chapter Text

Karaic, like most of her kind, was dedicated to the cycle of eating good food and figuring out how to continue to eat it. It was not unusual for Ravens to attach themselves to providers; it was how they had first forged their alliance with the Dwarrow of Erebor. The Ravens of Mandos had found a home where they would not go hungry and figured that if they flew messages for the Dwarrow, they would continue to eat and thrive.

But Karaic and a few of her fellow Ravens had discovered a green land in the west, and true to the instincts of their kind, they were more than eager to return for the rewards unique to the inhabitants there. There were plenty of opportunities to fly to the Shire; many small letters and some very large official packets were regularly traveling back and forth. Karaic had a particular liking for Hobbiton, but she also flew to Tuckborough and had sussed out Buckland from her initial dealings with the Hobbits when they were traveling through it.

Currently, Karaic was uncharacteristically hesitant to fly to the Shire; Bilbo Baggins now lived with the king of Dale and grew unhappier by the hour. Karaic could guess why; the gold and mithril circle she had painstakingly searched for had been returned to the King under the Mountain, and he too seemed to fade and withdraw as the last of the delegations arrived and the silence between king and his One stretched.

The hour came when the Master of Raven Hill gave her a letter from the Thain of the Shire to Mistress Belladonna Baggins. Karaic, with as much misgiving as her avian heart could hold, agreed to this Important Mission, but first she flew into the mountain and shrieked at various important personages before taking her letter and winging on her way.

 

Dís had had Enough. She had endured her brother’s morose lethargy and his refusal to discuss why his intended consort was not returning from Dale with him. It was Fíli and Kíli’s most difficult years all over again, and it was not long before rumors found her ear that Bilbo had returned Thorin’s courtship gift and that Paladin Took was Not Happy with the King under the Mountain. After a few nights of Thorin’s baleful glare and monosyllabic responses to her diatribes, she was ready to head down to Dale to get the story from the other half of this issue. Then Karaic had flown into the royal quarters where even Ravens were scarcely allowed and shrieked about how her Cake-giver was sad and why did she find the king’s gift to only have it given back! Then there were muttered curses about the stubbornness of Dwarrow.

That day Dís gathered her guard and rode down the road to Dale. Once she’d made her greetings to King Bard, she was pointed to where Bilbo was currently assisting Princess Sigrid in what would be the royal gardens. The Hobbit was standing with three Men, looking over a large, fold-creased paper and then out to the gardens. Dís paused to take in the geometric stone borders of the raised beds interspersed with rounder borders around saplings. She had to admit that the bones of the gardens had a nice pattern, if a bit whimsical and in need of more angles.

She then turned her attention to Bilbo; there was more color in his face and the sun created gold that gleamed in the strands of his hair, making the familial resemblance to Dáin’s little Brandybuck even stronger. He was shockingly unclothed by Dwarrow standards, his coat nowhere to be found, his neck bared, and his shirt rolled up to his elbows. Even so, it was not a bad look for him, more in keeping with a creature of sun and open air.

When the Hobbit and the gardeners parted, Dís approached and clearer her throat. Bilbo turned and jumped, pressing a hand over his heart. “Goodness, you gave me a start!” he exclaimed. Then he laughed weakly at her questioning look. “You and your brother resemble each other rather alarmingly.” He looked startled at his own rudeness. “Oh, I do beg your pardon, Princess Dís.” He bowed quickly.

“Never mind that,” she responded gruffly, motioning abruptly with one hand. “I’ve come to speak to you, since my brother is not forthcoming.”

A shadow fell of Bilbo’s face and his voice sunk in fatalistic quiet. “I see,” he said then brushed his hands together, business-like. “Will you come into the house, then? I need to wash up a bit and then I can offer you a bit of tea and something to eat. That’s not a short ride down the mountain.”

Dís nodded and followed the Hobbit back to the king’s residence. They parted ways briefly and met again at the kitchen, with the Hobbit once again in his coat and looking more covered in general and Dís able to shed some of the dust of the road. Bilbo led her to a corner with a smaller table and three chairs, clearly once made for children but a perfect size for a Hobbit and a Dwarf. Bilbo put a kettle on with the aid of a step that allowed him to reach high enough.

His adaptability to life in Dale was a bit dismaying, Dís reflected, trying not to frown. She and Thorin may have suspected that Thranduil would be interested in adding Bilbo to his household, but Bard ?

“What has Thorin told you?” the Hobbit asked as he bustled about, getting out a teapot and two cups, and coincidentally avoiding looking Dís in the face.

“He’s refused to tell me anything; I’ve had to listen to rumors, and that Raven of yours yelling her head off at us.”

Bilbo turned then, eyebrows raised in surprise. “He’s told you nothing ? Oh, goodness.” He took the kettle off the hob and poured into the teapot, brows furrowed. “Well, then, I suppose I shall start at the beginning of this whole saga, shall I?”

“Please do,” Dís replied feelingly.

Eventually everything was to Bilbo’s liking -the teapot was placed between them, with the requisite things and nibbles, and there was nothing for him to do but sit and bring forth the whole sorry mess, beginning with: “The original reason I came to Dale was because of Rosalda - or I should say, Thorin’s treatment of Rosalda and Balin.”

This was perhaps the very last thing Dís would have supposed, most probably because she had not an inkling that anything was amiss with either one of these two people, and also because she could not fathom what treatment of Thorin’s could provoke Bilbo. ”Treatment?”

Bilbo’s face fell. “Oh, so you don’t know about that either? Well, that makes this even more complicated then. Pretty much, Thorin separated Balin from Rosalda by ordering him down to Dale and having him write a rather horrible letter about not seeing her again.”

Dís blinked. “Why would he separate - oh. Do you mean that Balin and Rosalda -”

“They are rather in love, yes, and that is remarkable on Rosalda’s part and evidently also Balin’s.”

“-yes,” Dís managed, shocked. “Mahal, that’s tricky.”

“So I have been told. All of this has broken Rosalda’s heart, you see, and I found that Thorin had ordered this without so much as even asking what Rosalda or Balin felt, or what their expectations might be. I’d had enough and came to Dale to cool down and give Thorin time to fix things.”

“And you were attacked,” she said.

“Yes, and lost my courtship gift, which Karaic found, returned to Thorin, who then fixed the lock on it and appeared the next day as I was speaking with King Thranduil. He asked if I would wear it again.”

Dís assumed this was when things turned for the worse, but she was wrong, for the Hobbit continued. “I said yes, and he was very quick in putting it back on, I can tell you.” Yes, Dís could imagine that Thorin would want every assurance that his intended was still his. “But then he asked for me to return, and I said only when things were resolved for Rosalda and Balin.”

So far this didn’t seem so disastrous, the princess reflected. Certainly, the whole thing with Balin suddenly finding his One this late in his fate was a bit unsettling, but Mahal never created a One by mistake, even if it was a Hobbit.

“That brother of mine,” she growled in realization. He must have done something really awful to snatch this good beginning from the hands of victory.

“And I told him that if he did not do something, Balin might choose exile, and that the Shire would welcome Balin as Rosalda’s husband with open arms.”

Dís clapped her hand over her mouth and stared at the scribe, and thought that perhaps it wasn’t all her brother’s doing. Both sides might be culpable.

The Hobbit faltered as he saw her reaction and put down his teacup, expression uncertain. “Was that what upset him? But why-?”

Mahal, the Hobbit was completely ignorant of how saying such a thing had probably struck Thorin right in the heart. She blew out a breath and stared into her own cup. “Do you have something stronger than this?”

The Hobbit quirked a wry smirk and went straight to a cabinet and pulled out a bottle containing a promising honey-colored liquor. Bilbo poured a healthy dose into her cup and without hesitation gave himself the same. After she took a deep swallow, she said: “Our family mostly survived Smaug’s attack; at the time we thought we were lucky. But my grandfather, against all sanity, entered Khazad-dûm and never returned, and thousands, including our brother Frerin, perished at the hands of Orcs in the battle of Azanulbizar in a vain attempt to avenge themselves for his death.” Here she paused and took a swallow, and shook her head. It was the sort of sorrow, Bilbo thought, that never quite left. “Although my father Thrain survived, he was never the same, and like my grandfather he would travel into danger and was never seen again. Throughout these years, most of the responsibility for our people landed on Thorin’s shoulders. The fall of Erebor had broken our grandfather’s mind, which had never been very stable before Smaug, and the ruling would have fallen to our father, but he proved susceptible to the same weakness of mind that had been our grandfather’s downfall. And this is where I must speak of the sons of Fundin.”

Bilbo, despite his fascination with knowing more about Thorin’s forebears, had wondered how this tale had anything to do with his current concerns. It seems now the story would explain. “Balin and Dwalin,” he clarified.

“Yes. I know you are aware of how they are related to us. What you might not know is that Dwalin and Thorin grew up together; although you might think cousins would be familiar with each other like brothers, it’s different for Durin heirs. Dwalin took an oath to protect Thorin when they were both relatively young. Balin, being older, had become advisor to the throne from the days before Smaug, and a trusted companion as was his brother. The three fought together in every battle, and followed Thorin without question when he sought to return to Erebor and attempt to reclaim the Mountain. That is the bond they shared.”

Bilbo covered his mouth with a hand. He had a sinking feeling he knew where this might be heading. He was starting to see the shape of why Thorin had become upset so quickly, and he did not like it.

“Balin has been more of a father to Thorin than our own father ever was,” Dís said, each word like a strike of a spike into rock.

Bilbo stood up and tipped more liquor into his now tea-less cup. “And Thorin feels that I threatened to take Balin from him.”

“Didn’t you?”

“I did not! I told him that if Balin had to choose exile, the Shire would welcome him! The he had to say that we Hobbits were inferior, that we weren’t equals, and I … I couldn’t-!”

Dís stood up, too, disbelieving her ears. “What did you say?”

“I can’t respect someone who thinks I am less! I can’t accept that someone I love thinks I’m unequal.” Bilbo wiped his eyes, then glared at his empty cup. In a quieter voice, he added: “I should not have drunk so much.”

The princess of Erebor very carefully sat down and emptied the rest of the bottle into her cup. “Never mind that. Tell me again: what did Thorin say?”

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Forty-four: Interference

“That’s the last of them, then,” Dwalin grunted as the small delegation from Rohan strode to their guest quarters close to the gates. These blond people from the south would not be far from their horses, which had necessitated some maneuvering by the cultural advisors to set up guest rooms in old unused guards barracks.

Thorin shook his head as they headed back to the royal quarters. When the party had approached Erebor from the west, having skirted around the north Mirkwood, it had been a surprise. It appeared that the horses were bred for quick travel on flat ground, and the Rohirrim had found better passage the “long” way. However, with horses that could run like the wind, it wasn’t that long of a journey for a people used to being on horseback for long periods of time.

There was another reason why this arrival had been a surprise. Balin had abdicated his position for the time being after he and Thorin had gotten into a shouting match a few days before when the older advisor had attempted to speak about Rosalda. The king was not proud of himself, and with this newer reminder that he was being unreasonable, he was more than willing to concede some ground with his oldest supporter.

Then Dís strode in after them, and even Dwalin stepped back. The princess had clearly just come from outside, for she was still heavily cloaked and removing her gloves impatiently, but there was a pale fire in her eyes and Thorin instantly knew it was meant for him. “You, Brother, are a stone-headed idiot!” she shouted. “Dwalin, I’m sure there is a better place for you to be right now; this will not be pretty.”

“It’s not pretty now,” the captain grumbled but cast Thorin a slightly apologetic look before swiftly leaving his king to his fate.

“Where have you been?” Thorin asked, but suddenly he knew, even before Dís even opened her mouth. “Dale? You’ve been to Dale?”

“Where else was I going to get any answers, you great slag!” She shrugged out of her fur cloak, hefted it over her shoulder, and grabbed him by the arm, walking him further though the halls and into the outer rooms of his apartments.“I thought at least the Hobbit had enough sense between the two of you, but he’s just as blind as you are, Mahal love him.”

Thorin opened his mouth to protest, then snapped it shut, resentful that even now his first instinct was to defend his One. “What did he say?”

“He said plenty that sounded just like you at your stupidest, and much like a Hobbit who has no idea what bad rock he’s just stumbled over. You were made for each other. Now sit down.” She pushed him into a chair and pulled one up for herself.

A knock on the door announced a servant with a covered tray, which Dís took and set down by Thorin’s elbow on the table. The king eyed the tray while she followed the servant out and shut the door. “Go ahead,” she said, flicking her eyes to the tray.

He lifted the towel cover. “Bread, cheese, and beer?” he asked.

“Indeed,” his sister affirmed and sat down. “You like bread, cheese, and beer.”

“I do,” he agreed, somewhat confused.

“When we were in the Blue Mountains, we managed to do a bit of trade with our neighbors,” she said casually. “Grain for bread, aged cheese, hops and barley for beer. It would have been a meager existence without them.”

Thorin, who was about to try the beer, paused and narrowed suspicious eyes at her. “What neighbors?”

Dís sighed. “You really need to pay attention, Thorin. Who do you think all those pots, pans, and farming tools were being made for?”

He sipped the beer and shrugged.

“Mahal, you can be so dim!” she shouted. “The Shire feeds several kingdoms, you block! They have the most fertile land with the possible exception of parts of Gondor. Where do you think Dale’s seed will be coming from? I know all my pipeweed will be. You think Hobbits live comfortably in their little peaceful land, protected by the Rangers of the North, just from raising crops for themselves ?”

“What is your point?”

“When you inaccurately tell the grandson of a Thain of the Shire that his wealthy country isn’t equal to yours, you might want to pause to evaluate what you’re actually saying.”

Thorin gulped, arrested.

“Many of these little people do not know nor care that they are looked down upon, despite how many countries they feed, but I can see that educated Hobbits are sensitive to this attitude. Imagine a king who would value them for their contributions. And then imagine a king who does not value them.”

Thorin stood abruptly, brow thunderous. “I never said that .”

“No, you told him that his land was not the equal of ours, that the life there was not the equal of ours, and even I know that when someone hears those words, what they really hear is ‘your life is not equal to ours’.”

The color drained out of Thorin’s already pale face. “That was not what I meant,” he said slowly, stiffly.

“But that was what was understood. I know he said things that hurt you, and equally did not mean to.”

“He cannot say those sorts of things to me! Balin has been by my side for every struggle, every battle; as his king, I could finally reward his loyalty by providing the life he lost so long ago. Now these Hobbits come and -!”

Dís threw the bread at Thorin’s head and cried incredulously: “Shouldn’t you be saying this to Balin, Brother?!”

Thorin scowled at her, rubbing his forehead. “I was going to.” Then his face fell, softening with growing despair.

“Bilbo?” she guessed.

“Have I driven him away?”

“Well,” his sister mused, “he is still wearing his courtship braid. If he were truly done with you, he would have removed it by now. But I wouldn’t count on winning him back very easily.  Bard has him helping with his gardens, and has a little table and chairs in the kitchen so he can have his tea there. And I’ll pluck my beard out if Thranduil hasn’t already been whispering sweet nothings into his little pointed ear.”

Predictably, her brother’s frown returned. “I’ll talk to Balin first,” he said.

“And no shouting!” Dís scolded as she watched him stride purposefully from the room. Almost immediately, Fíli and Kíli stuck their heads around the open door’s frame.

“Is Uncle all right?” Kíli asked.

“Thorin is certainly not all right,” his mother replied caustically.

“Not Uncle Thorin ,” Fíli clarified, pushing Kíli in front of him into the room. “Uncle Bilbo. He’s coming back, right? He’s been gone for days and Master Took says he doesn’t know when he’ll return.”

Dís sighed, and shooed them back out the door, following and closing it behind her. “That is entirely up to Thorin and Bilbo, my gem.”

The brothers exchanged concerned glances, communicating doubt at possible success and worry about failure. “Uncle will muck it up, I bet,” Kíli predicted sadly. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him apologize for anything.”

Dís did not have to ask which uncle he was referring to. “Let us hope he learns how  to, by the time he talks to Bilbo,” she declared, “or else you might have to adopt a new uncle, and I’m not replacing the Hobbit one.”

 

Thorin made his way to the newly renovated arena, originally the area for ritual  ceremonies, combat, and military training. Currently the great octagonal space with its cavernous ceilings was the site of any training involving more than five fighters, and now housed Dáin , Dwalin, Balin, Glóin , Gimli and the small forms of various armed Hobbits on the packed earth. In the terraced stone seats, various Dwarrow and Hobbits were conversing and watching. Was that a picnic basket between Mistress Hornblower and Rosalda Took?

In the arena, a Hobbit leapt back and blocked an axe swing from young Gimli, which inspired a cheer from the spectators and then boos when the blade went flying out of the little one’s hand when Gimli came in with a second, smaller axe. Startled, Thorin realized that the Hobbit’s gold, braided-back hair meant it was Mistress Brandybuck fighting with Gimli and wearing male trousers while doing it.

As he approached, the Dwarrow stilled, watching him attentively and bowing when he joined them. “And how are our Hobbit warriors progressing?” he inquired, giving Mistress Brandybuck a congenial smile. She appeared flushed and self-conscious, giving him an uncertain look back.

“They’re quick as lightning,” Dwalin volunteered gruffly. “Built more for running away than for swinging a weapon.”

Apparently this was too much for one of the dark-haired male Hobbits standing with the Brandybuck lady. “I’ll have you know, I can knock an apple off a tree thirty feet up with one stone!” he boasted.

Instead of amazement, this was met with Dwarven confusion. Glóin scratched his beard. “Why would there be an apple that high up in a tree?” while at the same time Dwalin asked: “What’s an apple?”

Thorin almost choked. The disbelieving looks on the combined Hobbit faces within hearing distance was something to behold.

“You’ve eaten dried apples,” Balin told his brother with a sad shake of his head.

“Apples grow on trees,” Amaranth Brandybuck said as if speaking to a very slow child.

“Why don’t they grow like potatoes?” Dáin asked, mouth twitching suspiciously behind his red beard.

Amaranth narrowed her pretty blue eyes at him and set her fists on her hips, a gesture that caught the attention of almost every male, and some female, gazes. Thorin blinked. Hobbit women had impressive proportions and weren’t afraid to display them. “Because apples are fruits and grow on trees. Potatoes are vegetables and need the ground. Good Lady! You Dwarrow are strange folk!”

This elicited laughter from Dwarrow and Hobbits. Thorin withdrew, catching Balin’s eye, who followed him away from the others. “Your Majesty?” the old Dwarf inquired, making Thorin want to cringe. He never thought he’d be yearning to hear Balin call him “laddie” again.

“I have been rather a… troll about your relationship with Mistress Took.”

At this, Balin’s white eyebrows rose but his expression seemed to say that he agreed with that assessment.

Over his shoulder, Thorin could see Rosalda Took watching them with wide eyes and her hands clenched in front of her mouth. The king beckoned to her to join them, then turned back to his advisor. “For my interference, I apologize.”

Rosalda approached and stopped close to Balin’s side, having obviously overheard by her surprised expression. The Dwarf took her arm reassuringly, giving her a crinkle-eyed smile.

“Mistress Took, I apologize for how I’ve reacted. It was well-meant but ill-advised. I never asked after your own wishes and intentions, either of you.”

The little lady, almost the height of Balin, tilted her head as if she were evaluating his truthfulness. “I thank you, Your Majesty,” she replied politely, unsmiling. Having spent time studying Bilbo’s expressions, he knew she was cautiously reserving judgment until she heard more.

Balin, however, knew Thorin enough to sense that the king had truly changed his attitude and he patted Rosalda’s hand and looked expectantly to Thorin to hear what he had to say.

Thorin took a deep breath. “Would you tell me your wishes, now?” he asked. “I would like to grant them, if I can.”

Finally, Rosalda smiled.

Chapter Text






Chapter Forty-five: Faith and Hope

Dale had many pleasures to offer Bilbo, once he’d let himself experience them. There was the library with Erestor (and sometimes Glorfindel - what was going on between them?), helping the princesses and workers in the gardens, conversations with Elrond, and even wine with Thranduil had its good lights, despite the Elven king’s apparent delight in the dramas and foibles of mere mortals.

Amidst these diversions, he thought about Thorin, and their courtship. He recalled his first impressions of the monarch on his throne - handsome and stern. He smiled to think of that first dance, when Thorin had given his first indications of awkwardness by blithely insulting Hobbits in general, and then Bilbo in particular with that “tolerable” remark. A moment on the walls of Erebor, Thorin staring nervously straight ahead with Bilbo’s arm on his; the first kiss among towering shards of beryl. Courtship braids and nights held warm and sated in his intended’s arms.

He tried not to think of the rest, but it came to him, too - arguments and stubbornness and Bilbo wondering if it was something in himself that was as unyielding as Thorin’s obstinance and temper. Would Thorin resolve this issue of Balin and Rosalda, or would he dig his heels in? Could Bilbo really leave him if matters did not improve?

Bilbo’s days usually began with first breakfast of tea and toast in the kitchen, but on this particular morning, it brought the addition of the not-so-usual appearance of Karaic, calling out that she had a letter for Master Baggins until the Hobbit went out into the front hall, toast in hand.

“Mistress Karaic! My goodness, what a racket. Why all the fuss?”

By the time he arrived, the handsome Raven was perched on a rail constructed and placed in the front hall for messenger birds, head down nonchalantly grooming her breast feathers around her golden collar and medallion. The letter she had brought had not been tied to her leg or placed in a harness, but was set down on the floor. Tied with string, the package had been flown, hooked in her talons.

“From Hobbiton?” Bilbo asked, when he recognized the style of the package.

The Raven looked up and chuckled. “From Mistress Baggins,” she stated proudly, and cocked her head at him, eying his toast. With a sigh, he held it so she could snatch it with her beak. As she tore at it and gulped it down, Bilbo picked up the letter, which definitely held more than a few sheets of paper from the feel of it. “I’ll be in the kitchen,” he advised the Raven before retreating to make more toast. Hobbit first breakfasts were designed to wake up the stomach and happened much earlier than the main one Men and Dwarrow participated in. Bilbo enjoyed this quiet time before everyone else rose.

He cut open the string and carefully unwrapped the outer heavy-duty paper to find that indeed in addition to the letter, the package contained distinctive folded paper packets of seeds. “Bless you, Mama,” he murmured, pleased. His mother’s loopy and often barely legible handwriting labeled each packet. He saw apple, cherry, blueberry, and an assortment of wild berries with beets, carrots, and onions as cold-climate counterparts.

He set those aside and picked up the letter.

My dearest flower, it said. How sorely disappointed I am in your Dwarf king. I knew, of course, the Dwarrow could be very inward but then so can Hobbits. I remember when your father was courting me, how many things he misunderstood about Tooks. But I shan’t dither, my love, or I shall never send this on its way with our delightful Karaic (do you know, I think she prefers the Shire mostly for the cake? Such a particular bird!)

Despite Belladonna’s self-admonishment, Bilbo was forced to skim through more of his mother’s meanderings until…

Of course you must side with your cousin in this; no Dwarf should stand in the way of Rosalda marrying, the dear girl, and especially in such a mean-spirited way. You should not be too down upon yourself although I know you take it upon yourself when others do not live up to your expectations - you’re so like your father!

If you cannot find another Dwarf, Man, or Elf equal to him, you must not despair. Your dear father and I will be waiting for you on your return, and eager to have you back in our arms, my bright boy.

Karaic is impatient, so I will close by saying that the seeds are from the Gamgees, Lady love them. Hamfast and Holman figured that so far North you will need plants that like the cold. Bell sends her love and says she hopes you are enjoying your adventure.

Your loving mother,

B

Bilbo was caught between laughter and tears by the irrepressible nonsensical nature of his mother’s prose. He set the letter aside to respond to later, and took up the seed packets to give to the princesses at second breakfast.

 

About midday a group of riders was sighted traveling down from the mountain. Sigrid confessed to Bilbo that she was hoping it was the riders of Rohan, but she was only a little disappointed that they materialized into Hobbits on ponies instead. Dora Hornblower, Tom Cotton, Daisy Under-hill, and a small contingent of volunteer gardeners had answered Sigrid’s summons.

Bilbo met them at the royal residence and helped to take saddlebags into the guest quarters. Each Hobbit had to hug Bilbo, it seemed, grinning and happy. Bilbo was puzzled by the enthusiasm until Daisy skipped up and handed him a letter, saying: “From Rosalda.”

Not daring to breathe, he broke the seal quickly and scanned down the brief missive. A lightness came into his heart as word after word confirmed his hopes until he looked up with shining eyes to the laughing faces of his companions. “He truly apologised?”

“I saw it myself,” Dora confirmed with a laugh. “And Rosalda is so happy! They are talking about a Hobbit wedding, because the Dwarves don’t have a ceremony for folks like Balin and Rosalda - you know, people who have no interest in creating a family. Dwarves are so strange.”

Bilbo nodded at this. It was a little disappointing, but not unexpected. Traditions required slow change, and merely allowing Balin to go against the usual way things were done was the start of concessions to newer ways.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the king wasn’t too far behind us,” Tom added, with a wink. “One doesn’t have to be too sharp to know he’s turned a new leaf to impress you.”

Bilbo twitched a smile and scratched his nose, looking back toward the mountain. Even squinting, he couldn’t tell if anyone else was riding down. “Well, we shall see. In the meanwhile, allow me to show you our progress in the gardens out back. Oh, and I have some seeds from Hobbiton - fruits and vegetables.”

Talking and laughing en masse, they made their way out back. There was nothing like Hobbits in a garden they’d never seen before, and it wasn’t long before the head gardeners were showing them around the new plantings. Bilbo watched this indulgently and then thoughtfully returned to his rooms.

He sat down and read the note slowly this time; it was indeed more than he had hoped for. Thorin had spoken of remorse in interfering and offered all his aid in setting them into a new life together.

Bilbo then laid out the collection of clothes - his own, and some altered odds and ends given to him from two resident kings and one Elven lord. The particularly Elvish looking garments went back into the closet, and then he briefly washed, combed the hair on his head and his toes, and changed into something more suitable for receiving a suitor.

 

He did not have long to wait. The guards at the gate started blowing their horns within half an hour and Bilbo could hear the rush and movement of servants and staff in response.

Bilbo tugged his waistcoat in place and walked slowly through the front hall and stood at the head of the outside steps while guards, still putting on their helmets, clattered past him. Bard appeared, hurriedly putting on his modest crown. The king looked down at Bilbo and said: “You knew he was coming?”

“Not at all,” the Hobbit replied serenely. “It was only a possibility.”

Bilbo Baggins ,” the man began crossly.

“I only knew an hour ago,” he said. “Don’t fret, Your Majesty. He’s most likely not here for you, and will not expect pageantry.”

The Man pursed his lips. “Well, I’m glad to hear so. Dale has no pageantry to speak of.”

The Hobbit grinned. “I notice your guards have matching armor these days.”

Bard snorted. “The benefits of being allied to a Dwarven kingdom whose armorers are eager to start displaying their art.”

They both stilled as the sound of hooves striking against cobblestone. Gradually a party of three ponies and five guards on foot came into view. It was indeed Thorin, with Dwalin and Ori. Bilbo swallowed at the sight of Thorin’s distinctive straight-backed and head-high posture. He had a good seat in the saddle, much more natural looking than his Dwarven stockiness would indicate. He was also wearing a new crown - not the impressive gold and black one that Dís had once explained was their grandfather’s. This one was bright silver, probably mithril, geometric and less ostentatious, more a of thick circlet.

The party stopped directly in front of the steps, and Thorin wasted no time dismounting and ascending, eyes on Bilbo. He spared Bard a glance and a short bow, giving the Hobbit a moment to breathe in and out and slow his beating heart.

Thorin did not have the countenance of one who was going to end a courtship, that was certain. In fact, there was a lightness and serenity to his expression that was new to BIlbo. After exchanging the minimum polite necessities, the King under the Mountain turned to Bilbo. “I would speak with you, Bilbo.”

The Hobbit bit down on a relieved smile. “Of course. Will you walk with me?”

Something shifted in Thorin’s face, but he nodded and offered his arm as he used to.

“They’re working in the northern garden, but they’ve finished a few areas in the south part that are quite nice,” Bilbo said, pointing to the stone path that wound about the building. “I enjoy walking about here at the end of the day … very restful.” He waved at Dwalin and Ori, the latter clearly dragging the former towards the library.

Thorin cleared his throat. “My sister said that you are helping Bard with the gardens.”

“Well, as much as one Hobbit can help, which was mostly advising on where things should be planted. The plant lore wasn’t passed down from the old kingdom when the Men fled from Dale to Lake-town, and very few people wrote it down. I supposed they assumed someone would tell the next generation and so on, but Lake-town’s soil wasn’t fertile and they lost the knowledge.”

“You like gardens?”

“Very much, and forests, too.” Bilbo finally glanced up into Thorin’s face. “Did you come here to talk about gardens?”

Thorin’s eyes darkened and Bilbo felt it all the way down his spine as they stopped in the middle of the path to face each other. “You know well that I did not.”

The Hobbit took pity on him. “You needn’t explain, you know. Rosalda sent me a note; on her behalf I want to thank you.”

The king snorted, shaking his head. He had an inordinate amount of braids and silver, flashing beads, disturbingly similar to Bilbo’s dream, but the courtship braid had been kept intact, as Bilbo’s had. “You shouldn’t thank me for doing what was right and proper by my cousin and yours. My interference was needlessly cruel. Moreover, all I thought of was you; it was for your sake that I looked at my own actions and realized their heartlessness. If will thank me, let it be for yourself alone.”

Bilbo drew a sudden breath, staring up into Thorin’s pale blue eyes trained intently on his own, and felt a blush rise on his face. How could Thorin say such things with barely a blink?

But the Dwarf wasn’t finished. “You would not trifle with me, Bilbo; you are too kind and open-hearted. If your feelings are still what they were when you left the Mountain, you must tell me at once. My affections have not altered, but a word from you will silence any further hopes.”

Bilbo, in awe of Thorin’s composure, rallied his own courage; the Dwarf’s willingness to place himself in such a painfully awkward situation had to be met with equal fearlessness. “I never gave up hope that you would come to me and reward my belief in your fundamental integrity. I hated giving the anklet back, but I felt it was the only way to show you… how I felt, how deeply and painfully I felt, even when giving back to you broke my heart a little more.”

Thorin’s face lightened by degrees, and he began to smile in an almost painfully open way. His hand tightened over Bilbo’s and his voice warmed. “Yet, you still wear the braid.”

Bilbo swallowed in relief. Thorin was his again, and so easily it seemed that this victory had been achieved. He wasn’t sure if he should trust it, but he had little choice. “I suppose I wanted to have faith that you would come back to me. You wear it, too.”

“I had some hope you would love me, still.”

This seemed the natural time to continue their walk into the south gardens, although neither would be able to tell a thing about the place, so focused were they on the words of the other. Bilbo spoke what he’d been thinking for many a long day. “I do love you Thorin. I don’t think I could leave, even if I wanted to. That frightens me.”

“Why, my heart?”

“We have the power to hurt each other so very badly. We’ve demonstrated this too often.”

Thorin stopped them again, a fervent light gleaming in his eyes. “I will do anything … anything to win your forgiveness.” And when Bilbo’s huffed out a voiceless laugh, continued: “Why do you laugh? Do you believe I lie?”

Bilbo squeezed his hands, shaking his head earnestly. “No, Thorin. I know you are honest; you are probably the most honest person I know. You will always do what you feel is honorable, but that honor, although honest, is sometimes misguided and misinformed when you are dealing with the unfamiliar.”

Bilbo knew that his stark words might deal a blow to Thorin’s pride and he peered up into the king’s face anxiously. The Dwarf bowed his head, as if in grief, and to Bilbo’s amazement, he knelt on one knee, still clasping the Hobbit’s hands. “Then guide me. Show me. Teach me. But do not leave me.”

Such humble pentitance shocked Bilbo, although the rather direct way of expressing it was pure Thorin. “Beloved Dwarf, I told you that I cannot leave you, and now you say these things to me, to me , and make me love you even more.”

Thorin lifted his face, is eyes hopeful yet subdued. “Yet you have doubts. I can see it in your face and hear it in your voice.”

“Do stand up and let us sit here on this nice bench,” the Hobbit suggested in exasperation. “You will have us standing here until everyone comes looking and it would be an utter scandal.” He led Thorin to the stone seat set alongside the path.  “My only doubts lie in our ignorance of one another. We rushed into this courtship - granted, for the right reasons at the time. The problem is that we still know so little about each other.”

Thorin scowled. “That is the goal of courtship - to know and be known. Because we are of different Peoples, it is expected that it might take longer. We knew this.”

Bilbo sighed. “But I don’t think we understood how difficult it would truly be. In the Shire, I would know your family, their place in society, and every little rumor. I would know that Balin is almost as an adoptive father to you. In turn, you would know that I am often dismissed as Mad Baggins, the strange Hobbit who learns for learning’s sake, who no one wants except to write them letters. Shh. It is the truth of things.”

Snapping his mouth shut over the automatic outrage that had arisen from his One’s self-deprecation, Thorin strove to remain true to the reasoning of what Bilbo was attempting to say. “If I understand you, you believe that if we had known these things, we would have avoided the misunderstandings of the last days,” Thorin mused. “I agree. It is unavoidable but not insurmountable.” It occurred to him that this was when Bilbo might suggest a drastic change in their courtship. He swallowed, and waited.

The Hobbit turned solemn, green eyes to Thorin. “I’ve thought about it, and my thoughts have gone around in circles. Slowing down seems to me the wisest thing to do, but in my heart I know that, given time, we will only find more pitfalls and it will conclude in a standstill. The longer our courtship, the more we will stumble over our own ignorance of each other.”

As Bilbo spoke, Thorin’s eyes widened in consternation. “My heart! You would…” He didn’t dare form the words, hope and dread warring for dominion.

“As there is no getting rid of me, I think we need to write out a marriage contract, to clarify in what matters I may have a say. There will be concessions and agreements, on both sides. Then, Thorin Oakenshield, King under the Mountain, will you marry me?”

Chapter Text

“Kíli, stop pushing!” Fíli whispered furiously. They had removed the guard helmets they’d borrowed, but hadn’t the time to shed their armor before sneaking after their uncles into the Dale royal garden.

Currently the two young Dwarrow princes were squeezed behind a bit of ancient statuary, and Kíli was trying to move his head around his brother. “I can’t see! What’s happening?”

“Would you -?!” Fíli pushed his brother behind him. “Stop moving around! They’re sitting down together.”

“Is that good? That’s good, right?” They had seen Thorin kneeling in front a flustered-looking Bilbo but had had to dive for cover, as they had come around the corner of the building too quickly. By the time they’d sorted themselves, Fíli could see Thorin and Bilbo settling down on a stone bench.

“I don’t know. They look really serious, and uncle hasn’t put the gift back on.”

Mahal , Uncle better not mess this up. Mum is likely to kick him out of the mountain if he doesn’t come back engaged.”

“Shh.” Fíli watched as Thorin’s expression became intent upon whatever the Hobbit was saying to him, and then eyes went wide. Fíli blindly grabbed at Kíli’s arm. “I think-” he began and then Thorin grabbed Bilbo’s cheeks in both hands and started kissing him. Fíli turned and slapped his hand over Kíli’s eyes while still trying to watch the outcome for himself. Happily, Bilbo was enthusiastically reciprocating Thorin’s kisses with his own.

“Hey! What are you-?!” Kíli yelled, trying to wrench his brother’s hand away, and to his horror, Fíli could see Dwarf king and Hobbit scribe abruptly pull away from each other and turn their heads to stare in their direction with startled expressions.

“Oh, we are dead !” Fíli cried. He stood, grabbing his confused brother’s arm, and ran in the opposite direction, or attempted to. The combination of unaccustomed and ill-fitting armor and Kíli’s confused stumbling resulted in only a few short steps before both princes tumbled and collapsed in a heap.

“Good heavens, what are you two up to?” a congenial voice asked. Fíli looked up to see Dora Hornblower, hands on her hips, bending over them with a grin. Where had she come from, he wondered, and then he saw Princess Sigrid with her arms crossed behind the Hobbit, head tilted. “My lady, your highness,” he greeted with a wide smile. “Fancy seeing you here.” Fíli groaned and shoved him off him.

Both ladies raised their eyebrows skeptically at the same. Then they looked over his shoulder and Fíli cringed and turned his head slowly to find the king of Erebor and his once-again consort-to-be. “Uncles!” he cried.

Thorin shook his head, but Bilbo laughed softly. “Lady love you,” he chuckled. “What poor guard is desperately looking for her armor? No wonder you can’t move without falling over yourselves.”

“Oh, is that why it’s so tight in the -” Kíli began but Fíli shoved him over and got up to his feet, gingerly aware of why he’d had such a hard time maneuvering. He managed a bow that Kíli quickly emulated.

Thorin seemed to have caught Bilbo’s good humor, and no wonder. The anklet was once again affixed, and the Hobbit’s arm was resting on the king’s, and his slighter form almost nestled into the larger. Fíli opened his mouth to ask, but Dora behind him cried: “ Well ?”

Bilbo smiled, and glanced up at Thorin who was gazing down at him with a doting smile. The king looked back at the four people waiting impatiently and said: “We will marry.”

Kíli whooped and Dora shrieked. It was a close call to determine which reached the couple first - Kíli barrelling into Thorin or Dora into Bilbo. Fíli and Sigrid stood there, stunned, until glancing at each other, they broke out laughing at the sight of Kíli’s excited jumping up and down while holding on to his uncle.

Fíli stroked his moustaches and reflected that Princess Sigrid was regrettably taller than he now, and barely resembled the pale, solemn girl he associated with Dale king’s eldest daughter. Apparently the sun was not only good for just Hobbits. “Princess?”

“Prince?” she rejoined.

“Were you able to take that sword of Bilbo’s - that is, did you give it to Lord Glorfindel?”

“She did indeed,” a voice said behind them.

And there was Glorfindel with a wide grin, and Erestor with an arched brow, and Ori and Dwalin as well, although the two Dwarrow were watching the antics of their king and his consort and barely spared Fíli or Sigrid a glance before going to join the fray and offer their own congratulations.

“Oh, that is good,” Fíli said inanely, as always a bit tongue-tied around the tall Elven warrior.

Sigrid gave him a disbelieving glance before smiling up at the golden-haired Elf. “Although, my lord, you did promise me a demonstration that would change my mind about the nature of swords,” she remonstrated.

“I did indeed, Your Highness,” Glorfindel returned. “Forgive my inattentiveness. Now that the princes of Erebor are here, perhaps I can arrange that demonstration while they may attend.”

Fíli had never fallen in love, and quite frankly did not look forward to a time when he might do so, but he imagined it must feel like this - feeling as if every wish had come true, and giddy to the point of rapture. He bowed quickly to hide his flushed cheeks.

Sigrid bit her lip and inclined her head. “My lord, I think that an excellent idea.”

Behind her, Ori and Dora started to argue about wedding ceremonies. “You can’t have a wedding without flowers!” the Hobbit was crying indignantly, while Ori scowled at her and rejoined, “It’s our most solemn ceremony, simple and without artifice, as Mahal determined.”

Dora threw up her hands. “And Our Lady Yavanna has no say in the marriage of one of her own?”

Thorin looked to his One in consternation. Bilbo merely shook his head. “She’s not wrong. Shire weddings are outside with flowers, dancing, food, and drink. We’ll just have to come to some sort of compromise.” When Thorin scowled just as hard as Ori, the Hobbit amended: “Or perhaps two wedding ceremonies.”

Yes !” Kíli shouted, and starting pretending to dance about with an invisible partner, until he could grab up a laughing Dora and spin her about.

Next to Glorfindel, Erestor finally spoke. “Do you know, I believe this is the most extreme example of two divergent cultures uniting under peaceful conditions.”

Glorfindel lifted a brow at his analytical tone and Bilbo started laughing. “I hope you may take as many notes as you like,” he responded, earning a rare smile from the petite Elf.

Bard hosted an impromptu congratulatory luncheon at Sigrid’s urging. Word spread through Dale, and by the time the kitchens were overflowing with well-meaning volunteer cooks, King Thranduil and Lord Elrond arrived with their sons and some nobles and captains of the entourages.

Dora and Daisy disappeared entirely, but with the sudden activity around them, Bilbo hadn’t had the time to be suspicious until they reappeared, glowing with suppressed excitement. The Hobbits who had journeyed down the mountain with them began clapping in praise, for the two ladies held two flower crowns, which had had to have been a chore to make, as Dale’s flowers were scattered in various newly successful gardens, and not all of them were hearty enough to withstand the process of twining them into circlets.

The Dwarrow stared in some confusion, and the Men and Elves watched curiously as the two Hobbits approached Thorin as they stood in the front hall together, and Bilbo grinned. The smaller one was comprised mostly of yellow and white flowers, and he inclined his head for Daisy to place it there. When he straightened, he saw Dora and Thorin fighting a silent battle of wills through their stares at each other. Sighing, he tugged at Thorin’s hand and gave him an imploring look. “It’s our tradition,” he said and that decided it for the Dwarven king, who slowly inclined his head to receive his own crown of blue and purple flowers.

The Hobbits cheered, but then a flurry of getting food to table and sitting everyone diverted the attention of most of the assemblage. Bilbo took advantage of that diversion to lead Thorin aside.

“I hope you are truly all right with including Shire traditions, my love,” he said.

The Dwarf’s lips thinned. “You are of the Shire; it would be very short-sighted of me not to consider them. However, convincing the kingdom of Erebor of this may be less easy than here in Dale.”

“I have no interest in altering Dwarrow tradition,” Bilbo began and then clarified at Thorin’s ironic look: “except in cases of exclusion.”

“That will definitely be something to speak of when writing up the marriage contract,” Thorin remarked in a low voice. “Some things are sacrosanct and at the core of our beliefs; they will not be changed. But you needn’t be alarmed - as my One, all will be explained to you. You will be considered one of us when we married. The laws are clear there.”

Bilbo’s eyes widened, and he whispered. “Do you mean to say there have been other “outsiders” who have married Dwarrow?”

Thorin cleared his throat and suddenly looked a bit shifty. “There are laws that address that possibility - that is all I can say.”

The Hobbit sighed gustily, but it was time for the guests of honor to seat themselves so that the rest of the assembly could toast them. Bard began with a wish for their future happiness, then Dwalin stood up and recited something about their Maker requiring some Dwarrow to find their Ones. Elrond came forward then, and called down the blessing of the all the Valar when two people joined in harmony. Finally, Thranduil stood with a goblet of wine in his hand. Bilbo inwardly cringed at what the Elven king would say, although outwardly he smiled as he smiled for all their well-wishers.

“Blessed is Thorin Oakenshield; nowhere in Arda could he find a better husband than in Bilbo Baggins of the Shire.”

“To Bilbo!” Dora Hornblower cried, raising her cup, when it was made clear that the king was not going to wish the couple any sort of luck or happiness, nor speak of Thorin’s deserving Bilbo on his own merits.

“To Bilbo!” the Hobbits and Men echoed.

Thankfully, that concluded the toasts, and the guests got to the business of eating.

 

As individuals sated themselves and gave their congratulations, the dining hall slowly emptied out. Lord Glorfindel in all his glory approached with a bow. “Your Majesty,” he addressed Thorin. “I have promised a sword demonstration for Her Highness Princess Sigrid, and I extend my invitation to your nephews and to yourselves, if it is your wish.”

Bilbo, who had very little interest in the finer aspects of sword-fighting beyond sticking the sharper end into a Goblin or other terrifying attacker, looked to Thorin to gauge the Dwarf’s reaction to this offer. The king eyed his nephews, who had paused in their merrymaking to watch their uncle, or what was more probable, Glorfindel.

“My lord, my nephews esteem your renowned prowess,” Thorin said slowly. Bilbo covered his mouth with a hand, very much aware of how annoyed and frustrated Thorin was about his nephews’ propensity for losing their minds over the famous Elven warrior. “By no means would I interfere with their pleasure.”

That certainly was a diplomatic way of saying that Thorin would rather be dead than watch an Elf playing around with his sword. Bilbo smiled at him, then turned to look at Glorfindel with a twinkle. “We do appreciate your willingness to cater to our young people.”

Glorfindel’s mouth twitched. “Ah, yes, your “young” people.”

Bilbo bit his lip and amended: “Well, younger .” He glanced at Fíli and Kíli who were grinning ear to ear. “And they had better show you the appropriate gratitude.”

 

Sigrid was less excited than the Dwarrow princes, but she was interested to see Lord Glorfindel’s style with that lovely sword, and Fíli and Kíli’s enthusiasm was a little infectious, particularly Fíli’s. On the outside, the golden prince seemed a mature warrior with his braided beard and moustaches, but his bright blue eyes and gleeful smiles revealed his relative youth (although her father once told her he was at least eighty if a day, which fixed in her mind how different Dwarrow were).  He was all courtesy, and she could tell the Hobbits liked him very much and that he liked them as well, although Kíli seemed to be the one Lady Dora was most fond of.

Glorfindel had gone ahead with Erestor and most of Elrond’s party. She and Tilda, along with the Ereborian princes, Elrond’s twin sons, and three of the Hobbits walked together to what had been the old palace but was now a residence for noble guests such as Lord Elrond, passing through some of the reconstructed parts of Dale. These houses were starting to be inhabited by the scions of some of the oldest houses of ancient Dale, who in Lake-town had lived barely hand to mouth fishing or working for the Master, having forgotten their histories but, thankfully, not the names of their forefathers.

Bard had felt that any person related to the ancient peoples of Dale would have a historical house in this part of the new Dale as their families had before. Those houses belonged to them through inheritance, after all. Immigrants or Lake-towners who were descended from immigrants were also welcome, and were starting to move in brand new construction in New Town. Truthfully, Dale was about half of one and half of the other, Lake-town having been at a trading crossroads between the south and the east.

“Good stones,” she thought she heard Fíli mutter to himself. The Hobbits looked about themselves in wonder, as if they’d never seen such buildings before - and perhaps they hadn’t. She wasn’t clear if there were settlements as grand along the roads between the Shire and Dale.

Guards at the steps of the old palace opened the doors to them and Elrond’s adoptive son, Estel, was waiting for him along with another couple of guards, one of them female from what Sigrid could see (sometimes it was hard to tell - like Dwarrow who were all short and broad, Elves were all tall and slender).

“There is a great room with wooden floors,” Estel said. “We felt it would be ideal.”

“Oh, you mean the ballroom?” Tilda asked, skipping along with Sigrid.

“Is that what it is?” one of the twins asked - who knew which one?

“It’s for dancing,” the littlest princess declared.

“Why would you need a room just for dancing?” Daisy asked Dora quizzically.

“Maybe it rains here more often,” Tom Cotton suggested.

Sigrid laughed. “I think the old royals of Dale liked to have their own dances, separate from other people.”

“Huh,” Daisy commented, and rolled her eyes at the implied stupidity of such an idea.

Estel led them through a few corridors to a set of open double doors and into a big, high-ceiled space with large windows letting in a flood of light. Glorfindel was waiting, dressed simply in a tunic, leggings and boots. His loose mane of golden hair was pulled up high off of his nape.

The audience settled in chairs clearly pulled in from other parts of the building, for they were mismatched, although some of the Hobbits chose the floor rather than negotiate the too-tall pieces of furniture.

Glorfindel brought out the beautiful sword, unsheathed. “This is Piercing Wind, sword of Gondolin. It was forged for the House of the Fountain, whose warriors preferred pale, bright swords. Long has it lain the treasure troves of foul things, plundered from the battlefields of Gondolin of long ago.”

Then he swept the bright sword in a circle forward and back, so quickly that only the Elves and Hobbits seemed to be able to follow. The Men and Dwarves stared with jaws dropping. “Is there one who will spar with me?”

Elrond’s twin sons grinned at each other expectantly, but surprisingly, another mild voice said: “I will.”

Chapter Text

“Goodness, I thought they’d never leave,” Bilbo breathed, his neck craned from the stone frame of the window overlooking the street below. He watched the mixed group of Hobbits, Men, Dwarrow, and Elves walking up to the old palace. He turned to smile at Thorin, who returned it with one of his own. “You and I have interrupted business,” the Hobbit stated.

“Why, Master Baggins, how very forward of you,” the Dwarf drawled with soft, amused eyes.

“Oh, hush you,” Bilbo giggled and grabbed his hand. “Come with me, will you?”

“Oh, I will ,” the king growled and, head high, allowed his consort-to-be to tug him by the hand, despite several witnesses stopping to gape at them as they passed into the royal quarters and Bilbo’s room. Thorin shut the door with powerful finality and in two swift strides, swept up his Hobbit into his arms and laughed joyously into Bilbo’s glowing face as the Hobbit grinned happily and threw his arms around his neck. “I haven’t had enough of kissing you just yet.”

 

Glorfindel smiled and bowed to the voice in the back of the great palatial “ballroom.” Everybody in the audience turned to stare at the young Man standing at the back of the audience. Sigrid wasn’t the only person whose expression reflected doubt.

Estel hadn’t made much of an impression during his time in Dale, for despite his youth he was rather quiet and serious. Young, thin, and long-limbed in a way a colt was all legs until he grew into them, his long dark hair and fair skin were not that unlike the coloring of many of the Imladris Elves, his gray eyes tinted towards blue and his face was distinctly big nosed and strong chinned in a way that Men could be. Soft-spoken and reticent, he had not connected with many outside of Elrond’s people except Dora; they apparently shared a love of pipeweed.

He did not look like a Man who could stand one minute against Glorfindel of Gondolin, whose thousands of years of experience, and a good foot in height, loomed like a mountain against the young hill of Estel.

Princess Sigrid exchanged a worried glance with Prince Fíli, while on her other side, Tilda clutched at her arm with rounded eyes. “They’re not going to cut each other, are they?” the little girl whispered.

“No, no. It’s a demonstration - just to show us,” Sigrid replied, watching as one of the twins presented Estel with a sword with a grin and a slap on the back that knocked the young Man a step forward. She was relieved to see that he held the weapon with reasonable confidence, but as the young Man approached Glorfindel, she found herself biting her lip nervously.

Fíli’s large hand dropped on top of hers and his blue eyes twinkled at her. “Courage now,” he said with a wink, then patted her hand and released it as the two swordsmen took the stance of readiness.

Estel charged forward, swinging his sword with both hands while Glorfindel stood with his arm down and sword tip against the ground. Sigrid pressed her fingers against her mouth, cringing back in her chair while Fíli surged forward, hands pressed on his knees and face alive in anticipation. Almost faster than the eye could follow, the taller Elf brought up the pale sword and parried the Man’s first strike with a minimal, efficient movement, and spun backwards while Estel’s recovery held less grace.

Elrond’s sons cried out something in their musical language, sounding approving if a bit giddy. “You get him, Estel!” Dora called and, by her side Kíli laughed. Tilda giggled, peeking out between the fingers she’s put over her eyes.

 

Bilbo curled contentedly in Thorin’s lap, head tucked into his neck and eyes half-closed. They sat curled together in the one chair in Bilbo’s room, facing the fireplace. “You do know they all think we’re having our way in here,” he murmured, leaning against Thorin’s hand which was slowly carding through his hair.

The Dwarf grunted. “They can think all they want.” He shifted so that both hands came together and he began to fix Bilbo’s braid, half unwinding it before plaiting it again. “Or is this an unsubtle request for bedsport?”

Bilbo grumbled at Thorin’s teasing tone. “I was making an observation, but if you’re willing…”

“In time.” He finished the braid and shifted Bilbo in his lap so that the Hobbit could return the favor. After a lapse silence, he asked: “Has-has Bard approached you?”

The Hobbit paused. “For what?”

“...scribing for him alone?” the Dwarf replied, after such a long pause that Bilbo could tell that he’d changed his answer in the interim.

Bilbo sighed as he finished the courtship braid. “Do you truly think that Bard wants to lure me away from Erebor? I’d think that more likely of Thranduil, don’t you?”

“Then he hasn’t -?”

“My goodness... Bard ? How in Arda did you come by that idea?”

The Dwarf’s mouth quirked sardonically. “You’re a curious creature, Bilbo. You cannot see your own value, your beauty; but others can see it.”

“Silly Dwarf,” the Hobbit chuckled. “I know that you see it; I suppose that the is the very essence of love, to think one’s love is lovely to others. Rest assured, Bard of all people does not want me to scribe for him.” He capped Thorin’s braid with the courtship bead. “Or anything else for him, you perverse thing.”

“I’ll give you perverse ,” his love growled, lifting Bilbo enough to swing his leg over and settle groin-to-groin on Thorin’s lap. He pressed whiskery kisses to Bilbo’s cheek and neck, pulling him close with a large hand. In return, the Hobbit buried his hands in the heavy softness of Thorin’s hair, gripping tight. The Dwarf groaned as Bilbo clung, but continued downwards, opening the Hobbit’s vest and shirt with determination before the journey of his mouth on Bilbo’s skin.

“Oh, I missed you,” the Hobbit breathed, his whole body shivering in arousal.

Thorin huffed, and muttered: “You belong in my bed.” He tugged at Bilbo’s coat and encouraged his lover to start shedding layers.

“Is this your subtle request for bedsport?” Bilbo quipped. “And isn’t this, strictly speaking, my bed?”

Thorin lifted Bilbo easily off his lap and withdrew to begin to unbuckle his heavy, bejewelled belt. Bilbo’s tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth at the sight. He set to his own clothes with a renewed will, watching as his covered-up husband-to-be revealed himself one piece of rich and heavy clothing at a time. When he was down to his underlayers and removing his boots, Bilbo shucked the last of his own, grinning before jumping backward up into his bed, spread-eagled. It didn’t stop him from raising himself on his elbows to watch Thorin in all his hard, hairy glory emerging from the last of his layers.

The king approached the bed, lips parted and eyes languid and intent on Bilbo’s body and then, slowly rising, on Bilbo’s face. Bilbo smiled encouragingly, but then Thorin turned aside to rummage through his own discarded coat and brought out a circlet of gold.

The sight of the crown in Thorin’s fist brought back that old dream, for it was shaped in the image of leaves and flowers, sparking with faceted fire in a green, yellow, purple, blue and red.

Noting that Thorin had not removed his own mithril circlet, Bilbo eyed this new one. “Confident, were you?”

Thorin’s mouth quirked sardonically. “I envisioned offering it to you on my knees, if I had to, but my nephews so inconveniently interrupted that plan.”

The Hobbit covered his mouth at the image this roused in his mind, but as Thorin approached closer with the crown, and he realized what Thorin planned to do with it, he exclaimed: “Hey, now! How comfortable can that be?”

“We’re certain to find out,” the Dwarf replied with a lazy smirk.

 

In the last year, Sigrid had dutifully sat for many events beside her newly elevated father, the prince her brother, and sometimes alone as eldest princess of Dale. She had learned to keep still, and appear alertly attentive when she was not particularly either one. The only prince she had ever known in these situations was her own brother.

She had never sat beside a prince of another people, for the Elves made treaties behind closed doors and were not inclined towards mingling with mortals at state functions. Bain was young and not especially keen on the idea of sitting still and listening, or ruling in general - much like her father. Certainly, Prince Fíli shared some of that inability to sit still, but he seemed keenly aware that he had to set a standard of behavior - unlike his brother - as a ranking individual.

This was the only reason she could think of for his sudden willingness to sit by her side and assure both her sister and herself that all would be well during pauses in the demonstration fight. She appreciated it, certainly, but as the fight progressed she found that her head and his tended to incline towards each other to murmur questions and answers, and it didn’t seem so strange that he was slightly shorter than her, or four times her age, or that he was a Dwarf and royal prince of Erebor.

It was merely astonishing that he was male, not related to her, and seemed to be interested in her reactions, even if it was a polite interest. It made her smile when he jumped in his chair and pointed with a large hand when Lord Glorfindel effortlessly glided into an attack that had Estel scurrying to parry. “Perfect!” he cried.

Clearly, Fíli and Kíli  were truly ecstatic to see Glorfindel in action, and Sigrid found this somewhat adorable rather than alarming. It reminded her of Bain when he was watching veterans on the archery field. She had never seen Dwarrow fighting, but she had been told that they were powerful and passionate, and rightly to be feared in battle. That reputation kept Erebor free of invaders now that the Dwarrow families of old were back in their ancestral seat, that and half a dozen signed and sealed alliances. Thank the Valar for those treaties!

She winced as Estel came dangerously close to Glorfindel’s blade as the two danced back and forth. She was beginning to see the pattern of attack and parry, and she no longer started so badly, as Fíli’s assurances started to take root.

When the young Man began to pant and visibly sweat, his Elven opponent stepped back and drew up his sword in the neutral position. Estel, reluctantly, did the same, and that’s when the sons of Elrond leapt upon them both, excitedly.

Fíli looked like he would have wanted to do the same, but instead turned to Sigrid with a charming grin. “So, what do you think about swords now, Your Highness?”

Sigrid looked thoughtfully at Glorfindel as he was reprimanding Elladan and Elrohir as an awed Estel examined the lord’s bright sword. “I suppose in the right hands they can be less brutal,” she allowed.

Fíli sighed. “I would show you skilled combat myself, but we do not fight for-” he cut himself off, frowning as Kíli and Dora joined them.

Strangers , Sigrid thought sadly. No, Dwarrow showed very little for those who were not Dwarrow, but then she thought about Bilbo Baggins, consort-to-be of the Mountain. “Not even for Master Baggins?” she asked with a smile.

“Oh, Uncle Bilbo is different,” Kíli said airily. “He’s nearly a Dwarrow himself.”

Sigrid blinked, confused, but then Fíli cuffed his brother and muttered something in their own language; it was enough to tell Sigrid what she had suspected for a while. The only way you got to see the inner lives of the Dwarrow was to marry a Dwarf.

Chapter Text

A woman stood before Bilbo; no, a merry Hobbit lass wearing a green kirtle with flowers in her hair. She smiled at him, looking a little like his mother with her long riotous red hair. Was she really a Hobbit, though? She flickered into a taller form, and there was a broad-shouldered, deep-chested male figure next to her. It was more comfortable to think her a Hobbit and he a Dwarf, and so they remained, taller images wavering behind them as if they were shadows before a moving flame. They stood for a long time, watching him, and they said nothing.

Bilbo opened his eyes.

He lay tucked under Thorin’s arm, facing one side of the room where a trunk had been set for the storing of his things. Atop it lay two wilting flower crowns and two metal crowns, mithil and gold. The Hobbit smiled sleepily, recalling that indeed they had not stood up to the rigorous use he and Thorin had subjected them to.

Blunt fingers lightly caressed Bilbo’s scalp and the Hobbit’s smile widened. “You know,” he murmured, “this will not be easy, nor simple.”

An amused huff. “Never have I desired either.”

Bilbo turned over then to prop his chin on his lover’s chest, nose-to-nose with Thorin. “And you are going to marry me?”

“I will,” the king said, his tone more akin to a vow. He kissed Bilbo lightly and smiled at him. Oh dear, the Hobbit thought, he would have to guard against those intense blue eyes.

“Are you terribly rich?” the Hobbit wondered. “I know you are rich; you are king of Erebor, after all, where even the water taps are made of gold, but are you terribly, terribly rich?”

The Dwarf laughed softly. “Yes, my heart, I am very rich.” His tone asked the reason for the question.

“I was thinking,” Bilbo continued. “As a wedding present for Balin and Rosalda, perhaps you could see your way to buying a house for them here?”

“Hmm,” Thorin thoughtfully responded. “For Rosalda?”

“Yes, mostly for her. Many Hobbits find Erebor a bit dark and confining, and well, I thought that way she can be in a comfortable place when Balin is busy in the mountain, and then when he wishes to spend time as a husband, he can focus on being with her, with no distractions.” He paused, eying Thorin’s skeptical expression. “Or is that breaking a thousand Dwarrow traditions?”

“Well,” the king temporized, “not a thousand.

Bilbo sighed and settled his cheek against his lover’s shoulder.

“It is not a horrible idea,” the Dwarf assured him kindly.

“Damned with faint praise,” Bilbo muttered with a pout.

You like Dale,” Thorin eventually grumbled.

The Hobbit sighed, sensing this was a long-delayed extension of the previous conversation concerning  Bard’s intentions. “Oh, certainly. I like the sun on my face and earth under my feet, thank you, but all the gardens in the world can’t recommend me to any other lover, so you can just stop right there-mm”

Thorin kissed him, then when Bilbo gasped for breath, kissed him again. “Even with a table of your own in the kitchens?”

“My word, you are stone-headed! It was a children’s table, you lout.”

Thorin chuckled at him and kissed his nose. “Do you want a house in Dale?”

“I don’t know about a house ,” Bilbo sniffed. “I think I want a garden, and if it can’t be in the mountain, it may have to be in Dale.”

They lay there for a while, quietly. Bilbo eventually noticed that the light was dimming as the sunlight shifted. “When is your coronation?” he finally wondered.

“In two days.”

“Two days! Thorin, were you planning-?”

A tentative knock sounded on the door, making Bilbo start. “Uncles?” Fíli’s voiced called through the door. “When are we riding back up to the mountain?”

Bilbo sat up and looked down at Thorin, who sighed. “I would return tonight, no matter how late,” he told the Hobbit in a vaguely apologetic look.

Bilbo nodded; Thorin felt exposed outside of Erebor and the Hobbit could see that he was particularly threatened by Bard and Dale, regardless of Bilbo’s reassurances. The sooner they returned, the better, particularly as his crowning was so close.

After Thorin had given his orders through the door, the two of them went about collecting their clothes from the floor and furniture. They grinned at each other as they hastily reassembled themselves until finally Thorin picked up their crowns and placed the gold one once again upon Bilbo’s red-gold hair before placing his own. Then Bilbo shooed him out while he packed his saddlebags and returned a few borrowed books to Bard’s steward, who would make sure they made it back to the Dale Library. By the time he had rounded up his things and written a brief, grateful thank you note (his mother had raised Bilbo to be a civilized gentlehobbit, after all), the ponies were being brought to the front of the royal residence and the Dwarrows were saddling them with the help of a few Hobbits. Princess Sigrid was standing by, watching and speaking to Fíli, who was being inordinately charming: grinning and laughing.

Thorin seemed a little taken aback by this new side of his nephew as well, clearly keeping half on eye on the interaction until Bilbo came down the steps and completely distracted the king by his arrival.

As Bilbo was handing over his bags to be secured, King Bard arrived with Lord Glorfindel, Erestor and the elusive Prince Bain, who was definitely pouting about missing out on the prime events of the day. Where had he been, Bilbo wondered, but then Legolas followed them, carrying not only his bow and quiver, but a second set as well. Bard was looking absurdly please with himself, and it was not too difficult to guess that Bain had been following Bowman tradition.

The Elf Prince descended with light feet to greet Bilbo, his eyes landing on the consort-to-be’s golden coronet. He paused to look down into Bilbo’s eyes, and smiled at what he saw in them. “You are blessed by the Valar,” he said. “I am happy for you.”

“Thank you, Legolas,” Bilbo replied warmly.

The prince moved about the traveling party, and eventually stopped to talk to Kíli; as he spoke, the Dwarf’s expression turned serious, and he nodded. He unslung his own thicker Dwarven bow from where it had been tied to the back of the saddle of a borrowed pony, showing it to Legolas before slinging it onto his own back. Bilbo frowned, perplexed by this, but was diverted by Daisy and Tom who wanted to see his new crown, ready to find fault in the flowers depicted there.

Thorin, however, had done his research and although Tom and Daisy argued against the inclusion of columbine which could mean luck or foolishness, depending on whose gaffer one was quoting, Bilbo could find no fault in it and told the two so in no uncertain terms. They laughed at his fierceness but conceded.

Erestor held a small pile of books, two of which he delivered to Ori with a small smile, and one he presented to Bilbo. “With compliments.”

Bilbo, surprised, gazed down on the small tome and laughed. “Oh, heavens, my dear Erestor, is this what I think it is?”

“You are always complaining about having to struggle through Quenya to read the Ainulindalë, so I have translated it for you.”

“Into Sindarin?” the Hobbit asked, opening the book and gazing at its first pages. “Into Westron ? Oh, my dear fellow!”

Erestor side-stepped when Bilbo attempted to embrace him and sniffed. “None of that now, Master Baggins. It was just a bit of translating, and hardly took any time at all. Anyone could have done it.”

The Hobbit chuckled, knowing the lie for what it was, and gave Erestor a grin. “Oh, yes. You probably wrote it between lunch and tea, did you?”

Thorin took the book from Bilbo to pack it away, and Erestor bowed briefly to the king before excusing himself. Bilbo watched him go with a fond expression. “If there were ever a being in this world I would claim as brother, that would be Erestor,” he sighed and followed Thorin to the ponies. “I never knew such a generous and prickly soul in all my life, and a scholar through and through.”

“You will miss him when they return to Rivendell?” Thorin asked in a sympathetic tone.

“Yes, but most of our friendship has happened through letters, so I shan’t be too heartbroken if that would continue as before. I suspect between the libraries of Erebor and Dale, there will be plenty to write about and perhaps enough to tempt him to return now and then.”

“That is a dangerous journey,” the Dwarf reminded him.

“Not with Glorfindel around, and he would be around; he hardly leaves Erestor’s side.”

The king paused, and then voiced a question that had long rested in the back of his mind. “Are they -?”

“It’s complicated. Apparently Elvish rules about courtship and marriage are as, or even more rigid than Dwarvish rules, and there are some barriers between certain strata. I don’t pretend to understand most of it, but it has something to do with whom Glorfindel was in his previous life.”

Thorin frowned. “Previous life?”

Bilbo grinned, eyes lighting up in delight. “Oh, wait until I tell you the story of the Fall of Gondolin, Thorin. You’ll emerge with a much better appreciation of just how amazing Lord Glorfindel truly is.”

“It involves Balrogs and hairpins, I would suppose,” the Dwarf groaned with exaggerated pain.

“Indeed it does, but that’s just the beginning.”

 

Bilbo was the only Hobbit returning with the Dwarrow that night; he rode by Thorin’s side with Kíli on his other. When dark came, Bilbo was just launching into the part of the story where Glorfindel woke in the Halls of Mandos, when the young prince took up the bow he’d been holding across his lap, fitted an arrow to it, and shot into the dark alongside the road.

It happened so quickly that everyone just stared, not even stopping their ponies to inquire. And right after that arrow, Kíli growled and shot another, and this one was accompanied by a yell.

Dwalin was off his pony in a flash. Bilbo, shocked, could see nothing beyond the light of their lanterns and torches, but he knew Dwarrow could see very well in the dark, and only hoped that Kíli had not shot some poor unfortunate soul whom he’d mistaken for a rabbit or a deer. But after Dwalin and his three guards disappeared into the night with the torches they’d been holding barely indicating where they’d gone, the guttural and hatred-filled shout of “Goblin!” set things in motion. Thorin grabbed Bilbo right out of his saddle and onto his own, wrapping one strong arm around the Hobbit’s waist, and controlling his pony with the other. Bilbo only managed a squeak of protest.

Fíli dashed after Dwalin, and Kíli would have followed had not Thorin barked his name and told him to protect Ori, who was staring off after Dwalin and nervously moving his own pony closer to Thorin and Bilbo.

“Is it a Goblin?” Bilbo asked anxiously. “Or is it-?”

Shouting in a guttural language answered his question. “Goblin,” Thorin growled, his eyes glowing malevolently in loathing. Dwalin appeared, hauling a stooped, struggling figure. Its bow-legged movement and head-forward gait were familiar enough to Bilbo to connect this creature to his one unpleasant exposure to the Misty Mountain Goblins whom he and his fellow travelers from the Shire had fought off during their journey east.

“Goblin,” he agreed unhappily, his hand on the scabbard his mother’s sword.

Dwalin dragged the thing with him; Bilbo could see the broken-off shaft of Kili’s arrow sticking out of its thigh. The Goblin was clearly cursing the big Dwarf in its own language, but as they neared the ponies its attention snapped to Thorin first and then, alarmingly enough, to Bilbo. Slit-pupiled eyes stared at the Hobbit and a wide, leering smile followed, increasingly disturbing due to a revelation of sharp, yellow, prominent teeth. It tilted its head, and Bilbo, not to be intimidated, tilted his head as well and attempted a bland expression.

“Oh, I heard about you, pretty thing,” it jeered. “I found the scrawny corpse-eater and poked him until he spewed. Oh, the things he babbled to me!”

Bilbo responded to this with blank confusion, turning within the circle of Thorin’s arm with a questioning look. However, the king was communicating silently with Dwalin using a series of grim facial expressions. “And we will find everything you know, abomination,” he said in a strangely unconcerned tone, not even looking directly at the thing. The reason became apparent when Dwalin knocked the creature out with a swipe of an armored paw and with an expression of disgust, hauled it up across the rump of his pony.

“I take it it was alone,” Thorin stated as the three guards returned, having clearly spent time searching about.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” one of the guards replied. She held a tattered pack in one hand and a crudely-formed sword in the other. “At least, now it is. There are… remains.”

Fíli cleared his throat. “Not much left of whomever it was,” he said, “but it was someone… small.”

An appalled silence followed that statement. “Not… a child?” whispered Bilbo, hand over his mouth.

“Bard would have said something if a child were missing,” Ori murmured. “It doesn’t happen very often in Dale these days.”

“Nothing can done about it, whoever it was,” Fíli said dismissively.

Bilbo turned wide eyes up to Thorin. “Surely we can’t leave them there?”

The king sighed and ran a hand over Bilbo’s hair. “No, of course not,” he said, and it was clear that he was catering to Bilbo’s concerns; this was even more obvious when Fíli grimaced and turned from his pony. He and one of the guards took a cloak and a torch with them into the darkness.

“You would have left that poor soul’s mortal remains bare on the earth?” the Hobbit demanded, scandalized.

“We would take a Dwarf to the mountain, but Men have their own customs. I would have sent a Raven to Dale from Erebor,” the king explained gently. “Sometimes it isn’t appropriate to touch dead things or the corpse of a person before rites are performed.”

Bilbo’s alarm subsided, and eventually he made forays into getting down from Thorin’s saddle, but the Dwarf’s arm tightened around him and Bilbo decided he was perfectly comfortable in giving in to Thorin’s protective instinct. It would raise a few eyebrows when they came to Erebor, but so would the crown on Bilbo’s head; it was hardly unavoidable.

Eventually Fíli and and his helper returned with a distressingly small bundle, and the party continued up the mountain. Dwalin had his sword out the entire time, and their captured guest never stirred.

Chapter Text

They had arrived late in the dark, early morning hours. Thorin, who would not be able to go straight to his bed as of yet, regretfully escorted Bilbo to the Hobbit quarters and kissed him before leaving his lover to his sleep.

Bilbo, tired as he was, felt he could not fall asleep; too many alarming and fearful things occurred to him as he lay there. He did eventually drift off and slept until his stomach woke him in time to bathe and dress for second breakfast. Paladin Took was waiting in the outer room, and embraced his kinsman. “They told us you had arrived last night. Also, that marriage was proposed?”

It was almost on his tongue to ask if his cousin had heard about the Goblin, but he was not about to create an incident if the Dwarrow were keeping it close to the chest. He took a deep breath. “My heart’s set on him, so I proposed.”

“Good old Bilbo!” Paladin laughed. “Are you sure that there is any Baggins left in you? What happened to that famous prudence of yours?”

“I suppose I grew tired of letting caution make the decisions for me,” Bilbo admitted. “However, you will be reassured to know that the marriage will not proceed without a watertight contract. There are certain awkward differences in how Dwarrow and Hobbits decide things, that it’s painfully clear that we will have to detail my role in Erebor and his role when it comes to Hobbits and Shire ways of doing things.”

“Well, you’ve always been the one with words, Cousin,” Paladin declared with a chuckle. “With me at your side and Balin on the king’s, we’ll have a marriage contract done up good and proper… Ah, and speaking of marriage…”

Rosalda had emerged; she gave a cry of delight to see Bilbo. Behind her came Balin; he quickened his step to catch up with his One and when they reached the scribe, the two encircled him in a tight hug. Bilbo laughed in delight at the warm, affectionate crush.

Then Rosalda held up her hand and showed him a gold ring surmounted by the biggest and brightest opal Bilbo had ever seen. He pretended to be blinded by it and then shook Balin’s hand. If any engagement ring could shut up the cruel, wagging tongues of Tuckborough, this ring could do it and create bitter jealousy at the same time.

“Didn’t the king give you a ring?” Rosalda asked with a concerned frown, eyes on his naked fingers.

Balin opened his mouth but Bilbo raised a reassuring hand. “I received a crown , lovely cousin. For now, it’s an absurd and obvious enough claim on me that I can wait for a ring, and that is only if Thorin wants to bow to Shire tradition.”

“Crown?” Paladin demanded.

Bilbo winced. “...yes?”

The Thain leveled a stern look at his unadorned head.

“Oh, come now! At breakfast ?!”

Balin cleared his throat. “Actually, laddie…”

Bilbo’s eyes widened.

 

The dining hall must have been packed wall to wall, for it was so loud that the Hobbits could hear the roar of the conversations of hundreds of people even before coming into the sight of the doors. Word, apparently, had spread.

Dwalin was waiting outside the doors and intercepted them. He had something blue draped over one arm, and as soon as Bilbo was within hearing distance, he said: “Off with that coat, Master Baggins.”

“I beg your pardon?” The scribe looked down at the coat he’d chosen, and it was perfectly clean and tasteful, if he did say so himself!

The big Dwarf shook out the fabric in his hands, revealing a deep blue coat of Hobbit-size but Dwarf-style, embroidered along the hems with symbolic leaves in gold thread. Bilbo, picking up on the implication quickly enough, blew out a gust of air and shrugged out his nice green coat, handing it to Paladin, and drew on this new one. It fit perfectly, suspiciously perfectly.

“Yes, we took your other blue coat so it could be sized,” Dwalin said impatiently, as if stating the obvious.

“Just as long as I get to steal one of Thorin’s and make one in green for him,” Bilbo remarked testily and sniffed at the scandalized look he got in return. “You do realize that he’s all but written his name on me, and all he has to show for my proposal is a family tree that no one has seen.”

He should have noted that neither Dwarrow nor Hobbits responded to that statement. As it was, he was distracted by the rising volume from the dining room and steeled himself as he walked through the doors.

Except for the few chairs set aside for the Hobbits, the entire large room was crowded, with Dwarrow standing along the walls for lack of chairs. The dull roar of conversation suddenly fell away, heads turning as Bilbo led the way with Paladin. Once inside, he could see that Thorin was standing at the high table with Dís and his nephews, and he saw the king’s smile flash out at him. As if on a tether, Bilbo walked through the narrow space between the tables and Dwarrow standing against the walls, and up to the high table. Thorin offered his hand and engulfed Bilbo’s with a warm grip.

“Good morning,” Bilbo greeted, smiling up into tired blue eyes. “Were you able to sleep?”

“Some,” Thorin murmured, but Dís shook her head.

“Oh, dear.” Bilbo sighed. “And I suppose this breakfast won’t be very restful either.”

Fíli laughed and stifled it quickly at his uncle’s stern look. Thorin turned to face the dining hall, Bilbo’s hand still in his. Even the whispers died and his powerful voice rang out into the space: “Master Bilbo Baggins of the Shire has offered his hand in marriage,” he announced without a hint of irony in his tone.

A cheer rose up from the Hobbits but the Dwarrow in the hall glanced at each other uncertainly and then back to Thorin, clearly waiting for the rest of the statement.

“I have accepted his proposal,” the king continued. Then he added a statement in Khuzdul, his voice rolling over its syllables, and all the Dwarrow reacted to the last word, shouting back “ melhekhel!” Bilbo, whose knowledge of spoken Khuzdul was even poorer than his understanding of the written language, thought that last, incendiary word had sounded a bit like “kurdel.”

He looked at Thorin blankly, with an enquiring eyebrow up. The Dwarf gazed down at him with soft eyes. “You are my One,” he said.

Bilbo smiled. “In the Shire we say you are the love of my life,” he said. “I fancy it means the same.”

“Kidhuzurál,” Thorin breathed with a wondering smile. It had the same tone as “ghivashel,” which Bilbo had become accustomed to, but when Thorin said it, all the Dwarrow who were close enough to hear grinned as if he’d something overly romantic indeed. Thorin touched the crown on Bilbo’s head, and then his hair. “Golden one.”

Bilbo shook his head fondly and sat down to breakfast at Thorin’s motion to his chair. Dwarrow didn’t often stand on ceremony when it came to food; bowls and platters were already being passed around at the lower tables. “You know, if others knew just how romantic you Dwarrow could be, there would be far more Hobbits making the trek to Erebor, not to mention Men.”

“Well, now that you mention it- ” Dís began, but Thorin shot her a warning glance.

“What?” Bilbo asked, and smiled at the cook offering him a platter of mushrooms.

Thorin leaned closer. “Something that should wait for negotiation.”

“Oh!” the Hobbit replied, nodding and accepting mushrooms and then eggs. As he looked up and over the assemblage of those eating, and those leaving after Thorin’s proclamation, and saw Amaranth’s distinctive rose-gold curls amidst a small sea of Iron Hills Dwarrow. He turned to look at Dís with a questioning lift of the eyebrows. “How long has that been going on?”

“The entire time you’ve been in Dale,” Dwalin grunted with a grim smile. “Looks like Dáin might be doing his own negotiating soon enough.”

“Hmm.” Bilbo tilted his head, watching the interaction of the Dwarrow around Mistress Brandybuck, who was speaking animatedly with Dáin’s niece - what was her name? Oh, yes, Bruni, of the dark eyes and large sword. “ Someone may be negotiating soon,” he allowed thoughtfully.

Dís chuckled approvingly. “You see it, too? Dáin likes her very much, but he’s been rather all words and careful avoidance of actual romance.”

“He’s so much older than her,” Kíli said with a grin.

Bilbo coughed. “That could be said of almost every Dwarf in this mountain,” he sighed, taking a bite of bacon. “She’s barely thirty-five.”

Appalled silence followed his statement, only broken by Thorin’s hiss: “Bilbo!”

“What? She’s of age for a Hobbit; no one underage came on this expedition - the Thain wouldn’t allow it for such a dangerous journey. All I’m saying is that calling Dáin older is rather ironic.”

Thorin’s frown deepened over that, and Bilbo knew exactly when it started to occur to the Dwarf that his consort-to-be was likely much his junior. More than once he opened his mouth, then closed it with a snap and returned to his food, although he drank rather more than he usually did at any meals.

Oh, gracious, Bilbo thought, swiftly finding that his amusement waned as the meal progressed. The age differences were weightier on Thorin’s mind than Bilbo would have supposed.

“Look here, Thorin,” he murmured. “I’m the eldest of all of them, so you needn’t fret about it. I’m no more a boy than …” He thought Dwarrow equivalent to his own development, “... Glóin is.”

Thorin gave him a thoughtful look, then glowered at Dís, who was laughing in her hand. Then the king nodded and Bilbo hoped that was the end of it.

 

Bilbo had barely returned to his quarters to properly unpack after breakfast when Ori arrived with several very large books, and Balin in tow. “Researching for marriage contracts!” the scribe announced excitedly.

“Shouldn’t you be preparing for Thorin’s coronation?” the Hobbit asked, confused.

“That’s probably the most traditional ceremony we have,” Balin assured him. “Everyone knows their parts; all we have to do tomorrow is put on our best clothes and show up.”

“Never mind that!” Ori cried, “Bilbo, King Thorin gave me permission to study these books; they contain the remnants of our oldest writings!”

“They’re as old as most of our written history,” Balin clarified. “Never been copied and never been translated.”

“And really difficult to read,” Ori added cheerfully. “Mahal created Khuzdul for us, and its perfection cannot be altered, but the writing of it has always been changeable - at one point, there were no notations for ending of one thought and the beginning of another. Also, the eastern and western kingdoms have differences in how words are spelled.”

“Gracious, how do you manage?” Bilbo asked as Ori set down the books on the communal dining table.

Ori shrugged. “I’ve been struggling through it, and you would not believe what I’ve been finding! BIlbo, I’ve found Hobbits in our ancient writings!”

Bilbo was very rarely surprised, but this one statement took the breath out of him. He sank into a chair, his hand over his mouth. “What?”

“A little people called Holbytla used to live at the base of the Misty Mountains, in holes they dug into the foothills. They traded with Rohan, using the Anduin river. It seems they also had contact, mostly illicit, with the Silvan Elves and the Dwarrow.”

Bilbo blinked. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

Ori and Balin exchanged glances. “Well, laddie,” Balin replied, “if you’re thinking that there are laws in these writings concerning the marriage of Dwarrow and Hobbits, you’d be thinking right.”

Chapter Text

Ori opened a decaying tome. Wedged in between its pages were preserved bits of frayed documents made of rough pieces of linen-like substance. The ink had faded and the runes weren’t exactly the ones that Bilbo had studied and carefully imitated, although he could determine the resemblance enough to see how they might turn into the modern runes he knew.

Ori paused at a particularly decayed sequence of ancient runes. “Here it is. This states that a lord of the eastern mountains, Ai, took as her husband a Holbytla “small and fair” who traded between the Misty Mountains and those of his kind who lived on the banks of the Anduin River. Erebor was merely a settlement in those days with no king under the mountain - this was 1,000 years into the Third Age, you see. The heirs of Durin were settled in Khazad-dum, or Moria, at the time.

“She consulted the laws of the time and found no impediment to marrying outside her race. Mahal had been very particular about keeping certain secrets within the society of Dwarrow, and his intent was that his children would withstand the domination of others, but the state of marriage was always one of equality from the very beginning of our creation and domination had not place in it. Therefore, at her request the lawmakers of the time interpreted the will of Mahal and wrote out the parameters for the union between Dwarrow and, er, Hobbits.”

Bilbo shook his head in wonder. “Our histories tell us that we left the environs of the Misty Mountains thousands of years ago, a time of trial when three groups of our people migrated westward in mass. In those days, the Fallohides would have been the “fair” ones; the Tooks descended from them. The Stoors liked rivers, and I imagine they began such a liking at the Anduin in the old days; Brandybucks still keep on that tradition. But we have no writings from that time - scholarship has never been a priority amongst Hobbits, I am sorry to say. Does this Hobbit have a name in your histories, then?”

Balin chuckled. “We were puzzled by one word here, until we decided it was a name - Fahger?”

“Can I see it written?”

Ori and Balin exchanged glances but turned the book around and pointed to the runes in question. Bilbo chewed on his lower lip. “I imagine this is phonetic, from Dwarrow hearing it said aloud. I think this is Fægr, an old name, but these days it’s Fredegar.”

“So it is a Hobbit name?” Ori exclaimed excitedly.

“Oh, yes. It seems Ai did indeed marry a Hobbit. But now, what are the laws that were written down for them?”

Balin took over then, producing a much newer paper. “Here they are, in much more comprehensible language - in Westron, for you and Rosalda. Ori translated and I have been his, er, second eye.”

Bilbo pulled the offered paper to himself and bent to read its rather brief tenants.

Any Outsider who is married to a Dwarf and lives within Dwarrow society lives by the laws that define crime and punishment.

The marriage bonds depend on maintaining the oaths of fidelity, loyalty, equality, and honor. If either partner breaks their oaths, the marriage bond may be questioned and severed.

The marriage of Dwarrow and Hobbit must be an equal partnership between two persons, in the manner of Dwarrow marriages. Neither partner should hold more power than the other within the relationship; neither dominates nor obeys.

Both individuals in the union must wear at least one symbol of their wedding oaths, according to their own traditions. Refusal to do so will break the bonds of marriage.

The only inheritors of the property of the Dwarrow must be a blood relation, a child (if possible) of the union or a descendant of blood relations. No Dwarven inheritance shall fall into the hands of those unrelated by blood to the Dwarf.

Once the rites of marriage were completed, the Hobbit may learn the language of Khuzdul but may not teach it to anyone else. The Hobbit may learn of the history and cultural beliefs of Dwarrow.

Bilbo scratched his nose. “Is that all? How are these any different from Dwarrow laws of marriage? Other than the part about learning Khuzdul, of course.”

“The part about equality is put in there because of unequal marriages of Men,” Ori explained. “There was most likely some doubt about Hobbit marriages being unfairly unbalanced as well.”

Bilbo cocked an eyebrow at the other scribe. “Yes, with good reason. We still have imbalances.”

Balin shook his head. “Laddie, at the core of Dwarven belief is that Mahal made us to be unyielding and resistant to dominance. The idea of anyone exerting control over a spouse would not occur to a sane Dwarf, but apparently the Dwarrow who wrote this had observed other marriage traditions and wanted to clarify that imbalance was impossible in Dwarven unions.”

“That is certainly clear,” Bilbo agreed. “And the part about wearing symbols - I am beginning to understand Thorin’s obsession with my wearing my courtship braid and gift, and why he was so distressed when I removed my anklet.”

Both Ori and Balin winced, but it was the older statesman who said: “Once you take the wedding vows, there will be no more of that unless either of you wish for a severing of the marriage itself.”

“I see… and about these laws of crime and punishment?”

Ori beamed and handed him a not so brief sheaf of papers. “Just ignore the parts about beard-shaving,” he advised.

They left him to his reading not soon after, and Bilbo was realizing that Dwarrow had an obsession with truthfulness after reading at least three laws against misrepresenting one’s self, when a knock on the door revealed Bofur and Nori. One look at their anxious expressions, and Bilbo knew something was awry. “What is it?”

“You need to come with us,” Bofur said urgently. “And quickly.”

Bilbo did not hesitate. They led him down two levels and then through a hidden door where they were met by two guards with torches and …

“Gandalf!”

“Bilbo, my lad. We’ve no time to waste. I feel Thorin is about to make the worst decision of his life. Bofur, Nori - thank you.”

The two Dwarrow bowed briefly and retreated back the way they’d come, leaving Bilbo even more perplexed.

“This way,” the wizard said, striding down yet more stairs with the Hobbit hurrying behind him.

“Goodness, Gandalf! What is happening?!”

“It’s the Goblin, of course,” the wizard huffed. “Refused to say anything, and of course Thorin will not summon you even though it was observed that the creature was more than willing to say so much when he spotted you. And of course Dwalin is more than willing to kill the thing; Dwarrow hate Goblins more than any other race in Middle-earth. I won’t say it isn’t without cause, but Dwarrow can be hot-headed when cooler heads are preferred.“

“If Thorin didn’t want me involved, why are you -?”

“Are you not listening, Bilbo? He isn’t thinking clearly; he wants to protect you from this when protecting you is neither needed or helpful! This whole business smells of greater things beyond my ken - and I am deeply frustrated that I cannot grasp its meaning. Thorin would douse this little light, malodorous as it is, before it illuminates us, to save your delicate sensibilities! Like most, he really doesn’t understand Hobbits!”

“I’m trying to educate him,” Bilbo panted, “but it’s a lesson that will take some time, more time that I’ve had thus far.”

Gandalf laughed. “Will you participate in this bit of dishonesty - that I found you looking for Thorin and that you demanded for me to take you to him?”

“I’ve never demanded anything of the kind before, and I doubt that would be believable. I can, however, say that once you told me where Thorin was, and what he was doing, I insisted on being part of it.”

“My dear Hobbit, it’s the same thing!”

Thankfully the guards at the last door seemed to not have orders against either of them. They were now in a place so dark and dank, that Bilbo was guessing this was where criminals must be kept.

On the other side of a heavy, locked door, a room opened up just as dark but for torches along the stone walls and iron bars, behind which Dwalin stood with his large booted foot on the back of the Goblin and his axe to its neck. In the front of the bars stood Thorin, Glóin, and Dori with three heavily armed guards.

They stared at the entrance of the wizard and Hobbit and Thorin’s evident displeasure at Bilbo’s appearance was immediate. His glare zeroed in on Gandalf. “I told you, Tharkûn!”

“And I told you, King Thorin. This is no time for personal sensibilities!”

Bilbo sighed, crossing his arms impatiently, waiting for Gandalf to realize he’d just bypassed his own plan. In the meanwhile, he glanced across to the Goblin, who was staring back at him with an avid interest despite being subdued and pressed into the stone floor.

Rolling his eyes at the glaring match going on between king and wizard, Bilbo wandered closer to the bars and crouched there, tilting his head. Then he glanced up at Dwalin, who was staring at him, eyebrows raised. “Haven’t you dressed his wound?” he asked sympathetically.

“We pulled the arrow out and bound it, if that’s what you mean,” the captain grunted.

“Well, no wonder the poor thing isn’t talking to you,” Bilbo replied and saw the Goblin’s head lift and a calculating gleam come to his eyes.

“Bilbo, what are you doing?” Thorin demanded, hooking a hand under the Hobbit’s arm. Bilbo rose to his feet and turned to his husband-to-be.

“Is this yet another thing being kept from me?” he inquired with cool look that drained Thorin’s scowl away and replaced it with vague alarm. “Thorin, you need to trust me.”

“I trust you,” the Dwarf replied automatically and leaned down when Bilbo tugged at his collar. “I do not trust it .”

“Then trust Dwalin to his duty, and let me apply some honey to this situation,” the Hobbit whispered into his ear.

Thorin’s look was doubtful, but he nodded. Clearly, he too had seen the Goblin’s reaction to his consort-to-be.

Bilbo eased back and smiled flirtatiously at Thorin before turning a smile onto the Goblin who was now starting to leer. “Some kindness is never a waste, even for such a creature as this,” he said and almost laughed at the disbelieving looks he received by the attending Dwarrow.

“There you are, little thing,” the Goblin rasped, grinning with all his teeth. “That’s what that corpse-eater told me, that you’re protected by Ravens, Dwarves, and Men. But you’re just a plaything of the king, aren’t you? You must be skilled at bed-warming to pull a Dwarf from his gold.”

Bilbo continued to smile even as Thorin began to growl behind him. “I wouldn’t say that,” he returned pleasantly. “After all,” he touched his gold crown, “I’m not just a bed-warmer.” He crouched down. “And who are you, Master Goblin?”

Predictably, the thing ignored the question, his eyes trained on Bilbo’s crown. “Like gold, do you, Halfling?”

“I like some of it,” the Hobbit admitted. “Do you like gold, Master Goblin?”

“It buys me all I want,” the creature replied. “It’s powerful, gold.”

The Hobbit nodded understandingly. “Is that why you were on the slopes of Erebor - for gold?”

“I was hunting that sneak-thief, and I caught him and got him squealing in the end. Wrung his neck for the chase he gave me.”

“Why was running him down so important, to take you all this way?” Bilbo wondered, and when the Goblin’s expression turned into a distrustful sneer, he crouched down as close to the bars as he could and whispered: “Were you looking for something, as he was? Something that had been stolen and lost? Something precious ?”’ He grinned knowingly.

The Goblin’s eyes widened dramatically and he hissed. “You have it?” His yellow eyes glittered hatefully. “Give it to me! A weak little thing like you cannot wield it.”

Wield it? Bilbo hadn’t thought they were looking for a weapon. “And you could?” he asked curiously.

“There are more necks needing squeezing and backs that want stabbing,” the creature whispered with a maniacal chuckle. “With it on my finger, I won’t be stopped this time.”

Bilbo lowered his head and covered his mouth with his hand, amazed and aghast at this new understanding. Finally, he looked up. “I am not convinced,” he said aloofly, hoping for yet a bit more

The Goblin laughed, low and evil. “It’s dangerous, you useless whore. He will come for it, and when He finds you, you’ll be opening more than your legs for the Dark Lord. That Gollum knew it, knew that it would try to head east to its master. He’ll come for it here, and your Dwarf king won’t stand against him.”

Feeling nauseous, Bilbo rose to his feet and dropped his pleasant expression. “Thank you, Master Goblin,” he said, and turned to Thorin, ignoring the howls of the creature behind him. “I have all that I need.”

Thorin exchanged a grim look with Dwalin and the Goblin’s howls stopped abruptly with a sickening gurgle. Thorin cupped Bilbo’s cheek with his large hand to block his eyes from the sight. “I didn’t want you to hear its filth,” he said, staring down into Bilbo’s eyes with concern.

“I have faced Goblins before,” the Hobbit reminded him. “It’s not pleasant to hear, but he’s told me much that I didn’t know.”

Thorin nodded. “Why was it here?”

“He was looking for the same thing that other creature was, and now I know what it is. But will you allow me to research and consult before we speak of it? I would not want to burden you before your coronation.”

“Who will you be consulting?”

Bilbo glanced at Gandalf, who was watching and listening from the wall by the door. “Gandalf and maybe Ori.”

The king inhaled deeply and glanced at Dwalin; he grimaced. “I will allow it, Bilbo. However, if immediate danger is a threat, you will tell me.”

The Hobbit agreed, glancing at Gandalf, whose expression was troubled. “Of course, Thorin. I would not endanger anyone for the world.”

“How did you do that?” Dwalin demanded, opening up the cell and coming out. Bilbo refused to look at lifeless heap on the floor. “How could you convince it  -?”

“Oh, I am sorry to say Hobbits learn to lie politely from an early age. It comes from having so many relations in close quarters; you’re bound to despise a few of them. But don’t look so worried, Dwalin. We don’t lie about the important things. I’m reading up on your laws, but I figured you wouldn’t be averse to me lying to a Goblin.”

“You thought right, my lad,” Dwalin agreed and thumped Bilbo on the back, sending him stumbling into Thorin. “Good work, there.”

Thorin laughed at Bilbo’s amazed expression.

Chapter Text

“Bilbo, whatever did that creature tell you?” Gandalf cried as he followed the Hobbit’s quick pace up stairs.

“Not here!” Bilbo croaked, frantically retracing his steps back to his room. They passed through the pubic corridors, Gandalf smiling and nodding benignly at the staring Dwarrow who watched them hurry past. To the Dwarrow in Erebor, Bilbo was now distinguishable from his fellow Shirelings due to his new status and his crown, but there weren’t many Men who had free run of the mountain, if Man Gandalf was.

Hobbits in the front room of the Shire quarters called out greetings to the Wizard but Bilbo’s haste impressed on them his urgency, and they fell silent, watching the two vanish behind Bilbo’s door.

The scribe went straight to his mathom casket and turning, dumped it out on hia bed. Gandalf watched this with growing concern.

“He said that with it on his finger, he would be unstoppable,” Bilbo muttered. He picked up his silver dagger and with its tip, moved the pile of jewelry about until he stopped, staring. Then he hooked a plain gold ring with the tip of the blade and showed it to the wizard. “He said it was the Dark Lord’s.”

Gandalf staggered back, gaping. “How in Arda-? It was lost, thousands of years ago!”

“Someone must have found it.” Bilbo allowed the ring to slide down onto the bed’s coverlet and they gazed down on it. “Could it be the One, or perhaps one of the Nine? Or the Seven - although I think that unlikely?”

The wizard looked at the Hobbit in surprise. “How do you know about -?”

“What do you think I was reading in Elrond’s library?” he asked curtly. “Also, there are paintings all over Imladris; I’d be blind if I wasn’t aware of the history of magic rings in Middle-earth.”

“He said the Dark Lord ?”

“Yes, he said that it would want to travel east, to its master.”

Gandalf was looking grayer than usual. He pulled up a chair and sat heavily, examining the ring with steepled fingers. “How do you know this is it? Have you worn it? Where did it come from?”

Bilbo recounted the information Dís had given him and added: “I never tried to wear it - it was strangely heavy and even Amaranth thought it suspicious. I wondered at her reaction at the time.”

The wizard pressed his fingers to his mouth, brow furrowing. “Bilbo, I dare not touch it, but I need you to put on that ring.”

The Hobbit shook his head in disbelief. “ The Dark Lord’s ring ?”

“The corruption of the rings created for and by Sauron is always a slow process, and it’s best that someone resilient should try it.”

Bilbo looked at Gandalf and snorted. “You mean someone powerless to truly wield it properly.” Sighing, he reached down and put the ring on his middle finger.

Gandalf jumped to his feet, mouth open. “Bilbo!” he cried, looking around.

Bilbo replied: “Yes?” He too looked about as well, wondering what Gandalf was seeing, but nothing strange presented itself. “What is it?”

The wizard returned his attention to the Hobbit. “Take off the ring.”

Bilbo shrugged and did so. “Certainly. Well, that was a waste - whatever was I thinking? He must have gotten it all wrong, or I did.” He looked down at the plain gold circle between his two fingers and flipped it, spinning, into the air. When he caught it, he grinned up at Gandalf.

Gandalf’s blue eyes were intensely trained on him, and he was not smiling.

“What is it?”

The wizard rubbed his mouth, then stood. “Give it to me,” he said, opening a pouch hanging from his belt.

Bilbo looked at the ring in his hand, shining bright and gold, and then at the old man. He had prettier rings, after all. “All right,” he said, and dropped it into the pouch. “What will you do with it?”

“I must ask those wiser and more knowledgeable than myself about this matter,” Gandalf replied, heavily. “Even if this is not the ring the Goblin spoke of, it’s better that I safely remove it from the mountain than sorry that I left such a thing behind. You will be on the lookout for a magic ring, won’t you?”

“There’s no dearth of rings in this mountain,” Bilbo replied, glancing sardonically at the array of examples strewn on his bed. “But I am not expert on the subject; how am I to tell if it a magic ring?”

“If you do not see an immediate magical effect when someone puts it on, you should look for a slow darkening of spirit. Dwarrow are resistant to the rule of such magics but will eventually allow their less admirable traits to take them over. A Dwarf may become obsessed or violent under its influence. The Seven did not enslave the Dwarrow so much as subvert them; a creeping evil where less inflexible folk might be immediately overpowered.”

The wizard straightened, and he smiled slowly at Bilbo. “My friend, I fear I will not be able to attend the coronation, and -” He waved away Bilbo’s objecting open mouth and frown. “- I doubt Thorin will miss me. Dwarrow have never much needed my kind of help, you see, unless in dire circumstances.”

With that, Gandalf swept from the room, calling his brief farewells to the Hobbits outside as he passed. Bilbo sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed, looking down at the bright things scattered across its surface.

Really,  he was tired of being underestimated. Who did Gandalf think he was fooling?

 

The idea of waiting until after the coronation to tell Thorin what had occurred, or not telling him at all, dissipated very quickly once Bilbo contemplated the king’s possible reactions to the news that a magic ring, possibly The One Ring, had been in the Hobbit’s possession and was given to a wizard to dispose of.

Arriving early to Thorin’s study for contract negotiations, Bilbo told him flat out what had happened.

Thorin listened with only a slight frown. “He took it with him?”

“Yes. I hope you aren’t too angry that he took it away. He seemed to be very worried about it, and considering what that creature said about it, I didn’t protest the idea.”

“You did well, my heart,” the king finally replied with a wry smile that surprised Bilbo. “We Dwarrow have only had a dark history with magic rings, and we do not need another cursed object within the Mountain.”

Another ?” Bilbo asked, but Thorin shook his head. Right, another secret.

Balin and Ori arrived with paper and more books. Bilbo assured them he’d read up on Dwarven law, most of which, beyond the fundamental laws most cultures shared, seemed to involve maintaining the secrets of the culture, avoiding deception, and submitting nothing to Outsiders - land, cultural knowledge, and rule. To a Hobbit, this was as simple a concept as it was inexplicable - Hobbits were neither secretive nor deceptive unless for propriety’s sake. However, a distrust of outsiders was more than understood in the Shire.

Ori beamed at him. “Dwarrow marriages often use contracts to clarify property and inheritance rights or roles within the family business. How do Hobbits use them?”

“Usually for the same reason, especially if the Hobbits in question are coming into the marriage from affluent families.”

“But this is also a royal Dwarrow marriage to a person from a different culture,” Balin added. “The expectations are more far-reaching and affect more than just the two being married.”

The door opened; Paladin and Rosalda entered. The Thain carried only a few pieces of paper and Rosalda possessed a familiar bundle that was Ori’s translation of Dwarrow laws. Balin took her hand and seated her, and bowed to Paladin before returning his attention to his king.

The Thain offered up his apology. “I mistakenly announced that I was writing down the typical agreements in our marriage contracts, and well, you know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen.”

The Dwarrow in the room had clearly not heard that bit of conventional wisdom, from their blank stares, but then Paladin presented his paper. Ori looked at it and blinked, turning it over to the back as if he expected more on that side.

“Yes, that’s it,” Bilbo chuckled.

“But there’s nothing about inheritance,” the scribe complained.

“Oh, that’s all tradition and custom,” Paladin explained. “Each family has a way of doing it, but it’s usually the eldest child inherits the management of the family’s possessions and makes sure the other siblings are provided for.”

Balin and Thorin exchanged glances. “Among Dwarrow, it is a imperative that possessions stay within the family, but I take it this is not a concern among Hobbits. How many siblings are typical?” Balin asked, curious.

Bilbo, Paladin, and Rosalda looked at each other. “Four?” Rosalda ventured, and Paladin chimed in: “To seven?’

“That’s about average,” Bilbo agreed cheerfully and grinned at the Dwarrow who were gaping at them.

“...seven?” Balin whispered.

“They are little babies,” Rosalda laughed at his flummoxed expression. She put both hands out, forming a V with her little fingers barely touching.

“That small?” Ori whimpered.

Paladin laughed. “How big are Dwarf babies?”

Thorin immediately put out his big hands about a hands-width apart. Hobbit eyebrows flew up.

Rosalda, hand on her stomach, murmured: “Goodness!”

 

Eventually, the particulars were sketched out, a standard marriage contract that was acceptable to both Dwarf and Hobbit sensibilities. Bilbo knew that this was mostly for Balin and Rosalda’s benefit; his and Thorin’s would be far more complex. However, this foundation was the first important step.

Bilbo was not especially surprised at the lack of any mention of “wifely” duties, considering the varied roles of female Dwarrow he’d witnessed within Erebor, but Rosalda seemed taken aback when the two or three lines from Paladin’s version of the contract outlining admonishments to the wife about her obedience and her place within the home were immediately struck out by Thorin and Balin with expressions of distaste. Paladin only raised his eyebrows, but was not reluctant to follow along with Dwarrow sensibilities.

Once the meeting broke up for lunch, Thorin stopped Bilbo from leaving with everyone else. “By tradition, I must abide alone tonight,” he said with obvious regret, his hand falling and carressing against Bilbo’s shoulder and arm.

“Don’t worry; I won’t ask why,” Bilbo said, smiling.

“It is no particular mystery,” Thorin replied. “My ancestor, Durin, dwelled alone in the early days of the world. The coronation of a Durin heir always follows the story of Durin’s self-crowning. Afterwards, I will explain it in more detail, if you wish.”

“Not now?”

“Now we make sure you have eaten,” the king said with authority. “After all, the tradition is that I must be alone after midnight, but there are no limitations for before midnight.” He stooped to give the Hobbit a quick, smiling kiss before guiding him out.

 

Over lunch, there was general discussion of expectations for the crowning, which appeared to be light-hearted, but Thorin was quiet and kept his hand over Bilbo’s for most of the meal. Balin, who had joined them briefly, eyed their joined hands and gave Bilbo the most telling, kindly look that said it all. Thorin would need as much support as the Hobbit could give.

“My love?” he murmured and Thorin bent to listen. “Is there a place we can escape to, for a few hours?”

Thorin looked at him with questioning blue eyes.

“Where we can be alone?” Bilbo hinted with a smile.

The king smiled back.

Chapter Text

Thorin had been mysterious about plans for the time he and Bilbo would spend together that afternoon and therefore, when Fíli came to fetch him, Bilbo was appropriately mystified. To add to the intrigue, the prince's dark golden hair was uncharacteristically bound back in a tight braid, and he wore plain worn clothes.

“Goodness, I would not have known you,” Bilbo exclaimed, waving a general hand up and down at the prince.

Fíli grinned good naturedly. “Uncle, sometimes we do a bit of work requiring fewer beads and baubles.” He waggled a hand, with his only adornment, a surprisingly age-blackened iron bracelet with angular dips and valleys carved into it.

Bilbo belatedly realized that even the beads in the prince`s moustaches were missing. “Naturally. I wouldn't garden in my waistcoat.”

The prince tilted his head at that and scratched an ear. “Ah, yes. That's a Hobbit craft.”

Bilbo sighed and followed his “nephew" further through the corridors from the Hobbit delegation`s quarters and past the royal rooms until they were walking into areas Bilbo had never seen.

“Am I allowed to ask where we’re going?” he asked in a hopeful tone.

“You can ask ,” Fíli jibed, and gave Bilbo a wide grin.

The corridors began to become rougher and descend gradually. The Hobbit discerned a certain age to the carving of the rock about them, and was vindicated when figures began to appear in the walls, similar to those great carved effigies that flanked Erebor’s huge gates. However, each figure was distinctly life-like and different from the next, clearly depicting Dwarrow from different eras, although most of them wore some sort of indication of royalty or wealth, and all of them carried hammers. The first were carved in startling detail, down to the embroidery on their clothes and the lines in their skins, but each effigy grew less detailed as they proceeded, smoothing out the small details as they succumbed to hundreds of years of damp. Fíli stopped in front of one of these and tugged off his bracelet. He then thrust it against a circular design in the belt of a figure and a door cracked into being, lines suddenly appearing.

Bilbo stepped back with a shocked exclamation and the prince laughed. “We like making hidden doors, we Dwarrow,” he explained, but Bilbo was already hearing what the closed door had masked, the unmistakable sound of a hammer striking metal, a rhythmic beat. The Shire didn’t have many blacksmiths, but he knew that sound.

“What-? Is that … a forge?”

“Family forge,” Fíli confirmed. He took hold of Bilbo’s hand and pressed the bracelet into his palm. “Go on now. He’s expecting you.”

Bilbo blinked but the prince was already turning and walking back the way they’d come. The Hobbit shrugged, looking at the bracelet-key, and went through the door. The corridor beyond was lit by torches in flanking sconces, and Bilbo merely followed the sounds until the corridor opened up and revealed a circular chamber with a high ceiling and three stepped levels, culminating into the forge at the third step. Seven pillars surrounded that portion, and Bilbo had to walk a little around the lowest level to see between them, to the roaring fire at one end and the anvil at the center.  Water spilled along a trough that circled the perimeter before disappearing back into stone.

The striking of the hammer had paused, and Thorin came into view, his hammer in his right hand and tongs holding a cherry-red piece of metal to the anvil’s surface in the other. He was watching Bilbo who waved, a little self-consciously.

The Dwarf thrust the metal he was working on into the fire and laid down his hammer, stripping his gloves off and smiling down at his consort-to-be. It was then that Bilbo took in the entirety of what Thorin was, or was not, wearing and he was struck motionless. Like his nephew, his wealth of hair was braided back, and he wore a plain, shabby, dark shirt which was open at the throat and loose over the waist of plain trousers. It was, Bilbo thought, the least amount of clothing and adornment he had ever seen on Thorin outside the bedchamber. As the Dwarf descended the steps and sat there casually with spread knees, Bilbo approved of the sight of his lover stripped of his usual armor.

He stepped forward between Thorin’s knees and smiled admiringly as the Dwarf’s arms encircled his waist. “Is this where we will spend the rest of our day?”

“Until dinner at least,” Thorin replied and leaned in to catch the Hobbit’s mouth with his own. He was fever-warm, his skin damp from heat and exertion, and Bilbo hummed in pleasure, returning leisurely presses of the lips. There was something exposed and vulnerable about Thorin here in this place. His hands cradled Bilbo’s cheeks as he pulled ever so slightly back and gazed at him with soft blue eyes.

“You’re different here,” Bilbo murmured, tracing a finger along Thorin’s hairline where a thread of silver began. “Is it this place, this forge?”

The king huffed a small, awed laugh. “It’s you, being here.” His eyes momentarily wavered about them and then returned back to Bilbo’s face. “My Heart, here, in the heart of my family’s craft.”

The Hobbit tilted his head, contemplating Thorin, and this ancient place, carved around a single fire, a single anvil, a place of running water - a deceptively simple heart elevated by talent, time, and reverence. “You’re a blacksmith,” he murmured thoughtfully.

“I have been a blacksmith as long as I’ve been a prince royal or an uncrowned king,” his husband-to-be clarified softly. “Smithing is what Durins generally do; we have an affinity for it.”

“Fíli,” Bilbo realized.

“He gets that from his mother, actually,” Thorin admitted. “Although raising the boys diverted her for a time, and the forges of the Blue Mountains were not to compare with those of Khazad-dûm or Erebor.”

“Hmm.” Bilbo let his fingers wander down to Thorin’s neck to the open hollow revealed by the unusually open collar of his shirt. The king drew in a sharp breath. “I like this,” the Hobbit confessed.

This ?”

“You’re usually so … hidden, you know,” Bilbo explained. “Formal, I suppose. Couldn’t have imagined you like this, like an everyday sort of person.”

Thorin laughed softly, his own hands roaming a bit as well. “What sort of everyday person would I be, I wonder? Not a Hobbit sort, I don’t think.”

“No, no … I can’t see you as a farmer or a tradesman, but we do have blacksmiths in the Shire, and you’re far more fetching than any Hobbit blacksmith, I can tell you.” He grinned up at Thorin, eyes glinting flirtatiously. “ You would have definitely caught my eye.”

The Dwarf’s voice lowered suggestively. “Did you have a roving eye, Bilbo, as a lad? Mahal help me, I can see it; you would have been irresistible.”

Bilbo laughed then. “Oh, I was imminently resistible, just a randy gentlehobbit, not so different from the rest. You can ask …” He stopped. “No, no, I’d rather you not hear the embarrassing stories, even from my friends.”

“Now I am intrigued,” Thorin breathed. “You did not propose marriage to any of them, I hope?”

“No, no proposals in my past,” Bilbo assured him. “Although…” He tugged at Thorin’s open collar with a teasing finger. “I would have been tempted by this handsome blacksmith, with his broad shoulders and smoldering eyes.”

Thorin pulled him close and breathed against his ear: “Are you here to seduce me, young gentlehobbit? Do tell me that at least some of your intentions are not entirely honorable.”

Bilbo groaned, those words like silk rubbing against his skin. “I should like to seduce you right here,” he husked, turning his face into Thorin’s and catching his mouth with his own. Thorin groaned and returned that gesture with enthusiasm. When Bilbo’s hand fell to his upper thigh and slid its way upwards to investigate, Thorin grunted, “Wicked.”

“You think this wicked? Oh, we have not begun to excavate the things I want to do to you,” the Hobbit whispered hotly into his ear, his fingers following the shape of Thorin through his breeches. “If it wasn't for all this stone, I would lay you out and teach you.”

Thorin's mouth dropped open and his chest heaved. “Would you?” he gasped.

Bilbo regarded him with a smile and squeezed the Dwarf’s girth with admiring hands. Thorin leaned back on his elbows on the step behind him and spread his legs wider. “This is so nice, my love,” Bilbo purred, “the way you are with me, how hard you are, and how you feel in my hands.”

“Bilbo, have mercy!” his lover cried.

The Hobbit immediately opened the closures of Thorin’s breeches to release him, and then hastily removed his own coat, telling Thorin to take off his shirt. The Dwarf obeyed, looking a little bewildered but clearly in the state of mind to do whatever Bilbo asked him to do. The Hobbit turned his coat inside out and folded under his own knees before leaning over Thorin and taking him in hand. The Dwarf cursed brokenly, releasing his arms from his shirt, gifting Bilbo a view of the gleam of his stocky, muscular stomach and chest. Bilbo licked his lips and bit them absently, savoring the sight, and then the rigid sex in his hand. He measured it with a slide of his palm, although he knew its dimensions as nearly as his own; familiarity had not dimmed his lust. The rather wild look in Thorin’s eyes as he watched Bilbo only added to the Hobbit’s determination, and the Dwarf’s exultant shout when finally the Hobbit took him in his mouth.

Bilbo’s youth had never been terribly wild, but he had shown a marked enough preference in partners that friends and acquaintances in his age group were never surprised at his choices. Self-assured males with wide shoulders and large frames had always featured strongly in Bilbo’s desires; somehow, Yavanna and Aulë had contrived to give the Hobbit someone to love and desire in equal measure. Every part of Thorin was desirable and, Bilbo thought wryly, this was no different, even the helpless sounds reverberating through his frame pleased the Hobbit as he strove to encompass as much of his Dwarf’s sex down his throat.

“How - how can you -?” Thorin gasped as Bilbo slowly withdrew and lovingly kissed and sucked the smooth head.

“You underestimate Hobbit appetite,” his consort-to-be chuckled, catching his breath. He gazed at Thorin, his heaving chest and half-lidded eyes. “After all, what is the male sex but a very large mushroom?”

The king’s mouth dropped open and he huffed a laugh. “Is that what you call it, a mushroom?”

“Toadstool, rod, sausage…”

“Hammer, truncheon, spear…” the Dwarf returned.

Bilbo screwed up his face. “Who in Arda would want to put a hammer in his mouth?!”

“You would be surprised,” the king murmured, laying a hand over his eyes. Bilbo laughed and bent back to his enjoyable occupation and soon had his lover gasping again. He himself was in similar straits until Thorin tugged him up and off, pulling Bilbo to straddle him. It wasn’t what the Hobbit would have wanted but Thorin was determined to touch him in turn, and that swiftly turned Bilbo’s mind to more immediate pleasure. It wasn’t until he had come undone by the work of Thorin’s hands that he could return to his earlier ministrations and finally have the Dwarf shaking apart beneath him in the manner he’d longed for.

For a long time they sprawled side by side on the steps until Bilbo stirred himself to try to save his crushed coat and Thorin remembered his own modesty enough to put on his shirt. The Hobbit watched sadly as the cloth covered up Thorin’s assets. He gave a mournful enough sigh that the Dwarf laughed, shaking his head in amused bewilderment. “I cannot think you would like me unclothed so very much,” he muttered.

“I would rather you not cover yourself at all,” the Hobbit stated baldly, “but alas, some people might find that shocking.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo returned from his afternoon with Thorin with a rumpled coat and pink cheeks. He held his head high as he passed through the front room and past half the Shire delegation (with the surprising inclusion of Dís) and sighing, slammed his door on the knowing laughter that followed him.

After a bit of washing up and a change of clothes, he was ready to face the world in the shape of the Thain and Princess Dís. “Negotiations!” Paladin called out cheerfully, waving a few pieces of parchment that he and the lady had between them.

Bilbo joined them at the table and poured himself some tepid tea from the Shire-style tea service (cobbled together by the more ingenious among them) there. He glanced curiously at the paperwork, then at Dís. “Trade negotiations?” he guessed with a smile.

Immigration negotiations,” Paladin clarified with a rueful look. Bilbo found himself making a doubtful grimace and awkwardly tried to change it to a smile for Dís’s sake.

“Mahal, it cannot be that difficult to offer incentives to get some Shire farmers to Dale!” the princess cried in exasperation. She smacked the papers with the flat of her hand. “Bard needs farmers and we all need food. Surely there have to be some Hobbits that would want the opportunity!”

Bilbo rubbed his lips thoughtfully. “There would have to be assurances of income to start, safety, and land ownership,” he said after a moment, thinking about the sorts of families that would be willing to leave the Shire for a new start. There were families who were perpetually poor and had no hope of buying their land from their landlords. “Also, a Hobbit authority, I think. Hobbits can be as stubborn as Dwarrow in keeping to their own ways. Oh, and -!”

“Smials!” Paladin and Bilbo said together.

Smiles ?”

The Hobbits laughed and explained the idea of traditional Hobbit holes. Bilbo went a far as to sketch a diagram of a typical smial. Dís watched this with a curious expression. “So, those round doors I’ve seen along the hills in the Shire -” she began with a grin.

“You’ve been to the Shire!” the Thain exclaimed, surprised and delighted.

“On the way here, actually. Not very welcoming to outsiders, you Shire-folk, but we were able to trade for foodstuffs.”

“Not welcoming to outsiders, she says,” Paladin echoed to Bilbo with a wink.

“Yes, yes,” the princess muttered. “Very funny.”

“Those round doors are the entrances to smials,” Bilbo explained, going back to the thread of the conversation, “which are dug deep into the hills, sometimes all the way through the hills, if the family is big enough and can afford to keep digging and shoring up the spaces they create. It takes a bit of income to furnish out the holes in style. If Dale and Erebor can offer smials to immigrating Hobbit families, with land to call their own to farm, that’s enough incentive to entice them here.”

Dís was looking at Bilbo with a serious expression. “You do realize that someone will have to be their Thain here in Erebor?”

“And by someone, she means you,” Paladin added, just as seriously.

“What? No! There is only one Thain, of the Shire.”

“Call it what you will,” Dís returned. “As the highest ranking Hobbit in Erebor, you must govern your countryfolk. They must have an advocate and a judge of their laws.”

Bilbo rubbed his forehead. “Gracious, this is complicated!”

Paladin smirked. “Oh, just appoint sheriffs, then, for everyday problems.”

The princess of Erebor tilted her head curiously. “What would be ‘everyday’ problems?”

Paladin shrugged. “Public feuding? Intoxication.”

“Sabotaging crops,” Bilbo added, thinking of the worst thing he could think of. “Family disputes over property.” He clapped a hand over his mouth and stared at his cousin with wide eyes.

“And by no means allow the Sackville-Bagginses to immigrate,” the Thain said with a cheeky wink.

 

Dinner had a celebratory air to it. Thorin’s hair was still unadorned but for his courtship braid. He wore plain but richly embroidered dark clothes, without a single piece of metal or jewels. No one remarked on it, nor were they dressed any differently from any other night.

While those at dinner were energetic and the talk was cheerful, Thorin was his usual stoic self, his smiles rare. He did often take Bilbo’s hand, but seemed distracted. The Hobbit controlled his impulse to ask about what rituals were traditional for Dwarven rulers on the eve of their official crowning ceremonies, figuring that if he were meant to know, he would be told eventually. His own long habit of academic curiosity would have to be suspended, at least for a while. After all, Ori and Balin had both assured him that once he married Thorin, very few secrets would be kept from him.

A subdued parting after dinner, and Bilbo went to his solitary bed.

 

“Mother?” Bilbo said.

The Hobbit lady, who was not a Hobbit lady, turned and looked at him, smiling. “I am not your mother, Bilbo,” she said with a voice that sounded like the summer wind in the high trees, the rushing of gentle brooks. “But you know me.”

“I do know you, My Lady,” the Hobbit breathed. Her hair was long and red, and she wore a green kirtle. She seemed soft about the edges, as if if he looked very hard, he might see through her.

She glanced to her side. “Do you know him ?” she asked.

Bilbo looked. A tall Dwarf, but really not a Dwarf, stood next to her. He remembered now, although this being was much more vivid and present than in his previous dream. “I think so, My Lady. Is this your husband, Lord Aulë?”

Yavanna smiled again. “He is. We are in his place now.”

Bilbo bowed. The glance of the Valar was striking, light-eyed in a dark face. He looked vaguely familiar.

“Bilbo, my child, you must now speak words of comfort.”

The Hobbit blinked. “Words of comfort… what sort of-”

“To Thorin,” said Aulë, with a voice like the deepest places of the earth. “You must tell him.”

Bilbo woke up.

 

Bilbo rushed down the hallway, pulling on his coat hastily. He pushed through the doors to Thorin’s outer chamber and then stopped abruptly at the sight that greeted him there. Almost the whole Company was there; some were pacing back and forth and others were talking in low voices. They seemed agitated and bewildered, restless.

Dwalin, closest to the door, spotted him first and thundered: “Oh, this is no time for love-games!” at almost the same time as Balin asked: “What are you doing here, Master Baggins?”

Bilbo glowered at Dwalin. “First of all, how dare you. ‘Love-games,’ indeed! Secondly, if you must know, I’ve had a dream.”

The response to this was unexpected, to say the least. Ori squeaked and put his hands to his mouth. Balin’s eyes rounded and his mouth dropped open. The rest of the Company reacted as if he’d just escorted Aulë himself into the room, clearly galvanized by his words.

Balin motioned him forward towards the door to Thorin’s inner rooms. “Master Baggins, you had a dream, concerning His Majesty?”

“I did,” Bilbo said, more confidently than he felt.

Balin immediately knocked on the door. “Laddie, Bilbo is here.”

Thorin opened the door, looking pale and weary. “Bilbo, what-?”

“Yes, yes, I know I’m not supposed to be here past midnight, but it isn’t midnight quite yet, and I’ve had a dream, if you must know.”

The same change of expression came over Thorin’s face. “You had better come in, then,” he said and shut the door after the Hobbit.  He ran his hands through his hair. “A dream, you said.”

“A particular dream; I had one somewhat similar to it when we were in Dale, but I didn’t mark it as anything of particular importance at the time.”

Thorin waved Bilbo over to a chair by the fire and joined him the in one opposite. “Dreams are important.”

“So I take it. Everyone looked rather relieved when I showed up and told them.”

“Tell me about it.” Thorin leaned forward, his hands between his knees.

“In my dream I see Yavanna and Aulë - pardon, Mahal - standing before me. They appeared to be a Hobbitess and a Dwarf, although in my dream I am aware that that is not all they are.”

Thorin’s eyes grew wide. “And Mahal, what did he look like?”

“Tall, dark-skinned with eyes like yours and Dáin’s. In fact, in coloring, much like Dáin. Red-haired, but in a way that the red almost hurt to look at it, like the red-hot of the fire. He had a beard, rather long, I think, and a circlet of silver inset with white gems like stars.”

Thorin blew out a breath. “You have seen him.”

“Well, yes, although Our Lady spoke to me first, and told me that I must speak to you, to say words of comfort.”

“Words of comfort.”

“That’s how she said it, but then he spoke. Thorin! His voice! Our Lady’s voice is all rushing streams and the wind in the leaves, but his voice… his voice is like rocks moving, like the strike of something heavy against metal, and he said, ‘All is as it should be.’.”

Thorin drew in a sudden breath. “ Say that again .”

“All is as it should be.”

The Dwarf king sat back, his breath rushing out, color returning to his face. He pressed his hands to his eyes and let out a shaky laugh. “Thank Mahal, thank him of all the Valar, thank him,” he muttered.

Bilbo regarded his lover with some concern. “I take it a dream at this time is auspicious?”

“It’s not only auspicious, but expected, but neither I nor my Companions had a dream. It was wearing upon us.”

“Oh!” Bilbo cried in realization, reflecting back to the expressions of the members of the company. “That explains much.”

“You said you had a similar dream in Dale?”

“When we were … ah, abed … and I was looking at our crowns on the sideboard. I saw the Lady and the Lord standing there; she was much clearer than he was, and at first I thought - well, I don’t know. But it faded and I thought it had been one of those dreams that flicker in and out.”

The king listened to this soberly. “My Heart, I thank you.” A hard series of knocks at the door made them both jump. “But you must go now.”

“Ah, yes!” Bilbo slid from the chair. “I will see you later.”

“You shall,” Thorin agreed, and escorted him to the door. “Balin, I am ready. Bilbo, good night.” He briefly squeezed Bilbo’s upper arm before letting him go.

“Good night,” Bilbo returned with a smile.

“So it was a true dream?” he heard Balin ask the king as he started to leave.

Ori followed the Hobbit out the door, eyes wide. He was clutching a book, and gave Bilbo a pleading look, but the Hobbit yawned and shook his head. “Later, I’ll explain,” he mumbled and trudged back to his room and to bed.

Chapter Text

Bilbo woke to excited knocking at his door. “Come on, cousin!” Amaranth called from the other side, laughing. “You cannot play the slug all morning.” Other voices laughed with her on the other side of the door.

“Certainly not with you lot,” the Hobbit groaned into his pillow. He pushed himself out from beneath his warm and comfortable covers, grumbling, and stumbled to the door. Still dressed in his nightshirt, he gave a glare out of bleary eyes at the giggling Hobbits on the other side. “You had better have a good reason for all this bother.”

Behind Amaranth, Dora, Tom, and Rosalda was a smiling Balin and next to him Dori. That could mean only one thing: clothes.

Before he could think fast enough to slam and lock his door, the small crowd pushed their way in and with Dori came a troupe of Dwarrow loaded down with unidentifiable swaths of cloth, and jewel-encrusted caskets. Bilbo knew they couldn’t create clothing by the time he was due to make an appearance, but they seemed determined to deck him with something over the clothes already destined for the day.

“Thorin finally is acting the part of a king,” Dori tutted in the midst of shooing random Hobbits out of his way. “His Majesty deserves a future Consort under the Mountain who is also acting the part.”

“That was the point of that bloody, golden crown!” Bilbo cried indignantly, stung by the idea he hadn’t been holding up his end of the deal. He jabbed a finger in the direction of the ostentatious thing sitting innocently on a pile of books next to his bed. The Dwarrow all looked and gaped, as if he’d shown them a murder victim. Balin hurriedly but reverently picked up the crown and put it on the mantle of Bilbo’s little fireplace then gave the Hobbit a stern look. “It was perfectly safe there,” he defended himself.

He crossed his arms and huffed at the variety of heads shaking sadly. Dwarrow . “Need I remind you,” Balin said, “that no one but Thorin may wear a crown during the ceremony?”

Bilbo did recall Balin telling him that at some point, but he hadn’t quite twigged what that had to do with him, except that, happily, he wouldn’t have to include his own crown in his plans for the day.

They proceeded to unload their burdens on his bed and his modest table, and he saw fur, velvet, and hems embroidered with gold thread and bright gems. He eyed the door, and tried to calculate his potential trajectory and the speed he’d have to reach to successfully flee, but the traitor Hobbits were standing just outside, having been motioned out of the way.

“Don’t even try it, laddie,” Balin chuckled. “There’s nowhere to go in this mountain where one of us can’t find you.”

“Don’t I know it,” Bilbo grumbled, and squared his shoulders. Never be it said that a Baggins couldn’t rise to the high standards of etiquette.

 

He eventually made it to second breakfast in the great hall, having finally come to a consensus with Dori about what he would be wearing during the ceremony that afternoon. He was unsurprised that Thorin was not there; Dwarrow traditions of seclusion and predictably secret rituals meant the king would only emerge for the ceremony itself. Bilbo was glad to see Princess Dís there with Kili at least, and they waved him up to the high table.

“Uncle, you look hungry!” Kili observed and pushed the platter of bacon towards him as he sat.

“Thank you, I am. MIssed first breakfast because Balin and Dori ambushed me with ceremonial clothing. You Dwarrow and your need to ornament everything!”

Dís laughed. “You might as well get used to it. Your life from now on will likely be a procession of events with glittering vestments. There’s a certain expectation when you marry the King under the Mountain.”

“Can’t have the Consort looking like he’s impoverished,” Kíli added cheerfully. “Prosperous kingdom, prosperous king, prosperous consort.”

“Bloody show-offs,” Bilbo mumbled into his cup of tea. He perked up when a steaming plate of mushrooms arrived, borne by a beaming Bombur.

“Currying favor already?” Dís teased the large Dwarf, who laughed and crinkled his twinkling eyes at them.

“I welcome all of Bombur’s attempts at favor,” Bilbo said after chewing and swallowing his first delicious mouthful. “He knows how to make a Hobbit glad to be at table.”

“There may be more Hobbits in the kingdom for him to tempt before long,” Dís allowed.

From the sudden leaning in from both Kíli and Bombur and the excitement in the prince’s face, Bilbo knew she had just confirmed a rumor. “Oooh!” Kíli cried. “Will there be little Hobbits? Little Baggins-es?”

Bilbo snorted. “Not so many Bagginses; it’s hard to move a Baggins from his land. There’s a stronger likelihood of Tooks and Brandybucks, Cottons and Gamgees,  Maggots and Hornblowers. We’ll see.” He glanced at Bombur. “And all of them, no matter their names, will adore your mushrooms.”

“Shirelings won’t go hungry as long as I’m about,” the Dwarf boasted. “Although we might have to look out for new sources of mushrooms.”

The Hobbit shook his head. “Why in Arda would you have to look afar? This mountain is half damp; I’m surprised no one’s thrown down some fertilizer and seen what grows.”

The Dwarrow all stared at him as if he’d just started singing bawdy songs. He sighed and dug back into his kingly helping of mushrooms, content to hum to himself in satisfaction and relish the moment.

Towards the end, of all things Bofur appeared hurrying down the hall, waving his hands excitedly at everyone at the high table. He stopped before them, bent over panting and waving his hat to fan himself; finally he recovered, and gasping, said: “The silver fountain-”

Dis’s expression sharpened and she leaned towards him, her hands clenched on the edge of the table before her. “The silver fountain?” she asked urgently.

“It works! The silver fountain is working again!”

Almost as one Dís and Kíli stood, looks of ecstatic wonder on their faces. At the same time, all Dwarrow within hearing distance rose and ran in the direction from which Bofur had come. Dís threw down her napkin and pushed back her chair. “Come, Master Baggins. Come see a miracle.”

Bilbo scrambled to wipe his mouth and follow her. Bofur and Bombur flanked him with shining faces. The Hobbit looked from one to the other in confusion. “Silver fountains?” he asked.

“Like in the old prophetic song,” Bombur said, nodding.

Bilbo, even less informed, lifted his eyebrows and shrugged.

“Oh, of course,” Bofur said. “You don’t know the old Lake-town song - ‘The lord of silver fountains Shall come into his own.’”

“They were singing it when Thorin first returned to the mountain,” Bombur added. Then in a deep voice, sang out:

The King beneath the mountains,

   The King of carven stone,

The lord of silver fountains

   Shall come into his own!

 

This elicited a cheer from the Dwarrow around them, all of whom seemed to be heading in the same direction.

“A good strong rhyme,” Bilbo complimented, at a loss as to what to say to that. “So, it is a fountain made of silver? It must be very complicated that so many wish to see it work again.”

“Oh, no, lad,” Bofur corrected. “It’s not a fountain made of silver.”

Bilbo squinted at this, trying to work out the Dwarf’s emphasis. “But,” he said, finally fixing on the other possible meaning, “that’s not possible!”

“Never underestimate the Dwarrow,” Bombur advised with a grin, “when engineering is on the line.”

 

The Lonely Mountain contained the kingdom of Erebor, from it’s great front gate flanked by gigantic statues of kings of old, down to its deepest mines and up to its highest reaches. Within, it was a great Dwarven city, but most of that city extended out from the central expanse through enormous carved portals. When one entered Erebor, they first saw these open stone gateways on the left and on the right, but rising in front, impossible to ignore, stood the royal palace of the King under the Mountain, with carved low walls at first to circumscribe its outer courts before the palace’s doors themselves and upper balconies, windows and other such architectural necessities.

It was to the outer courtyard that the Dwarrow now streamed in mass; some like Princess Dís and her companions came from the palace’s front doors, but most from other parts of the city. Because the doors Dís and her companions were passing through were higher than the outer courtyard, Bilbo could see what was below them, the focus of so much attention … a squarish black stone fountain of seven levels, spilling silver liquid; Bilbo’s mouth dropped open.

The crowds parted for Dís and Kíli, and Bilbo took advantage of the space provided in their wake to avoid the crush. The size of the fountain impressed upon him the enormity of the work that must have been involved in its construction; from the palace it appeared to be of a proportionate size, but the thing towered solidly above them all. Silver ran in carved runnels and streamed down between the levels of stone, appearing to pool before streaming again.

Bilbo grabbed a flap of Bofur’s hat, tugging the Dwarf’s ear to him. “That cannot be pure silver,” he whispered, “or we would all be feeling it like a furnace.” He did not know much about smithing, but he did know that the problem with working silver was its high melting point.

Bombur beamed at him. “Right you are. It’s silver, just not all silver. That was the secret that we had to find out to make it work.” His voiced lowered even still. “Not very poetic if they were calling Thorin ‘lord of tin fountains.’”

Dwarrow were clapping and exclaiming around them, and Bilbo felt a tug on his sleeve. Dora Hornblower was standing behind him, looking up in amazement. “Well, would you look at that,” she said with wide, impressed eyes. “You would think these Dwarrow have something to prove.”

“It’s an omen, lass,” Bombur told her with mock severity.  

“They weren’t timing its completion for today?” Bilbo asked.

Bofur guffawed. “That’s cutting it mighty fine, wouldn’t you think? No, we’ve been trying to figure the thing out since we got the mountain back. Smaug crushed the other one, of course, and we couldn’t find the plans for how it was constructed for a long time. Then someone thought to locate the bits we had left over and figure out the exact content of the silver that flowed through it and therefore how to keep it flowing.”

Bilbo tilted his head. “Heat sources in the stone of the fountain?”

Bofur opened his mouth to reply when a Dwarf wearing the livery of the Messengers Guild came puffing up to Dís and bowing before handing her a paper. The princess frowned down at it, but then her brows flew up. “Have they been sighted yet?” she asked the Dwarf, who nodded. “Go take this to Lord Dáin,” she ordered and the messenger was off again.

“What is it?” Kíli asked.

“Thorin Stonehelm is coming; Dáin must have convinced him to leave the Iron Hills for once.” She began walking quickly in the direction of the gates, but Dora grabbed Bilbo’s hand and nodded at the upper gallery overlooking the open spaces of the cavernous entry into the mountain. These railed ledges led eventually to the ramparts outside, allowing a view from the mountain down to the main gate.

They made their way there, and acquired a Shire following consisting of Rosalda and Paladin who had come out to all the noise about the fountain, and Amaranth and Dodi. By the time they approached the ramparts, some others followed them up so that they made a very Hobbitish party gazing down to see a small procession of Dwarrow riding in.

“Are those … goats?” Amaranth asked, clearly trying not to squint to see better and failing utterly.

Bilbo, who had hoped not to stand too close to the edge until he absolutely must, crept up and glanced down. Yes, these Dwarrow were indeed riding rather large and shaggy goats. Having not see the arrival of Dáin’s group, he couldn’t say if it was an Iron Hills mode of transport or not. “Those are goats,” he affirmed, puzzled.

Below, Dís appeared through the gates with Kíli trailing behind, and then Balin arrived soon after with Dáin who promptly marched straight out to meet the incoming delegation, yelling something in Khuzdul and opening his arms expansively.  Once the riders were close enough, they dismounted and the foremost among them, a rather tall Dwarf with mahogany-red braids escaping his helmet, came forward to Dáin and embraced him. Their words were lost to distance, but the tone was affectionate.

The newcomer then approached Dís, and taking off his helmet, bowed to her.

Dora put a hand over her mouth and made a sound that Bilbo could only imagine happened very rarely outside the bedroom, and Amaranth peered down and bit her lip. Bilbo gazed down at whom was presumably Thorin III, son of Dáin of the Iron Hills, and raised his eyebrows, impressed. “A rather nicely favored Dwarf,” he commented in a friendly tone.

Dora and Amaranth gave him twin looks of astonishment at his lack of perception.

“Do you mean to say,” Rosalda said, withdrawing from the edge of the rampart and giving Bilbo a dry look, “that honey-colored skin, lustrous hair, and cheekbones that can sharpen a knife are merely ‘nice’?”

“Well, certainly,” Bilbo said with a grin. “He’s no Thorin Oakenshield, but…”

All three ladies rolled their eyes and made sounds of keen disappointment before returning to look at the handsome Dwarf some more. “What color are his eyes?” Dora asked.

“Some light color,” Rosalda replied.

Dodi, having been silent to that point, said: “A very pretty hazel.”

All the Hobbits turned to look at him, surprised.

Amaranth began to laugh.

Chapter Text

It took a rather long time to enter the throne room; immense though it was, not everyone had the honor of viewing the coronation first-hand. Many stood outside to see those who entered, and in hopes of seeing Thorin as he himself entered. Dwalin had the unenviable task of checking to make sure those who went through the doors were in fact meant to be there.

The Shire delegation were to be given space in the front, due to the happenstance of their size. The ceremony required the witnesses to stand, unless infirm or elderly, and not a single Hobbit was tall enough to see over Dwarves, Men, or Elves, standing or sitting. Even so, as they came to the crowd of Free Peoples lingering at the doors or waiting to be admitted, everyone withdrew to create space for the approaching Hobbits. Bilbo was very much aware of the scrutiny he and his countrymen had garnered for being so different than everyone else, but he was also was conscious of the fact that he himself may be the focus of many staring eyes.

Crowns were not allowed, but other indications of status were more than encouraged, if Dori’s admonitions were any indication. While his fellow Hobbits wore their best coats, vests, dresses, and shawls, embroidered richly in bright colors in the shapes of flowers and leaves, Bilbo wore his Dwarven blue coat in the style of Erebor (that is, belted at the waist) over his gold and white vest and dark breeches. The belt itself was an eyeful of gold, crystal, and pearls - small enough that Bilbo suspected it was originally designed for a Man’s or Elf’s royal child. With it came a gold and beryl circlet, threaded through his hair and across his brow, which was not, assured Balin, a crown. Bilbo had been thinking bout his missed first breakfast at the time so had not absorbed the fussy, long-winded explanation, but he imagined it had something to do with the height (or lack of) above the head. A few golden rings and his courtship gift set him yet even further apart from the other Shirefolk.

Waiting amongst the people to be admitted were the Eorlingas of Rohan who had come to represent their venerable king, Fengel. From the few resources shared between them on the Men of Rohan, Princess Sigrid and Bilbo knew only that the kingdom had a historical link with Gondor, and the current king proudly traced his family back to Eorl the Young, the defeater of Orcs and he who had been awarded the Gondorian land that was now called Rohan.

The books had mentioned that general blondness of these people, along with their lack of scholarship, but seeing the group of them standing together - tall, long-haired and fair - they were rather imposing in a sort of beautiful, wild way. They wore ornately worked leather under cloaks of green surmounted with the images of running horses, and when the Thain and Rosalda came abreast of their group, there was a moment when the men and women of Rohan stared in utter amazement and the Hobbits stopped to bow politely, the only way one could respond to such behavior. One of the men, who held a high-crested helmet under one arm and whose cloak was particularly embroidered, stepped forward and bowed back. “Hail, lords and ladies of the Holbytla,” he said. “Long has it been that our people have seen your like on this side of the Langflood, what others may call the Anduin.”

Paladin glanced back at Bilbo with a quirked brow, and Bilbo stepped forward. “Your pardon, great lord of the Eorlingas. We Hobbits have very few memories of the time when we once lived in these parts of Middle-earth. Our early history is dim to us.”

A keen, blue-eyed glance examined him and then the Hobbits around him, and then him again. “Bilbo Baggins,” Bilbo introduced himself in the face of such intense scrutiny. “Scribe. My cousin, the Thain of the Shire, Paladin.”

“We know that word,” the man said, “but whom do you serve, Palatine, Thane of the Sciro?”

Paladin scratched his nose. “Well, the king of Norbury, that is, Fornost, who hasn’t ruled for a bit of time. The title is mostly hereditary these days.”

Bilbo tried not to look surprised at the Man’s more ancient rendition of Shire names, and this admission of knowledge from Palain, and instead nodded abashedly. “We’ve mostly forgotten that, too.”

“What is a thousand years but a distant memory?” the man asked with a sudden laugh. “I am Ælfhere, captain of Rohan, and loyal man to Fengel King. It is an honor to meet the little people of legend, even if we thought you merely fairy tales to tell our children.”

Amaranth, who was on Bilbo’s arm for this procession, leaned around Bilbo with sparkling eyes. “I hope we were justly portrayed in these legends.”

Ælfhere’s smile turned wry but his regard was courteous. “It depends, my lady. Can you disappear at will?”

Many of the Hobbits laughed at that; it was something that was said of them by Outsiders, particularly in Bree. “Certainly,” she replied with a wink. “Big, clumsy folk come along, and we will certainly vanish!”

The lord bowed with a grin; as always, Amaranth managed to enchant Big Folk with her charm and her cheek.

The Hobbits eventually continued on their way through the crowds and were admitted by an armored Dwalin who gave them a curt nod. Clad in bejewelled robes, Balin waited just inside the throne room and escorted them to one side of a roped central aisle, in front of the throne dais. Paladin made a surprised sound at this marked preferential treatment. Soon, the nobility of Erebor entered and took the spaces behind them and to the other side of the aisle, then Dáin and his Dwarrow. After them came Bard of Dale and his people, then the Eorlingas, Lord Elrond and his people and lastly, and the Elves of the Greenwood.

Paladin stepped out to greet the other lords, when it appeared it was accepted to do so while the hall was still being filled. The assemblage was glittering with all manner of folk in their best raiment; Bilbo wasn’t the only one looking as if others had dressed them. King Bard and Prince Bain looked particularly as if another hand, probably Sigrid’s, had made them presentable, with their long hair pulled back and sporting silver circlets.

Amaranth followed the direction of Bilbo’s glance. “King Bard is looking especially handsome,” she commented. When he shook his head with a sigh, she added with a laugh: “Not to worry. I have suitors enough; Men require too much work.”

On the other side of her, Dora muffled a laugh in her hand. “Queen. Of. Dale,” she reminded Amaranth with a low chuckle.

“It is remarkable how many single and widowed noble males are in this congregation,” Rosalda remarked in her usual practical tone. Everyone frowned, clearly doing the calculations.

“Good Lady,” Bilbo breathed. “You are right on target with that!”

A deep bell sounded and then a great, deep horn from the outer gates. The witnesses quickly returned to their places in the assemblage as the guards at the door cried out first in Khuzdul and then in Westron: “Mahal abjures all enemies within the halls of the mountain king; all friends and allies of Erebor are welcome and with us hail the king of the mountain, Thorin son of Thrain, son of Thror of the House of Durin!”

Of one mind, everyone turned to the doors. Bilbo could not see at first but he could hear the deeper voices of the Dwarrow which rose until he realized they were chanting in their own language.

Eventually, who came into view along the central aisle was not Thorin but Dwalin, fully armored in ornately engraved silver steel armor from neck to toes. In his hands he held before him the most enormous axe the Hobbit had ever seen. Behind him came the surprising form of Dori with his white hair glittering in complex braids, wearing copper armor, bearing an equally giant hammer. Neither Dwarf seemed burdened by the undoubtedly heavy weapons and approached the throne dais to solemnly flank it.

Thorin then came into view and Bilbo almost gasped. His intended’s natural nobility was now magnificently on display - his heavy dark hair was braided and beaded so ornately that it appeared to be sculpted in silver ingots, caught in a long fishtail over his shoulders and down his back. Even his beard, usually kept unadorned, sported beading. His armor was of the bright silver Bilbo now knew was mithril, the most valuable metal in Middle-earth. Like Dwalin’s armor, it was ornately engraved in geometric patterns and lines of runes. In his hands he held a curved shield, shining like a mirror. As in all official ceremonies, Thorin’s face lay in its usual stoic and stony lines, his blue eyes fixed forward until he stopped between Dori and Dwalin. There he stilled, facing the throne, and waited while others completed the procession behind him.

Princess Dís appeared next, resplendent in blue velvet and flashing gems, followed by her sons walking proudly in their own armor - Fíli’s was bright gold that complemented his coloring. Someone had managed to braid Kíli’s finer hair by twining silver wire through the plaits. Both young princes were clearly trying to perform their roles seriously, and it was slightly unnerving to see the usually light-hearted Dwarrow so solemn. They followed their mother to stand to the right of the throne’s dais behind Dwalin.

The true surprise was Ori, who was dressed opulent lavender robes, bright copper beads in his long hair and sparse beard, and clutching a huge hinged book covered in silver and gemstones. He walked to the left side behind Dori and placed his book on a stand there. Bilbo noticed that Dwarrow eyes followed the young scribe and that he’d created a stir; then the Hobbit recalled that he and his brothers were considered local beauties. Sure enough, many eyes were lingering on strong Dori as he stood waiting.

Finally, Balin completed the procession, and in his hands he bore a resplendent mithril crown, taller than any Thorin had worn before. Seven bright white gems surrounded by smaller blue stones were placed in the seven rectangular peaks of it, but the true artistry showed along the circular band that would rest upon Thorin’s head. There, obsidian ravens faced each other with open beaks, and between them an emerald tree spread its branches around them and up into the three peaks at the fore.

At Balin’s approach, Thorin raised his mirror-like shield. Dwalin and Dori released their weapons and held the flat surface between them in front of the king. Behind him, Balin raised the crown up; he was not a tall Dwarf, but he managed to get the glittering thing high enough to be above Thorin’s head. Still, the king did not turn around. Instead, in a clear voice, he began to speak to the mirror-shield:

Durin ku bin-amrad

Ugmal sullu addad

Ku bakana

Ana aznân

Undu abad

Ku ganaga

Tur ganâd abanul

Durin ku bin-amrad

Uzbad Khazad-dûmu

 

Many of the witnesses could see Thorin’s reflection as the Dwarf spoke; his eyes were wide and trained on what he saw in the mirror. Then he knelt and raised his hands above his head and Balin placed the crown of Erebor into his hands. Ori was writing in his book, eyes trained on every motion.

The Dwarrow, who had fallen silent, now shouted his name and “Durin,” “ melhekhel,” and “Thrainul” besides other names and titles Bilbo could not parse. In this roar of sound, Thorin lowered the crown upon his own head and stood. He turned, finally, to the hall full of witnesses, who bowed respectfully, the only sound that of hundreds of measures of heavy, ornate cloth brushing the floor.

Thus, Thorin was publicly crowned at last, King under the Mountain.

Chapter Text

The coronation celebration moved out into the palace courtyard, at least for the Elves, Men, Hobbits and Dwarrow normally inhabiting the Blue Mountains or the Iron HIlls. Bilbo went with the crowd and got his cup of wine, but returned to linger at the open doors of the throne room for a few moments, interested in the Dwarrow traditions enacted within.

Within the throne room and sitting on his throne, wearing the tall and shining mithril crown of his rule, the King under the Mountain accepted the obeisance of his Dwarrow subjects. Apparently it was Dwarrow custom to bring a king’s gift representative of the giver; miners brought small coffers of gems they’d mined and blacksmiths gave him a variety of weapons. Despite the humble nature of some of the gifts and the grandiosity of others, Thorin accepted each greeting and gift with a serious and earnest regard for its importance. Bilbo smiled proudly to himself as Thorin spoke to Glóin, Óin and Gimli who proudly offered a casket of gems, and then listened with equal respect to a Dwarrowdam who was offering a leather belt with evident pride of her craft.

Bilbo was taking a sip of wine when a tall Dwarrow said, “He’ll make a good king, I think.”

Bilbo jumped and almost spilled down his front. He gave Dáin a mock-glare. “Was there any doubt?”

Another Dwarf behind him said, “Well, he has the right name.”

Dáin guffawed. “Oh yes! Master Baggins, this is my son, Thorin, lately arrived from the Iron Hills.”

“Oh, goodness yes, I saw from the wall,” the Hobbit said, recovering his good humor when he recognized the Dwarrow with the honey-colored eyes and flowing dark red hair. “A pleasure to meet you. How do you do?” He bowed.

For all his youth and parentage, Thorin son of Dáin had a serious mien and a deep voice. “I am well, Consort-to-be.” He seemed to scrutinize Bilbo from his own set of internal criteria. “I have met your Thain and some of your countrymen.”

“Have you indeed? Well, I hope you like us well enough, but don’t go judging the whole of the Shire by the few of us who were able to make it halfway across Middle-earth. We’re not exactly representative.”

Both Dwarrow looked startled at that. “Truly?” Thorin asked, seemingly intrigued.

“Oh, yes. We’re the adventurous Hobbits,” Bilbo said brightly.

Dáin laughed so loudly that many celebrants turned to look at them. “Of course, little master!” but his son seemed to take this statement to heart.

“Certainly, the king has mentioned your long journey and your encounters with Goblins.”

“Mm, yes, we did have a bit of a bother on this side of the Misty Mountains. It was our luck that it was a small party of Goblins against the fifteen of us. Hobbits aren’t warriors, although we have some handy folk amongst us that are used to using blades in a limited capacity.”

“How many Goblins were there?”

Bilbo chewed his lip.  “I think twelve?” he mused. “We only killed five, one of them the leader, and the rest fled. Thinking back on it, we were fortunate no one was seriously hurt. They were not small Goblins, after all.”

Thorin tilted his head and then looked behind them, staring at Paladin Took who was in the middle of a conversation with Dwalin, and Dora Hornblower, who was shaking her head and laughing at one of Elrond’s sons. True, the Hobbits had to tilt their heads to speak to their taller companions and Bilbo could see the lord trying to imagine either of them killing a Goblin.

“It was Daisy Under-hill there who knocked one out with her slingshot, and Tom Cotton who grabbed a staff and felled one. Rowain Clearbrook and Bryony Goldworthy took one together with their daggers; they’re ...er… border guards back home.”

Dáin stroked his graying beard. “And you, Master Baggins?”

“Oh, just the one,” he replied, distracted by the sight of Olo and Honey appearing with platters of steaming mushrooms, followed by other helpers including some of the Imladris Elves with more food from Erebor’s kitchens. “I had my mother’s sword and thankfully swung it in the right direction at the right time.”

“You will have to tell us more once you’ve eaten,” Dáin said dryly.

“Not much more to tell.” Bilbo blinked at them, shrugging. He glanced one more time through the door at Thorin and his subjects. “What’s say we get some supper and you can put it to song or something Dwarrow-like.” He smirked at them.

Thorin III choked and laughed. “What would Hobbits put such a story, then?”

“In the rubbish heap, of course. Adventures make one late to dinner, and so of course are unpopular nuisances.”



The two Iron Hills Dwarrow shook their heads but companionably walked with him to the tables laden with platters and platters of amazing-smelling food. The other Hobbits had, of course, stepped up with alacrity as Hobbits were in the habit of doing. Amaranth and Dodi were given precedence along with Paladin and Rosalda. When Bilbo approached, he was astonished to see everyone but Paladin step back deferentially, and then he remembered his finery and gold circlet, and sighed. It took a brief moment to calculate the status of the Thain of the Shire against the rank of Consort-to-be of Erebor. “Cousins,” he sniffed, “unless I’ve been struck with incipient amnesia, I am not married just yet.”

This caused a slight uneasiness amongst the spectators, if the shifting about was any indication, but Paladin nodded understandingly and motioned Rosalda to the tables with a sweep of an arm and a wink.  Bilbo glanced at Thorin son of Dáin, who was staring down at him with a considering expression.

“Are Hobbits not ambitious?” he asked and his father cleared his throat loudly, looking about uncomfortably.

“Oh, some are, but we’re not grandiose nor are our ambitions, like growing the largest pumpkin and producing the finest smoke-ring.” Bilbo’s eye was half on Amaranth. “Or making a good marriage.”  He rubbed his nose. “I suppose you could say that Hobbits know what they want, and in both vanquishing Goblins and reaching our goals, we may be small but our aim is true.”

That certainly can be put to song,” Dáin chuckled.

 

An hour later, the Dwarrow of Erebor began to appear little by little and then finally the royal family arrived, stripped of their armor but not of their beads and finery. Dís and her sons were almost incandescently happy, and even Dwalin seemed ready to celebrate. Balin found Rosalda and tucked her arm in his, smiling beautificaly. Every member of Thorin’s Company, dressed and beaded within an inch of their lives, were surrounded by admirers wherever they wandered.

Then the king appeared, crowned in a more sedate mithril coronet that Bilbo had seen in Dale, but no less kingly for the absence of the lofty symbol. Bilbo smiled to see him, but it was a while before Thorin could reach him, as many wished to speak to him, now that the sober ceremony was over. Bilbo kept half an eye on his progress as kings and lords stepped up to express their best wishes, and when Thorin finally managed to walk away without someone in pursuit, he caught Bilbo’s eye and motioned. The Hobbit made his way to his intended through a crowd of hundreds, and took his extended hand.

“Your Majesty?” Bilbo inquired with a grin.

“Master Baggins,” the king returned with an answering smile that softened his face. “Have my guests wanted for anything?”

“It’s snowing food and raining wine, as you are well aware. Even we Hobbits have nothing to complain of. Have you managed to eat anything?”

Thorin blinked. “I ate breakfast,” he recalled although he seemed unsure.

Alarmed, Bilbo immediately began to tug the king towards the tables still groaning under the seemingly endless parade of food, but then stopped and glanced apologetically at the king when he encountered some resistance. “I beg your pardon, but it is my duty to feed you; after all, if you faint from hunger, I could never show my face to Bombur again.”

Thorin huffed. “It would take more than half a day without food to fell a Dwarf,” he said, but he took Bilbo’s arm and they made their way sedately to the tables. Bilbo glowered at anyone who looked as if they were wanting to intercept Thorin during this crucial time, and indeed a few people veered off at the fierce Hobbit’s glare.

Thorin stood and ate a questionable amount of meat from his plate, having avoided vegetables altogether with the exception of potatoes, which had been making more of an appearance of late at mealtimes. Bilbo watched him protectively, and then appreciatively. Indeed, Thorin looked very well in his blue tunic and jeweled belt, his dark, beaded hair like a galaxy of glittering stars. There was color in his face, and his expression was one of open enjoyment, not as common as Bilbo would have liked.

“What?” the king asked, having caught his Hobbit’s look.

“Oh? I was thinking you’re looking very handsome today,” the scribe murmured and was rewarded with more color rushing to Thorin’s cheeks to match his own. “Forgive my impertinence for saying so in public.”

Thorin opened his mouth but caught sight of Amaranth approaching about the same time Bilbo heard her cry: “Oh, cousin! I have such wonderful news!”

Bilbo turned to see her in all her shining glory: bouncing rose-gold curls, face pink and happy, and followed by Dáin, Bruni and Thorin III as they were her personal entourage. Amaranth rushed up to Bilbo and threw her arms around him and hissed: “Do not mess this up for me, Bilbo!” and then drew back, all smiles.

Bilbo’s smile may have wavered a little, but he managed to recover it. “I’m glad to hear it! What is your news?”

“Lord Dáin has invited me to return with him to the Iron Hills, to visit! Isn’t it exciting?!”

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open, but he clicked it shut, although he was aware that his eyes were probably huge from shock. “I- my, that’s … definitely exciting!” Green Lady , he thought, h ow in Arda would they manage that without forcing Dodi to stay on or outraging her family’s sense of decorum? He glanced at Lord Dáin, who was beaming, Bruni, who was looking a little worried, and Thorin III, who had a rather detached look as if he were fascinated by all of it.

He had said he would be her support, but she didn’t make it very easy for him! “Well, we’ll have to consult the Thain, but that’s shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange.” He glanced at his Thorin, who was barely paying attention to the whole exchange; clearly, this wasn’t a point of  propriety for Dwarrow, nor did he seemed concerned about putting Bilbo’s cousin into the guardianship of the Iron Hills.

At Bilbo’s glance, however, Thorin did say, “It would be wise to soon determine which Hobbits are not returning to the Shire when your delegation leaves, Bilbo.”

“Oh, certainly!” Bilbo replied. “I'm sure Paladin knows more than I, and what to say to their families .” Amaranth did not react to that except that her eyes took on a gleam that assured Bilbo that his dart had hit home.

 

After he was assured that Thorin had eaten enough, they walked together through the crowds. Prince Legolas found them, bowing, and with him was Gimli. Both of them had an air about them that spoke of enjoyment in each others’ company. It was a happy progression.

“How do you like Erebor, Your Highness?” Bilbo inquired.

“Gimli has kindly shown me the beauties of the mountain, and I am surprised that it is so full of life! And so many natural riches! It is all lovely.”

Bilbo chuckled ruefully. “Even the sudden deadly plummets?”

Thorin laughed at this. “Hobbits cannot see very well in the dark, so the whole mountain must look like a deathtrap to them.”

“Thorin Oakenshield!” his Hobbit exclaimed in outraged tones, pressing a hand over his heart. “How could you say such a thing! Hobbit eyes are perfectly normal. Just because Dwarrow envy our ability to hear, doesn’t mean -!”

“What?” Thorin and Gimli cried at the same time.

Legolas laughed. “It is fortunate that Elves can both see and hear extraordinarily well.”

Two Dwarrow and a Hobbit glared balefully at him.

 

Princesses Sigrid and Tilda were creating quite a stir. There were very few royal ladies in the mountain, much less princesses. Sigrid was wearing burgundy silk, her dress corseted in the high-waisted fashion common in Lake-town and now in Dale and looked every inch the princess from her gold circlet and dainty embroidered shoes. Tilda, tiny and adorable, clung to her sister’s skirts in her own lavender dress. The girls had encountered Prince Fíli after lingering with their father and brother, and now the Prince Royal was happily escorting them about, introducing them to all and sundry. To Sigrid’s delight, this included the group of Eorlingas of Rohan, the blond horsemen that had fascinated her since she first heard of them.

Their leader, Ælfhere, captain of Rohan, bowed respectfully. “Your people are descendants of Dale?” he asked curiously.

“The lords of Dale, before the dragon came,” Sigrid answered. “But Father was crowned for his leadership in Lake-town when the dragon came out of the mountain. The Master of the town hadn’t been very good to his people and Father had always tried to help folk who were struggling because of the Master’s corruption.”

Many of the blond riders were nodding in approval. “That is a good man to be king,” Ælfhere said. “If the king is the friend of the common folk, he is the friend of all. Too many kings become too haughty and obsessed with riches and power.”

Beside her,  Fíli huffed. “A common failing, is it?” he asked casually. Sigrid wondered at his tone, but his eyes were mild and his shoulders, relaxed. He would be king one day, she realized with a start, long after she herself was gone, and so the question was not unrelated to his own life.

“It is,” the warrior replied, but smiled. “Among men, it is all too common, but you need not fear for your king, or hers. Nor should you fear it of your allies here today, Your Highnesses. This is a good time, a good king, a good day.”

“It is,” Tilda chirped, holding on to  Fíli’s hand. “It’s a really good day!”

Almost as an omen, men and women began singing:

The King beneath the mountains,

   The King of carven stone,

The lord of silver fountains

   Shall come into his own!

 

His crown shall be upholden,

   His harp shall be restrung,

His halls shall echo golden

   To songs of yore re-sung.

 

The woods shall wave on mountains

   And grass beneath the sun;

His wealth shall flow in fountains

   And the rivers golden run.

 

The streams shall run in gladness,

   The lakes shall shine and burn,

All sorrow fail and sadness

   At the Mountain-king's return!

Chapter Text

A dip in the bedding roused Bilbo from a drowsing sleep and he opened a sleepy eye to see the familiar silhouette of long hair and broad shoulders against the remaining light of the banked fireplace. Faint glints of myriad beads appeared like stars in the fall of Thorin’s black hair.

“Thorin, my love,” Bilbo murmured, “is it done at last? Can you come to bed now?”

Thorin’s voice was soft and deep and made the Hobbit smile. “I can and will, my heart.”

Bilbo shuffled up onto his elbows, pushing aside the warm covers. His thin cotton nightshirt was no defense against the latent chill in the air, but it wasn’t unpleasant. After all, Thorin would warm him soon enough.

Thorin drew in a sudden breath, as if startled, and his shadow froze. As Bilbo waited for him to speak, he reflected that this reaction could not be to what he was wearing; Thorin had seen him in much less.

The king’s hand gently caressed the Hobbit’s thigh, sliding a bit under the hem of his shirt and Bilbo hummed his approval, and when Thorin dipped his head to kiss him, he slid hands along the heavy, beaded fall of dark hair and opened his mouth to an exploratory tongue.

 

They sank into the bed, groaning, and finally Thorin lifted up and took another breath, as if steeling himself. “You don’t know what you’ve done, do you?” he asked softly.

“What I’ve done?” the Hobbit wondered, confused by the serious tone.

“I thought I would never find you,” the Dwarf continued. “I thought I wasn’t made to love another. I came to this place for honor and family, but it was never a home until you were here. I was never a king until you came before me.”

Bilbo closed his eyes. My word , he thought, Thorin did have a way of saying things that made one wonder if he’d taken lessons in seduction. “I’d all but given up myself,” he admitted in return. “The first time I saw you, you took my breath away.” He ran a hand along Thorin’s heavy locks, thwarted by the heavy beads that turned the usual coarse softness into an impenetrable mass. “And every day since.” When Thorin pressed a kiss to his lips, he added: “We have found one another; all is as it should be.”

Thorin shed his cloak with a heave and began to work on the clasps to his clothing. “Yes,” he said. “I am King now, by every right, but for all that I possess, you yield to me for no reason other than your own.”

“Is that why? Were you tired of deference? DId I stand out because I was different from, well, everyone?”

“Your impertinence in calling my behavior out, of insisting that I acknowledge my own stubbornness… there was something very different about how you thought about people, about the world; you were always looking, always evaluating. It called to me.” This thoughtful narrative carried on as each piece of clothing was shed.

“Ah, liveliness of mind,” Bilbo labeled it with a laugh. “Well, I do have a bit too much of that for the comfort of my own people. I am glad for your sake that it’s a more admired quality here. My beauty you long withstood.”

“Then I am better at deception than I ever believed of myself,” Thorin declared. “I found you exquisite from the first.” He curled up to Bilbo’s side and rested his head against the Hobbit’s stomach.

“Tired?” his little love inquired sympathetically.

“A good kind of exhaustion. I shall sleep well.” Thorin inhaled, rubbing a slow hand along the Hobbit’s leg. “How shall it be, Bilbo? Tell me. I can’t see past today; I have worked so long to just this moment but no further.”

“Hmm,” the scribe mused. “Shall we end with ‘and they lived happily ever after to the end of their days’? No, that does seem too much like lazy writing. Well, everyone will quit your mountain, even my people, except for the few hangers-on like myself. We’ll negotiate our marriage like civilized people and marry. If my parents can’t make the journey, we will go to the Shire and marry there as well.”

Thorin, who had been humming in agreement, moved his head as if to protest and Bilbo tugged a reprimand into his beaded hair. “And perhaps you can recruit Shire farmers. In fact, between Dwarrow ingenuity and Hobbit design, we could manage to carve out a few Hobbit-holes here somewhere in the foothills, and we can start with Rosalda’s.”

Thorin jerked up his head, only to be kept close by the grip of Bilbo’s hand in his many silver beads.

“They will marry, Balin and Rosalda,” Bilbo said in a warning tone.

“O-of course,” the king answered, wincing, and subsided cautiously. “Shall we plan all the weddings, then?”

“Of course. Dwalin will eventually marry Ori despite Nori and Dori’s interference, and Amaranth will marry somebody .”

Mahal willing ,” Thorin swore with all his heart.

“Your nephews and the children, and grandchildren, of Dale will be close allies but Thranduil will be a small thorn in your foot. Although Legolas will ever be a mitigating influence, I think his fondness for Gimli may drive him from the Greenwood.”

“And Dáin?” the king asked, intrigued by the dreamy tone Bilbo’s voice had sunk into.

“Dáin will always be your ally in the east, and we’ll need allies. Too many dark forces stirred up, and the Dark Lord himself will seek to rise again.”

“Bilbo, are you all right?”

The Hobbit drew in a quick breath, as if waking. “ What was I saying?”

“Something about allies and a dark lord?”

The Hobbit sniffed. “As if any power would try to interfere with us! Valar help them if they tried.”

Thorin smiled, and closed his eyes. “I like your liveliness of of mind.”

“There—I have saved you the trouble of accounting for it; and really, all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable,” Bilbo murmured, drifting off. “To be sure, we know no actual good of the future, but nobody thinks ill of it when there is love.”