“And you’re quite sure?” Thorin asked for a third time, despite already knowing the answer. He was being dreadfully repetitive—the growing exasperation on the Thain’s face spoke to that—but he couldn’t stop himself. Desperation rose in his throat like bile, urging the words out yet again.
In the seats flanking him, Balin and Dwalin sat quiet and stone-faced, with Thorin the last holdout still badgering their host. Balin, though persistent and dedicated in his role as royal advisor, had silently admitted defeat several minutes before.
“I’m positive, Your Majesty,” the Thain said, his voice edged with impatience as he sipped his cup of no-doubt lukewarm tea. They’d been at this for near an hour, now, with the supply of baked goods on offer diminishing further and further as time dragged on, a clear sign that they were reaching the end of their welcome in the Thain’s home. “I put out a call for volunteers, as requested during your last visit, and still no takers. Promised riches or not, you won’t succeed in prying any of the Shirefolk away to your mountain. They simply won’t go. Hobbits are not made for venturing, and this kingdom of yours is terribly far away. No, no, I’m sorry, it just won’t happen. I wish the best of luck to you, Your Majesty.”
The Thain said the last with an iron edge of finality in his voice, and stood and ushered Thorin and his companions out with a stiff smile and a last round of pastries for the road. Thorin bit his tongue near to bleeding to keep his temper silenced as they trooped down the icy garden path to where their ponies were tethered.
Dwalin had the presence of mind to wait until they’d got a bit down the road out of Tuckborough, at least, before growling out, “Can you believe that shite? ‘Have you tried the elves?’ ”
Thorin grimaced; that had been one of the Thain’s more accidentally inflammatory questions early on in the visit, but hardly the only one. “Surely this is an issue you’re capable of fixing yourself?” had particularly rankled, because no, no they couldn’t fix this themselves. If they could, they would’ve bloody well done it instead of riding all the way to the Shire to beg for a stranger’s help healing the burnt-up husk of their greenery—and of their primary food source.
“What now?” Dwalin asked as they met a fork in the road and directed their ponies left, along the path that would take them back to the Green Dragon in Hobbiton, where they’d left the rest of their envoy. They’d brought a dozen riders, including Thorin’s thrice-accursed orc-spawn nephews. Perhaps he’d be feeling a bit more affectionate if they hadn’t scared off half the Shire with their bawdy drinking songs and clumsy flirtations the night before in the inn, not to mention the knife-juggling; if he’d thought their mission to find a travel-willing hobbit was hard to start with, that had been the death knell for their chances, surely.
What now? Dwalin’s question echoed in his mind. “I don’t know,” Thorin admitted numbly.
What was there left to try? He’d done his best, done everything short of dropping to his knees and begging—and honestly, if he’d thought it would help, he’d have tried that too. Erebor’s food stores dwindled by the month, with the survivors’ hungry mouths outstripping the trade goods that arrived and even the relief supplies that Dain’s people in the Iron Hills caravanned to them. If they couldn’t bring the fields to life and coax wildlife back to a reasonable distance for hunting, they would starve come the next winter, or be forced to parcel out Erebor’s inhabitants to the other dwarven kingdoms, the grandest monarchy of all the dwarves brought low.
Thorin scrubbed at his face, wincing and gritting his teeth against the bright bloom of pain that shot up his wrist from the motion. It still hurt often, the wrist he’d burned and wrenched when stabbing his sword into Smaug’s eye, slaying the monstrous fire-drake en route to the treasure hall. His desperate stab had come too late, though—Smaug had already rampaged through half the mountain, crushing and burning dwarves, soldier and civilian alike, and throwing their broken bodies aside like so much chattel… King Thrain and Prince Frerin included.
The image of his father’s and brother’s bodies crumpled and charred on the blood-slicked marble floor would haunt him to the end of his days, he had no doubt, and grief throbbed in his heart in tandem with the sting in his hand. Scarcely two years since the last of his family save for Dis and his nephews had departed to the Halls of Waiting, since he’d been crowned king in a fog of mourning and terror, and yet it felt like a thousand—no, ten thousand. Ten hundred thousand, with the weight of all of Erebor’s citizens’ lives abruptly dropped on his shoulders, gnawing at his sleep and his appetite and his already shallow reserves of patience. He could not—would not—fail them.
He needed a solution, needed one now, and yet his mind spun fruitlessly, offering nothing.
It continued to offer nothing all through the ride back to the inn, with Dwalin’s and Balin’s own grim silences doing the same, and all through the evening as he explained to his nephews and the rest of the envoy what the Thain had said, and all through the night as he lay in bed, holding back the tears he wanted to cry—for Father and Frerin, for all those lost to the dragon’s greed, for the suffering yet in store for his people, for the seething, stewing anger that filled him at the thought that they had a potential solution here, and not a single hobbit was willing to leave their comfy, peaceful, well-stocked hobbit hole for a few months to save his home.
They saddled up and rode out the next morning, bringing with them a wagon of food offered up by the Thain and a bitterness in their bellies and hearts. A few sacks of grain were a poor prize considering what they’d come here for.
Knocking at Fili and Kili’s door at the inn had yielded no sleepy protests or sounds of frenzied packing, so Thorin had marched inside and found two empty beds and a note that said only, Have a quick errand to run—will meet everyone at the edge of town. “Mahal save me from their lack of forethought,” he’d grumbled, shaking his head; they’d had an entire week to run whatever errands might exist, between the first and second visits with the Thain, and they chose now, the morning they were due to depart, to rush out and tie up their loose ends? Dark days were ahead for the kingdom, indeed.
As promised, at least, the boys and their mounts, along with a pack pony, were waiting by the signpost for Hobbiton when the envoy reached the edge of town.
“What could you have possibly needed to do?” Thorin demanded as he reined in his pony beside them.
Fili and Kili traded guilty looks. Finally, after a moment of silence, Kili jutted his chin out and said, “We know we messed up last night, Uncle. You brought us with because you trusted us to help you save Erebor, and we bollocksed it up good.”
Fili nodded his agreement. “So we fixed it.”
Oh, Mahal… “Fixed it how?” he asked, trepidation warring with confusion in his voice. He loved his nephews dearly, he did, but they’d yet to grow out of their penchant for taking things to extremes.
Fili cleared his throat and gestured at a sack draped over the back of the pack pony. It…squirmed? The sack, not the pony.
With a horrible rising awareness in his mind, Thorin swung down from the saddle and stepped closer. They wouldn’t, would they…? Yes, yes they would.
He tugged at the ties holding the sack shut, folded the fabric open, and stared straight into the streaming, terrified eyes of a hobbit, the poor fellow’s cheeks reddened and his curls tangled as his mouth worked behind a sodden gag.
“What have you done?” Thorin snarled, pinning Fili and Kili with his fiercest glare. The envoy could never return to the Shire after this, not with kidnapping charges sure to be leveled against them if they did.
“We couldn’t go home empty-handed, Uncle,” Fili asserted, his voice shaky but his gaze direct.
“So you stole a hobbit?” Horror and shame fought with pragmatism inside his whirling mind. It was an abhorrent act, to be sure, one that screamed of desperation, but was that not what they were? Desperate? And it wasn’t as though they’d actually hurt the little fellow, or tormented him… Perhaps this situation was salvageable.
Behind him, Balin cleared his throat and looked around at the gathered envoy. “How would you like to address this, Your Majesty? Are we…thinking about adding to our number for the journey?”
Hah. What a delicate way of putting it.
Thorin clenched his jaw, staring down at the frightened face of their contraband. “We are.” By the Valar, they were. It felt slimy, felt underhanded and unjust, but what choice did they have? His people needed a hobbit, truly, and if no hobbit could be persuaded to come, then one would need to come without being persuaded.
And this one seemed as good as any other.
“Mount up,” he ordered his nephews. Then he turned back to the hobbit, who was squirming yet inside his bonds, and murmured, “My apologies, Master Hobbit,” before tugging the flap of burlap back over the little fellow’s face.
Once they’d left the Shire several hours behind, they deemed it safe enough to ungag the hobbit’s mouth and unbind his hands, and so they did before sitting down to their lunchtime rest. There were no passing travelers for the hobbit to seek rescue from, and if he were to spur his mount away from the group once they were back on the road, the rope securing his pony to Thorin’s own saddle would prove sufficient in foiling any escape plans.
“What’s your name?” Thorin asked as he tucked the bonds and gag away in a saddlebag.
The hobbit, after taking a moment to work his jaw around and massage his reddened wrists, reported stiffly, “Bilbo. Bilbo Baggins.”
“Well, Mister Baggins, I’m sorry that we did not meet under better circumstances. I assure you that we mean you no harm. This situation paints my companions and I in a rather unsavory light, but it couldn’t be helped.”
“It certainly could be helped,” Bilbo snapped, crossing his arms and stamping a—quite large and hairy—foot. “By letting me go, I should think!”
“Not an option, laddie,” Balin said with a sigh, licking a blob of jam from his thumb. He’d perched himself on a small boulder near the tree line and looked quite content there.
“And why not?”
“Because we can’t,” Thorin growled, hunger and frustration turning his tone a bit harsher than he’d intended.
“That’s hardly an answer,” Bilbo huffed, glaring as Thorin sank onto a stump beside Balin and accepted a second biscuit and a small pot of jam from him.
“Biscuit?” Balin offered, his tone mild as he held one out like a peace offering. Miraculously—or maybe not so miraculously, given what Thorin had witnessed of hobbit appetites—Bilbo eyed the morsel, then snatched it up and retreated to a stump of his own with a thunderous frown.
The respite from Bilbo’s ire was only temporary, of course.
“I can guess why you’ve snatched me away,” the hobbit said as they started out along the road again, his pony plodding behind Thorin’s mount, Minty. “You dwarves are horrid at growing things, or so I’ve been told. There’s no shame in that, of course, but there’s most assuredly shame in this.” He waved both hands in a circular motion as if to encompass the entirety of the situation.
“I’ll thank you to keep quiet, Master Hobbit.” Thorin cranked himself around in the saddle to shoot a quelling glare his way.
“Forgive me if I don’t feel I should indulge you dwarves in your petty greed!” Bilbo snapped back, making as though to cross his arms, then hastily dropping a hand back to the saddle as Myrtle stepped into a dip in the path.
“Petty greed? Petty greed?” Thorin seethed. “That’s what you would call feeding one’s family? You, who are clearly no stranger to indulgence?” He cast a pointed glance at the softness around the hobbit’s middle. “I’ll not sit here and be lectured by a hypocrite, nor be scorned for trying to do right by my people.”
Grinding his teeth, Thorin urged his pony ahead to the front of the group, handing off Myrtle’s lead to Fili along the way in a bid to put as much distance between himself and this infuriating creature as possible. The road reached a split, and he steered Minty down the left-hand side.
“Not that way, lad!” Balin called. “We need the eastern fork!”
“Valar save me,” he muttered, dropping his head back to stare beseechingly at the sky as he spun his pony around and trotted back toward the group.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding here,” Bilbo said as everyone settled into camp that evening. He plunked himself down on a log they’d dragged up by the fire, and his hands immediately began to fidget in his lap. “Why, exactly, do you need a hobbit?”
“To grow things, of course,” Fili said, shooting the hobbit an incredulous look.
“Yes, but grow what?”
“Didn’t your Thain already tell you all of this?” Dwalin demanded as he sank onto the end of Bilbo’s log with an ax and whetstone.
“Well, he said you’d come to hire a hobbit to strengthen your yield. I assumed it was for some sort of new crop you’re bringing to market? I didn’t think dwarves dabbled much in the greener arts, but it’s no secret that you lot are enterprising souls.”
Thorin dropped his bedroll from numb fingers and sank onto it by the fire, his sharp exhale huffing into the air in a steaming cloud. “Oh, sweet Mahal, you didn’t know. None of you knew?” He shared matching glances of horror with the other dwarves around the fire. Even the guards in the envoy, usually content to keep to themselves, met his gaze with wide eyes. “If Fili and Kili hadn’t spirited you away, we’d have left the Shire with nothing because that accursed, doddering old hobbit didn’t think to explain the whole situation?!”
“That’s my grandfather you’re insulting,” Bilbo said. “I’ll thank you to watch your tongue.”
“I’ll be as sharp as I like about a fool who didn’t make it clear to his people that we came for help because we are starving.”
Bilbo’s face paled. “What?”
“The lands around our mountain, they’ve been burned by a dragon,” Kili replied, leaning forward into the glow of the fire. In its flickering light, he looked older than his years as his expression turned solemn. “All of our fields, and Dale’s too, and the forest where we hunt our game. We tried last summer, and nothing would grow. We barely made it through the winter with help from our trading partners and our long-term stores, but now we’ve got no harvest, no stores, and nothing to feed our livestock. If we can’t get any seeds to take root this spring…”
A heavy silence blanketed the circle of figures around the campfire.
“I had no idea,” Bilbo whispered.
“Yes, well, we apprised your Thain of the particulars,” Thorin said briskly, crossing his arms and raising his chin. “Apparently, he believed they would not sway your people into action.”
“They wouldn’t, probably,” Bilbo responded, and at the way the dwarves around him stiffened, he hastened to say, “At least, not for most of us. Hobbits are quite insular, you must understand. Bree is about as far as most hobbits travel from the Shire in their lifetime, if even that. You’re lucky to have caught me out and about in the woods, actually”—and here he slanted a wry look at Fili and Kili—“since I’m one of the more adventurous souls of my race. Runs in my mother’s side. She once ventured all the way to Rivendell, with a Big Person friend of hers—Gandalf, his name was.”
“Gandalf, you say?” Balin perked up. “We consulted with a wizard by that name. He was the one who said to try the Shire for help with the restoration efforts, after our request for aid from the elves failed.” His expression darkened, matching the dip in Thorin’s mood at the mention of the elves. Treacherous lot, they were—fair-weather friends, and the weather over the Lonely Mountain had been quite stormy indeed since the day of Smaug’s rampage.
“Let us not speak of the elves and their falsity,” he said, then turned to Bilbo. “Master Baggins, I must ask of you: will you help us in our mission, now that you’ve been made aware?” A yes didn’t mean much out in the wilderness surrounded by kidnappers and with no option for refusal, he knew, but hearing one would lighten the weight in his chest a bit.
And he did—hear one, that is.
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Bilbo said, leaning forward on his log to meet Thorin’s eyes, and several of the dwarves exhaled loudly around the fire.
Later, as everyone was laying out their bedrolls for the night, Bilbo approached Thorin and brought him to a halt with a gentle hand on his elbow. Thorin couldn’t really feel it through the layers he wore, but he still imagined that the hobbit’s warmth was seeping into his skin.
“I wanted to speak with you about earlier,” Bilbo said, and then paused to clear his throat before leveling his gaze at Thorin, his eyes surprisingly intense. “About what I said when we were riding. In light of what’s been revealed tonight, I can see how my comments may have been…injurious, and I would like to apologize for that.”
“I…wish to apologize as well,” Thorin responded. “For bringing you out here against your will. That was wrong of us, though I can’t really argue against the results.”
“Would you do it again? If you could have a do-over, I mean.”
Thorin was silent a moment, then nodded decisively. “Yes. I would.” For Erebor and its people, he’d have done it a thousand times over.
“So, how does it work? Your magic, I mean. Do all hobbits have it?” Kili asked around the fire a few days later, prodding dubiously at what seemed to be an undercooked carrot in his stew. Thorin could sympathize; he’d practically been gnawing on the chunks in his own bowl. Not for the first—or even dozenth—time, he longed for Bombur’s cooking. ‘Twas a pity the royal cook had stayed behind in the mountain; none of the dwarven guards he’d brought were particularly gifted in that regard.
“The green touch appears in all hobbits in some form, yes,” Bilbo said, dabbing at his mouth after a bite of his own dinner. “There are different types of magic, though. It runs mostly along family bloodlines. The Bagginses are known for their prowess with the more, ah, aged plants.”
Nausea took sudden root in Thorin’s belly, and his last bite of stew turned to a greasy lump in his mouth. Had they snatched away the wrong kind of hobbit? A Baggins, he’d said he was, and Bagginses couldn’t use their magic with new sprouts. Oh, Mahal, of all the ways to botch this mad plan…
“—bit of a one-two punch,” Bilbo was babbling when he focused back in. “I got my mother’s talent for coaxing the shy ones out, too.”
“The shy what?”
“The fresh spring shoots, of course,” Bilbo clarified with a smile. “Sometimes they need a bit of extra encouragement. That’s where my Took blood comes in handy.”
The relief that poured through Thorin’s body at his words was near euphoric, and he bowed his head over his empty bowl. There’s still a chance.
“I’ve forgiven it, you know,” Bilbo remarked as they rode through the slowly greening-up foothills of the Misty Mountains, heading for the lower pass. If any scrap of luck remained for them, it wouldn’t be impassible with snow at this point in the year. “The hobbit-napping you lot conducted.”
“You have?” Thorin said, raising an eyebrow. Maybe it was his petty side, or the monarch in him, or even just a touch too much run-of-the-mill pride, but if he were in the hobbit’s shoes—or lack thereof—he’d have been clinging to a grudge with all ten toes, and perhaps a rope or two woven out of foot hair.
“Oh yes,” Bilbo replied cheerfully, seemingly oblivious to Thorin’s skepticism. “Your methods were certainly less than ideal”—and here his hand rose to the corner of his mouth, as though touching a phantom gag—“but your intentions were admirable.” He cast a quick smile Thorin’s way. “That burlap did give me a rash—most uncomfortable—but still, I understand why you had to do it.” He cleared his throat, then continued, “Your people look to you for security, for salvation, don’t they? That must be quite the weight to bear, given the circumstances.”
“It is, yes. But it’s one I would trade all the gold in the world to keep.” Thorin released a deep sigh. “They are mine to care for, every last one of them.”
They carried on in silence for a few moments, until Bilbo said, “We had something like this ourselves, you know, when I was but a faunt. We called it the Fell Winter. The snow fell and fell, and the Brandywine River froze over, letting hungry wolves into the Shire. Food stores ran low, and many hobbits succumbed to starvation and illnesses of the body and spirit.” He tilted his chin up, his mouth firming into a determined line. “I will do everything in my power to prevent the same thing happening to your people.”
A warmth sank into Thorin’s bones at that, a sudden, noticeable lightening of the burden that had bowed his shoulders and leadened his limbs since assuming the throne. “Then you have my sincere thanks, Master Baggins.”
The last clutches of winter gave way to spring as the weeks passed. Over the Misty Mountains they traveled, then through the Greenwood—eyes sharp for signs of any pointy-eared leaf-eaters—and across the Long Lake on a Dale-bound barge. Finally it rose before them, its snowy peak high enough to sheer the clouds: Erebor.
The Lonely Mountain. Home.
The breath swept from Thorin’s lungs in a long exhale at the sight of it, at the knowledge that they were so close. Within the coming days, he would discover the truth of how dire their circumstances were. The truth of their future—whether Erebor would stand strong and persevere, or whether he’d soon be saying farewell to his mountain, to his kingdom, to his birthright… Not just to hare off on a mission to save it, but to search for a place where his people could start over.
He clenched his shaking fingers around the reins and slanted a glance back at Bilbo. The hobbit had straightened in the saddle to stare out ahead of them, his eyes wide and bright as he took in the glory of Erebor for the first time. He could imagine the hobbit making that same face in the entrance hall of the mountain, as the great gates cranked open and the size and opulence of the kingdom he ruled over became clear—for though Smaug had done a great deal of damage to the inner halls, two years had seen the near-perfect restoration of the passages the fire-drake had clawed and burnt and smashed. He smiled as he pictured Bilbo’s awe at the sight of gleaming smooth marble, and elaborate, richly dyed tapestries, and the great yawning arch of the ceiling that vanished into darkness overhead.
Then a shadow flickered over Bilbo’s face, the angle of his head changing, and Thorin knew what he’d just spied: the blackened, barren expanse that ringed both sides of the foothills, where pastures and farm fields and stands of pine had prospered not so very long ago. His people and the men of Dale had begun to call it “the Desolation.”
Not so impressive, that, he thought with a wave of sourness.
“Welcome to Erebor, Master Baggins,” he said, and nudged his pony into a canter. No doubt Dis would be waiting on tenterhooks to find out how their quest had fared.
Bilbo’s reaction to entering the mountain was everything Thorin had hoped for, as was the mix of censure and pride Dis bestowed upon him when she heard the sordid details of what had transpired in the Shire.
The morning after their arrival at Erebor, everyone—everyone, right down to the scullery maids and the messenger dwarflings and the children from Dale—gathered at the edge of the field nearest the mountain, their faces equal parts worried and eager.
“Whenever you’re ready, Master Baggins,” Thorin said, but then as Bilbo stepped forward, he caught hold of the hobbit’s arm and arrested his motion. “I want you to know that if this attempt does not succeed, you’ll not be blamed. We’ve set a great weight upon your shoulders, and all we can ask is that you give it your best effort.”
Bilbo took a long, measured breath. “I’ll do everything I can.”
Gently, he peeled Thorin’s hand from his arm, and then he strode forward to the first empty row where plants should have been taking root. He knelt at the edge of the scorched field and closed his eyes, pressing a hand into the soil. Clods of earth crumbled beneath his fingertips, dry as desert sand.
Thorin stood watching, his breath tight and shallow with anxiety. An eerie silence hung over the thousands of dwarves and men at his back.
Bilbo gave a great shudder and dug his other hand into the earth as well. Green sparks swarmed down his wrists and the lengths of his fingers, vanishing into the ground.
Nothing happened. Moments passed. Still nothing. A full minute now. Still nothing.
The hope inside of Thorin began to wilt, and distantly, he was aware of his thrumming pulse as his breaths grew even shallower.
A stifled gasp fled Bilbo’s throat, then, and slowly, ever so slowly, as though reluctant to leave their earthen protection, tiny shoots of green began to sprout. Just a few framing Bilbo’s knuckles at first, and then sweeping out in wider and wider swathes of color as roots roved through the soil and leaves unfurled under the sun. A damp warmth leaked from the corners of Thorin’s eyes and streaked down toward his beard—not from grief or from anger, the source of many such trails over the last two years, but from the joy that flooded his heart in overwhelming measure.
After several long moments, Bilbo sank back onto his haunches, panting, eyelids trembling but remaining shut, his face pale as a fish belly. Though he raised his hands from the ground, the rows of greenery continued to spread, marching onward across the field. He swallowed a couple of times, as though making sure he wouldn’t be sick, and then said, “I’ll need a rest before I do the trees. You’ll want to water these immediately, I should think.”
“Right, of course.” Thorin rested a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Much louder, to the ranks of dwarves and men behind him, he called out hoarsely, “Water, now! Bring forth water and slake the thirst of every plant here!”
Then, damp-eyed and grinning, he sank to his knees before Bilbo and cupped his hands around the smooth bareness of the hobbit’s cheeks. He pressed his forehead to Bilbo’s, his fingers trembling, his thoughts a jumble of sheer elation. He’s saved us. He’s saved us all.
“Thank you, Master Baggins,” he murmured in a choked voice. “Thank you.”
Bilbo offered a smile, his eyelids heavy. “You might as well call me Bilbo. I think we’re beyond all of this ‘Master Baggins’ business.”
“Thank you, Bilbo,” Thorin said, and angled his mouth to press it against Bilbo’s in a soft, lingering kiss, palms still cradling the hobbit’s face.
Later, after Bilbo had worked his magic a second time on the forest near the mountain, and after they’d retired to armchairs by the fire in the royal suite’s private sitting room, Thorin directed a solemn gaze his way. “You’ve done us a great service, Bilbo, and I would see you compensated for your efforts. What is it you desire? Gold? Silver? Precious gems?”
“Oh, none of those, please. I’m a rather well-to-do hobbit in my own right—what would I need more for?”
Thorin hesitated, a bit thrown by Bilbo’s reaction to the offer. “Perhaps fine cloth, then, or books? Those might be more to your taste. Erebor has one of the largest libraries in all of Middle Earth. If you wish to stay and peruse our offerings, I’d be glad to offer accommodations for as long as you’d like.”
Bilbo licked his lips and twisted his hands, then, seeming to summon his courage, he blurted out, “As long as I’d like, you say? And if that’s…for quite some time? With you?”
Thorin felt his expression soften, his mouth tugging wide. He set aside his wine glass and, leaning forward in his chair, murmured, “Then you’d be most welcome.”
Bilbo huffed a sigh of relief, his expression brightening. “Well…well, excellent. In that case, I’ll be needing to send a letter along to my relatives.” He shot Thorin a cheeky grin. “They probably think something dreadful’s happened to me. Maybe a kidnapping.”
Thorin snorted. “Dreadful indeed.” And then he leaned forward to seal his lips against Bilbo’s again, hand rising to twine in the hobbit’s curls as the firelight set his hair and face aglow, bright and warm like the sun.