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Stepping off the Broken Path

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Chapter 1

 

As soon as it started to rain, Bilbo began to regret taking the long way home from the Green Dragon.

He’d fancied a nice walk to energize him after a couple helpings of Malva Smallburrow’s famous roast—a full belly tended to make him drowsy at times, but he still had a couple things to take care of when he got to Bag End.

But now fat drops were falling from the twilit sky, and Bilbo had quite forgotten to bring a cloak. He grimaced, wrapping his coat further around himself and sped up his pace. This was certainly not how he’d planned on spending his evening, and he was thinking about drawing a hot bath when he got home.

The brush on the side of the path rustled wetly in the breeze. As rain continued to fall, Bilbo ducked his head—and it was only because of this that he saw the strange shape on the edge of the path.

He thought for a moment that it was a forgotten cloak or perhaps just a bit of rubbish, but as he moved closer he realized it was someone’s hair , longer and coarser than any hobbit’s would be.

His heart began to pound as Bilbo pushed aside part of the bush at the edge of the path. The hair partially concealed a broad back, clothed in a travel-worn fur coat.

Bilbo blinked at the stranger, then bent down and gingerly tapped their shoulder. “Hello?”

No response.

Well, this was a rather uncomfortable situation, and Bilbo was beginning to wish he had not stumbled upon it at all. Though now that he had, he couldn’t simply walk away.

He took hold of the stranger’s shoulder and pulled. He nearly fell on his rump in the process, but managed to roll the stranger onto their back, revealing thick, dark brows, a sharp ridge of a nose, and a full beard.

The stranger was a dwarf. Bilbo’s pulse leaped at the realization. He’d seen dwarves traveling through the Shire before, and thought them a rather gruff and reclusive folk. He wondered if this one had had too much to drink and passed out in the bushes, and prodded his shoulder again.

Again, there was no response, and Bilbo wondered with an awful twist in his gut if the dwarf was dead . But after a moment, he registered the gentle rise and fall of his chest, and relaxed somewhat.

The brush was becoming rather damp with rain, and the ground beneath his trousers had grown muddy. Bilbo decided whatever was wrong with this person, it wouldn’t do for either of them to stay out here and catch a cold. He stood up, and noticed with some relief that his cousin Drogo and Milo Cotton were coming down the path.

He brushed some droplets from his hair and waved to them. “Here, would you two mind helping me with something?”

Drogo stuck his hands in his waistcoat pockets, looking rather unconcerned (and dry) beneath his cloak. “What’s the problem, Bilbo?”

“Well—” Bilbo stood back and gestured helplessly to the figure lying in the brush.

Milo stepped closer, and his eyes rounded. “Is that a dwarf ?”

“I-I just found him lying there, and I haven’t been able to wake him up.” Bilbo put his hands on his hips, frowning down at the dwarf. “Perhaps we should move him inside?”

Milo hummed uncertainly, but Drogo stepped forward and said, “I suppose we should.”

Drogo bent down to lift the dwarf’s shoulders, while Milo took the legs, muttering about the strange boots on his small feet. But after a few minutes of grunting and puffing, they couldn’t manage to move him more than a little ways, even with Bilbo’s help. 

“I heard somewhere that they eat rocks.” Milo stood up and wiped the sweat from his brow. “And I’m beginning to think that’s true.”

Drogo rubbed his lower back with a wince. “Say, I think Tobold left his wheelbarrow down by the Dragon. That might make the job easier.”

“Alright.” Milo brushed some dirt from his trousers. “We’d best go fetch it.”

“I’ll come with you,” Drogo said.

“I suppose I’ll stay here, then,” Bilbo said. “In case he wakes up.”

He watched the two hobbits set off down the path, then sighed and turned back to the dwarf. Something like concern twinged in his chest. It wasn’t raining very hard, but it was enough to make one uncomfortable, and it probably wasn’t much better when one was lying on the ground.

Bilbo shrugged off his coat and held it flat above the dwarf’s face, to at least partially shelter him from the rain. He counted himself fortunate that it wasn’t very cold, but his arms were beginning to get tired by the time Drogo and Milo returned with the wheelbarrow.

It took quite a bit of effort from all three of them to hoist the dwarf into the wheelbarrow, but they eventually managed it. Their efforts had not roused the stranger at all, and Bilbo concluded that the dwarf was either very ill or a very deep sleeper. He rather hoped it was the former.

From there, it was less of a struggle to bring him back to the Green Dragon, explain what had happened, and find an empty bed to hoist the dwarf onto. Nonetheless, they were all sweating once the matter was over, and Drogo happily agreed to Milo’s suggestion that they catch their breath over some leftover tarts.

Bilbo wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. He was sorely tempted to join them, but he was reluctant to leave the dwarf alone in the small, one-bed room they’d placed him in. He wasn’t sure why he felt so strongly about it, but he did not want him to be alone when he woke up.

With a sigh, he hung his damp coat on one of the bedposts and sat on the edge of the bed, careful of the dwarf’s muddy boots. He still wasn’t sure why one would wear a piece of clothing that was bound to get so dirty.

After a few minutes of waiting (and wondering if he should have joined Drogo and Milo after all), the door creaked open, making him look up. Hanna, the local healer, walked in with her bag slung over her shoulder.

“Heard you and your cousin brought in an unconscious dwarf,” she said. “I thought I might take a look, see if anything’s the matter with him.”

“Oh, yes.” Bilbo hopped down from the bed. “He seems to be quite a deep sleeper, if nothing else. Didn’t wake once while we were carrying him here.”

“Hmm.” Hanna deposited her bag on the bedside table and set about inspecting him.

Bilbo watched as she worked, though he was looking at the dwarf more than anything. In the warm light of the inn, he could see his features more clearly. His dark hair had curled slightly in the rain, and was shot with silver streaks. He didn’t look old, though—his skin was smooth, his features sharper than one would expect from a dwarf. Bilbo imagined he looked quite striking when he was awake.

“Well, as far as I can tell, he’s only unconscious.” Hanna straightened. Bilbo blinked, realizing he’d been staring for far too long, and quickly looked away. “It doesn’t appear he’s hit his head, so it may just be exhaustion. Or he might be a deep sleeper.” She shrugged and shouldered her bag. “All we can do for now is wait for him to wake up.”

“All right. Thank you, Hanna.” Bilbo bid her farewell, then leaned against the bed.

Well, Hanna had given no indication as to how long it would take for the dwarf to wake up, and he wasn’t terribly inclined to wait up the whole night. After a few moments of deliberation, Bilbo decided he might as well get a half pint, since he was rather thirsty from his efforts.

Drogo and Milo were still sitting in the main room, chatting quietly.

“Still asleep?” Drogo asked as Bilbo joined them at their table.

Bilbo nodded and took a sip of his ale. “Hanna doesn’t think it’s any sort of injury, though.”

“Perhaps he’s only had too much to drink,” Milo said. “He’ll probably be up by morning and out of our sights by noon.”

Drogo nodded, and Bilbo looked down at his ale. That would probably be for the best. Dwarves weren’t always the sort to cause trouble, but they could be quite rowdy. As Tobold the bottler liked to say, the best sort of dwarves were the ones only passing through.

The conversation turned to lighter topics after that, and Bilbo had nearly forgotten about the dwarf entirely by the time they all decided to turn in. He bid goodnight to Drogo and Milo, and was halfway out the door before he remembered that he’d left his coat in the dwarf’s room.

He made his way quickly back to the room, eager to return home so he could dry off and get some sleep. His coat was right where he’d left it, and the dwarf was still asleep. He watched his chest rise and fall for a moment, then turned towards the door with his coat slung over one arm, since it was still rather damp. His hand was on the doorknob when he heard the bed creak behind him.

Bilbo stiffened and turned around. The dwarf was sitting up, scanning the room as if searching for hidden enemies. When he turned his gaze on Bilbo, he felt his heart skip a beat.

“Where am I?” His voice came out as little more than a growl, and one hand landed near his hip. Previously there had been a sword there, but they had unbuckled it and placed it by the bed since it was rather cumbersome, and no one had felt like getting their legs accidentally cut off.

Bilbo stammered for a moment under the dwarf’s intense gaze. “Y-You’re in the Green Dragon.” When the dwarf continued to glare at him, he added, “It’s a tavern, not too far from where we found you.”

“What do you mean? Where did you find me?” he demanded.

“Out in the bushes.” Bilbo clutched his coat in front of him like a meager shield. “You were unconscious.”

The dwarf swung his legs over the side of the bed, blinking rapidly as one does after waking up from a deep sleep. “Where am I?” he repeated. “This Green Dragon, where is it?”

Bilbo furrowed his brow. The stranger was more out of sorts than he’d thought. “Bywater, near Hobbiton.” When the dwarf continued to look confused, he added, “In the Shire.” That didn’t appear to clear things up either, so he continued tentatively, “Middle-earth. You do know where that is, yes?”

For a moment he wondered if these places were simply called something different in the dwarvish language. Perhaps the dwarf didn’t speak Westron very well.

He tried a different angle. “Where do you come from, then?”

The dwarf’s jaw tensed. After a long moment, he said, “I don’t remember.”

Bilbo blinked. “Don’t remember? Well...Well, where were you coming from, before you ended up…” He gestured vaguely towards the window. “Out there?”

“I don’t remember.” The dwarf shook his head, an edge of panic creeping into his voice.

Well. Bilbo shifted his weight as the dwarf bowed his head. This was certainly inconvenient, and perplexing besides. Of course, everyone misplaced their handkerchief or favorite teacup occasionally. He himself had a bad habit of forgetting the names of his Took nephews and nieces, since there were a great many of them. But he had the feeling whatever this dwarf was experiencing was much more than that.

“Is there anything you do remember?” he asked quietly.

The dwarf remained silent for a long moment, as though searching the corners of his mind, then shook his head.

Bilbo puffed out his cheeks and let out a slow breath. This was certainly not how he’d wanted his night to go, but he was more glad than ever that he’d caught the dwarf while he’d woken up. He would have been bewildered indeed, waking up in a strange place with no one to explain things to him.

“All right,” he said. “Come with me. I may not be able to help you, but I know someone who can.”

After a moment’s consideration, the dwarf nodded and stood up. He spared a moment to retrieve his sword, and Bilbo glanced at it nervously as he made his way out of the room.

“Hanna’s left already,” the bartender said when Bilbo stopped to ask. “At this hour, she’s probably heading home.” He paused in wiping down the counter to send a wary glance towards the dwarf, but said nothing.

“All right. Have a good night, then.” Bilbo gestured for his companion to follow him out the door.

It had stopped raining, thankfully, though the path remained damp as they walked. They left the glow of the Green Dragon’s windows behind in near silence, with only the rustle of wet grass and the low thud of the dwarf’s boots. He was taller and broader than Bilbo, but he moved steadily and surely. And now that his earlier consternation had subsided, Bilbo could see his earlier guess had been correct—he did look rather striking.

“I suppose I’d have no luck asking for your name,” Bilbo said.

The dwarf grunted in confirmation. “I do not remember that, either.”

Bilbo looked him over once more. The sword, which he’d reattached to his belt, made him think he was a warrior of some sort. But then again, all the dwarves he’d seen tended to carry a weapon of some sort, even if it was only a knife.

It wasn’t long before they reached Hanna’s smial, tucked behind a copse of cherry trees. Seeing that one of the windows was filled with light, Bilbo stepped forward and knocked on the red-painted door.

Hanna opened the door, still in her day clothes, and her eyes immediately fell on the dwarf. “Ah, he’s awake.”

“Yes, but we have a slight problem.” Bilbo glanced at the dwarf, who gazed back at him impassively, then turned back to Hanna. “Well, he doesn’t remember anything.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Anything? As in…”

“Not his name, where he’s been, anything.” Bilbo glanced at the dwarf for confirmation, and received a slight nod. He seemed to have recovered from his earlier distress, and had put on the typical dwarvish stoicism that one might expect.

“Perhaps it was a head injury after all.” Hanna turned to the dwarf. “Have you been feeling any pain in your head, dizziness, nausea?”

“No,” the dwarf replied. “I don’t...feel ill.”

Hanna frowned at that, and Bilbo’s shoulders sagged. He’d been hoping she would have been able to solve the problem, or at least point them in the right direction, but she seemed just as nonplussed as he’d been.

“I’m afraid the best I can give you as what I said before. All you can do for now is wait. It might take a few days for your memories to return.” Hanna turned back to Bilbo. “But you must call on me if his condition worsens.”

“I will.” Bilbo nodded. 

They said their goodbyes, and it was only when they were back on the path that he began to wonder when exactly this dwarf had become his responsibility.

“What now?” the dwarf asked.

“Well, Hanna is right.” Bilbo shrugged. “We’ll just have to wait. If another group of dwarves passes through, they might be better able to help you. But until then…” He took a deep breath. “You should come stay with me. In Bag End.”

The dwarf stopped and looked him over with an unreadable glance. “Why?”

Bilbo felt his pulse flutter beneath his collar. This was very un-Baggins-like of him, though at the same time his father had always taught him to be kind and generous to his neighbors. He supposed he could consider this dwarf a neighbor of sorts, albeit a very distant one.

“Well, I don’t know if you have the coin to afford a room at the Green Dragon. But I have space in my home, and...and time to help you recover your memories.” He gave a faint smile. “I suspect it will only be a day or two, and then you will have your bearings and be on your way.”

The dwarf seemed to consider this for a long moment, then nodded for him to lead on.

Bilbo began walking towards Bag End, and tried to comfort himself with the thought that it really would only be a few days. Inviting a dwarf into his home for even a couple hours was enough to start more than a few whispers (and no doubt Lobelia would take it upon herself to start one or two nasty rumors). No, it would be best for the both of them for the dwarf to recover his memories as soon as possible.

As Bilbo pushed open the door to Bag End, he couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief to be among familiar surroundings. He turned back to the dwarf as he stepped through.

“You can hang your coat right here,” he gestured to the row of pegs on the wall, “and please leave your shoes by the door.”

Wordlessly, the dwarf complied. As he slipped off his coat, a paper fell out of his breast pocket. It landed with a low thud —the page was folded twice, and made of rather thick paper besides. They both stared at it for a moment before the dwarf bent to retrieve it. He unfolded it carefully, having to peel back the damp surface.

Bilbo stepped forward, unable to control his curiosity. Here was a clue already, and hopefully one that would provide some useful information.

But from what he could see, the page, which appeared to be a letter, was practically unintelligible. It was written in the blocky runes that dwarves used, but more than that, the rain had smeared the ink and left nothing more than indistinguishable blobs on the paper. He let out a small sigh of disappointment and looked up at the dwarf.

He was studying the paper with a frown, looking just as discouraged. He lifted a thumb and ran it over the only legible word at the top corner of the paper. “Thorin.”

“Thorin?” Bilbo repeated. “Is that a name? Could it be your name, perhaps?” It would make sense, if this was a letter that had been addressed to him.

“It’s possible.” The dwarf continued to stare at the paper.

“Well, I suppose I will have to call you something.” Bilbo offered a tentative smile. “Do...Do you remember anything now, Thorin?”

“No.” He looked at it for a moment later, then folded it and placed it back in his pocket.

“Sleep on it, then.” He waited until Thorin had removed his boots, then gestured for him to follow him down the hall. “Here is the guest room. The bathroom is down that way, if you would like to wash up. And I will be in this room, if you are in need of anything else.”

Bilbo took a small, calming breath. In a way, it was easier to pretend that Thorin was only an ordinary guest. He’d hosted a few of his relatives from Tookland a few times, and was no stranger to hospitality.

Thorin paused by the door to the guest room. Bilbo noticed he still had his sword strapped to his belt, and decided against asking him to leave it. He wasn’t even sure where he would put it, besides the umbrella stand.

“I am grateful for your hospitality, Master…”

“Oh.” Bilbo realized that, in the confusion, he’d forgotten to give his own name. “Baggins. Bilbo Baggins.” 

He held out his hand, more out of habit than anything, and Thorin shook it. His hand was warm and large, nearly engulfing Bilbo’s own.

They stood there for a moment longer, and Bilbo wondered why he was feeling so flustered at the moment.

“Well...I suppose I will see you in the morning.” Bilbo offered another quick, hesitant smile as Thorin nodded. “Good night.”

And he turned and fled into his bedroom.