Before he had expected it, they had found their way to the trolls.
"We will camp here for the night," declared Thorin as they came upon the burnt hovel of what once was a farmer's home.
Gandalf paused and stared at the skeletal remains of the shack with furrowed brows. Bilbo knew he was recounting the farmer and was about to voice his concerns to the king. He silently inched closer as the wizard and Dwarf began to converse.
"—should make for Rivendell. We would be most welcome by Lord Elrond—" Gandalf was trying to explain with obvious impatience, and mounting anger.
"We will not!" Thorin cut off sharply, making a slicing motion with his hand. "The elves showed no interest in lending us aid years ago, and I doubt they will now. Leave it alone, Gandalf."
Gandalf's lips became pinched and he tugged his hat down further over his eyes. The Hobbit recognized the tell and immediately reached out to grasp the wizard's arm as he attempted to storm away.
"Wait a minute, where are you going?" Bilbo questioned, making sure to pitch his voice higher.
"To be with the only one here with any commonsense—myself!" the wizard declared loudly, and tried to tug his arm free.
He wasn't having it. The Hobbit dug his heels into the ground and gestured to the Dwarves around them. "You cannot leave us here unprotected! What if we are attacked?"
"We are not unprotected," Thorin snapped from behind him. "You are among veteran warriors who survived countless battles, halfling, thanks to their great skills—"
"I have seen no such skills in battle," he interrupted, cutting the king off much in the same manner he had done earlier to Gandalf. "We have been on the road for weeks and not once have I seen any of you engage combat. For all I know you could be as skilled in battle as an Orc is at knitting."
Nearby, both Bofur and Nori had a sudden and mysterious coughing fit.
"No, I would feel much safer if there was a wizard present as we tried to puzzle out why this house in the middle of nowhere was recently burned down," he finished, stressing the last part because Dwarves needed to have things spelt out for them. "And, Gandalf, you should not be wandering about alone considering we've been hearing wargs howling for the past few nights. Oh, and would you look at that—the sun is going down."
At that point, all the Company had stopped and were watching the drama with mixed expressions. Most seemed quite close to laughing but were able to control it. Fíli and Kíli had given up any pretense at not finding the situation funny, and were giggling into each other's shoulders like children. Thorin had gone very, very still, and was turning a light shade of pink. Bilbo thought the shade complimented his blue eyes quite nicely, but he didn't think the Dwarf would appreciate the compliment at such a time.
Or any other time.
"Bilbo, would you truly feel safer if I were to stay?" Gandalf questioned, setting a hand in his curls. His face was a mask of concern, but Bilbo could see the bright twinkle in his gray eyes. The wizard was most likely cackling inside.
"Yes, I would," he declared firmly, nodding.
"Then I will stay," the wizard granted, looking up past the Hobbit to give the Dwarf king a glare. "For the moment, anyway."
Bilbo allowed his shoulders to sag in relief. "Thank you."
Thorin glared at both of them before snapping at his nephews, "Fíli! Kíli! Watch the ponies! Everyone else set up camp!"
The two brothers immediately stopped giggling.
He finally released the wizard as the Dwarves around them began their tasks. Gandalf gave him a smile that he returned easily enough.
"You continue to surprise me, Bilbo Baggins," he commented, his eyes still twinkling. "I think we are in for quite an adventure."
Oh, Gandalf, the real surprises have yet to occur.
When it came to delivering the meals to Fíli and Kíli, Bilbo volunteered first.
"I don't mind taking it to them. It will give me a chance to check on Mrytle," he explained to Bombur as he took the bowls.
"Very well then. But hurry back before your food gets cold," the cook advised, already setting aside a bowl of stew for the Hobbit as the rest of Dwarves descended upon the food.
He simply nodded and went on his way.
When he found the two brothers, they were arguing in lowered voices and taking turns hitting each other in the shoulder. He waited for them to notice him, and when they failed to, finally cleared his throat to catch their attention. His actions had them jumping and spinning around to face him with wide eyes.
"Gentlemen," he greeted, holding up their bowls of stew. "I have brought you dinner."
"Oh, would you look at that, Kíli, our burglar has brought us dinner," Fíli said in false cheer. "How nice of him!"
"Oh, yes, very nice of him," Kíli agreed, nodding his head eagerly.
"We'll just take those off your hands then, and you can go on your way," Fíli added in the same fake tone while reaching out to take the bowls.
Bilbo stepped back to avoid him, and gave them both a deadpanned look. "What did you two do now?"
Fíli pulled back with a scowl. "What? I resent that tone. Do not assume that we've done something stupid every time we're left alone."
"Though we did lose some of the ponies," his younger brother admitted.
Fíli immediately punched him in the arm. "Kíli!"
"Well, we did!" defended Kíli, rubbing his arm and scowling. "We might as well tell him since he's already here."
"You lost—? How many did you lose?" the Hobbit demanded, setting the bowls down on a nearby log.
"Two," Fíli admitted with a frown. "We've been looking for them and we think they were stolen."
"By who? There's no one else out here but us," he pointed out.
Kíli pointed to the upturned trees and wreckage of nature close by. "We think by whatever did that."
Bilbo followed his finger and raised both brows. "Oh dear."
He allowed the two brothers to drag him off in pursuit of the trolls much like the first time around. The only difference was when they arrived to where the trolls were camped, he did not allow them to immediately push him into saving the ponies by himself.
"I'm not going in there alone and without a plan," he reasoned to the two Dwarves. "They are three trolls and I am just a little Hobbit."
"You are also our burglar and known to be quiet. This would be a good chance to prove yourself to the others," Kíli argued.
"Or get myself eaten alive," the Hobbit retorted with false sweetness. "Look, I will attempt to free the ponies if one of you goes back to tell the others of this, and one of you stays here to help me."
Fíli and Kíli looked to one another. The blond raised one brow while the other shrugged and gestured to his own clothes. Fíli nodded in answer and patted one of his many blades. Bilbo watched the wordless exchange in interest. He recalled the two doing such things before, but never gave much thought to it. But now he realized how in tune they really were if they could read each other's thoughts so easily through gestures alone.
No wonder they died together in the end, he realized with a sobering sadness.
"I will stay with you while Kíli gets the others," the older Dwarf finally said.
"I'll be back soon," the brunet promised, getting to his feet and quietly sprinting back the way they came.
Fíli watched his brother disappear back into the forest before turning his attention back to the Hobbit. "Okay. What's your plan?"
Bilbo smirked. "Well, first, I need to get captured."
It was rather easy to walk into the troll's camp without them noticing.
"Hello there," he greeted, waving an arm and jumping slightly to gain their attention.
The three trolls turned to him and were on their feet instantly.
"Lookit we have here," one said, reaching down to pick him up in a grip that threatened to break his ribs with the slightest twitch.
"What is it?" wondered another, leaning closer to stare at him. "I've not seen this before."
"I'm a Hobbit," Bilbo answered in a calm voice that contrasted with his pounding heart. "What are you three?"
"We… We're trolls," said the finale one, staring at him with a baffled expression. "Haven't you seen a troll before?"
"No. Haven't you seen a Hobbit before?" he retorted.
The trolls just stared at him.
"Why don't you fear us?" asked the one holding him.
"Fear you?" the Hobbit repeated, blinking a few times.
—Smaug is large. Larger than a house, a bear, or even a mountain. He looms over him in such a way that he believes the dragon could block out the sun just from standing. He can see his reflection in one amber eye that is nearly as wide as he is tall. He realizes exactly how small and pale and pathetic he looks, and it makes him cold in a way snow never could—
—Thorin falls and does not get up. He does not move, does not flinch, does not stir. It makes something in him rise up and roar—
—the ring whispers promises to him; promises of freedom, promises of power, and promises of rebirth. He shuts the whispers away and tries to ignore the twisting feeling in his stomach—
—Frodo adjusts the mithril shirt that hangs to his thighs. It hangs awkwardly on his small frame, and makes him look like a child playing dress up. When Frodo looks up to meet his eyes, he can see a strength in them that he himself has never possessed. That strength makes his heart stop because it is a strength that demands a life in return—
"No," Bilbo said with a smile that he knew was as twisted as the vines in his garden. "No, I do not fear you three."
The three trolls looked stumped.
"But… You should be afraid of us!" cried the second one, looking as if his world had been turned upside down.
"Yeah, you should be afraid of us!" the first one agreed, shaking him. Bilbo felt and saw his world turn upside down, and tried his best to control his stomach.
"Let's put him in the pot. That should put the fear in him," the third—and smartest, obviously—troll suggested with a smile that showed his missing and yellowed teeth.
"If you're planning to eat me, I would suggest roasting," he chimed in as they carried him back to their pot. "That way you won't lose the juiciness of the meat."
"You know how to cook?" questioned the third one, sitting down before his pot.
He nodded. "Oh yes. Tell me, how does your soup taste at the moment? Perhaps I could recommend some herbs and spices you could add."
The trolls stared at him and then at each other before the first finally shrugged and dropped the Hobbit down before the pot. He picked up the wooden ladle and took a gulp of the soup, and then twisted his face up into a snarl.
"That tastes awful! What did you put into it?" the first troll asked the third.
"The same stuff as always!" claimed the third troll as the second one took a turn trying the soup.
"Oh! He's right! That taste horrible it does!" the second troll agreed, throwing the ladle down and wiping at his tongue as if he could wipe the taste away.
The third troll finally tried the soup for himself and was soon enough gagging in disgust.
Bilbo slowly got to his feet and backed away a few feet as the trolls began to gag and claw at their throats, and then began to vomit. The first that grabbed him soon collapsed to his knees and began to choke on the blood and vomit that his body kept heaving. The second and smaller troll had already collapsed, and was twitching and convulsing on the ground. The third was the only one who paid him any mind even as he too retched.
"You… You Hobbit you… d-did something to the stew," the troll gasped, pointing at him and struggling to his feet.
He pointed a finger at his chest and raised his eyebrows. "Me? Oh no, it was not me. I did nothing to your soup."
"True. That would be me."
Fíli stepped out from the trees and moved to his side. He had a disgusted look on his face as he regarded the trolls before him.
"I can't believe that worked," he commented, wrinkling his nose as another of the trolls began to vomit again.
Bilbo nodded. He was also surprised by how easily the trolls had fallen for their trick. "Do you think we should put them out of their misery?"
Fíli studied the moaning creatures for a moment before finally nodding. "Yeah. Watch my back for a moment."
It was a testament to how sick the trolls had grown that they did not notice or fight the Dwarf who snuck up behind them, and rammed his sword into the back of their necks. The only one who noticed was the third troll, and even then his attempts at protecting himself were weak and halfhearted at best. Fíli ended his life easily enough.
As the blond took out the trolls, Bilbo moved to the back of the camp and began working at the ropes that held the ponies captive. Just as he undid the last knot, the rest of their Company arrived at the scene with their weapons raised and ready; only to stop short at the sight of the already dead trolls.
"Fíli!" Kíli easily leaped over the puddles of mess and bodies and made his way to his brother. "Did you do all this?"
"Not alone," his brother replied, wiping his blade clean. "It was a joint attack."
"What happened?" questioned Thorin, also making his way to his nephew's side, but at a more sedated pace.
"We poisoned the trolls," Fíli replied with a simple shrug.
The Dwarves and wizard stared.
"With what?" Balin wondered.
"Monkshood, deadly nightshade, and rosary pea," listed the Hobbit.
"Where did you get such plants?" Óin demanded as Nori and Bombur gaped. They were the only three who seemed to realize exactly how lethal the plants were.
Bilbo gave them all a look of exaggerated surprise. "Why, the trails we've been traveling of course! It's not hard to find them if you know where to look."
"So you picked these plants and then poisoned the trolls with them?" Kíli summarized, looking at his brother for approval.
The prince shrugged. "Pretty much. Our burglar here distracted them while I snuck in and stirred the ground herbs into their stew. Then he tricked them all into tasting it, and the rest… well the rest is obvious."
The Dwarves and the wizard continued to stare.
"Mister Bilbo… How did you distract the trolls?" Ori wondered softly, his eyes wide.
"Ha! That's the best part. All he did was walk up and talk to them!" gloated Fíli. "I nearly fell over when I saw he let them pick him up. And then he even advised them on how to cook him!"
Ori's eyes grew even wider. "Wow, Mister Bilbo, that's so brave!"
Bilbo shifted, feeling uncomfortable at such praise. He wasn't brave, not really. Gandalf was brave. Thorin was brave. Frodo was brave. Hell, Samwise was brave. But him? He wasn't brave. If he was then he wouldn't have sent his nephew into Mordor with his ring.
"Bilbo, why would you do such a thing on your own?" Gandalf asked with a severe frown.
He shrugged. "They were about to eat our ponies. We did not have the time to wait for you all."
"Then you should have sent Fíli to distract them while you snuck up behind them. He is the more experienced fighter between you two," pointed out Balin.
"No. I would not risk Fíli in such a way," the Hobbit said firmly, shaking his head. "He is too important to chance over something like this."
The Dwarves grew silent at that. All except one.
"Why did you pick these plants?" Thorin wondered. For once he did not look at Bilbo as if he were dirt beneath his boot. Instead, he looked thoughtful as he gazed at the Hobbit with his fire blue eyes.
Bilbo swallowed the lump in his throat as he met the intense look head on. "Because I am a Hobbit. I am no warrior or master burglar. I am just a Hobbit and I must protect myself through my own means. This is one way that I have chosen to do so."
Thorin stared at him for a moment longer. He could not read what the Dwarf thought of his words, but he could tell that for once the king was not annoyed by him. The Hobbit decided to count that as a large step in the right direction.
Finally Thorin looked back to the others, and pointed to the dead trolls. "Scout the area. Let us find out exactly how these trolls found their way here."