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Back Again - A Hobbit's Tale

Chapter Text


Bilbo opened his eyes, staring blankly upwards. The exposed wooden beams and white plaster of his childhood bedroom stared back at him.

The first rays of dawn peeked through the frost covered window and danced on the bed sheets. Knick-knacks and books covered the floor and dresser, as they often had before his parent's passing and his own forced adulthood. The air held the lingering scent of dried sandalwood and cloves. His mother had been fond of the scent.

It was like walking into a memory.

Is this a dream? the hobbit wondered. He held his hand up to the light, rotating it from back to palm in sheer disbelief. It was young, smooth, and as lightly haired as that of a hobbit tween.

Bilbo sat up. "Am I dead?" he whispered. His stomach clenched and he shivered. We were sailing to Valinor... Frodo!

Bilbo leapt up, dismissing the limberness of his body, and dashed out of his old bedroom. He had to find Frodo!

After a short and frantic search, Bilbo stopped in the sitting room, panting fiercely. This. It was not possible. Bag End was entirely as it was when he was young, he was entirely as he was when he was young!

He sat down and put his head in his hands.

A door creaked open and soft feet padded towards him. "Bilbo?" his father's long-lost voice whispered. "Is that you? Respectable Bagginses are still in bed at this time of morning!"

The feet stopped when they were beside him. The overstuffed couch sagged as his father sat.

"Whatever is wrong?" Bilbo's father asked softly.

A warm arm wrapped around Bilbo's shoulders. He could feel himself starting to shake.

"Did you have a bad dream?"

Bilbo fiercely hugged his father. Tears slid down his cheeks. He suppressed a sob.

No, he wanted to say. You were dead and mother was dead and now it is like a long-healed scar in my heart has ripped loose again. And; I saved a kingdom, I gained and lost six of the best friends I ever had, I cursed my nephew who I loved as my own son to carry a terrible burden that should never have been his. And it was -not- a dream.

"Yes," Bilbo whispered. "Yes."

After sitting with his father for several minutes, Bilbo managed to stop his crying. He apologized for waking his father and returned to his room.

He barely heard his father's reply of "it's all right, lad, it's all right."

With trembling hands, Bilbo opened the top drawer of his old dresser. One of his early journals lay there, a quill and pot of ink beside it. Bilbo flipped to the last page with writing on it and checked the date.

It was December 11th of the year 1310, by the Shire reckoning. It was the beginning of the Fell Winter, when goblins and white wolves had crossed the frozen Brandywine River and invaded, slaughtering and raiding as they went. It was two weeks before his mother's death. It was a year before his father's decline. It was decades before a wizard would come calling for an adventure, and nearly a century before Bilbo's nephew would go on his.

Bilbo breathed in and exhaled. Then repeated it for good measure. He could change it. He could change everything.

He was Mad Baggins, now, with or without Sting in his hand.

Author's notes:

This is going to be a very slow-build story, and will go quite a bit off the beaten path. I'm a few years out of practice on the creative writing front so some constructive criticism would be very much appreciated :). Hope you like it!

Also, this fic is LGBTQIA-friendly. As in the real world most couples will be het, but also as in the real world there will be same-sex pairings and aces/asexuals too. And possibly an awesome cross-dresser or two. Bilbo is an ace in this. There may be a F/M/M threeway relationship that ends up being central to the plot, but it will be something of an epically slow build.  Much like the rest of this monster. That is all you need to know for now :D.

Chapter Text

Arc 1: The Fell Winter

The Next Morning

The next morning proved difficult, as Bilbo fought with all his strength to resist embracing his mother. His dear, own, very much alive mother. She hummed as she cooked; potatoes and eggs, crispy bacon and dried fruit filled the plates.

The pantry was halfway stocked with nonperishables, and the cold room held most of a slaughtered pig. They would not leave Bag End until they began running out of food. Thankfully, Bilbo's parents had had the foresight to ration.

Bilbo ate his breakfast in silence as his parents talked. According to his journal the Brandywine had already frozen, and the bounders had cautioned everyone to only go out in daylight and never alone. Doors were to be kept bolted shut, and windows barred.

His mother was insisting that her proficiency with an axe would be enough to keep them safe on the way to the market.

"And if the market is not open, dear wife, what then?" Bungo asked.

"And if that fails, my good husband, we shall simply go visit my relations in Tookborough," Belladonna said with a quirk of her mouth. Bungo's brothers and cousins, though fairly well off, did not have the same stores of food and gold as did the magnificent halls of the Tooks.

"We would still have to get there first, my dear. And that is a long walk, even without the cold and wolves, and who knows what else out there!" Bungo proclaimed, going a bit red in the face.

"Which is why I shall have my axe with me!"

Bilbo felt a slight smile sneak onto his face. Gandalf had been right: he did very much take after his mother. The smile slipped away. He needed a plan. If he did nothing, then in several weeks they would run out of food. The three of them would join with neighboring hobbits from the Hill and journey towards Tookburough. All of them had fought the wolves and goblins with everything they had, but his mother had been the only one among them to have seen actual combat before. And she had been terribly out of practice.


"I don't suppose you could teach me to use it?" he asked hesitantly, his head bowed. "Or maybe a long knife, or something?"

His father stared at him wordlessly. Belladonna glowed.

"Of course, my dear boy! You had only to ask!" She shot a glare at her husband, as if to say, see - he is a Took as well!

"Bilbo, my boy..." his father started. Then he stopped and shook his head and frowned. He glared at his empty plate for several moments. "I suppose it would be practical under the circumstance..." he finally muttered.

Belladonna gleamed in triumph and opened her mouth to speak.

"I am too old for such Tookishness, and a Baggins besides!" Bungo hurriedly added. "If it comes to that, I will wield our frying pan."

Bilbo's lessons began immediately after cleaning up.

His mother's way of fighting was different than the dwarves, who, even if they were smaller than their opponents, were in most cases stronger than them. Instead of charging on a straight line and using her weapon to attack and defend, Belladonna would dance toward and away and around her opponent. She was nearly impossible to hit, and her blows with a stick were neigh impossible to predict and always aimed somewhere unpleasant.

Happily for Bilbo, she thought it wise to demonstrate what fighting looked like before trying to teach it and so did not leave him covered in bruises.

Bilbo was clumsy in his new-old body: his makeshift sword fit odd in his hands and his feet did not go where he wished them to. He felt a longing for his body as it was at fifty, after adventure had hardened it to a certain degree and before the frailties of old age had set in.

Still, too, he felt a longing for the Ring. Twenty-two years without it, spent in the joyous halls of Rivendell, had healed the cracks somewhat. Nothing save the shores of Aman would heal them completely. He hoped that Frodo did not miss him overmuch. Bilbo trusted that Gandalf and Elrond would take good care of his nephew.

The next days established a new pattern for Bilbo. He would wake early from troubled dreams and help his mother in cooking breakfast. Then they would clear the furniture from the sitting room and she would instruct him in what she knew of sword-fighting.

Belladonna had judged the small wood hatchet as being completely unsuitable for fighting wolves and had produced a blade she had acquired on one of her adventures. Its length was that of a human's long dagger, used mainly for the close press of heavy combat. It made a good length sword for Bilbo, however, and would do quite well even if it was no match for his old elvish blade.

Bilbo practiced his sword blows, blocks, and footwork for half an hour while his mother looked on with approval (and his father with slight unease.) Then Belladonna would don her old boiled leathers and help Bilbo into a heavy coat and they would mock-fight, making sure to keep the blows slow and light.  They passed the time before first breakfast and luncheon this way.

Afterwards, Bilbo would sit and look at his mother's maps. He would trace the pathways from the Grey Havens of Lindon, to Ered Luin, to the Shire, to Rivendell, and across the Misty Mountains to the Lonely Mountain and Erebor. Too, he would stare at the cities of Man; Rohan and Gondor and the lands to the east and south, and he would think of his nephew's journey and his companions.

He would think of his rooms at Rivendell, and the friendship he had found in Elrond and his elves. He regretted waiting too long to visit Erebor, and that he had never been able to say his final farewells to Balin and Ori and Oin. He fiercely missed his nephew and Gandalf as well, and wished young Samwise Gamgee and Merry and Pippen all the best.

Every night, Bilbo would pen out his newest journal entries in Quenya, writing down all of the important details he could remember. His parents (his parents!) respected his privacy enough not to read them: he would not lose his secret that way.

All of the work that he had done, translating the oldest books of the elves, would have to be repeated. It would be a bit easier this time around, though he was not quite sure how to explain this particular skill. He would likely have to, he knew, if he was to accomplish what needed to be done.

Bilbo had come back a lad of twenty-one, barely into his tweens! He refused to wait twenty-nine years to go on his adventure! Still, he thought of never knowing his companions and his stomach clenched. He thought of the Ring in the hands of the creature Gollum, so close to goblins and the Necromancer. What disaster would it bring if found by someone other than him? And yet, after so many years without it, he desired it still. What damage would its return bring to him?

Bilbo sat, and thought, and read, and was silent. And his parents watched and worried.

Days upon days passed by, and their food supply dwindled.

One early morning, Belladonna donned her leather armor first thing after breakfast. She shrugged a heavy wool coat over it and attached her axe to her belt. They were to head out to speak to the neighboring families of the Hill and see if they wished to journey south to Hobbiton, and then further south to Tookborough if there was no food to be had there.

Bungo began to double-check the packs for the items they would need for their journey. It was four leagues from the Hill to Hobbiton, and ten to Tookburough. At a hobbit's pace, a one way journey would take either five hours or thirteen, depending on their destination. There would be nine hours of daylight at this time of winter, likely eight by the time they all set out. If the party traveled to Tookburough, as they had before, they would be walking several hours in darkness.

Bilbo felt his palms sweat and his heart race. He had dressed in his heavy winter clothes, carefully padded with leather boiled and sculpted by his mother. His sword was belted at his side, and his journal safely tucked away in his pack. He did not feel ready.

"Have you got your frying pan ready, Dad?" Bilbo asked, his brow furrowed. He did not remember what his father had done when the party had been... attacked. He did not want to lose his father, either. He did not want to lose anyone.

"Son, Bilbo, my lad, we are going to be just fine," Bungo said. "You needn't worry so much!" He closed the pack he had been inspecting and tied it back up. "Your mother and I have noticed your ill dreams of late, and, well, are concerned for you."

Bilbo blinked at his father. He had... noticed? Bilbo had been doing his best to act as he usually did, he thought.

Bungo walked over to his son and gave him a fierce hug. "We'll be fine, my lad. After today, everything will be just fine."

Bilbo froze for a moment before returning the hug. "You do have your frying pan ready, though?" he asked his father's neck. "Just in case?"

"If it would make you feel better, my lad, I will keep it ready."

Bilbo nodded into his father's neck and squeezed tighter before letting go.

Belladonna had her pack slung over her shoulders and was smiling at them both as she waited at the door. Bilbo put on his own pack and hurried over to her as Bungo slipped the frying pan out of his pack, tied it to the outside, and followed suit.

"Your mother will keep us both safe, lad. Did I ever tell you the tale of how we met?"

"Dear husband, Bilbo must have heard that story at least a thousand times by now!"

"That's alright Mum, I don't mind listening again." Bilbo hesitated for a second. "I would like to hear it again, I mean."

The three Bagginses crossed the threshold and stepped into the white world beyond, and Bungo firmly locked Bag End behind them.

Bungo began spinning his tale as they walked the freshly shoveled Bagshot Row from one end to another, knocking on each door. Family upon family joined them: the Underhills, the Greenhands, the Twofoots, Cottons, and Gamgees. Each family seemed to treat the whole thing as more of a walking party than an expedition into possibly unfriendly territory.

As his father described his first meeting with Belladonna at their elderly cousin's birthday party, Bilbo gazed at the strange faces of people he once knew.

The strangest by far was the youthful face of his old Gaffer, now a mere boy of ten. Bilbo felt the deepest of discomforts as his former (future?) gardener ran laughing with the Greenhand girls, Daisy and Buttercup. Both had moved north to Hardbottle after they reached their majority and had married Lobelia's Bracegirdle cousins. He hadn't seen either of them since his elevendy-first birthday party!

As for the older generation, he had attended all their funerals save Hobson's - Hamfast's "the Gaffer" Gamgee's own father, who had died while Bilbo was away on his adventure.

On Bilbo's right side, Bungo trailed into describing his mother's adventures in Rohan; uncovering the history of the hobbits and getting pulled into a fight for the crown.

Bilbo became aware of the frown worn by Master Twofoot, and that several of the older hobbits were warily eyeing the garb and weapons worn by himself and his mother. None of them said a word, as the Bagginses were as much the masters of the Hill and under Hill as the Tooks were of Tookland, but their disapproval was evident.

Bilbo ignored them. He had never gotten anywhere by doing things that other people approved of. Neither had his mother, for that matter.

Bungo, too, had noticed, and though he did not cease telling his tale he did lower his voice somewhat.

"Every worm has its weak spot, Bilbo, remember that," Bungo added with a firm nod. "That nasty councilor who kidnapped the prince certainly did!" Bungo smiled in remembrance. "After the King of Rohan gifted Belladonna with gold and swore eternal friendship between his family and hers, ours now I suppose, your mother came home to the Shire and began to court me. Me! As if a homely Baggins was worthy of her! I could not let that stand, of course, and so built Bag End for her as a courting present from myself. We moved into it shortly after we were wed."

Bilbo turned to look at his father, who was smiling softly at his wife.

"I do not know what she saw in me," Bungo said, "but I am grateful for whatever it was. It has given me her, and you, and the both of you are the lights of my life." Bungo fiercely clasped his son's shoulder. "It is my greatest hope that one day you, too, will find that."

Bilbo smiled thinly. He had found that in his nephew Frodo, and had lost it too, seemingly. Even if he regained his nephew, neither of them would be the people of his memories. Grief gnawed at his stomach, and with some effort he willed it away. He could not afford to feel now, not when he was so sorely needed.

Bungo saw the pained sorrow on his son's face, and resisted the urge to hug him. It would not do to act as such in front of these others. After their journey was over, he and Belladonna would have to have a long talk with their son. Bilbo had always been a dreamer, and somewhat of a misfit, though he tried to be as much of a Baggins as his father.

Bungo worried that he had done his son a disservice in raising him the Baggins way. Though he had hoped that Bilbo would inherit the headship of the Baggins family through him, perhaps his son would be better off as a Took? Belladonna's spoils would serve well as inheritance, even if Bilbo would inherit little from his grandfather the Thain. Perhaps a visit to his Took relatives' Great Smials would be good for him.

The last of the neighbors joined the group, and the party headed south.

After a terrifying moment when young Hamfast Gamgee ran over the frozen Water and failed to fall through, the group arrived in Hobbiton without incident.

Snow was stacked heavily on the roofs of the town. The streets had only a few inches upon them with larger piles of compact stow hidden between buildings, evidence of recent shoveling . The windows were boarded up, and some of the boards bore evidence of...

"Are those... teeth marks?" one of the Greenhand girls asked, pointing at one of the windows. Her mother quickly bustled her up and away.

The building that housed the farmer's market was closed and dark, and so was the general store. The sign that covered the window read "closed until further notice."

There were no inns or taverns or stables in Hobbiton to investigate, and all the houses were dark and deathly quiet.

"Well, on we march," remarked Belladonna. "We'd best hurry."

However, the children were cold and cranky from walking the entire distance from Bagshot Row to Hobbiton and hobbits travel best when they're well-fed. The group stopped to rest and eat a small bit before continuing south, to Tookland and the Great Smials of the Thain.

Bilbo estimated that they had around two and a half hours of daylight remaining. His fingers traced over the pommel of his sword. The last time around, the group had been attacked a mere hour outside of Tookland. There was no guarantee that the wolves would hold to the same timing: he would have to stay vigilant.

Around him, parents told their children stories and friends traded gossip. Young Hamfast Gamgee was asking their current gardener, Holman Greenhand, how the plants could alive under all of the snow.

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the group repacked their belongings and began moving southward.

As darkness began to fall and children huddled into their parents, Bilbo turned a fierce eye towards the gathering shadows. Behind him several of the older hobbits lit torches, producing orange flickers upon the icicles dangling from the nearby trees.

The area between Hobbiton and Tookland was farm country for the most part, and sparsely wooded. The snow banks were high, though, and would provide camouflage for the white wolves.

Bilbo's eyes flickered from snow bank to snow bank as they walked.

Several hours later, they crossed the Great East Road. By unspoken unanimous decision they did not stop and eat dinner, nor supper, but instead kept traveling.

Less than a league outside of Tookland, they were attacked.

Author's notes:

My head canon has Belladonna Took as being the most badass little hobbit to ever live. Bungo is okay with this. In fact, he quite likes it. I blame Ao3's author Lindra for this. And for the axe.

Thank you guys for the reviews! This time-travel fic will be going a bit off the beaten path... And a few more main characters will be introduced in Chapter 2 :).

Chapter Text

Snow and Ice

In spite of his watchfulness, it was a low that growl first alerted Bilbo to the danger. He jerked his sword out of its sheath and turned towards the source of the noise.  A nearby hobbit gave a shout of surprise, but Bilbo paid him no mind.

The wolf lunged, and Bilbo's sword flashed. Red splattered his face, and the wolf lay still.

Distantly, Bilbo heard his mother give a fierce and joyous laugh. A wet thunk told him that her axe had struck true.

Somewhere behind him there was a loud crash, and a whine.  Someone shouted for the children to get in the center, and, "keep the torches up! They need them to see!"

Another wolf emerged from the snowdrift and Bilbo hurled himself toward it.  He plunged his sword into the place between the snapping teeth and aimed upward, towards the brain. The wolf jerked and went still, and with a great pull, the sword was freed.

Another thunk sounded, and then another, and Bilbo slashed and slashed at the wolves that kept on coming.

A dark blur moved toward him. Goblin!  His blade came up and parried the first blow, the goblin's weapon falling harmlessly to the side. Bilbo's sword rose and slashed across the goblin's chest, making it shriek and back away.

Bilbo held his blade in front of him in a ready guard, nothing at all like the unsteady weaving of his true first fight.

The goblin began muttering and shrieking at him in its own language, then with a loud cry turned and ran off into the darkness.

Bilbo breathed in once, and then again. His eyes scanned the snow banks surrounding the group, and he found no further enemies.

Mother! Bilbo looked over the group anxiously. She had to be alive. She had to be.

"That's the way it's done!" Belladonna laughed. She was covered in blood and gore, but appeared unharmed. She looked positively radiant. Six wolf carcasses and a goblin lay at her feet. The hobbit families kept glancing at her, then at Bilbo, then away.

It was only then that Bilbo noticed the blood dripping from his sword and clothing, and the five fallen wolves that surrounded him.

"Excellent job with that second goblin, son!" Belladonna praised. "I didn't even see him! "

Bungo walked over to his wife and son, frying pan in hand. It had a large dent in the middle, in the shape of a wolf skull.

"And you, dear husband! I knew you had it in you!" Belladonna threw down her axe and dragged Bungo into a kiss.

Bilbo averted his gaze, staring down at his sword. He should feel relieved, he supposed. Mostly he just felt ill. Distantly he heard his father complain about the blood and gore his mother had gotten all over his traveling clothes.

Bilbo jumped as a hand clasped his shoulder.

"Bilbo, are you alright?" his mother asked, concerned. She turned him to face her and proceeded to scan him for injuries. "None of that blood is yours, is it?"

Bilbo shook his head. "I'm... not hurt."

Bungo appeared on Bilbo's other side. His hands moved up, and then down, as if he wasn't sure what to do with them.

"Perhaps we should clean the both of you up, first, before we continue on?" Bungo asked hesitantly, his brow furrowed. His hand touched Bilbo's shoulder. "I believe I have some clean cloths in my pack."

Belladonna looked inquiringly at her husband. Bungo met her eyes and something unspoken passed between them.

Belladonna released her son's shoulder, and stretched her muscles. "Yes, cleanliness. Very important, that.  I'll go take a look, shall I?" She headed back to pick up her axe then walked towards the huddle of hobbits. The children crowded around her curiously, while the adults held back and muttered.

"Bilbo," Bungo said, touching his shoulder again. "It was a good thing you did. Son... You are a Baggins as much as a Took. It's alright to be afraid, any hobbit would feel the same - well, most hobbits; very few of us are like your mother..."

Bungo took a deep breath and blew it out his mouth. "What I mean to say is that you shouldn't feel bad. It's alright that you do, but you did nothing wrong. And what you're feeling now is also nothing wrong."

"Dad," Bilbo started to say, guilt gnawing at his insides, "I'm fine." Bilbo was not the young tween he appeared: he had been through war and fire and the threat of death before without anyone holding his hand.

It was in that moment that Bilbo realized that though he had regained his parents, they had lost their son.

Bilbo became, if possible, even more quiet and withdrawn after the blood and gore was cleaned off and he and his father rejoined their neighbors. He did not even notice the sideways glances and faint mutterings of the others when his parents weren't looking.

Bilbo did manage to smile at little Daisy Greenhand as she offered him a sweet roll for "saving us all from those big mean wolves!"

After another hour or so of walking, the group reached Tookland.

A bounder, marked as such by the three feathers in his hat and the bow on his back, emerged from the nearby watchhouse to greet them.

"It's not safe to be out at night," the bounder said, looking over them curiously. "You had best be headed indoors, and quick!"

"We know it's not safe," Master Twofoot replied. "We were attacked! And right outside your doors, too!" He stamped his feet. "Were you sleeping?"

The bounder eyed Belladonna and Bilbo's red-stained clothes and weaponry. "We have had several such attacks since the Brandywine froze, and are sorely needed here," he eventually replied. "Is everyone all right?"

The party assured him that everyone was just fine. The children spoke enthusiastically about Belladonna and Bilbo's defense of them, while the adults tried and failed to shush them.

While this was happening, the door to the house swung open again and several more bounders emerged.

"Auntie Belladonna! It is good to see you again! And Uncle Bungo and cousin Bilbo, as well."

It was Fortinbras Took, one of Bilbo's many Took cousins, and future Thain of the Shire. His father, Isumbras, was the second son of Gerontius Took, and had inherited the Thainship after his elder brother Isengrim's death. Isengrim himself had lived and died a bachelor, which was not as uncommon as some hobbits tried to pretend.

Isengrim was also, if Bilbo remembered correctly, the current head of the bounders.

Fortinbras continued to speak. "What brings you to Tookland? I would think Hobbiton a much closer trip!"

"Hobbiton was closed, nephew," Belladonna replied. "There were no supplies to be had, there, and no doors opened for us."

Fortinbras frowned. "What of the bounders? Uncle gave them specific instructions to aid travelers, so that no one need travel after nightfall."

Belladonna frowned as well. "We saw no bounders."

"Are you certain, Mistress Baggins?" the bounder with the three feathers asked. "Could they have been out patrolling?"

"There were no fresh footprints upon the snow," Belladonna said grimly. "And there were fang marks on some of the boards that had been nailed to the windows."

"They would not have abandoned their posts," Belladonna added.

The other hobbits of the party looked on blankly.

Bilbo blinked twice. Oh... dear. Of course, of course there had been more than one raiding party between Hobbiton and Tookland! There had been hundreds of wolves and goblins ranging from the Brandywine in the east to Michel Delving in the west! Their party had been very lucky to have only been assaulted once, if one could call that luck. The wolves and goblins near Hobbiton had been... busy.

Bilbo turned green. The bounders of Hobbiton were mostly unknown to the hobbits of the Hill, save for the warnings they had brought this winter. They had seemed kind, pleasant people, always with a smile or a song. The first time, he had not even noticed they had gone missing! To be eaten by wolves and goblins was not a fate he wished upon his enemies!

The bounders exchanged looks among themselves.

"We shall escort you directly to the Great Smials," the bounder with the three feathers said eventually. After some hurried shouting and packing, they did just that.

Bilbo was not surprised that Fortinbras was one of the hobbits chosen to accompany them. He said as much to his cousin, when he found Fortinbras walking on his side.

"We will be traveling to my father's smial," Fortinbras said. "Marcho, the chief of the Tookland bounders, and his brother Blanco both have regular rooms there."

So that was the name of the bounder with the three feathers, thought Bilbo, and the other one, too. Neither fellow had bothered to introduce themselves, though his mother had seemed to know them. Perhaps Bilbo had once known them also, but had since forgotten? It has been some time, after all... he thought ruefully.

Fortinbras shook his head. "Uncle Isengrim will not be happy to hear of this," he said to Bilbo, speaking of the attack on the party. "The old wizard has been pushing him to accept the aid of the Rangers, but he will not hear of allowing humans into the Shire. After this news he just might have to. And Grandfather will not be happy to hear that Auntie Belladonna and his ickle grandson Bilbo were attacked as well!"

"The old wizard..." Bilbo began, something sharp twisting in his insides, "do you mean Gandalf?"

"Yes," Fortinbras replied with a nod. "Who would have thought there'd be more to him than fireworks! But he says he knows the head of the Rangers, and that they make it their duty to keep the peace among these parts. Ever since the fall of the King."

Fortinbras removed his hat and covered his left breast with it. "Would it be that he be here in these troubled times!" Fortinbras said dramatically before re-donning his hat.

"Gandalf says these Rangers are different," Fortinbras continued in his original vein, "But of course, Uncle Isengrim has seen too much of the wrong sort of human men to ever trust them. Grandfather is caught between his friendship with the wizard and his trust in his heir, I reckon."

Fortinbras' eyes swept downward over Bilbo's blood encrusted clothing, mercifully clean of gore. "I imagine you're quite looking forward to a hot bath and a change of clothes, cousin!"

Bilbo agreed that he was, before falling silent again. His old friend Gandalf was here? The twisted unpleasant feeling grew. No, that was not quite right. His old friend Gandalf was on his way home to Valinor. The wizard they were to see would be a stranger bearing his face.

Panic grew in his chest. These long weeks he had done his best to accustom himself to the thought of looking upon his former friends as strangers. Bilbo thought he had been successful. He did not believe he could look upon this stranger's face without bursting into tears. What was he to do? What was he to do?

It was quite late when the group finally arrived at one of the doors to the Great Smials. Bilbo had spent the past hour making half-hearted conversation with his Took cousin and doing his best to forget that Gandalf might be awaiting them there.

The party was shivering, hungry and sore when Fortinbras walked up next to the great round door and rung the bell. He waited a minute and rung it again.

The door opened a crack. "Who is it?" asked the voice of a hobbit woman. "And do you know what time it is?"

"It's me, Myrtle! And it's time you opened the door!" Fortinbras shouted.

The door swung open, and the hobbit, Myrtle blinked at them. "Oh, my," she said, taking in the fifteen weary figures on the doorstep. "Oh my, oh my," she said, taking in Bilbo and Belladonna's bloodstained clothes. Myrtle wrung her hands and twisted from side to side.

"Myrtle," Fortinbras said, more gently this time. "These good hobbits are our guests. See Auntie Belladonna and her husband and son! They brought their neighbors with them. They will be wanting guest rooms, hot baths, and supper. Blanco and Marcho will have their regular rooms."

Myrtle stared at Fortinbras, dumbfounded. "Everyone is asleep! Including your father."

"Well, wake them then!" Fortinbras snapped. "And be quick about it. They've had quite a long walk today. We must have words with Grandfather and Uncle Isengrim, too. As soon as possible! There has been an attack!"

Myrtle hurried off and woke the rest of the Tooks' servants. Fortinbras escorted the party into one of the sitting rooms, and brought out some cold cuts and pickled vegetables. The children were too hungry to complain about the fare and the adults dug in gratefully.

"This is my father's smial, one part of the Took family's Great Smials which has been kept in our family for generations and even now serves as the seat for the Thain," Fortinbras told the gathered hobbits. "Each of the smaller smials houses one part of the family, and all are connected through underground passageways. The Great Smials can house up to a hundred hobbits in all! I believe it was Isengrim the Second, the twenty-second Thain of the Shire, who excavated them in 1082..."

As Fortinbras entertained the Baggins' neighbors, Belladonna and Bungo spoke quietly. The two other bounders had disappeared off into one of the tunnels, presumably towards their "regular rooms."

"It will be good to see Gandalf again," Belladonna said with a grin. "It's been, what, five years now?"

"Six," Bungo corrected. "At your father's one-hundred fifteenth birthday party."

"Oh, yes," Belladonna wrinkled her nose. "What mathom did we get that year, dear husband?"

"I believe it was a carved footstool."

"The one with the cats on it?"

"I think so, yes."

"What ever did we do with it?"

"Gave it away to one of the neighbors, I suppose." Bungo blinked. "Didn't match anything else in the house."

Bungo eyed his son, sitting by himself at the far end of the table. Bilbo had never been the most social of children, but these past few weeks he had been especially quiet. If it wasn't for meal-times and training with his mother, Bungo doubted he would have even seen his son! And that fight they had been in...

None of the neighbors seemed to realize that they could have very easily been killed.

Oh, they knew it, they grasped it with their minds, as a fact to hold onto. Only, they seemed to have no idea of what it actually meant. The possibility of a violent death was still unreal to them.

Bilbo... The look in Bilbo's eyes was different. Bungo's little dreamer lad had the fear in him. Not for himself alone, it seemed: Bungo had seen the way Bilbo searched the group for any sign of harm. He had looked like a mother duck counting her ducklings. He had not relaxed until he saw his mother standing, and even then he did not relax so much as look down, as if ashamed.

Belladonna touched his shoulder. "It'll be alright," she said. "We can talk to Gandalf. He's certainly old enough, and a wise wizard besides. Gandalf was a great source of comfort to me in my wild tween years! Perhaps he will be of some comfort to Bilbo, too."

Bungo lifted his wife's hand from his shoulders and held it between both of his. He squeezed it gently. "I hope so, dear wife, I hope so."

Author's notes:

Thanks for all the reviews! They're excellent inspriation for writing more :). I also have some notes on my profile page, for curious people. There will be a progress report of sorts up there, too.

Chapter Text

A/N: Trigger warning - non-explicit mention of past rape and suicide.

Of Rangers and Wizards

Eventually, Myrtle and several servants reappeared to lead the hobbits to their rooms. The neighbors were given one room per family, with beds large enough to hold all of them. Belladonna and Bungo were given a large guest room next to Belladonna's older brother Isumbras.

Bilbo, as a half-Took and the only child of Belladonna Baggins, was given a room to the side of the hill with a window. His favorite feature was the tub of hot water in a small antechamber. The weary hobbit dragged his pack into the bathing room with him and gratefully disrobed.

He was tired, filthy, and still cold. His calluses had developed calluses during the course of his training, and the ache of overworked muscles had become a constant companion. Bilbo relaxed in the bath, enjoying the feeling of the heat of the water sinking into his bones. If he could stay there until winter's end, he would be a very happy hobbit indeed!

As Bilbo sat and soaked, his thoughts turned once more to his presence in the past and the things he needed to accomplish.

The most important, and the most difficult, would be the finding of the Ring. His newfound skill with the sword was no guarantee that he would be able to travel safely to Rivendell alone, to say nothing of finding the secret entrance and sneaking into the Goblin Kingdom undiscovered! There were hundreds of miles of caverns underneath the Misty Mountains and he could very well wander forever or until his death of starvation, whichever came first.

Destroying it would be a far simpler matter. He already knew exactly how he would accomplish it, in fact, though he admitted that there was a chance that his gamble would fail. If so, then he would simply head for Mordor. It was the situation that would occur afterwards that Bilbo was uncertain of. Would the dwarves ever reclaim Erebor? Should they? It had led to the downfall of Thorin, Fili and Kili, and had encouraged Balin and Ori and Oin on their mad quest to regain the fallen dwarf-kingdom of Moria.

Perhaps it would be better to kill the dragon unannounced, and leave the discovery of its corpse to any brave enough to venture inwards. From what Bilbo remembered, it had been sixty years since anyone had seen the dragon when the dwarves had begun their quest... Perhaps the quest would occur again, and Bilbo chosen as their burglar once more. How he would laugh when the time came to tell them of the fallen dragon!

Or perhaps another would be chosen, and the company would journey without Bilbo there to save them from trolls and spiders and the dungeons of the elf-king. Perhaps the elves, men and dwarves would battle amongst themselves, and be completely taken by surprise once the goblins came. Perhaps they would all die that day.

Perhaps, Bilbo thought to himself, I shall steal the Arkenstone and set it above the doorstep of Bag End like a lantern. How the neighbors would gossip! He snickered at the image. I imagine Thorin, at least, would be quite sore with me if I managed to do that.

It was useless to plan too much, Bilbo had learned over the course of his long life, for it was the way of plans to go awry.

It would be far easier to focus on the smaller steps he needed to take first. He would need a plausible way to have learned elvish, some traveling companions and a reason to go to Rivendell, and some training in archery. Bilbo already knew the dragon's weak spot, after all. When that was all over and done with he could re-write Translations from the Elvish... Bilbo slowly drifted off to sleep.

The insistent knocking on his door was enough to awaken him. The water had gone cold, and Bilbo was shivering as he emerged from the tub and wrapped himself in a towel.

"Who is it?" he said to person on the other side of the door, after opening it a crack.

"Are you even dressed yet?" his mother demanded, peeking through the crack at him. "You didn't fall asleep in the tub again, did you?"

"Er," Bilbo replied, the door swinging open a bit wider.

"Do you know how dangerous that is?" Belladonna scolded her son. "Your Aunt Hildigard died in a bathtub, you know. She was a year younger than you are now. Just nodded off to sleep, and that was that!"

"Sorry, Mum," Bilbo said, feeling thoroughly chastened. "I didn't mean to."

"Don't do it again." Belladonna said sternly. "Apologies don't mean anything once you've drowned."

Bilbo looked down at the floor. Over a hundred years old, and his mother could still make him feel like a fauntling...

"Anyway," his mother started, visibly calming herself, "supper is ready."

Bilbo blinked. "I thought we already had supper?"

"That was a light snack, at best," Belladonna replied with a frown. "Hurry and get dressed. Your grandfather and uncles are already waiting for us."

"You'll get to see Gandalf again," said his father, hidden by the door. "You always did so love his fireworks and stories."

Bilbo forced a smile at that, doing his best to shove his panic deep down to where it could not be seen. "I'd best get dressed, then," he said, his voice sounding strangely light to his own ears. "Wouldn't want to miss Gandalf."

Bilbo tightened his towel and gently shut the door on his parents. He breathed in once, and then again. He could not miss supper, not without appearing unseemingly rude and causing his parents to worry. There was no way around it; he would have to risk seeing Gandalf.

Bilbo drew a change of clothes from his pack and quickly dressed. He moved his journal to the bottom of his pack, very much aware of prying servants and curious cousins. In truth, he shouldn't have brought it, but he couldn't bear the thought of leaving it behind. Bilbo placed his sword into an appropriately sized chest and arranged his "armor" on top of it.

Then he turned and left.

The household had turned out in force, eager for the latest news and a second supper (no matter that it was past their bedtimes!) and as such they were to dine in the Thain's great dining chamber.

The Old Took's face creased with joy as he hugged his oldest surviving daughter. Both she and Bungo were invited to sit and eat with him at the High Table, while the neighbors were seated at the Low Table and Bilbo with the rest of his cousins off to the side.

Bilbo felt quite happy with the arrangement as he snuck a quick glance at Gandalf, who was sitting next to the Thain.

It was strange to see him clothed in grey once again, though it suited him far more than white. The Gandalf that had returned from Moria was harsher, sharper, and lit with a tremendous inner light that this Gandalf kept carefully hidden.

Gandalf had been happier as Grey, Bilbo mused to himself. Perhaps that had been why he had refused to lead the wizards when the position was first offered to him in Valinor.

Bilbo felt nothing more than a muted sense of discomfort at being in Gandalf's presence. That he was not directly interacting with him helped. Bilbo supposed that with time, even that discomfort would fade and perhaps he could bear to befriend the wizard again.

Meanwhile, he did his best to distract his cousin Fortinbras from noticing anything. The Fortinbras Took that Bilbo remembered, while a notorious bore, was also one of the sharpest minds Bilbo had ever met. Any strange reaction on Bilbo's part was likely to be catalogued and dragged out again later for examination, and then discussed in public with anyone willing to listen.

That was not something that Bilbo particularly wanted to have happen to him.

Thankfully, this Fortinbras Took seemed set more on convincing Bilbo to join the bounders than cataloging his cousin's strange reactions towards wizards.

Bilbo... Bilbo was seriously considering Fortinbras' offer. The bounders were master archers, and traveled the length of the Shire. He could learn archery properly and become used to long journeys again. He could fight the wolves and goblins that had invaded the Shire, and prevent what had happened to his mother the first time around from happening to others.

Bilbo thought of the likely fate of the Hobbiton bounders and suppressed a shudder. How many hobbits had been devoured the first time? And how many would be devoured in the coming months?

However, Bilbo wanted more time with his parents, who were whole, safe, and alive. He had only rescued his mother from her fate a few scant hours ago, and his success had not even sunk in yet. There would be no midwinter burial for Belladonna Baggins. His father would not waste away in grief. Bilbo needed at least a few days to reassure himself of their continued existence. He needed…

Bilbo told his cousin that he would need a bit of time to decide.

At the High Table, Belladonna, Bungo and Gandalf were in a fierce argument with Isengrim and Isumbras.

Gandalf had for weeks been insisting that the Rangers of the North be allowed into the Shire to assist the bounders in driving out the wolves and goblins, while Isengrim and Isumbras argued against him. The other Took siblings had long grown tired of the discussion, and had, after greeting their sister's family, elected to stay in their own chambers for the evening.

Upon their arrival, Belladonna and Bungo had quickly sided with Gandalf.

The Old Took was fairly bemused by the whole argument, as he had been since the winter started. His bemusement quickly changed to alarm once Belladonna told him of what they encountered on the way to Tookland.

"What's this, then?" Gerontius Took demanded. It was the first the Old Took had heard of any attack happening, his housekeeper having roused him out of his bed and informed him that his granddaughter was visiting and had brought guests.

"We were attacked by wolves and goblins on the road, an hour's walk from the Tookland watchhouse," Belladonna said, her eyes narrowed. "At least fourteen of them, I did not get an exact count. If I had not been instructing Bilbo in the way of combat for some weeks beforehand, I would have had quite a time trying to fight them all off."

"Yes, you were attacked at night." Isumbras said. "Everyone knows not to travel at night!"

"We had no choice," Bungo replied. "We had run out of food, and Hobbiton was completely dark. It had the look of a ghost town about it."

Isengrim frowned. "The bounders did not greet you?"

"We saw no bounders," Belladonna said. "There were no prints upon the snow - or at least no prints belonging to hobbits - and some of the boarded windows had fang marks in them."

"We knew them," Bungo added. "They did not seem the type to abandon their posts."

"There was no one else there?" Isumbras asked. "Hobbiton could not have been completely empty!"

"We had lunch on the main road, in full view," Bungo said. "No one came to investigate."

"They were terrified, most likely." Gandalf spoke softly. "Too terrified to come out, even in daylight. You saw no other signs?"

"We did not linger past lunch," Belladonna said. "There were children with us."

Bungo slipped her palm into his. "We were afraid of what they might find."

"You did not knock on the doors?" Isumbras asked. "You could have overnighted in Hobbiton and come here ere daybreak."

Belladonna hesitated.

"You were always reckless!" Isengrim muttered. "It's a wonder you've lived so long, sister!"

"That does not mean that she was wrong," Gandalf said, his brows drawn. "Belladonna and her party are here, and safe, and we are now aware of a potentially grievous problem. The more quickly we act to solve it, the better."

"We do not need humans -" Isengrim began furiously, when his father interrupted him.

"Isengrim," the Thain snapped, "it would seem that we need them now more than ever!"

The old hobbit took a deep breath to steady himself. "You say that wolves and goblins have come into the Shire, into a town of hundreds of hobbits, and carried off the ones responsible for defending it. You say that my daughter and grandchild were attacked, upon the road, less than a league from Tookland!"

Gerontius paused to glare at his sons. "If the Rangers are willing to aid us in our time of need, then it is aid I will gladly accept!" He turned a stern look to Isengrim. "These humans have done us no harm, and it is not fitting to judge them by the behavior of others!"

Isengrim bowed his head in acknowledgement. He was not happy with the Thain's decision, but would accept it and carry it out to the best of his ability. His bounders would do their duty, even if it meant watching these Rangers as well.

His younger brother Isumbras frowned, ready to continue arguing. He was not convinced that anybody had been carried off. It seemed far more likely to him that the Hobbiton bounders were in hiding, much like the others.

"My decision is final!" the Thain said to his second son. "We shall send a messenger to Bree in the morning."

With that sorted, they resumed eating. Their conversation, once restarted, continued on to more pleasant topics. Once they were finished eating, and the conversation had run dry, they went to their rooms and their beds.

Belladonna and Bungo lingered behind, to talk with Gandalf.

After exchanging pleasantries, the two worried parents got to the heart of the matter.

"We are concerned," Bungo said with a glance at his wife. "Bilbo hardly seems himself, anymore. He was always reading books and maps and things, but now he is hardly ever parted from them!"

"Perhaps he is simply growing up," Gandalf offered, chewing on his beard. "The tweens are rarely comfortable years, for hobbits."

"He is constantly tired," Belladonna said. "He is pinched and withdrawn, as if he carries a great burden. He does not talk with us, Gandalf, when not so long ago he knew he could share with us anything."

"He has always been a perceptive lad," Gandalf replied. "Very aware of what was going on around him. The winter must weigh heavily on him. But," the old wizard hurriedly added, "if you insist, I will talk with him."

"Thank you Gandalf," Belladonna said with a smile.

"Yes, thank you," Bungo added.

With that, they said goodnight, and retired for the evening.

The next morning, Bilbo's mind was still no more made up than before. To become a bounder or to stay at home? Surely he could find someone else to train him in archery, perhaps one of his Took cousins, while he was here?

A small, traitorous part of his mind whispered that he could just forget, and not do anything at all. The Ring, after all, had been kept for hundreds of years by the creature Gollum, to no ill effect. In the end, what business of it was Bilbo's if it was found? Surely it would make no difference if he remained here, and enjoyed this second chance at life here in the Shire?

Or, perhaps once he found it and reclaimed it, he could keep it in secret much as before. It was the destruction of the Ring that led to the turning of the Age after all, and the sailing of Gandalf and so many elves... Surely Middle Earth would be a better place if they stayed?

Bilbo snorted, and forced the voice away. Still, still, the voice of Sauron whispered its poison into Bilbo's mind. The Ring must be found, he knew, and destroyed - or there would be no Hobbiton, no Tookland, no Shire. Rivendell would be crushed, the elves slain or enslaved. The dwarves, of course, would refuse to serve and so would be destroyed... Gandalf would be killed as well, and it might very well come to pass that neither Frodo nor Samwise nor Merry nor Pippen would ever be born.

He would need the skills becoming a bounder would bring, and the momentum it would generate. The longer he stayed with his parents, the harder it would be to leave them. Joining the bounders was probably the better action. He simply did not want to.

It was Bilbo's post-breakfast conversation with Gandalf, though, that finally set him on the proper path.

Bilbo had lingered in one of the smial's many sitting rooms after finishing his meal, doing his best to avoid the inquiries of Fortinbras, his neighbors' curious children, and his own aunts and uncles and cousins who it seemed all wanted a word with him. Bilbo sat upon one of his uncle's cushioned chairs and gazed out of the unshuttered window, the busy town of Tookburough sprawling out before him in the distance. Bilbo was attempting to avoid thinking, but found he had little in the way of distractions.

His books, unfortunately, were all back at Bag End, as were his mother's maps. Neither his Uncle Isumbras nor his cousin Fortinbras were much for reading, except genealogies and some odd family history. Bilbo had tried to write in his journal some, but shortly afterwards gave it up as a bad job. Every topic came out as confusingly circular as his thoughts. His head was uncomfortably muddled.

It was in this state that Gandalf found him.

"Good morning," said the wizard, startling the hobbit out of his thoughts.

"Good morning?" Bilbo repeated. A streak of wickedness appeared in him. "Whatever do you mean by that?" he asked. "Do you mean to wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not, or that you feel good this morning, or that it is a morning to be good on?"

"All of that... at once, I suppose," the wizard said slowly. His eyes crinkled in amusement. "Hello, Bilbo."

"Hello, Gandalf," Bilbo replied, his head still muddled. "How are you this fine morning?"

"Quite well, thank you." Gandalf sat down on a second chair nearby. "And you?"

"As well as to be expected, I suppose." Bilbo said. He wondered why Gandalf was speaking to him.

"Your parents are concerned about you," Gandalf stated in that curious way he had, as if reading Bilbo's mind. "They asked me to come and talk with you. They believe I may be of some help."

"Um," Bilbo turned red. Had it been only yesterday that his father had said as much?

"But I believe them to be mistaken," the wizard continued. "You seem just fine." He peered curiously at the hobbit.

"Er, yes," Bilbo said. His heart thudded loudly in his veins. "I was thinking about joining the bounders," he blurted. "But I'm not certain... my parents..." Bilbo waved his hands. "I don't know what to do," he finished quietly.

The wizard straightened in his chair and tapped the side of his nose. "I have found in the course of my many years that some conversations are much improved by a pipe. I believe I have a spare around here somewhere if you'd be willing?"

"I would be delighted, thank you," Bilbo said in apprehension.

After Gandalf located his spare pipe, the two walked outside to a small area, cleared of snow. In warmer months, it would have been a cheerful garden. There they lit their pipes and enjoyed a bit of Old Toby, and Bilbo surprised Gandalf with his ability to blow smoke rings. Bilbo pretended amazement at the smoke dragon that darted through his ring and felt himself relax. They had done this many times before in the past-that-wasn't.

Contrary to last night, Bilbo felt quite comfortable in Gandalf's presence now that he was actually here. He supposed it was because the wizard seemed much as he always did, before the incident with the Balrog.  He would just have to remind himself to watch his tongue.

"When your mother was in her youth," the wizard began finally, "she was quite the mad adventurer. 'Madcap Belladonna,' they used to say, 'always playing in the mud and roughhousing with the boys.' She knew neither fear, nor hesitation, and did not understand either. It was, at times, a great weakness of hers for it got her into quite a bit of trouble."

"I was quite surprised, when she first introduced me to your father. He was quite a respectable young hobbit back then, even more so than he is now. He never had any adventures or did anything unexpected, so full of hobbit-sense he was. They seemed as night and day!"

"But she emboldened him, it seems, and he tamed her wild spirit somewhat. The both of them are the greater for it."

"I think," Gandalf added, "if your mother were ten years younger, she would attempt to drive all the wolves and goblins out of the Shire herself. And, ten years ago, she just might have succeeded!"

"That does sound like something Mum would do," said Bilbo. "Dad might have very well died of fright if she tried it, though."

"You have your mother's spirit, it seems, but you have your father's sense," Gandalf said. "You would do quite well to join the bounders."

"What makes you so sure of that?" Bilbo asked.

"I just told you, foolish young hobbit!" the wizard cried. He huffed on his pipe. "There is a difference," he tried again, "between bravery and courage. Bravery is the absence of fear in the face of danger, while courage is the ability to face that fear and act anyway. Your mother is brave, lad, but you have courage."

Bilbo stared at him. "This is not... This is not a matter of fear, Gandalf. Nor of respectability or of hobbit-sense or anything else you just mentioned."

"It is just... If I go out that door, and leave, I may never come back. And if I do, I shall not be the same." Bilbo knew the cost of adventuring now, and he knew the reward. His mind and spirit were willing, but his solid Baggins heart betrayed him. It could not endure such a loss again. He knew the reason why he hesitated.

"Will it be worth it?" Bilbo asked miserably. Over the course of Gandalf's long life he had lost much more than Bilbo ever had in the first place. He would know. Perhaps above all others, he would know.

"It may be," the wizard answered slowly.

"It may be."

It was in that moment that Bilbo's heart decided. He would try again, though the attempt might destroy him.

Later that day, Bilbo met Fortinbras and told him of his decision.

Fortinbras was quite excited.  "We could use a hobbit like you," he said. "Especially with all this trouble about. I will inform Marcho at once!"

"Er," Bilbo said, "I need to inform my parents, first." Bilbo had quite forgotten that he was a tween, and a young one at that.

"I will go with you," Fortinbras said with a frown. "Do you expect they will oppose your decision?"

"Mother most likely will not," Bilbo hedged," Father might." Proper Bagginses did not join their wild Took cousins to hunt wolves. It was the sort of nasty, unpleasant business that often made one late for supper, after all, and quite dangerous besides.

Indeed, that was their reaction upon hearing of the whole thing. Though after a quiet, hissed conversation with Belladonna, Bungo quickly came around. Bilbo's parents agreed to allow him to join the bounders, on the condition that Bilbo keep practicing his sword-fighting skills with Belladonna. Bilbo happily ceded to their demand; he had been about to suggest that himself.

For the next several days, Marcho and Blanco instructed Bilbo in what would be expected of him as a bounder. Archery, navigation and the bounder laws were drilled into his head as quickly as could be managed. Bilbo rapidly progressed from not being able to hit the broad side of a barn, to being a loosely acceptable marksman.

He was already quite skilled with maps, thankfully, and the acquisition of knowledge came much easier than the first time around. Bilbo supposed he had his experience in writing books to thank for that.

Bilbo did his best to learn as much as he could. They did not have much time to prepare. A reply had come back from Bree; the Rangers were coming. They would arrive in force in less than two weeks.

Every morning after sword practice with his mother, Bilbo walked to a training field a little ways outside of the Great Smials. The bounders had set up targets for practice, and he would slowly work to refine his skills. Bilbo had been quite good at throwing stones in his first youth; birds and squirrels and rabbits would quite often flee from him if they ever saw him stooping over. He was happy to see some of that skill pass over into archery, though he knew that some few weeks of drilling would not be enough to make a master out of him.

Perhaps when he had developed sufficient skill with the bow, he would attempt to learn how to throw knives? It couldn't be that different than throwing darts, after all. He would need every skill available to him in the wild. How sorely Bilbo missed Sting and his old mithril mail!

The bounder laws were much as Bilbo expected them to be.

Helping hobbits in need was what good neighbors did, and not demanding rewards for aid rendered seemed but good manners (bounders were allowed to accept them if offered, though.) Not abandoning one's post was common sense, and the practice of listening to one with more authority was taught to every fauntling.

Still, Bilbo had recited the bounder Oath and was given a green cap with a single feather in it. The cap and bow was the sign of the bounders, and the feather the sign of his rank. As a new initiate, he had one feather - Blanco, an experienced bounder, had two; Marcho, the head of the Tookland bounders had three; and Isengrim, the chief of the Shire bounders, was the only one to have four. Fortinbras, alas, also had but one.

Bilbo was seldom alone in the archery range - the original Tookland bounders, some twenty of them, all came to practice at various times and all brought various rumors with them.

It was said that the Buckland bounders (who lived outside of the Shire and were answerable to their own chief) had seen hundreds of wolves and an unknown number of goblins crossing the frozen Brandywine. It was said that the Bucklanders were embroiled in a bitter battle with the wolves and goblins, and those that had crossed had done so with an eye for easier pickings. Some bounders had heard rumors of missing supply caravans and burned settlements, and hobbits willing to starve rather than risk traveling at night with the threat of wolves.

It seemed that the Rangers should have been called in some time ago, the bounders said.

Bilbo saw his Uncle Isengrim several times out on the range, gruff and grim as he instructed the new recruits that had come pouring in. They were to take up the defense of Tookburough when the Rangers came, for every experienced bounder was to travel with the Rangers and act as their guide within the Shire. (And also, Isengrim instructed, to keep an eye on them at all times.)

Bilbo was uncertain as to which category he belonged. The first day into his training, his Uncle Isengrim had pulled him aside and told him that he shouldn't expect any special treatment. However, the other bounders had heard the tales of his neighbors and seen the evidence of his earlier experience. They all seemed quite certain that he would be a valuable addition to any patrol.

Bilbo's evenings were spent entertaining his cousins and his neighbors' children with stories and songs. He felt like himself again, for the first time since he had returned to the past.

It lasted until the morning of the second week.

After first breakfast in his Uncle Isumbras' dining room and sword practice with his mother, Bilbo headed off to the archery range as usual. His fingers had gone from red and throbbing to nicely callused, and the new muscle aches he had gained from his practice had subsided somewhat. Bilbo was now able to hit the bullseye at a distance of thirty feet! This was no great feat for a hobbit archer, but Bilbo was nonetheless quite pleased with his rapid progress.

Bilbo arrived to find the bounders there in a bit of a hubbub. The Rangers had been spotted on the road, and they were coming here! Only the most veteran of bounders had seen Big Folk before, and they were busy entertaining the rest with stories of them wearing coverings on their feet and only eating three meals a day.

One or two had run off to confirm space in the neighboring barns for the Ranger's horses, and space for them to sleep. The Shire was still bitter cold, and it would not do for the hobbits of Tookburough to be poor hosts. It was after one of these hobbits returned, panting, that the Rangers arrived.

They were so tall! the bounders marveled. Their horses were lean and beautiful, unlike the sturdy work ponies of the Shire. They did indeed wear coverings on their feet, and even helms upon their heads. They bore swords, bows and daggers as well. Some fifty of them rode into the clearing; one horse bore a Ranger and hobbit both.

The Ranger dismounted and helped the hobbit down. Marcho, the head of the Tookland bounders, walked over and engaged them in a quick conversation.

Bilbo looked over the gathered Rangers. Each of them was silent, solemn, and grave. Two were seated apart from the others; their horses stood close together and they seemed to lean towards each other. Perhaps they were brothers?

The two Rangers, sensing his gaze upon them, both turned their eyes towards Bilbo. One was a woman! Not brothers, then, Bilbo thought. It was unusual to see a female warrior among the Big Folk. They both appeared quite young, though Bilbo was no expert at guessing the ages of those from other races. He wondered why they had come.

Their gazes shifted away from him as the Ranger who had been speaking with Marcho began barking orders.

Marcho walked back towards his bounders, bringing the unknown hobbit with him. The hobbit, Bilbo learned, was Dimple Danderfluff of Stock. He was not a bounder, but a grocer, and he had traveled to Tookburough on business before. He agreed to go with the Rangers and guide them in exchange for protection on his journey, for Stock was several weeks away on foot. He also had news for the Thain.

Marcho quickly instructed the bounders in their coming duties. Three of them were to escort the Rangers to their accommodations - the Great Smials did not have enough empty guest rooms for all of the Rangers, but several clean hay barns had been filled with freshly-packed straw beds and would have to suffice. The horses would stay in several other barns a short distance away. The Thain's kitchen staff had been informed the moment word had come in of the Rangers' approach, and were busy cooking a feast for them.

Marcho was to meet with Isengrim and the head of the Rangers (who he had been speaking with before) to work out which hobbit would be going with which group of Rangers, and where. Given the numbers, each bounder would be expected to accompany a group of three or four Rangers for an unknown amount of time. The veteran bounders were instructed to pack what belongings they wished to take with them and be ready to travel in the morning.

With that, Marcho excused himself. He took Dimple with him and, with the head of the Rangers accompanying him, walked back towards the Great Smials. The three tasked bounders moved to escort the rest of the Rangers to their accommodations.

Bilbo watched them disappear. He still didn't know what group he belonged to! Neither his Uncle Isengrim nor Marcho had said anything one way or the other.

A hand clasped his shoulder, startling him. It was Blanco, Marcho's younger brother.

"You'd best be off, young Bilbo," he said. "Make sure to pack your warmest winter things and that armor your mother made, too. You're likely to need it!"

"Am I going, then?" Bilbo asked. "Because no one else has said anything." He was growing quite annoyed with the continued silence.

"Aye, lad," Blanco replied. "Your Uncle didn't tell you?"

"No," said Bilbo. "He hasn't said anything to Fortinbras, either."

Blanco chewed his lower lip. "You're both family," the bounder replied. "I suppose that makes things a bit difficult. It is well that the two of were the only ones of your generation to join the bounders..."

Bilbo turned to look at him fully.

"Your Uncle Isengrim was not happy when the Thain ordered him to allow humans into the Shire," Blanco explained. "It is not something that is spoken of often, at least not by anyone with sense, but your uncle has good reason to hate the humans."

Fortinbras had mentioned something similar, earlier. It was not something that Bilbo had ever heard before, the first time around.

"Does this have anything to do with Uncle Hildifons and Uncle Isengar?" Bilbo asked. Both had vanished on trips outside of the Shire and never returned. Bilbo had his own opinion as to what had happened to them.

"No," Blanco answered, "but I suppose their disappearance didn't help matters any."

Blanco hesitated before continuing. "Your mother, as you know, is the eldest surviving daughter of the Thain."

"Yes, Aunt Hildegard drowned in the bathtub," Bilbo replied. "Mum warns of it often enough."

"That... was the story the family decided on," Blanco said delicately. "It was not quite what happened. She did drown, that much was true, but..." Blanco paused for several minutes, looking decidedly uncomfortable. "It was her first time outside of the Shire. She and her two eldest brothers had decided to go to Bree, to stay at the Prancing Pony, an inn of some renown. It was filled with human travelers. They only took their eyes off of her for a minute..."

"When they found her again, her skirts were torn and her face was bloody. She refused to speak of it, but they all knew what had happened. It was a week after they returned to the Great Smials that Hildegard was found in her tub, and a mostly empty mug of valerian tea on the table beside it."

Bilbo was shocked silent. "Did Mum ever..."

"Your mother never knew," Blanco said. "They never spoke of it to the younger ones. I only know because Isengrim confided in Marcho and Marcho did not know how to respond and so sought my advice. Neither Isengrim nor Isumbras ever trusted humans after that."

"That is a horrible, horrible thing," Bilbo cried. "But they are not all like that!" He thought of Bard the Bowman, Aragorn son of Arathorn, the sorrowful Gilraen of Rivendell, and all the other humans he had known. "Some of them are quite noble."

"Aye," Blanco said. "That is your grandfather's opinion as well."

"And this is why Uncle Isengrim has said nothing?" Bilbo demanded.

"Fortinbras has been a bounder for several years, for all that he wears but one feather in his cap. He is also a mathom-house of information on the dealings of the Shire. Your Uncle could ill afford to leave him out. You, for all your youth, have already fought and killed wolves and goblins and escaped without a scratch. In the few weeks you have been with us, you have excelled in your training and your studies: you are well-qualified, and your Uncle knows this. He is simply... reluctant to admit it," Blanco concluded.

"So I am going?" Bilbo asked once more. "And Fortinbras, too?"

"Yes," Blanco said. "Pack your things tonight and return to this field at dawn tomorrow. I'll go speak with Fortinbras."

Bilbo returned to his room within his Uncle Isumbras' smial. He quickly re-packed his belongings, and placed bow, quiver and cap on top of his sword and armor in their chest. He would wear all five tomorrow. Afterwards, he sought out his parents. He would say his formal goodbyes in the morning, of course, but he did not know when next he would be able to speak with them and so wanted as much time as he could get.

Belladonna was happy to hear of Bilbo's inclusion in the patrols; she had not expected any different.

Bungo was a bit more apprehensive to hear about his son going into yet more danger. He pulled a coin purse out of his bag and emptied it on the floor, then instructed Bilbo to go and get his traveling clothes. The next hour or so was spent sewing gold and silver coins into the lining of Bilbo's clothing: insurance against the needs that travel might bring while Bungo and Belladonna advised him on everything they believed he might meet. Bilbo promised he would wake them before he went.

They finally parted for luncheon, where Bilbo said his farewells to his cousins and his neighbor's children. The Greenhand girls and the young Gaffer gave him tearful hugs and said they would miss his stories.

An hour before supper-time his Uncle Isengrim sought him out.


Author's notes:

Chapter is long and plotty. Next one should have some action in it. If you can guess who the two Rangers that Bilbo spotted are, you get a cookie.

Thanks to everyone for your support!

Chapter Text

A/N: Trigger warning - graphic violence and non-explicit people-eating*

Scouring the Shire

"As Blanco already told you," Isengrim stated, "you're going with one of the patrols."

"Yes," Bilbo replied. "He informed me earlier today. Fortinbras, too." Bilbo was not especially happy with his uncle.

"You've packed your things and said your goodbyes, then?" Isengrim asked his nephew gruffly.

"Yes, Uncle," Bilbo said.

"Good." Isengrim paused for a moment. "You will be patrolling the Great East Road, between Frogmorton and Stock. If you see any trouble, any at all, alert someone else. We don't expect much danger there, but better safe than sorry. You will be traveling with two of the younger Rangers: Captain Galador wishes for them to be protected from harm, and who better to accompany them than a sturdy young hobbit experienced in killing wolves?"

"But still," Isengrim added, "take care, nephew. The wizard may trust them, but that doesn't mean you should." With that advice, Isengrim left.

Bilbo went to supper, and endured another teary farewell from his friends and relatives. Gandalf also came to wish him farewell and good luck. The wizard would soon be leaving the Shire on business, and he did not know when he would be able to return.

Bilbo slept early that night, and slept well. He awoke slightly before dawn, and gathered his things. He donned his winter armor, his sword, his bow and quiver, and his cap. He went to the guest room that housed his parents and, after waking them as promised, gave them both hugs and a promise that he would be careful.

The training field was filled with bounders and Rangers. Hobbits shouted to one another, guiding one or two bounders along to where the Rangers stood in groups. Every so often a patrol rode off, Rangers mounted on their horses and hobbits riding before them on ponies supplied by the Thain.

Bilbo walked into a quiet spot and stood still. He did not know which Rangers he was paired with, except that there were two of them and they were young. He supposed that Marcho or Blanco or someone would be along shortly to direct him to where he needed to be. He idly wondered what sort of people the Rangers would be... he had been quite impressed by the ones he had met in Rivendell, and so wasn't particularly worried about the quality of the company he would be keeping. He was simply curious.

Finally, Marcho appeared. He led Bilbo over to a pair of Rangers a little way from the rest. Bilbo recognized them as the same two Rangers he had gazed so curiously at last morning.

"Good Rangers," Marcho said to them; "this is Bilbo Baggins, grandson of the Thain and one of our most promising bounders."

The Rangers inclined their heads in greeting.

"Bilbo, the Rangers Gilraen and Arathorn," Marcho continued his introduction.

Bilbo blinked once, then twice. Gilraen he knew from Rivendell, but she had been old then, aged before her time by the bitterness of loss. Arathorn... Arathorn had long been dead, even before Bilbo had passed through Rivendell with a company of dwarfs. But still, Bilbo knew of him.

These two Rangers were the former Chieftain and Chieftess of the Dunedain, the parents of Aragorn Estel!

So stunned was he that he did not notice the way their eyes shuttered at his silence. By the time Bilbo stuttered out a "well met," they had come to the wrong conclusion entirely.

From where Bilbo stood, he was led to a pony laden with provisions. A letter set in one of the saddlebags ensured that they would be able to restock at any hobbit town they went to.

The small patrol set out to Frogmorton in silence.

Bilbo's pony, as the slowest of the lot, set the pace. It would take several days of travel at the least to arrive in Frogmorton. His two companions seemed content to ignore him, traveling some distance behind and softly speaking with each other in the elf-language Sindarin. He couldn't quite make out the words, but felt soothed by them nonetheless.

Within the first half an hour they crossed the area where Bilbo's family and neighbors had been attacked. Fresh snowfall hid what red smears remained, but even under the cover of snow Bilbo could see that the bodies of those that had fallen had disappeared.

Bilbo felt a certain sense of foreboding at this, for he had not heard of any hobbit moving them. He glanced back at the Rangers. If they had noticed anything amiss, they said nothing, and gave no signs. Bilbo frowned and kept his silence. It was likely of no great importance in any case.

They made camp shortly before nightfall.

Bilbo cleared the snow from a small area in the center of their camp. It would make an excellent fire pit, if only he could ensure the snow melt wouldn't drown the embers...

In the corner of his eye he could see the Rangers examining the snow banks around them for signs of danger. The horses and pony were huddled close together at one end of the camp. The horses of the Rangers needed no tethers and Bilbo's pony, whom he called Snowdrop, would stay close beside them. Thankfully in the heart of the Shire one did not have to worry about them being stolen away by trolls!

He was going to have to be quite vigilant on his watch tonight, Bilbo supposed. He did not fancy getting his throat cut by goblins in the dark of night.

The male Ranger, Arathorn, interrupted his musings by setting down a bundle of wood. It appeared quite dry, a convenience Bilbo greatly appreciated. He thanked the Ranger, and got to work lighting the fire. There had been matches included in his pack, which he was quite thankful for. Bilbo had, however, spent enough time well-drenched to appreciate the dwarven custom of flint-lighters that worked no matter the weather, and he planned to get some as soon as possible.

Soon enough Bilbo had a cheery blaze going, and he sat back to enjoy the warmth seeping back into his bones.

The female Ranger, Gilraen (Gilraen!), dropped several handfuls of snow into a pot and set it near the fire. They would soon have water for drinking.

The two Rangers had already set out their bedrolls close to the fire and Bilbo quickly did the same.

He pulled some waybread and dried meat out of his pack and rejoined his two companions at the fire. As he ate, he eyed them once more. Bilbo had quite enjoyed the calm and stillness of the white world after all the hustle and bustle of the Great Smials, but after a full day's travel even he longed for a word or two of conversation.

Rangers, though, were often quiet folk. They did not speak unless they found it necessary, and because of this were often considered aloof and unsociable. Bilbo, though, was quite familiar with the process of making friends with the distant sort. He knew to leave them alone for now. The time would come later to speak with them, after they had found his measure and decided whether or not they wished for his company.

Bilbo finished his small meal and stared at the fire for a moment. It was indeed getting quite late. "Ah, excuse me?" he asked hesitantly. "What are we doing about watches? Do either of you have a preference?"

The Rangers exchanged glances before staring back at him. Bilbo thought they both looked like startled birds.

"No... no preference," Arathorn replied, his brow furrowed.

"I would like third watch," said Gilraen. She looked as if she wished to say more, but fell silent.

"You wish to watch the sunrise." Arathorn said to her in Sindarin.

"And you do not wish to watch the moon?" she replied tartly, one eyebrow raised.

Arathorn withdrew, looking away from Gilraen and the fire, towards the circle of darkness growing around them.

"I can take first watch," Bilbo offered, "if Arathorn wouldn't mind taking second." Bilbo preferred first watch over the others at any rate: it was no hardship for him. He felt a slight stab of guilt at listening in on the conversation they thought private. Bilbo supposed if anything truly... personal... came up, he could always walk out of hearing distance. He would rather admit his knowledge of their language immediately, if only he had a way to explain it!

"I am agreeable," Arathorn replied, uncurling a bit and looking somewhat pleased. Gilraen gave the other Ranger a tiny smile.

Shortly after drinking down the melted water, the Rangers finished their own meager meals and bedded down for the night. Bilbo spent the time penning his newest journal entry by the light of the fire. When he judged that a third of the night had passed, he awakened Arathorn and went to sleep himself.

Gilraen woke them slightly before dawn.

They quickly ate and repacked their bedrolls. Bilbo threw some snow on the still hot embers and watched as they sputtered and hissed. There would be no way to cover their tracks, traveling in the snow, but Bilbo deemed it wise to at least attempt to disguise the recentness of their presence. He threw another handful of snow over the coals and watched them darken. Hot coals would not give them away.

Shortly afterwards the small patrol mounted their steeds and continued towards Frogmorton.

It was near midday when they found the wagon.

It was a cheerful yellow, covered by a thick cloth, and had little flowers painted along its sides. There was a tongue of wood in front of it where a pony would be hitched, and a soft bed in the back where a hobbit would sleep. Its occupants, though, were all missing. The wagon had been abandoned.

The three dismounted without a word and began a careful investigation.

Bilbo, remembering how the evidence of his earlier fight had been hidden, busied himself by clearing off the fresh snow from around the wagon. The red underneath confirmed his fears.

He looked up to inform his companions, and found Gilraen at his side. She frowned as she examined the red spot.

"We found evidence of at least several hobbits," she said quietly. "Two grown and one child. We believe them to be a family. Arathorn has found wolf tracks."

Bilbo stood and followed her back to the other side of the wagon.

Arathorn stood gazing into a thick band of woods about half a league to the south of the road. "The hobbits were taken there," he said to his companions. "Though I know not if they still live."

By the look of the snow, it had been several days since they had been captured. The captives of orcs and goblins did not survive long, Bilbo knew, and those that did soon wished for death. It seemed terrible and strange that he was thankful for the hunger that drew them here! At least the hobbit family would not have suffered overly much.

"We must go after them," Gilraen said, her mouth firmly set. "We cannot leave them there, not if there is even a chance..."

Arathorn nodded solemnly. "We can leave the horses here," he said. "Are you with us, Master Baggins?" he asked. "Captain Galador said that you had fought wolves and goblins before..."

"I... well," Bilbo faltered. Three of them, against an unknown number of goblins and wolves, for the sake of those who those who were in all odds dead? Surely they needed reinforcements at least! His Uncle Isengrim's words rang in his head. "Shouldn't we alert someone else, first? That way, if anything were to happen, they would at least know?" And possibly come help them?

"We do not have the time," Gilraen replied. "We must leave now!"

"If you do not wish to go..." Arathorn started to say.

"Yes, yes I'll go!" Bilbo hurried to say. He could hardly let the two of them go on without him! "I was only suggesting that we attach a letter or something to one of the horses." The Green Hill country was a wide patch of land, but Bilbo deemed it better that, if anything untoward were to happen, anyone looking for them would at least have a clue as to where to begin searching. He did not want to simply vanish as his uncles had.

The hobbit tore an unmarked page out of his journal and, after scratching a quick note on it, stuffed it into one of Snowdrop's saddle bags.

The three left the horses and pony near the wagon and followed the hidden tracks on foot. Tangled trees rose before them; branches close and thorn-like, the ground below covered in sharp sticks. Bilbo blessed the lightness of hobbit feet and the practiced silence of the Rangers as they entered the wood.

It mattered little who led there for the signs were as such that even Bilbo, as inexperienced as he was in the art of tracking, could read them. Broken twigs and wolf scat showed them the correct path as they ventured deeper.

The wind was at their faces, which Bilbo deemed good. It would not do to be so quiet and yet have the wolves catch whiff of their scent!

While they paused in a clearing to rest and take sips of water, Bilbo's ears caught hint of something in the distance. He stood perfectly still, and listened. The Rangers, noticing, stopped their quiet conversation and looked at him.

There was speech in the distance and, if Bilbo was not mistaken, it was in the goblin-tongue. "They are this way," he whispered to his companions. "If the wind is with us, we might sneak upon them unnoticed!"

Bilbo only meant that they could spy upon the goblin camp and see for themselves if the prisoners still lived, but the Rangers took his words otherwise. They nodded, and followed after him.

The three crept through the woods until at last the party of wolves and goblins were in view, then swiftly they hid behind trees.

The Rangers exchanged hand signs, their fingers moving almost too fast for Bilbo's eyes to follow. This was one language he did not know. They seemed to come to a consensus.

Gilraen, who was closer, met Bilbo's eyes and nodded. Bilbo stared blankly back at her, unsure what message she was attempting to convey.

When both Rangers drew their bows from their backs and stringed them, Bilbo hurriedly followed suit. Surely they cannot mean to ambush them! he thought. They did not even know the numbers they would be facing yet!

All three drew arrows from their quivers. Gilraen mouthed the word "goblins" at Bilbo before stepping out into the open. Bilbo supposed that meant that they were to shoot at the goblins first. Arathorn swiftly followed her, with Bilbo at the rear.

It was at this moment that the wind, that had previously been with them, changed. A strong gust blew from behind them, driving their scent straight into the camp.

The wolves were the first to notice. One rose up, then others, until the whole camp was roused. With a snarl, they charged, the goblins close behind.

The three companions put arrow to bow and let fly. Both Bilbo and Gilraen had aimed towards the forewardmost of the wolves, while Arathorn's arrow pierced the eye of a goblin. Arathorn drew another shaft while his companions restrapped their bows and hurriedly drew their swords.

They had barely enough time to brace themselves before the enemy was upon them!

Bilbo threw up his sword to meet the closest wolf. He slashed at its open mouth and it darted away, circling warily. A growl behind him alerted him to the danger and he threw himself out of the way just in time.

A few feet away from him, Arathorn loosed another arrow towards the closest goblin. The goblin deflected it with its shield and darted within striking distance. Arathorn fumbled with his bow, cursing the clumsiness of his fingers. He would not be able to draw an arrow in time!

Gilraen's sword swept the goblin's head from its neck, and she smiled at her friend.

Arathorn began to thank her. He stopped at the sight of the wolf behind her back, and his eyes widened. "Behind-" he started to warn.

The Ranger was interrupted by the sound of blade piercing flesh, as Bilbo stabbed the wolf through its neck.

"Got him!" Bilbo said. "They're starting to circle around," he warned. "With the cover of these trees..."

It was not a situation which favored them. Arathorn hurriedly restrapped his bow, still strung and all, and drew his sword. "We must make for a clearing then," he said. "The open ground would better suit us."

They ran back towards the clearing they had stopped in earlier. Wolves slunk out from the cover of the trees and snapped at them before being driven off by cold steel.

One clenched its teeth around Bilbo's left arm before a particularly vicious slash from Arathorn's sword sent it yelping away.

Cuts from the sharp branches of the trees covered their faces and their breath came out in columns of mist as they ran over the muddied snow.

Finally, the three stood back to back in the center of the clearing. Some twenty wolves circled around them, snarling and snapping but not daring to venture further forward.

Bilbo took a moment to marvel at what a spectacularly terrible decision it had been to come into the woods. The two Rangers were grim-faced and their pallor was as white as the snow around them. They were both quite obviously terrified, but trying to hide it. They were young, Bilbo recalled. Too young to die here.

The hobbit drew in one breath, and then another. He had been in worse situations before. They could still make it out alive. Of course, last time he had had a wizard with him... and a Ring that could make him invisible. He cursed the faint longing that shot through him at the thought. This was absolutely not the time!

Several dark shapes stepped through the trees. The goblins were there.

The three of them spoke to one another in their cruel tongue, sending mocking words at the three trapped in the wolves' circle.

One of the goblins spoke Westron. "What have we here," it asked, "fresh meat for the pot?" The goblin cackled at its own words, and the other two cackled with it.

Bilbo could feel the Rangers at his back flinch. Blood slowly trickled from his wound, and he sighed. Something must be done, and, as usual, it was up to him.

"An expert at that, are you?" Bilbo asked the goblin. "I don't suppose you know what happened to the hobbits that were on the road a bit to the north?"

The goblin gave a great grin with its jagged, broken teeth. "Supper," it said.

"I thought so," Bilbo nodded. It had been absolutely pointless to come here. The prisoners they had set out to rescue were already dead and even if the clearing offered them a better ground to fight, they were completely outnumbered.

Goblins, though, were a cowardly lot and wolves were loath to fight armed opponents without their masters commanding them to do so. Arathorn had the right idea to aim to kill them first. Bilbo knew then what he had to do.

Bilbo smiled back at the goblin, his heart pounding in his chest. "Do you even know what to do with prey that can fight back?" he asked it, his voice steady. "So far I've just seen you lot die, and quite pathetically at that."

The goblin hissed at him in anger, but made no move further.

"What are you doing?" Gilraen hissed at Bilbo. He elbowed her thigh.

"Concentrate on the wolves," he hissed back at her out of the side of his mouth. "I'll take care of the goblins!"

He turned his attention back to the matter at hand. "I've seen chipmunks put up a better fight," Bilbo said loudly and somewhat desperately. "And here I thought goblins were to be feared... Or perhaps you are the least of your master's creations! Morgoth's failures!"

The goblin gave a cry of rage and charged forward, the other two at its back. The circle of wolves split to let them through.

"Move!" Bilbo yelled to his companions, and he rolled out of the way of the first strike.

Blurs of grey danced in the corners of his eyes: the Rangers were fighting the wolves to the best of their ability.

Then the three goblins were upon him, and Bilbo lost track of the others' battle. He parried, thrust, dodged and evaded. A goblin blade kissed his cheek, its shallow cut joining that of the sharp branches of the forest.

One of the goblins came too close, and Bilbo's Rohan blade sliced through its neck until it reached the bone of its spine.

The next kicked him to the ground, but he rolled and dragged it down with him before stabbing it in its chest.

A sharp blow to the back of Bilbo's head laid him flat on his back, stunned, like a landed fish. He looked up at his opponent with widened eyes, unable to move.

The goblin's blade rose...!

Arathorn charged into the goblin's side, sending it flying. Gilraen, right behind him, ran it through with her blade.  The remaining wolves scattered into the woods in all directions.

Bilbo closed his eyes and breathed in a sigh of relief. They were all alive!

Two sets of hands clawed at Bilbo's shoulders and drew him upright. His eyes flew open.  Arathorn and Gilraen stared down at him, worried.

"Are you all right, Master Baggins?" Arathorn asked. "I can see no great injury..." his hands hovered over the hobbit's chest. Bilbo's winter clothing was soaked with the black goblin blood and splattered with red wolf blood but torn in only a few places.

"Just took a bit of a knock on the head," Bilbo said, sitting up on his own power. "I'll be right as rain in a moment." He frowned as something occurred to him. "Call me Bilbo, would you?" he asked. "I can't be that much older than you are." And he wasn't, not anymore.

The Rangers exchanged a surprised glance.

"You're not?" Gilraen asked.

"No," Bilbo replied, his brow furrowed. "I am a tween, which is to say, I am old enough for some things but not considered completely mature yet." He frowned again. "Did you think I was?"

Arathorn spoke hesitantly. "We are not familiar with how hobbits reckon their years," he said, "and Captain Galador said we were to follow your lead..."

"You're our age," said Gilraen, sounding pleased. "We thought you disapproved of our youth."

"Why would I do that?" Bilbo asked, bemused. "I doubt your captain would have brought you here if you weren't qualified." He looked around the clearing, and the dead wolves and fallen goblins. "And I've seen good evidence of your qualifications!"

Arathorn started to chuckle, and then Gilraen, and soon all three were laughing with the simple joy of being alive. Bilbo laughed until he had tears in his eyes, and then he laughed some more. When they were done laughing, they all stood.

Sobered by the memory of their grim task, they headed towards the goblins' camp once more to investigate it for themselves.

The camp was messy, covered in filth and debris. Ruined clothing was piled off to the side and a tattered harness and bridle with it. Bones were strewn everywhere. They found three hobbit skulls, stripped of their flesh. One was that of a fauntling.

They gathered the bones as best they could and wrapped the three bundles in the remains of the clothing. Then, retracing their steps, they headed back towards the road. The bundles of bones were carefully placed within the wagon, and a note explaining the situation was placed where the wind could not snatch at it.

The hobbits' families would be found, and their bones would receive a proper burial. It was all that could be done.

The two Rangers fixed poultices and cleansed wounds and, after a late luncheon, the small patrol continued on towards Frogmorton.

Author's notes:

*I was going to put "cannibalism" on the trigger warning, but I couldn't decide if goblins eating hobbits counted or not. Does it? Because I don't know. There is also implied goblins-eating-goblins and wolves-eating-wolves and such, but that's not as icky.

Introducing... Aragorn's parents! (No cookies for you! But close!) I moved their birthdates back a bit; we're pretending they're in their late teens or early twenties. Still young by Ranger standards, but old enough to start getting some experience. Also, this is my first time writing a real action scene. Hopefully it is not horrible. There will be more later.

Chapter Text


The sun dawned brilliantly on the following morning. The snow-covered fields and hanging icicles caught each ray of light and multiplied it tenfold until all the world seemed a winter wonderland.

Bilbo adjusted his bounder's cap as the party rode, his eyes squinted against the harsh radiance. He was deep in his thoughts once more.

He had been in charge of fauntlings, and hirelings, and had directed many an event, but never before had Bilbo been in charge of an armed party. All three of them had nearly died during the struggle in the woods, and likely would have if they had not been lucky.

Though aggrieved about the hobbits' fates, the two Rangers did not seem to realize their own recklessness and near mortal peril in pursuing them. Bilbo did not wish for them to repeat that mistake! The bounder had not yet found an opportune moment to discuss this with his companions, though he knew he must. He was aware now that he was the leader of this group; it was his responsibility to guide and care for these youths as well as he could.

Silently, Bilbo cursed his uncle for not discussing the arrangement with him. It would have been wiser to include at least one experienced warrior on their patrol. Bilbo had known that the Rangers were young, that much was plainly evident from their faces, but he had assumed that each of them had at least several years of experience under their belts and the wisdom to show for it. That did not appear to be the case.

Still, there was little that could be done now. Perhaps I can discuss the matter with them later this evening, at camp, Bilbo thought.

Bilbo breathed a sigh. His hand closed over the growing pain in his left arm. It had been bathed and cleansed, but he feared that the ever-present cold did not do much for his resilience. Canine mouths were filthy things: the bite was likely infected. The patrol would arrive at Frogmorton in several more days and he would simply have it seen to then. It was a mercy that the goblin-cut on his face was not similarly afflicted. While Gilraen and Arathorn were competent at field-dressings, not one of the group was a healer.

He looked back at the rest of his party. Sunlight glinted off the helms of the Rangers as they chattered merrily with each other. They, it seemed, were made of sterner stuff than hobbits. Arathorn and Gilraen had been bitten and scratched as well, but the shallowest of their cuts had already healed over and the rest were well on their way to mending.

Blasted Rangers, Bilbo thought wryly, and their blasted elf-blood. Most likely, the two wouldn't even scar. Whereas before this was all over, Bilbo would end up looking quite fierce for a hobbit. At least I won't ever get mistaken for a grocer again.

As soon as his arm was recovered, Bilbo would have to practice his archery some more. He did have a dragon to slay and all. He also needed to arrange some practice bouts with the two Rangers. His mother would never forgive him if he did not take this chance to hone his sword-skills against Big Folk as well, and the exercise would be good for them.

The hours slowly passed until the sun began to fall. The group made camp shortly before nightfall. That evening saw the beginning of a new tradition with the Rangers: storytelling.

"We grew up in the Angle, a little ways south of the elvish settlement of Rivendell," Gilraen explained as she poked at the flames. "Many elves, men and even dwarves pass through the Angle on their journeys across the Misty Mountains, but few see it for what it is."

"It's protected by some form of elf magic," Arathorn added. "But please don't repeat that. Outsiders aren't supposed to know."

Gilraen huffed at him. "Anyway," she continued, "we are fairly isolated from the rest of Eriador. Becoming a Ranger is one of the few ways a Dunedan can see the rest of Middle Earth."

"My grandfather is the Chief of the Dunedain of the North," Arathorn said, "so it was always expected that I join the Rangers. I have been trained since nearly the cradle as a result." He said this matter-of-factly, with neither awkwardness nor pride.

"My parents were not particularly happy with my choice, though they supported it well enough," Gilraen said. "It is not frowned upon for Dunedan women to become warriors, like in Gondor and Rohan, but neither is it particularly common." She paused a moment. "I suppose they wished for me to act the part of a proper noble woman, and embroider all day. It is somewhat safer than swordplay."

"But you wished to see the world?" Bilbo prompted. Aragorn had always been reluctant to share details of life as a Dunedan. Bilbo had believed it simply a trait of the People of the West, much like the secrecy of dwarves, but now he wasn't so sure. Perhaps it was simply Aragorn's way.

"Oh, yes." Gilraen answered. "We were all raised on tales of the glorious deeds of the past and the kingdoms and heroes that have risen and fallen. How could I not want to see such things for myself?"

Bilbo had often felt much the same after reading his books. He said as much.

"A good book does have that effect," Gilraen agreed. "I would always have my nose in one, were it possible."

"Gilraen's mother is one of my grandfather's advisors," Arathorn said. "We have known each other for all our lives. She was always sneaking into my lessons, and my instructors always let her."

"They were afraid of what other trouble I would get into, otherwise." Gilraen grinned.

"You got into plenty of trouble anyway, as I recall," Arathorn added. "You had a way of dragging me into it with you."

Bilbo looked between the two, curiously. He sensed a story there.

"Once when we were children," Arathorn confided, "she was convinced that trolls had come down from the mountains and were hiding in the woods nearby. I wanted to tell someone, but of course she said we needed proof first. We spent the next three days lost. They sent out search parties for us. Needless to say, we found no trolls else we wouldn't be here now. Such a tanning we received!"

Gilraen smacked her friend's shoulder. "You said you wouldn't tell anyone!" she cried, her face red.

Arathorn laughed. "I swore I wouldn't say a word to any Dunedan. Bilbo is a hobbit of the Shire. The story is too good to forget, besides."

Bilbo smiled. "That is no great mischief to one who has spent time with the Tooks," he said. "They are the great trouble-makers of the Shire! The stories I could tell you about my cousin Fortinbras alone..."

"Fortinbras is also a bounder?" Gilraen asked. "I believe I have heard his name before, but I can't recall much else..."

"Oh yes," Bilbo replied. "He is a gossipmonger and busybody as well. Quite likeable in spite of that, though. It's how he keeps getting out of all the trouble he causes. He has calmed down some, since he reached his majority, but when he was a tween..." Bilbo shook his head. It had always been difficult for Bilbo to reconcile the Fortinbras of his youth with the staid and dreary Thain he had later become - the two were as different as night and day.

"Tell us more," Arathorn urged. "I wish to hear tales of hobbit-mischief."

"First, you must know that all hobbits have a great love of mushrooms," Bilbo began. "It is a terrible and grasping love, enough to ensnare even the most proper and prim of hobbit elders. Fortinbras was none of these, and so did not stand a chance of resisting."

The Rangers leaned forward, elbows on their knees.

"As it happens, there is a farm outside of Tookburough that is renowned for the quality of their mushrooms. Hobbits travel from far and wide to buy them. However, there was a variety of mushroom grown there that the farmers refused to sell, no matter what price was offered. "

"The mystery of the mushroom was enough to drive a young hobbit mad! Many young Tooks ventured out to try and steal one or several, but were always turned back by the farmer's dogs, which were large and ferocious. When Fortinbras was of an age, he became determined to try his hand at the venture."

"Twice he attempted to steal the mysterious mushrooms, and twice he was turned back by the dogs. Finally, he saved one of his mother's meat pies and carried it with him in a satchel. He fed it to the dogs and so earned their friendship. That night he made off with as many mushrooms as he could carry!"

"What neither Fortinbras - nor indeed any hobbit other than the farmers - knew was that the mushrooms were not of the type intended for consumption by hobbits. And so when Fortinbras sampled his prize, it had a rather curious effect on him."

Bilbo grinned at the memory. "The mushrooms caused him to see waking dreams. He was so overcome that he danced through streets of Tookburough as naked as the day he was born. Being Fortinbras, he showed not a lick of shame afterwards. His mother, on the other hand, did not emerge from the family smial for several weeks."

The Rangers erupted into laughter. Gilraen fell over sideways. Arathorn smacked his knee several times.

Bilbo chortled quietly. "It was quite the scandal at the time, though everyone has forgotten it now. And that is only one of the tales I could tell of him," he said. "There are many more. I have many Took cousins, each as mischievous as the last. My grandfather, the Thain, had twelve children!"

"Well," said Gilraen, "we cannot claim anything quite so mischievous as that, though we do have a few more stories that might compare... Once we became completely covered in flour and honey and quite accidentally convinced a party of travelers that we were ghosts... We were visiting the neighboring Rivendell to the north, when Arathorn took it into his head to venture into the kitchens for a midnight snack..."

It was several days later that they arrived at Frogmorton. The streets were bustling with hobbits, cheerfully preparing for winter festivities. It was not like Hobbiton, which had been boarded up and dead, nor like Tookburough, wary and waiting for calamity.

Bilbo judged that they had yet to be attacked. The news he bore would not be well-received, but still needed to be said.

Hobbits stopped their business to stare at the three riders and their mounts. Gilraen and Arathorn looked curiously around the street - they had passed through hobbit towns before, but never had the opportunity to stop and investigate one.

Bilbo picked a likely-looking lad out of the crowd and asked him the whereabouts of the mayor.

"I have a message for him, lad," he said kindly. "From the Thain." Bilbo adjusted his bounder's cap, drawing the hobbit-lad's attention to it. "Quite urgent, I fear."

Like a shot, the boy was off.

"With the mayor's approval," Bilbo said to the two Rangers, "we can get food and shelter for ourselves and our horses." He patted Snowdrop's withers. "This one, at least, cannot have been enjoying the wild winter fare." Bilbo frowned as a thought occurred to him. "I do not believe they will have any guest beds in your size, but we may be able to arrange something..."

"It's better than sleeping on the ground, at any rate," Gilraen said with approval. "I've grown tired of waking with icicles in my hair."

"I quite enjoy second watch," Arathorn agreed, "but I also enjoy sleeping through the night on occasion."

Bilbo smiled at them. "Well, you should get the chance to do so here, and hobbit homes are always mighty cozy and warm, if I do say so myself."

It had been half an hour since the boy disappeared. In that time, the crowd had looked their fill and dispersed to go about their business. Bilbo softly hummed his favorite walking song to himself. The pain in his arm was worse than yesterday, but he would soon get it seen to.

He was in the midst of explaining the purpose of walking songs to the Rangers when an important looking-hobbit appeared.

"Welcome, welcome," the hobbit said. "Welcome to our fine town of Frogmorton. What brings a... bounder like yourself here?" he continued, gazing over the armed and armored group. His brow was furrowed.

"Are you the mayor?" Bilbo asked from his seat on the pony. "It is very important that we speak to him at once."

"Yes, yes," the hobbit answered. "Mosco Proudfoot, Mayor of Frogmorton. And you?"

"Bilbo Baggins of Bag End," Bilbo introduced himself. "And these are the Rangers Gilraen and Arathorn." The two humans inclined their heads in greetings.

The hobbit nodded sharply and attempted a smile. It appeared more like a grimace.

The bounder produced the Thain's letter and handed it to the mayor.

"A bit of bad business, I'm afraid," Bilbo said apologetically as the mayor quickly read through the letter. "The situation with the wolves has gone quite out of control, and patrols were sent out by the Thain to deal with the matter."

"And he sent you... here?" the mayor asked, eyes flicking once more to the Rangers. "We have had no such trouble."

"We beg to differ," Gilraen said, her mouth in a firm line.

"A little more than a day's ride from here, a wagon was attacked," Arathorn's eyes were hard. "Its occupants were taken. We were unable to find them in time, though we slew many of their attackers."

The mayor was horrified. His mouth gaped open, then closed. "Where..." he started to ask. "Where was this wagon?"

"On the Great East Road," Bilbo said. "Headed towards Tookland. We were able to recover what remained of their bodies, and placed them within the wagon."

Mosco nodded sharply. "They will be retrieved as soon as possible," he said. "The bounders of Frogmorton will see to it."

The mayor lifted his gaze to look directly at the Rangers. "You have my thanks for retrieving their... remains." He turned once more to Bilbo. "The Floating Log Inn has stables for your ponies and beds for weary travelers. Tell them I sent you, and to send the bill to me. Farewell."

With that, the hobbit bowed quickly and made to leave.

"Before you go," Bilbo hurriedly called. "Will you please send for a healer? At the inn? I fear one of my injuries may have become infected."

"A healer will be there shortly," Mosco said. Then he turned and went.

Bilbo did not see the Rangers' growing frowns as he spoke of his need for a healer. He was too busy finding another likely-looking youth to lead them to the Floating Log Inn.

Bilbo tipped the lad after the three arrived at their destination. The three left Snowdrop and the two horses with the stable's grooms-hobbit and entered. The two Rangers had to duck down low to avoid hitting their heads on the doorframe. The inn was quiet and nearly empty in the afternoon sun.

Gilraen and Arathorn stared at the hobbit-sized furnishings as if they had never before seen the like, which was probably the case. Bilbo left them to it, and sought the innkeeper. After explaining the situation and the mayor's offer, the innkeeper agreed to house them.

"We have very few human-size visitors," the hobbit said nervously, eyeing the Rangers' swords. "But we might be able to arrange something."

In the end, several beds were pushed together. Bilbo was given his own room, and the Rangers insisted on sharing one. The innkeeper immediately objected, citing the impropriety of it all, but ceased fretting after Bilbo told him that they were betrothed.

Humans and elves feel quite differently than hobbits about such matters, Bilbo mused. Both Rangers looked surprised at the innkeeper's sudden change of attitude. The innkeeper was now trying to convince them that they only needed one enlarged bed instead of two.

After several minutes of arguing the innkeeper gave up, and the three were left alone. Arathorn ushered Bilbo into his room. Gilraen followed, closing the door behind her.

"We need to talk," Arathorn said. Gilraen stood beside him, frowning furiously.

"Yes?" Bilbo asked, his mind racing. Were they upset that he had told the innkeeper they were betrothed? It seemed a harmless bit of mischief, and even if it was not true quite yet it had gotten the innkeeper to approve of them sharing a room... Maybe they were unhappy about needing to argue about keeping their separate beds?

Or had they seen his journal? He often wrote in it by the light of the fire. They were unlikely to know Quenya, but either might recognize the elvish script. And as one generally tended to be familiar with modern elvish before learning the ancient tongue... perhaps they were angry that he hadn't mentioned knowing Sindarin? But no, they would have confronted him before reaching Frogmorton if that was the case...

"You didn't mention one of your injuries becoming infected," Arathorn grimaced.

Ah. "No, I did not," Bilbo confirmed, relieved that his secret was safe.

"And why not?" Gilraen demanded.

"What would you have done?" asked Bilbo. "You yourselves said that you were not healers." It wasn't as if anything could be done about the bite until they had reached Frogmorton, and he did not want to worry them with what could not be fixed.

"No, we are not," Arathorn said. "But it is important that we know if you are injured!"

"If we were delayed, or attacked again, you could have died," Gilraen spoke. "You must tell us these things!"

"Ah," Bilbo said. "I'm sorry to have worried you," he offered. "Though I must admit I still don't see how it matters."

"We don't want an apology," Arathorn replied, his lips tight. He breathed in slowly, then shook his head. He turned and left the room.

Bilbo stared after him.

"I don't know how bounders do things," Gilraen said. "But Rangers trust each other. We have come to trust you, and we thought you trusted us."

"Of course I trust you," Bilbo said, surprised. "How could I not?" Then he thought about it for a moment. "Rangers are supposed to inform one another when they are injured or ill, aren't they?" he asked finally. "Always. Under every circumstance."

Gilraen nodded slowly. "Yes," she said. "To do otherwise is to endanger yourself or your unit."

"And I am part of your 'unit'?" Bilbo asked. "We have known each other for only a handful of days, after all."

"We became a unit when we first shed blood for each other," Gilraen answered with a frown. She shook her head. "Bounders do not do the same?" she asked.

"We haven't seen a true battle in the Shire since the Battle of Greenfields, which was many years ago." Bilbo replied. "We are not warriors, generally, and have not had much need of battle-sense."

Gilraen's brow creased. "Captain Galador said that you were experienced in killing wolves and goblins."

"I have killed them before, yes," Bilbo answered as truthfully as he could. "But I was not part of an armed force at the time." At the Battle of Five armies he had not been part of any force, though he had fought beside the Elvenking. The walk to Tookland hardly counted, in his opinion. "My mother was an adventurer in her youth," he explained. "She taught me the way of the blade. I have been a bounder for only a short while."

"Your mother?" Gilraen asked, sounding intrigued in spite of herself. She shook her head. "Then you would not know what it means to a Ranger, to hide your wounds," she said. "I am sorry. We have treated you quite poorly, it seems. I will talk with Arathorn."

Gilraen hesitated. "This is our first assignment outside of the Angle. So we are somewhat new at this, too, though it does not excuse our rudeness."

"We will have to learn together, then," Bilbo said. "And there was no harm done."

Gilraen smiled her thanks at him, then left, presumably to track down Arathorn.

Bilbo went to his own room and lay down on the bed. The pain in his arm had worsened. Gilraen had been right. Several more days and it would have become a problem. He hadn't even considered telling the Rangers about the infection. It seemed that they were just as inexperienced as he had suspected, as well.

After what seemed like a long while, the hobbit closed his eyes and drifted off.

It was not long after Bilbo had gone to sleep that the knock on his door woke him. The mayor had kept his word, and sent for a healer. Thankfully, she had experience in cleaning dog bites and knew how to care for them. Wolf injuries were not so different, she mused.

Bilbo's arm was immediately bathed in hot water and smeared with a concoction made primarily of yarrow leaves, basil and rosemary. Afterwards it was wrapped in clean linen. Bilbo was instructed to bathe the wound with hot water and soap once daily and apply the compound immediately afterwards. He was also to change the linen after each washing and to keep warm at all times. If he did this, the healer promised, he would be well enough to travel within a week.

A week in Frogmorton seemed like a terribly long time to Bilbo. Still, he thanked the healer for her assistance. After she went on her way, Bilbo headed to the common-room of the inn.

It had grown dark outside in the time since his argument with the Rangers; the inn was now filled with hobbits. They were drinking, smoking, and singing quite loudly. Bilbo hurriedly asked the serving maid to send him up a plate and retreated to his room. He was still too used to elves, it seemed. Their notion of a wild time was somewhat more... restrained.

He had just started to eat when yet another knock on the door interrupted him. He opened it, and discovered a shame-faced Arathorn standing outside.

Bilbo ushered him in.

"They called you Mad Baggins," the Ranger said, staring down at his booted feet. "After we told them about the battle in the clearing."

That did not surprise Bilbo in the least. Not all hobbits were Tooks or Brandybucks, after all.

"Hobbits are truly unfamiliar with combat, aren't they?" Arathorn asked, looking up. "Gilraen said it was a misunderstanding and our peoples' ways were simply different... that you did not even know of units. We must have seemed quite unbearably rude, making demands upon you like that."

"That's... quite all right," Bilbo answered. "I can understand the reasoning behind it. But," he added, "you must remember that I am a hobbit and not a Ranger. I cannot be expected to know the same things."

Arathorn nodded his agreement. "Is this truly your first expedition as part of an armed force?" he asked. "It did not seem as such before..."

"I am my mother's son," Bilbo replied for lack of a better answer. It was difficult to be afraid of a few wolves and goblins after facing down a dragon, and he had been in far worse situations than that. The incident with the dwarves and the pine trees came to mind. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, indeed.

"Is your arm any better?" Arathorn bit his lip. "I saw the healer go in while we were sitting in the common room."

Bilbo touched his newly bandaged arm. "If I treat it well, I should be healed within the week," he answered. "I am not looking forward to the wait," he admitted.

"Dunedain do not get infections, usually," Arathorn said, looking closely at the bandage. "I suppose that is why we do not know how to treat them."

Bilbo snorted. "You are the descendants of Numenor," he said. "I imagine the elf-blood has something to do with that."

Arathorn gave him a strange look. "Yes, that is true," he said slowly. He shook his head. "I apologize. You were in the middle of your meal, and I fear that it has gone cold. I should leave you to it."

He did, and Bilbo was able to finish his supper in peace.

The next several days passed without incident. The three spent their time in the common room of the inn, talking with the hobbits who came in for a mug of ale and a song. The Rangers looked quite odd sitting in undersized hobbit chairs, but they took it in good humor.

Their cuts and bruises healed nicely, with not a trace remaining. Bilbo was indeed left with a rather large facial scar from the goblin blade. It started at the corner of his right jaw, crossed his cheek, and ended less than finger's breadth from his nose and right eye. More than once he caught someone staring at it.

The Rangers had become quite protective of Bilbo after discovering the general populace's opinion of him, and took to subtly scaring off any whose gaze lingered too long. Still, there were some curious souls who clearly approved of the bounder's actions.

One of them was a farmer named Fosco Sandybanks.

"We've been having quite a bit of trouble with those blasted goblins further to the north," Fosco said, taking a great gulp of his ale. "They've set up camp in the Frog Marsh, and have been raiding the neighboring farms since."

He eyed the three over the table. "The mayor doesn't believe a word of it, of course." The hobbit snorted. "And the bounders have done nothing."

"As soon as Bilbo is well," Arathorn began, "we can-"

"We can send for help from the Thain," Bilbo interrupted. "As there are but three of us and possibly many wolves and goblins."

"But-" Gilraen started to say.

"No," Bilbo said. "I went with you before because it was an emergency, against my own judgment. We could have died in those woods, and we nearly did."

"We won!" Arathorn protested, as if that made everything alright.

"We were outnumbered at least ten to one," Bilbo replied evenly. "Ten to one. We were quite lucky there were only a handful of goblins in that party, and that the wolves scattered after the goblins were slain. If anything had gone even the slightest bit differently, we would all be dead by now, and eaten!" His voice had risen at the end, until it was nearly a shout.

Bilbo took in a deep breath, held it, and slowly released it. "We are contacting my grandfather," he said more quietly, "and he will send a party of bounders and Rangers to take care of the matter. They will be numbered more than three, and they will have more than several years of experience between the lot of them. Are we in agreement?"

Rangers, farmer, and half the common room were all staring at him.

"Are we in agreement?" Bilbo repeated furiously. His uncle and their captain, for whatever strange reason, had put him in charge of these two children and he refused to allow them to risk their lives in such a manner. Again.

"Yes," Gilraen said, elbowing Arathorn. "Yes," the male Ranger quickly said.

"Quite acceptable to me," the farmer agreed nervously.

One by one the other occupants of the common room returned to their ale. Bilbo suppressed a sigh of relief.

"That's settled, then," he said. "I'll write the Thain and Uncle Isengrim immediately. The Frogmorton bounders can deliver the letter to the Great Smials upon their return."

And that is what he did.

Two days later, the three received word that the Frogmorton bounders had returned.

The small group left the Floating Log Inn and approached the road. Bilbo kept tight hold of the letter he had written. All three were fully armed and armored, and Bilbo's cap with its single feather was placed firmly upon his head.

Five bounders stood clustered around the wagon that had been abandoned on the road. A pony champed at its bit, still hitched to it.

A crowd of hobbits had gathered around them, and were demanding explanations.

"I thought you told them about what happened?" Bilbo asked Arathorn, keeping his voice low. The Ranger winced.

"We mentioned where you received your injuries," Gilraen answered from Bilbo's other side. "I thought the mayor would explain the rest... Though it seems he did not."

"It did not seem... appropriate," Arathorn responded, "to discuss the events of that afternoon in such a manner. Their families... it did not seem right that they receive word by way of rumor."

One of the bounders made a gesture in the small group's direction, and the crowd of hobbits turned to look. They broke into muted whispers and soft mutterings.

Bilbo tensed.

A hobbit Bilbo recognized from the inn's common room approached. He walked up to the bounder and clasped his shoulder roughly. There were tears in his eyes.

"Thank you," he said. "It were my niece and her husband and daughter in that wagon." The hobbit choked back a sob. "We thought them safe in Bywater by now..."

Bilbo's hands hovered uncertainly. "I am sorry for your loss," he said finally.

The hobbit's fingers tightened, then released. He walked off, head down, his hands over his face.

It was as if a dam was broken. Hobbits crowded around the three, all wanting to hear the story from the small groups' lips. The story quickly spread through Frogmorton, and the three were treated like heroes. The Frogmorton bounders, after a day's rest, set out to the Great Smials to deliver Bilbo's letter.

On the morning of the seventh day, the healer returned to examine Bilbo's arm. She declared it, and him, fit as ever.

The three set out immediately for Stock. They did not wish to be present in Frogmorton when the party from Tookburough arrived. Bilbo guessed that his uncle's reaction to their earlier recklessness would not be pretty, and it seemed the Rangers thought similarly of their captain.

Author's notes:

I give you... Plot. And character development. And cross-cultural misunderstandings. And Commander!Bilbo. And another long chapter. Sorry about the wait, but I've been busy. So very busy. I'm a florist IRL and we were SO VERY BUSY getting ready for V-Day. So many arrangements, bouquets and corsages... Everywhere. Had two days off before showtime, so I've been using them to catch up a bit. We've got another action chapter coming up after this... Buckland and some surprise guests are waiting ;).

Chapter Text

Fear, Fire, Foes, Awake!

At the pace they had taken, Bilbo judged, the ride to Stock would take some six or seven days. It was plenty of time to keep his promise to himself.

That first evening around the campfire, Bilbo asked his new friends if they were interested in sparring with him. They readily agreed, though in their hearts they were worried about injuring him by mistake.

However, the Rangers had been trained by those who were their size or even taller. Fighting the much-smaller and more agile hobbit required very different skills; ones that they were unable to develop within a single night or even several.

Bilbo was much cheered by his success against them. If he was lucky, all Big Folk would share their difficulty in facing him. He would need better armor, of course, before attempting the journey across the mountains... though his Rohan blade was decent enough for now.

After sparring with the Rangers, Bilbo would practice his archery. He only had a limited number of arrows, and so was quite careful to only aim where he would be able to retrieve them without difficulty. After a day of this, the Rangers joined him, saying that if they weren't careful he would surpass them there too.

And still, they exchanged their stories. Several times Bilbo caught himself, the telling of his time with the dwarves on the tip of his tongue. He had shared those tales with many a faunt, and by now they sprang readily to his mind whenever a gathering such as this occurred. He hardened his will; he would not betray his own secret in such a way!

A few days after the three had left Frogmorton, Bilbo settled upon a way to share his knowledge of Sindarin with the Rangers. The hobbit was not fond of lies, but a mix of truths would not be that difficult for him to tell.

Night fell, and the group began their story-telling as usual. Gilraen went first this time, then Arathorn.

After Arathorn's tale ended, Bilbo began to speak.

"Sometimes," Bilbo said, "elves pass through the Shire on their way to the Grey Havens of Lindon. Most travel unseen and unheard, but occasionally they stop and chat with those they run across. When I was but a faunt, or a young child in human terms, I would sometimes stumble upon them as I played in the woods."

"It was shortly after my sixteenth year that I stumbled upon one who was to become a great friend of mine." Here Bilbo paused, a small and painful smile upon his lips. "He called himself Telcontar, or Strider in the common tongue, and he did not wish to leave Middle Earth, but rather felt that he must. His wife, you see, had departed for the land beyond the West some time ago and her absence tore at him."

"Telcontar lingered for some time in the Shire, walking through gardens and fields in the moonlight and singing in the woods during the day. I regarded his friendship as one of my greatest treasures, and did not share his presence with anyone. He taught me elvish language and history, while I explained everything I knew about hobbits and the Shire. He was so curious, though he was old enough to remember the days when Arda was flat and the worlds were one. "

"We continued on this way for several years," Bilbo said, "until I had finally learned the lore to his satisfaction. Afterwards, we said our farewells. I suppose he has reached Aman by now."

"He was fierce and kind, noble and wise," Bilbo added. "I miss him terribly sometimes." He bit his lip, staring into the fire. Elrond had been all of those things - he might even have thought it amusing to be referred to by the Quenya-version of his foster son's byname, the one that Aragorn had jokingly assumed along with the throne of Gondor.

A hand clasped his shoulder, and he looked up. Arathorn squeezed his shoulder tighter and was silent. On his other side Gilraen gazed at him with sympathy in her eyes.

"Enough of these sad things," Bilbo said in forced cheer. "I believe it is Gilraen's turn."

"I cannot speak much of loss," Gilraen spoke slowly. "For the Dunedain are exceptionally long-lived among mortal folk. Nor do I have any elf-friends who have crossed the sea." She shook her head. "Arathorn?" she asked hesitantly.

"I had a brother, once," Arathorn said, his expression closed.

Gilraen's mouth opened once, then shut.

Bilbo glanced at her, and she shook her head. He remained silent. There will be time to talk later, Bilbo reminded himself.

There was no more conversation after that.

That evening, Bilbo kept the first watch as was usual among the trio. He jotted down the day's events in his journal, sitting close to the fire. The winter night was completely still, and quiet; the only sound the crackling of the fire, the only sight the shadows cast by the leaping flames.

Bilbo felt ill at ease. Still, his watch passed by uneventfully, and when the time came he went to wake Arathorn.

The hobbit slept poorly that night. Later he was grateful for this, for it saved his life.

It was in the small hours of the morning that they were attacked.

A shout from Gilraen awakened the hobbit. Bilbo's eyes shot open, instantly recognizing the shadow over him for the danger it was. He rolled to the side, narrowly evading the descending blade. Bilbo continued to roll until he was some precious seconds away from the goblin who had attacked him.

The hobbit fought to escape his bedrolls, cursing their thickness. An instant before the goblin reached him, he was on his feet, blade drawn.

The goblin hissed, and began to circle him.

Bilbo waited. Clashes of metal on metal rang through the air, telling him that the Rangers were on their feet and fighting.  He chanced a quick look: there were no wolves this time, only goblins, and of the goblins there were only four including his.

Good, Bilbo thought, and charged.

Bilbo's Rohan blade caught the goblin's curved sword, deflecting it harmlessly to the hobbit's left. Bilbo planted his feet and used his legs to twist the trunk of his body as his mother had taught him, swinging his blade up and to the right, at the place where the goblin's head met its neck.

There was a moment of terrible pressure, and Bilbo feared that his blade would slip from his hands. But the Rohan blade stayed true and the goblin fell, its head rolling towards the fire.

Bilbo breathed a sign of relief, and turned back towards the Rangers.

They had felled two of the goblins already, and made quick work of the last one as he watched.

Their daily sword practice, it seemed, had done them some good. The Rangers' movements were faster and more graceful than they had been during the skirmish in the woods.

"Are you both alright?" Bilbo asked, as soon as the goblin ceased twitching.

"I am uninjured," Arathorn answered, settling himself on the ground a good a short distance from the goblins.

"Just a scratch," Gilraen replied, fingering a red spot on her sleeve. "And you?"

"Perfectly fine," Bilbo said, settling down beside Arathorn. His heart was still racing. None of them would be able to go back to sleep after that.

A stray thought jolted him to his feet. "The horses?" he asked. It would be miserable going without them.

"Snowdrop bolted in the confusion," Gilraen said, digging around in her pack for salve and bandages. "Misty and Arthedain went with her. They will watch out for her and guide her back, come sunrise."

Gilraen joined the two at the fire, and rolled up her sleeve. They all looked at it. It was indeed a rather small cut.

"Goblin blades are sometimes poisoned," Arathorn said, his brow furrowed. "Especially on missions of vengeance."

"I don't believe that only four goblins would appear if they were seeking revenge," Gilraen answered, poking at the cut. "And it certainly doesn't seem poisoned."

Bilbo frowned at her arm, something tugging at his memory. "Do you happen to have any Kingsfoil in your pack?" he asked finally. "Or Athelas, as you might call it?" He had proofread his nephew's and cousins' and gardener's story after they had returned from Mordor, and the name of the weed that had saved his nephew's life had stuck with him.

"Our salves are made from it," Gilraen replied, giving him an odd look. She blinked rapidly, realization stealing across her face.

"It is supposed to be quite good for poisons," Bilbo said, ignoring her momentary strangeness. "If I remember correctly, that is."

"Your elf-friend taught you this?" Arathorn asked. He tugged the salve and bandages from Gilraen's hands and quickly tended to her wound.

"He was quite a good healer," Bilbo replied slowly, "but we rarely discussed the topic. History and culture were more my interest, I fear."

"Not many know the true worth of Athelas," Gilraen said, checking Arathorn's work. "Most think it a weed."

"It was mentioned in a story I once heard, though it was only later that I discovered it was none other than our Kingsfoil," Bilbo answered her unspoken question. "I was quite surprised to find that the prized Athelas was same as the weed our gardener Hobson so often cursed. It grows almost everywhere in the Shire."

"Our ancestors brought it over from Numenor," Arathorn said, his voice sounding off, "before the ocean swallowed it, and the world became round."

Gilraen gaze flickered from man to hobbit and back again.

"And before that, it grew freely in Beleriand, ere the War of Wrath came," Bilbo replied, raising an eyebrow. "What is this about, then?"

"You-" Arathorn started to say. Gilraen swiftly placed her hand over his mouth, silencing him.

"We are simply unused to outsiders being so familiar with our history, though your elf-friend well explains that," the female Rangers said. "Arathorn is acting like a fool. This is nothing unusual for him. Please pay him no mind."

"Hmmf," Arathorn grunted from behind her hand. He made no move to throw off her touch.

Bilbo hesitantly nodded. "It that a problem?" he asked. "My... familiarity? My friend, Telcontar... was something of a lore master himself."

Gilraen snorted. "We have already told you the location of our hidden land, and the secret of its safety. Knowing the source of our shame is a small thing compared to that."

Bilbo started. "Your ancestors were those that threw off Sauron's influence, and turned away from the madness of their king to carve out a new kingdom in a new country," he protested. "That is nothing to be ashamed of!"

"Not everyone would agree with that," Gilraen replied. She let go of Arathorn's mouth.

Arathorn frowned at her and shook his head. "Very few would, actually," he said. "And that is not our only shame."

"Isildur?" Bilbo guessed.

"And the splitting of the kingdoms, and the fall of Arnor," Gilraen added. Her mouth twisted into a grin. "All those responsible are dead now, and dust, so I can hardly see how it matters."

Arathorn's lips pinched. He did not agree with her, but he kept his silence. It was an old argument between them.

Bilbo nodded. "I gather this is not something the Dunedain want shared?"

"We might have to bring you home with us, and keep you there," the female Ranger smiled. "Of course we might do that anyway."

Arathorn looked up quickly. "But only if you are willing," he hurried to add. "And you wouldn't have to stay."

Bilbo paused. The Angle was very close to Rivendell, and the Misty Mountains, and Rangers were known to hunt orcs... The Ring, the Ring... something inside him whispered faintly, though he could only guess at what.

"I might take you up on that offer," Bilbo said. "After this is all over with." The hobbit quite liked both the young Rangers in any case, and would enjoy spending some time with them without the constant threat of attack looming over them all.

Perhaps he would even be able to visit Rivendell.

The shadows slowly lifted from the surrounding trees as dawn began its approach.  Soft whinnies drew the trio's attention away from the fire; Gilraen's prediction had proven true. Their steeds had returned.

Misty and Arthedain walked towards their riders, Snowdrop trailing after them. The trio rose and investigated the horses (and pony) for any injuries. Finding none, they quickly decamped.

By the time the sun rose over the eastern planes, the group had returned to the road. The next three days passed without incident, and finally the group arrived at the gate to the village of Stock.

Stock, it seemed, was quite unlike Frogmorton. The windows were barred and the doors appeared locked. Bilbo would not be surprised if they were barricaded on the inside as well. The streets were empty, save for a handful of bounders who emerged to greet them.

The bounders paused some distance from the trio, glancing from Rangers to Bilbo to each other. All of their caps held single feathers, and they looked distinctly nervous. They whispered to one another for several moments.

Finally, one stepped forward. "Begging your pardon, sirs and madam," he said respectfully, "our profoundest apologies for any rudeness on our part, but with the Winter and all we've had to learn wariness. Welcome to Stock."

The bounder swept the cap off his head and bowed lowly to the group. Rising, he returned it to its place atop his head and introduced himself. "I am Grigory Maggot, bounder of this fine village. And yourselves?"

"Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, and a bounder," Bilbo introduced himself with a nod and half-bow from his perch atop his pony.

"Gilraen of the Rangers," Gilraen said, smiling. She nodded at the bounders in greeting.

"Arathorn of the Rangers," Arathorn said, attempting a half-bow.

"Well met, gentle peoples and fellow bounder," Grigory said. "Have you official business in Stock, or were you wanting to stay at the inn? We might guide you to where you're going, if you wish it so."

"We were sent by the Thain to patrol the road between Stock and Frogmorton," Bilbo answered. "Twice now we have fought and driven off wolves and goblins: we are weary and cold and our ponies are hungry."

Grigory looked quite impressed at the mention of fighting wolves and goblins. "You are not the first to come by these parts with orders from the Thain," the bounder said. "You must come and dine with me and my family and tell us your story. All of you! But first, we shall see to your lodgings and your ponies."

The hobbit walked back to the others, who were nervously loitering. After a few muffled words, they disappeared back to the buildings they came from.

"Follow me, gentlefolk," Grigory said. "I know not much of the inns of other towns and villages, but here in Stock we find the beer of the Golden Perch Inn to be quite pleasing indeed. Mayhap we will share a mug or two while the innkeeper prepares your accommodations."

The trio all found that quite agreeable, and said so. Grigory beamed.

The Golden Perch Inn had warm stables and food for the horses and pony, and even a room with two human-sized beds. Stock was quite close to the river, the innkeeper explained when Bilbo asked about this oddity, and human traders, moving their goods by barge, would often stay for a meal and a night.

When Bilbo requested that room for his two friends, the innkeeper hesitated. Bilbo had learned from previous experience, though: he simply mentioned to the innkeeper that the Rangers had been betrothed at an early age but were still too young to begin learning their marital duties. The innkeeper easily accepted this explanation, and the Rangers were granted their room without argument.

With this settled, and their baggage in their appropriate rooms, Bilbo joined his companions for a drink.

"Four of your best beers, please, Miss," Grigory requested of the serving girl. He eyed the humans and added, "two of them in pints, if possible."

The serving girl murmured her acknowledgement and disappeared in the direction of the bar.

"A pint should be about the right size for you," Grigory said with a grin.

"It will do nicely," Arathorn said, his seat so low that he was almost kneeling upon the ground. "My thanks for your hospitality, Master Maggot."

They made idle small talk in this vein until the serving girl returned with their beverages.

Drink in hand, Grigory finally got down to business. "What news have you of the Thain?" he asked. "You spoke earlier of a patrol; have the roads been opened once more?"

"It is not quite safe just yet," Bilbo said. "By now the main roads should have been cleared of danger, but smaller roads and settlements near wooded areas are likely to be at risk. Our foes seem to favor the cover of the trees."

"That I can believe," Grigory replied. "They daren't try their mischief in the day, and there are few places to hide from the sun in the Shire's winter fields." Grigory chewed his lower lip. "The families keep great stores of grain and tubers in case of such times of need, but they do no good if the people cannot get to them."

"Many of our people have come to lend their aid," Gilraen said. "We Rangers are bitter enemies of the goblins, and hunt them whenever they appear in friendly lands. Your roads will be open soon: the people will not starve."

"May you be right," Grigory said. "May you be right."

After finishing their ale, the trio followed Grigory Maggot to his home.

His wife and daughters greeted them kindly. They made a great effort not to stare at Bilbo's scar or the Rangers' shoes, which amused the hobbit immensely. Tubs of hot water and soap were offered for the three to wash up before supper-time. Filthy form their many days of travel, they gratefully scrubbed the dirt and sweat off their bodies.

Arathorn and Bilbo carefully did not look in Gilraen's direction, until she threw her washcloth at them, made a bawdy joke, and everyone dissolved into laughter.

Bilbo began to sing one of his favorite bath-songs:

"Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!"*

"You have songs for baths, too?" Arathorn asked, lazing back on the towels they had been given; the tubs were much too small for the humans.

Wrapped in her towel, Gilraen raised an eyebrow. She was curious as well.

"We hobbits have songs for nearly every occasion," Bilbo replied, sinking further into his tub. "Walking, as you already know, but also bathing, and birthdays, and cooking, and gardening..."

"Hobbits seem quite the merry people," Gilraen commented. "Even in trying times."

Bilbo shrugged. "We are simple folk," he answered. Hobbits were hobbits: to him there was not much mystery in that.

When they were done with bathing, they re-dressed in their stained clothes, grimacing. There was nothing for it though, and no time to wash them. Perhaps at the inn they would get their chance.

Master Maggot's wife, Primrose, led them to the dining room while her daughters quickly straightened up. There they spoke of little things; of the Yule-time festival that had happened some few weeks ago, the latest gossip from the Marish, and their joy that the Thain was properly seeing to the situation of the roads.

The supper had been cooked during the time the trio was bathing: it needed only to be brought out. The food was delightful, especially to the three who had grown used to dry and crumbly waybread and a few handfuls of dried meat. They made especially sure to compliment the chef, and she accepted with a blush and a stammer.

After their plates had been cleared, and the washing begun, Grigory began to speak of business once more.

"I don't expect that there will be many more raiders from the east," he said. "The winter has warmed somewhat, since the Brandywine first froze. The last to attempt a crossing fell through. They were found the next morning, underneath the ice."

The bounder's lips twisted, and he stared into his cup. "The real trouble, I suspect, is in Buckland. We have already had word of great throngs breaking through the High Hay and attacking the villages, coming from the Old Forest, they suspect. Near everyone has retreated to Buckleberry and Brandy Hall. The Master of Buckland has called for all the aid that could be mustered, and the people of the Marish answered."

Grigory looked up at the trio. "The bounders of Stock you met today are all new recruits, including myself: those that know their business have gone to Buckland, to aid in the fighting there."

"We rode through Buckland on the way to the Shire," Gilraen said, frowning. "It seemed that all was well in hand, then."

"Aye, that was so when their trouble was with but wolves and goblins," Grigory replied.

"What do you mean?" Bilbo asked slowly. To the best of his knowledge such a thing had not happened the last time around.

"Orcs, they say, and wargs." Grigory let out a bitter chuckle. "Twice the height of your usual goblin, three times the breadth, and with archers, too."

"Have they contacted the Dunedain?" Arathorn asked.

"Or the Thain?" Bilbo added. "The bounders are already stretched thin, but surely Hobbitry-at-Arms would be called! The Shire would not stand for such a thing, and besides; the Master of Buckland is his son-in-law, and his daughter sits in Brandy Hall!"

"I am but a simple farmer," Grigory replied, "and know not the answer to your questions. The Master of Buckland is a new one though; this is his first year as such, and a situation such as this is well beyond what any but our most distant ancestors might have faced. Who can say what he will decide?"

"He is my uncle," Bilbo said, his eyes squeezing closed. He remembered Gorbadoc Brandybuck as a plump, pleasant hobbit with many children and grandchildren. Primula and Frodo had been among them. Bilbo's Aunt Mirabella had been both charming and sociable, Tookish, but not nearly as much as her older sister. He could not guess what they would do.

Bilbo opened his eyes. He breathed in, held the breath for a moment, and then released it. "This is a pickle, and no mistake," he said. "The Thain will not call Hobbitry-at-Arms unless the Master first requests it, and the Rangers that are here are needed here to keep the roads open, lest the Shire starve."

"There is only one thing to do," he continued, "but I am not certain that it has not already been done, nor if we are the best ones to do it. We must speak more of this in the morning! Master Maggot, our thanks for your and your family's hospitality. You have been most generous and informative, and we will see what we can do with the situation you have brought to our attention."

"You are quite welcome," Grigory said, blinking rapidly. "Shall I escort you to the inn?"

"We will be fine, though I thank you for your concern," Bilbo answered.

The Rangers had retrieved their weapons and armor and were rapidly donning them. Bilbo quickly followed suit.

The Maggot family followed the trio to the door to see them out. They said their farewells, and Bilbo promised to explain everything the following day.

With that, the three returned to the inn. The morning, perhaps, would bring greater wisdom than the evening, or at least such was Bilbo Baggins' hope.

The hobbits of the Shire had been extraordinarily lucky that winter, although they likely would not agree with such a statement. For during most of the invasion, the weather had been quite fair, if cold. Goblins found the full light of day nearly unbearable, and the wolves were inclined to follow their lead. As such, only the nights were truly dangerous.

By the time Bilbo Baggins and his Rangers arrived at Stock, however, a change was in the winds. A great storm was gathering in the Misty Mountains to the east: a storm that would bring days upon days of darkness and drown the countryside in snow. The only mercy was that it would take some time in its approach.

Neither the hobbits nor the humans were aware of this oncoming storm. Gandalf the Grey, though, was a wizard, and not a petty one at that.

The Rangers had come to aid the Shire, and Gandalf had believed their numbers to be enough. Hunger was the greatest threat to the hobbits, and the Dunedain warriors were needed to keep the roads open so that food and goods might move about. Or rather, that was what the wizard had believed at first.

Now, he foresaw that in the coming days of darkness the wolves and goblins would amass an army. They would tear through Buckland, slaughtering and pillaging as they went. They would cross the frozen Brandywine, straight into the heart of the Shire, and all the bounders and Rangers within it would be unable to stand against them. The hobbits would be destroyed, and the Dunedain further diminished.

They would need reinforcements, and quickly. Gandalf had asked a particularly swift wren to carry a message from him to the Chief of the Dunedain. A company of their most able-bodied and hardened warriors and their swiftest steeds were needed immediately in Buckland and the Shire. Argonui would not dare to ignore his request, for his grandson's life was in peril.

The wizard rode to meet them. Time was of the essence. Idly he wondered how young Bilbo Baggins was faring... Such potential, within that hobbit, he mused. Hopefully this Fell Winter would not ruin him for further adventures!

Author's notes:

Still alive! Yay! Late chapter is late. And not all that action-y either. :(. Sorry, people! And yes, thare be singing, thank Athalanta for the idea :).

Some Silmarillion lore in this chapter. History... Yay? Brief explanation: Sauron was captured by the people of the island of Numenor, the descendants of Elrond's twin brother. During his captivity, he managed to (further) corrupt most of them. They were already going down that path... Eventually, Sauron convinced their king that humans would become immortal if they lived on the continent of Aman, where Valinor was located. The king fell for it, and took a huge armada and sailed over. The moment he stepped foot on Aman (forbidden for humans to do so) the Valar caused the sea to swallow the armada, Numenor, and most of the remains of Beleriand, and then turned Arda round so no mortal would be able to attempt that again (it was flat before.) A few Numenorians had stayed true to the Valar and, realizing the madness of invading Aman and violating the taboo, got the hell out of dodge. One ship went to warn Valinor (they never returned) and the rest sailed to what would become Arnor and Gondor. Which were originally ruled by one king, with two heirs. One of whom was Isildur. There's a lot more to it, but that's the gist of it.

Thank you all so much for your support! Especially those people who have been here all the way! You all rock! And for the latecomers; welcome to the fic, hope you enjoy. 'Til next time, people! :D

* Song belongs to JRR Tolkien; Lord of the Rings, "A Conspiracy Unmasked."

Chapter Text

To Buckleberry!

The stars were visible in the darkness when the three trekked back to the inn. Bilbo promised to explain his words when they arrived, and refused to say anything else. The Rangers were champing at the bit in curiosity.

Bilbo paid them no mind. The past few weeks of travel had been like a holiday for him, for the most part. No hiding from his relatives or Gandalf, no pretending to be the youth he wasn't. No guilt for replacing his parent's son, or for keeping such a great secret from one of his oldest friends.

There were no expectations with these Rangers, no prescribed role he needed to perform with them. Bilbo had felt more his old self with them than he had in years. Now, though, he felt sick.  There had been only one change that he had made that was capable of having this sort of effect.

Was this the price of his mother's life?

Upon their return to the Golden Perch, the three gathered in the Rangers' room. Bilbo had promised to explain his words, and the two Rangers held him to it. They sat on one of the beds, legs crossed, in tense anticipation.

"What is this about, then?" Arathorn asked after several minutes.

"You're planning something," Gilraen said slowly. "What is it?"

Bilbo sighed, and then began to explain. "Buckland, the land between the Brandywine river and the Old Forest, is not quite part of the Shire. They do not answer to my grandfather, but instead the Master of Buckland: my uncle by marriage and the Thain's son-in-law. He is, as was mentioned earlier, quite new at the whole business."

The Rangers nodded impatiently. They already knew all this.

"If, as you said earlier, the Bucklanders were doing particularly well, it is quite likely that neither the Thain nor Uncle Isengrim would think to send help. Nor would help come on its own: the Marish people are an exception. The Bucklanders are aware of you, yes? And the reason you came? Then they might not think there any aid in the Shire to send."

"You mentioned 'Hobbitry-at-Arms'?" Arathorn asked. "Earlier?"

"Something of a local militia... Not trained, as both branches of the Watch are, but there is something to be said for numbers. They take up pitchfork, axe, club, and sling in times of great need. They haven't had to be called since the Battle of Greenfields, where my great-granduncle Bullroarer Took knocked the head of the goblin chief into a rabbit hole and thereby invented the game of golf."

"Not useful for hunting these small parties of raiders," Bilbo added, "but in a full assault..."

"You wish to gather them for the aid of Buckland," Gilraen nodded. "But you said that you are not the Thain's heir?"

"Of my generation, Fortinbras is the most likely to inherit the title," Bilbo said. He bit his lip. "A letter from here will take upwards of a week to get to Tookburough, and the Shire-muster to call Hobbitry-at-Arms will take even longer than that. The Dunedain dwell near Rivendell, which is at least several weeks off even on horseback. If it is as bad as Grigory said, then we do not have the time..."

"There is a way," the hobbit said, "to call the Shire to arms without the intervention of the Thain. The Horn-call of Buckland sounds only in times of greatest need. All those who hear it will set out at once."

Gilraen's brow wrinkled. "How loud is it, exactly?" she asked.

"The Horn of Buckland is a mathom from the days before the Shire, when we hobbits were but wandering folk. The Oldbuck family, now the Brandybucks, brought it with them when my people passed from the eastern side of the Misty Mountains. It came to them as a gift from the Northmen who dwelled there, or the Rohirrim as they are known now, who were our great friends before the Necromancer of Dol Guldor drove us all from the land south of the Greenwood. Given its markings and its make, it likely came to them from the hoard of Scatha the Cold Worm, who was slain by the Northman Fram son of Frumgar. "

Gilraen continued to look at him, expectant.

Bilbo shook his head. "It is a working of the dwarves of the Grey Mountains, to answer your question," he said; "it is exactly as loud as it needs to be! All the hobbits of the Shire would hear it, if it were to sound now."

"You plan on sounding it, then," Gilraen concluded. She frowned. "What was that before, then?"

Arathorn tilted his head to the side. "The danger worries you," he said.

"I do not wish to lead you to your deaths," Bilbo agreed. "Particularly not for any foolishness on my part. It is possible that someone may yet talk Uncle Gorbadoc into sounding the Horn, or that even now aid from the Thain is on its way. There is much we do not know."

"I have been trained as a leader for most of my life," Arathorn said. "Though I often do not live up to the standards that have been set for me." He held up a hand to wave off Gilraen's protest. "I am impetuous and unwise and quick to foolish anger," he said with a laugh. "It is true. But some few of my lessons I have learned well."

Arathorn caught and held Bilbo's eyes. "There is no certainty of anything, in this world," the male Ranger said. "No certainty that your uncle will not call for aid without your counsel, or that Buckland will not exist come spring if we do nothing. There is also no certainty that it will exist even if we go, or that we will survive even if there is victory."

"But," he added, "there is also no certainty of the opposite. The question I pose to you is this: which of these possibilities are you prepared to live with? That we tried, and failed or were not necessary; or that we were needed and did not go?"

"We Dunedain have a saying," Gilraen added, "that to make any attempt is to court failure, but to not attempt at all is the greatest failure." The female Ranger smiled. "We cannot call for aid, as in Frogmorton," she said. "But like as not we will encounter aid on the road. It will not be three against thirty again, if luck is with us."

"We are with you, whatever path you choose," Arathorn said. "And we are hardly helpless."

Bilbo suppressed his hysterical urge to laugh. These, these children, would follow him into death? It was not, he was not... It reminded Bilbo of the Counsel of Elrond, when his nephew Frodo took the burden Bilbo himself was responsible for. Bilbo would have carried it alone if he could. The whole situation was his fault, after all. The hobbit wished for no more blood on his hands, especially not that of those he had come to care for so much.

But the blood was already there. It could hardly be washed off now. The only thing was to salvage the situation as best he could. Arathorn and Gilraen were right. It was the one path he could live with. He refused to fail now. And they were hardly helpless.

Bilbo bowed his head. He had been intending to make up his mind come morning, but... "We will go, then," he said. "We will be faster riding, and can ill afford untrained companions, and so must leave the bounders of Stock behind. I will ask Grigory to spread the word of a march, tomorrow. I may not be Grandfather's heir, but I do have some of his authority."

The hobbit tapped his bounder's cap. "This shall help a bit, I think, and so shall the Thain's letter."

The Rangers grinned at him, visions of hope and joy. Bilbo felt terrible. This was their first assignment outside of the Angle. They know nothing of the world and its cruelties, he thought to himself. Buckland was a battlefield. They might not even reach Brandy Hall. Was this what Thorin felt, leading the Company into such dangers as they had faced? If so, it explained his dourness perfectly.

"We will speak more of this in the morning," Bilbo said. "It is late, and I at least am quite tired. I will have to beg off storytelling for tonight, by your pardon!"

The two humans accepted, and bid him good night.

Bilbo tossed and turned, dreaming of the Battle of Five Armies and the ruins of Laketown. The morning came, and Bilbo's decision held fast against his doubts. There was nothing else to do for it. They would have to go.

They broke their fast in the inn's common room, ignoring the whispers of the townsfolk. Grigory came to see them, and Bilbo explained his plan as best he could. The older bounder agreed to spread the word: the people of the Marish would make ready to march on Buckleberry. The sounding of the horn would be their sign, and if it did not sound within three days then they were to march on their own.

It was three leagues from Stock to the Brandywine Bridge, Grigory had said, and then seven from the bridge to Buckleberry. A day's ride, if they went quickly and were lucky. In sunlight the entire way, too, weather permitting. Not nearly as dangerous as Bilbo had feared, but there was still the matter of what would happen after their arrival.

The trio left immediately.

Bilbo patted Snowdrop's withers as they passed the Stock gate. Doubtlessly she would have preferred staying a few days longer. Winter grasses were hardly enough for a pony to live on, after all, and spring was yet some time off. It was the middle of February, and still bitterly cold. There would be one more month of winter before the April storms would come, bringing the warmth with them. The grass would be very green then.

It would be the beginning of planting time in the Shire, and the crops started then would feed everyone for the rest of the year. If the goblins are still here come spring... Bilbo shook his head, interrupting the thought. He took a moment to curse his ignorance.

Bilbo remembered, in the time Before, returning to Bag End in early March. There had been several bounders escorting them, just in case, but not one of them seemed to expect trouble. The goblins and wolves had to have been driven out by then, but Bilbo did not remember (or perhaps never knew) the circumstances.

He had never heard of orcs and wargs in Buckland. Nor of a retreat to Buckleberry such as the Stock bounder had described.

Had Bilbo's meddling truly caused all of this? It was a deeply uncomfortable thought. There was no way for Bilbo to know for certain. I knew there was a chance that I would just make matters worse, he thought guiltily, but I was imagining the Ring more than anything else.

And yet, if this was the cost... Bilbo did not regret it, could not regret it. He was a selfish, selfish creature, he knew, and he cursed himself for it.

They rode on.

Several hours after they had set out from Stock, the trio reached the Brandywine Bridge. It was being guarded by a surprisingly large group of bounders and Rangers. Their camp lay a short distance from the road.

One of the Rangers waved them over. After introducing himself as Beleg, he begged Bilbo's pardon and began speaking with Arathorn and Gilraen in Sindarin. Bilbo made a concentrated effort to ignore them, though he burned with curiosity and was annoyed at his exclusion.

Bilbo caught sight of Blanco, one of his mentors from Tookburough, and began walking towards him. Doubtless the bounder would have some news or an opinion to share. They had become friends, of a sort, and it would be good to catch up with him.

A familiar voice rang out before Bilbo had gone two steps. "Cousin!" Fortinbras cried, emerging from behind one of the Big Folk. He made his way to where Bilbo, a wide grin splitting his face. That smile slipped when he got a proper glimpse of Bilbo. Or, rather, Bilbo's scar.

"What happened?!" Fortinbras demanded, leaning down to examine his slightly shorter relative. His hand rose and examined the thick line of still-red tissue that split Bilbo's face from jaw to eye.

Bilbo blinked at his cousin in surprise. He had not thought to find Fortinbras here, so close to Buckland and the dangers therein. Surely Uncle Isengrim meant to place him somewhere further from harm? Then Bilbo remembered the question.

"A bit of a skirmish in the woods," Bilbo answered. "That's the worst of it, thankfully."

"A bit of a-!" Fortinbras' hands gripped his cousin's shoulders. "The East Road was supposed to be safe! That Dimple Danderfluff said as much! That was why you were sent to patrol it!"

"We only had to fight twice," Bilbo acknowledged with a nod. Dimple Danderfluff was the grocer from Stock who rode into Tookburough with the Rangers, if I am remembering correctly, Bilbo thought. Well, that explains some of Uncle Isengrim's choices: however, it certainly does not excuse them. "Though we did uncover some raiders in Frogmorton..."

"Twice! Raiders!" Fortinbras threw his hands in the air. He turned to glare at Gilraen and Arathorn. His lips were set in a twisted grimace. Such a look, Bilbo had learned, meant his cousin wished to scold someone fiercely.

"They had nothing to do with it," Bilbo lied, his hand touching Fortinbras' arm. "As a matter of fact, I'd be quite dead without them."

Fortinbras drew in a breath, held it for a moment, and then released it. "You are safe enough now, I suppose." His fingers traced the scar on Bilbo's cheek once more. "Healed injuries notwithstanding." Fortinbras frowned. "You will be staying with us, of course. The Road is far too dangerous for a patrol of three, it seems."

"About that..." Bilbo hesitated. He did not see any way to explain that would not end with someone yelling, possibly Bilbo himself.

"Mister Baggins! Mister Took!" the Ranger from before, Beleg, cut in. "My apologies for interrupting your conversation. Arathorn and Gilraen have told me something of your quest, Mister Baggins," the Ranger continued. "I am sorry to say that, if the situation is as your friends explained it, that we few would be of little help to you and would be of far better use guarding the bridge from these new invaders."

"However," Beleg held up one hand. "We can spread the word to the neighboring villages and farms, and call up some reinforcements for our position here. From the sound of it, we may need them soon. If I had my wish," the Ranger added, "I would not allow two young ones such as Arathorn and Gilraen into such dangerous terrain. However, I do not have authority over them, nor over you, and so instead must ask you to care for them as best you can. They have spoken well of your judgment and conduct in battle, and I fervently hope that they are correct."

From the moment Fortinbras had heard the word "quest," he had begun turning redder, and redder, and redder. Bilbo was halfway afraid steam would start pouring out of his ears.

"What is this, then?" Fortinbras finally asked, his eyebrows twitching.

Gilraen and Arathorn stared at him, then looked questioningly at Bilbo.

"Err..." Bilbo started. "This is my cousin Fortinbras Took," he belatedly introduced. "Fortinbras, the Rangers Gilraen and Arathorn, my patrol." Or unit, in Ranger-speak, Bilbo supposed.

Fortinbras stiffly nodded at them. "Well met," he said when they nodded back. Fortinbras turned back to Bilbo. "Well...?" he drawled. "'Quest,' cousin?"

Off to the side, Bilbo could hear Gilraen asking "that Fortinbras?" and Arathorn replying "how many Fortinbras Tooks do you think they have?"

Bilbo winced. This was not going to end well.

"There is a rather unpleasant situation in Buckland," he began. "Or so we heard from the Stock bounders. Orcs and wargs have joined the invasion, and have broken through the High Hay in full force. Uncle Gorbadoc for some reason has not sounded the Horn-call - we believe it is because he has overestimated the number of invaders here - and it is our hope that we can convince him to do so."

Fortinbras' face was set in its familiar grimace. Thankfully, it was somewhat less red than before.

"If we ride at full speed," Bilbo hurried to add, "we can make it to Buckleberry within the day, and will be safely hidden within Brandy Hall before nightfall."

"And you did not think to send someone else?" Fortinbras asked, his brows once more starting to twitch. "Surely they have ponies in Stock!"

"And how likely is it that Uncle will listen to any of them?" Bilbo retorted, beginning to get angry himself. "Family has a much better chance of getting him to see reason."

"You are a tween," Fortinbras said, his hand rising to pinch the corners of his eyes near where his nose started. "Far more mature than I was at your age, but a tween still. It is dangerous, and not your responsibility!"

"Who else is there?!" Bilbo glared. Fortinbras had been of a very different opinion when they were still in the Great Smials!

"Me, for one!" Fortinbras answered. "I will go. If Uncle is far more likely to listen to a family member, then he is also far more likely to listen to one who is also an adult. Besides, the word of a Took carries a bit more weight than that of a Baggins, even in Buckland. Especially given that I am Grandfather's heir."

Bilbo's hands clenched into fists. You are one-hundred thirty-three, he said to himself. You are an accomplished adventurer, dwarf-wrangler, and an elf-friend. You have survived goblin attacks, giant spiders, and the Sackville-Bagginses. You will not smack your cousin. Oh, but how he wanted to.

It was rather foolish, really. Fortinbras was actually quite correct. In the company of the Rangers, Bilbo had simply forgotten his physical age. The rest... was likely true as well, if not politely put. That was simply Fortinbras' way: he didn't mean anything by it. Bilbo felt himself deflate.

"Mister Took," Beleg spoke, "we cannot spare the numbers for a full escort. You would have to ride with your cousin's unit."

"We're not leaving without Bilbo," Gilraen said, her lips set in a thin line. Beside her, Arathorn nodded his agreement, his face hard.

"Then keep them here, and send another two with me!" Fortinbras answered. "It will make little difference either way!"

The Rangers and bounders all exchanged glances. Several conversations broke out in Sindarin, and the bounders all whispered to each other urgently.

"Our units ride together or not at all," one of the Rangers said finally, "and the smallest of such numbers four. We will not break apart now; to do so is to endanger those left behind. And besides, the most experienced among us will be needed for what is to come. It may well be safer within the hall that was mentioned than out here so near the closest river-crossing."

Fortinbras mouth opened, then closed. He looked fairly put off.

"We must go to alert the people, and so cannot accompany you," Blanco spoke from his seat beside the fire.

Bilbo gave a start upon hearing the bounder's voice, having completely forgotten about him in the face of his cousin's questioning. Bilbo felt very thankful he had not struck Fortinbras; Bilbo would have been mortified at behaving that poorly in front of Blanco, whom he had grown to respect.

"Fortinbras, your cousin clearly knows what he is doing, if the tales I heard of him are correct," Blanco said. "Bilbo has managed fine until now; he will likely manage fine until tomorrow. If you are so worried, then you can just go with him."

"Go with him?" Fortinbras repeated in faint horror. "But-!"

"If the Master of Buckland is more likely to listen to you, then you should go too." Blanco nodded. "And go quickly: the days are not over-long even this far past mid-winter. The journey might be safe enough in the daylight, but I would not like to imagine it at night!"

"Bilbo, lad," the bounder added, ignoring Fortinbras' sputtering; "I have something for you before you go."

Blanco strode over to the packs, and, after rummaging around for a short while, pulled a feather out of a small box. "It just so happens that my patrol came to the aid of Frogmorton, before we answered the call to reinforce the bridge. While we were there, many an impressed hobbit shared word of your deeds."

The bounder stood in front of Bilbo, feather in his hands. "It is not the normal way of things, to act so quickly," Blanco said, "but... You have earned it."

Blanco took the cap from Bilbo's head and fixed the second feather in it before placing it back where it belonged. Then he leaned in to whisper in Bilbo's ear; "it should make convincing your uncle a bit easier, and dealing with Fortinbras a bit more bearable, aye?"

Bilbo smiled at him. "Thank you for believing in me," he said, something fierce and warm kindling in him.

Blanco squeezed Bilbo's shoulder tightly before letting him go. "Take care of yourself, lad, and Fortinbras and your two Rangers as well."

Fortinbras, meanwhile, was staring helplessly at the two of them. Arathorn and Gilraen were both grinning.

"Bilbo is in charge, Fortinbras," Blanco said. "He has proven himself quite capable this winter. You would do well to listen to him."

And so it was that a rather stunned and dismayed Fortinbras was loaded onto his pony, along with his belongings. After saying farewell, the four of them set out at once across the Brandywine Bridge, Bilbo once again in the lead.

Behind him, Bilbo could hear Arathorn asking Fortinbras if he really did dance naked through the streets of Tookburough. Gilraen most likely looked the part of the cat that got the cream. Fortinbras was undoubtedly attempting to appear dignified, and probably was failing rather miserably at it.

Bilbo adjusted his cap, both feathers proudly displayed. He nudged Snowdrop's sides, and she sped further ahead of the others. It was going to be a long day. He could already tell.

Author's notes:

Am mucking with timeline some more. The Scatha thing happened a couple hundred years after the Shire was formed, but what's a little timebending between friends? Eh? And; Fortinbras is back! Poor hobbit; he's had a rough couple of weeks, and now Rangers are picking on him and his cousin the new guy got promoted over him. He just wanted Bilbo to be safe... We'll see how well that goes, eh?

And because y'all asked for it; the big difference between now and then is that Belladonna is still alive. In the "original" timeline, when she died, the entire Took family (including Mirabella, Mistress of Buckland) was out for blood. There was a larger Ranger response, and a quicker one (Isengrim did his best to delay them and trim the numbers in this timeline, due to his distrust of humans) and more hobbits joined the bounders (Belladonna was loved in Tookland.) Mirabella bullied her husband into requesting Ranger assistance, too (stupid pride not meaning that much to her.) The goblins and wolves got stomped on, and they never had time to send word to the big boys. Bilbo, being pretty damn upset then, wasn't aware of any of it. He also never made an effort to find out. So, indirectly and with the best of intentions, this is all Bilbo's fault. Poor bb.

Chapter Text

Brandy Hall

Some time later, Bilbo let go of his frustration. The Rangers ceased picking at Fortinbras, and Fortinbras settled into position as rear guard. They were all on edge now, previous quarrels forgotten.

The group was riding past abandoned farms and buildings; burned structures and bloodstains dotted the landscape. There were no bodies, and no sounds other than the footsteps of the party's mounts and the jingling of their gear.

Snowdrop whinnied nervously and shivered. Bilbo's hands tightened on her reigns, and he absently patted her withers.

They were in what remained of the village of Slewberry, the northernmost village of Buckland. The snow around them bore evidence of a mass exodus from the village. Hoof-prints and footprints were clearly visible in the brown and icy muck that now covered the road. A good sign that at least a large portion of its people escaped.

Crickhollow, the next village on the road after Slewberry, was in much the same state. The muck there was wider, and the soil underneath even visible in parts. What appeared to be a broken shovel caught Bilbo's eye: the blade was rimmed in a faded red.

They came upon Buckleberry roughly half-an-hour before nightfall.

What smials were visible were boarded soundly shut, and the outermost buildings looked as if they had been stripped of their timber. Further ahead Bilbo could see something of a fence, or wall, under construction. Hobbits were dashing about with hammers and nails, adding fresh boards and building it higher.

Goblins, Bilbo remembered, were very good climbers. The wall wasn't likely to do much aside from slow them down... Though I suppose it might give them some help with the wolves...

The minute the party of four was noticed a mutter went up from the assorted hobbits. Workers stared at them suspiciously, in particular the two Rangers.

Fortinbras moved to the front of the group, and Bilbo fell back a ways. He was curious as to what his cousin meant to do. Arathorn and Gilraen eyed the both of them, but kept silent.

"Good hobbits," Fortinbras announced loudly, "we come to you on a mission of aid. Just yesterday we of the Shire became aware of this most dire situation in Buckland. Bucklanders are the most capable of hobbits in such matters, but an invasion of this size into the heart of hobbit-lands has never been heard of before. Orcs and wargs were never part of any plans. Word has been sent to the towns and villages of the Shire of the plight of Buckland, and even now Hobbitry-at-Arms is mustering. They will march in a matter of days."

"We have come to speak to the Master of Buckland, our uncle," and here Fortinbras made a hand gesture to include Bilbo in that statement, "to discuss terms: the plan of action, as it stands."

"I am Fortinbras Took," Fortinbras said, and he doffed his cap and gave a half-bow from where he sat on his pony. "This is my cousin Bilbo Baggins, son of the infamous Belladonna, who has in her time led armies of humans; and Gilraen and Arathorn, our Ranger friends and allies, who have also agreed to lend their aid."

"Good hobbits," Fortinbras continued, "may we enter this fine town of Buckleberry, and speak to our uncle on the behalf of the Shire and of Buckland?"

A cheer went up from the gathered crowd, and a group of enthusiastic runners escorted them towards Buck Hall.

The Rangers drew their horses close together and exchanged a serious of gestures and facial expressions.

Bilbo sat back on Snowdrop and gazed amusedly at them. His cousin's speech had likely confused them. Fortinbras is quite capable when he wishes to be, Bilbo thought, his pony edging up to that of his cousin.

Now that he thought of it, Blanco's choice to put Bilbo in charge of the expedition was a strange one. Fortinbras was more than a decade older, and had been with the bounders for several years. He was quite the hellion when he was younger, I suppose, but surely they can see how he's changed? And certainly, while I've been in a handful of fights, it couldn't have made that much of a difference.

Bilbo would have liked to discuss the matter with Fortinbras himself, but wasn't certain how to bring it up without causing hurt feelings. I suppose I've already caused enough of them already, he mused guiltily. And while Bilbo was happy the Rangers thought well enough of him to defend him, they undoubtedly did not help matters any.

Bilbo dropped out of his thoughts as the group moved closer to the center of Buckleberry. The streets and yards were covered with tents, and small campfires were everywhere. Bilbo supposed that they belonged to refugees from the other villages of Buckland. While hobbit homes could usually take in at least several guests, the sheer number of those fleeing from the invaders undoubtedly overwhelmed that long ago.

A number of those hobbits looked to be asleep, Bilbo saw. It was not quite nightfall yet, and so he thought it rather strange.

When they arrived at Brandy Hall, the party found five hobbits standing outside to meet them. Gorbadoc and Mirabella Brandybuck were among them.

"Nephews!" Mirabella cried when they drew close enough.

Bilbo and Fortinbras dismounted from their ponies and were instantly swept into hugs.

"You pick now of all times to visit?" Gorbadoc grumbled good-naturedly from the side. "Tooks!"

Mirabella snorted at him in an unladylike fashion. "As if Brandybucks are any better, husband. And Bilbo is a Baggins, besides."

Gorbadoc chuckled in response. "I hear you have news for us?" he asked Fortinbras. "Good news, at that?"

"I do, Uncle Gorbadoc," Fortinbras answered. "Though perhaps we can discuss it someplace a little warmer? I feel as if I were an icicle, and have felt as such for some weeks! The others can be no different."

"Certainly, certainly!" Gorbadoc agreed. He looked at the Rangers, his lips quirked in puzzlement. They were still sitting on their horses, looking uncertain of what they were to do.

"Ah, yes!" Fortinbras said; "these are the Rangers Gilraen and Arathorn. They have been traveling with Cousin Bilbo for the past month or so. They are his good friends, and quite protective of him too."

Gorbadoc glanced at Bilbo's cheek, and then back at the Rangers. "Well met!" he said, "I am Gorbadoc Brandybuck, Master of this Hall and of Buckland, and this is my wife, Mirabella of Tookland. Our thanks for taking care of our nephew, in such dangerous times. I'm afraid our Hall is hobbit-sized," the Master of Buckland continued, "but as long as you don't mind ducking through doorways you should be just fine."

"Thank you, you are most kind," Arathorn said, and carefully dismounted his horse. He patted Arthedain's withers as one of the hobbits came to lead the horse away. Gilraen quickly followed suit.

"Please come in," Mirabella said. The group followed her into the Hall.

They went through a wide dining hall, covered with mats and sleeping hobbits, and into a smaller chamber. Mirabella sent one servant out for an extra chairs and another to the kitchens, for supper for six. The Rangers and bounders removed the most bulky of their gear and stacked it by one of the walls.

Gorbadoc drew Fortinbras into conversation, while Mirabella apologized for the rather cramped quarters. The Hall was near filled to the brim with refugees from the rest of Buckland, she said, and there was hardly room to walk around in. Still, she assured them that they would be able to find room somewhere. They would not have to stay outside in the cold.

When the extra chairs arrived, they all sat around the table. The couple was seated together; Fortinbras at Gorbadoc's left, Bilbo at Mirabella's right, and the two Rangers on the other side.

"I did not realize you had gotten so old already; it seems like it was just yesterday that you were beginning to toddle about," Mirabella said to Bilbo. "I suppose that after one reaches a certain age, though, all the years begin to blend together. You must be what, twenty-five, twenty-six by now? Or is it older? You look so young, it is difficult to tell! I can't imagine they would send anyone younger than twenty-five out into such dangerous territory, though."

Bilbo blinked at her, surprised. Across the table, Fortinbras choked. The Rangers exchanged startled glances.

"Err," Bilbo hesitated. What? His own aunt believed him to be at least twenty-five? Was that why...? It made a great deal of sense, actually... Since joining the bounders, he hadn't been treated like a young tween, but rather a mature one that knew his business. Did Blanco believe him to be about that age, too? It would explain a quite a bit, actually, Bilbo thought.

"Some are just lucky like that, I suppose," Mirabella continued. "Belladonna is nine years older than me, and people always thought we were twins. Poor Donnamira was always taken as our elder by some years!"

Gorbadoc patted her shoulder companionably. "You are beautiful," he said to her. "I quite like the way you look."

Mirabella smiled at him, catching his hand and threading their fingers together. It was clear that she had forgotten her earlier question altogether.

Fortinbras opened his mouth, as if about to speak. Bilbo was suddenly, horrifically certain as to what he was going to say. Bilbo caught his cousin's gaze and shook his head minutely, attempting to plead with his eyes.

Fortinbras' mouth closed, and his head twisted to the side for a moment. Bilbo's heart was in his throat. Finally Fortinbras held Bilbo's gaze and nodded. He would keep his silence, for now. Bilbo would need to talk with him later.

"So, Uncle," Fortinbras spoke. "Do you agree with our plan to sound the Horn soon?"

"When the fourth day has come, to give the Shirelings time to arrive," Gorbadoc agreed. "I do not wish our enemies to have any more warning than necessary, and by the time they are able to do anything about our reinforcements the first wave should be fairly close to Buckleberry."

"And as to the matter of provisions?" Fortinbras asked.

"We are strained as it is keeping everyone fed here," Gorbadoc answered. "Though if the roads can be cleared, and held, then I am willing to pay the great families for what food they have stored."

"The Shire should not march empty-handed," Bilbo commented. "Though I cannot say as to how many days what they bring will hold them. Within the Shire, the roads are clear enough, last I heard. If they can bring their food stores by pony, or if the river has melted enough for boats, then there should be no difficulties that way."

"That is good news indeed," Gorbadoc said with a sigh. "Far too many lives have already been lost to sword and tooth.  I would not lose any to hunger as well."

There was a moment of silence.

"Good Rangers," Mirabella said, "what news do you bring on your front? May we expect many of your kin to accompany the Shirelings on their march?"

"Perhaps," Gilraen said. "While many of us were sent to patrol the roads and bridges and keep them clear of raiders, some were to hunt the wolves and goblins wherever they appeared. With the roads now secure, and the greater danger in Buckland, we might expect at least a few to come along."

"We were not able to discuss it in much detail," Arathorn added. "We were in a bit of a hurry to reach here before nightfall, you see."

The conversation was interrupted when several servants arrived, carrying plates and utensils and trays of food. The six of them eagerly tucked in. Bilbo, Arathorn, and Gilraen were famished, as they had not had anything to eat since early that morning.

After their hunger had dulled somewhat, Bilbo asked his uncle about the sleeping hobbits he had seen.

"They sleep so that they may better defend against the night raids, I am afraid," Gorbadoc answered. "We are attacked more often than not, these days."

The Rangers exchanged glances, and Bilbo hesitated. He did not feel right about not offering their aid, but the Rangers were so young and Fortinbras... Fortinbras was glaring at him again.

Bilbo gave his cousin a wan smile and shrugged. He knew better than to offer to help.

"That seems a reasonable solution," Bilbo said to his uncle. "When we came through we noticed a wall was being raised...?"

"Ah, yes," Gorbadoc answered. "As it turns out, it is just a bit more difficult to carry hobbits away if they must be dragged up a wall to do so!"

Mirabella squeezed her husband's shoulder. "It keeps the workers busy, more than anything," she said. "Good for the spirits. Helpful for dealing with the wolves, not so much for anything else."

"Anything else?" Fortinbras asked, leaning forward.

"Why, yes," Gorbadoc replied. "Wargs are great jumpers, apparently. There aren't too many of them, nor of the orcs thankfully, or else we would be having a worse problem..."

"We heard something about archers, earlier," Arathorn said. "Are there a great many of them?"

"Not as many as there could have been," Mirabella answered. "For which we are very grateful. They are very dangerous. Our archers always aim for them first."

Gorbadoc frowned at her.

"Not that I would know anything about that!" Mirabella said, waving a hand at him. "I haven't gone to the edge of town to see things for myself, no. Don't look at me like that!"

"You have three young children, dear wife," Gorbadoc said sternly. "As do I. They need both their parents. Please do not endanger yourself."

Mirabella sighed. "I'm not," she said. "We need to know what is happening out there if we are to make the proper choices. I am a fair distance away from the wall at all times, and nowhere near it when there is trouble about."

"Mirabella, my heart..." Gorbadoc said.

"I will take an escort with me next time," the Mistress of Buckland replied, "if it would make you feel better!" She cast a considering look at Bilbo, then at Fortinbras, who was frowning into his cup. "I simply need to find the right ones for the job," she said, and smiled at the Rangers.

One of the servants from before stuck her head into the room, and Mirabella waved her over.

As it turned out, one of the smaller storerooms had been cleared out of supplies and would be able to fit the newly arrived party. They would have to share it, which everyone agreed was just fine. If Fortinbras' lips tightened just a bit before agreeing, no one noticed or said a word.

Their packs and supplies, taken from their mounts, were shortly delivered to their room. The four of them spread out their bedrolls and arranged their things as best suited them.

Fortinbras took the space next to one of the walls and, after unpacking a bit, begged tiredness. He curled up in his bedroll and faced away from the rest of the group.

After some time had passed, and Fortinbras appeared to be sleeping, the Rangers moved to where Bilbo was sitting. Bilbo set his journal to the side, and prepared to listen.

"Do we owe your cousin an apology?" Gilraen whispered to him in Sindarin. "It seems we might not have been entirely fair to him earlier today..."

"He is quite blunt and rude at times," Bilbo replied, "but on the whole he means well. I fear he was just being overprotective, and forgot to watch his words. An apology would help sooth his pride somewhat." Fortinbras could carry grudges, certainly, but only when he had just cause. Bilbo imagined that his cousin and the Rangers would get along well enough, hopefully, after the manner of their introduction was forgotten. If it could be.

Bilbo suppressed a wince. He had not been in the best of moods during their meeting himself, which hadn't helped matters any. And, considering matters from Fortinbras' perspective, Bilbo quite agreed with his cousin. He wouldn't have let a twenty-one year old hobbit venture off into orc-infested territory without a fight, either, and especially not family. And while Bilbo knew that he was perfectly capable, someone looking in from the outside...? The Rangers aren't the only ones to owe Fortinbras an apology, it seems, he thought.

"Fortinbras is a rather good hobbit," Bilbo said almost absently. "But almost too bright at times. It can make him... difficult to be around. He has learned to soften his edges somewhat, but his youth was not a comfortable one. He is still... dealing with his reputation, I fear."

Unnoticed to the three, Fortinbras had awakened to the sound of his name. He was fairly groggy upon awakening, but hearing Bilbo's voice speaking an unknown tongue was enough to rouse him to full alertness. He lay as still as he could, keeping his breathing steady.

"The mischief you told us about?" Arathorn asked. "With the mushrooms?" 'That we taunted him with,' remained unsaid.

"Yes. Among other things." Bilbo winced. "I probably should not have spoken a word of it, in hindsight. It may still be somewhat of a sore subject for him."

"We will apologize in the morning," Gilraen promised. "Meanwhile, I do have a question for you..."

"Yes?" Bilbo asked, warily.

"Do hobbits mark their age differently?" she asked. "You said you were around our age before, but your aunt said you were twenty-five."

"Thirty-three is considered fully adult," Bilbo replied slowly. "But from what I understand that is the same as twenty-three or four to a human. Twenty-five to us I believe is the same as twenty or so to you." And twenty-one was sixteen or so. It wasn't a lie, not exactly... just a misdirection. After all, Bilbo was a hundred and thirty-three on the inside!

"I am nineteen, and Arathorn is twenty," Gilraen said. "Among the Dunedain one is considered an adult at eighteen. I have heard that, among other humans, their majority comes at sixteen or even fourteen."

"Sixteen is the usual, I believe," Bilbo said, "but from what I know it is typically a matter of what they can afford. Peacetime offers more luxury, and the Shire has had plenty of that. Usually, anyway."

"Yes," Arathorn agreed. "We have one more question, though. Did your mother really lead armies?"

Bilbo sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "It was an armed expedition to recover a prince of Rohan. Less than thirty people! Hardly an army. And there was only the one."

"You must tell us about her sometime," Gilraen said. "You keep mentioning things like that, but you never tell us the story behind it! It is quite frustrating, you know."

"My father can tell it far better than I can!" Bilbo protested.

"Your father isn't here," Arathorn replied, raising an eyebrow.

The Ranger looked a fair bit like Elrond when he did that, Bilbo thought. The hobbit sighed. "I was going to wait a bit before offering, but... You said once that you would take me to see your home, how could I not do the same?"

Whatever else Bilbo had meant to say was muffled by the two bodies that were hugging them. "After the winter, perhaps?" Bilbo finally managed.

"That sounds good to us," Arathorn replied. Gilraen nodded her agreement.

Fortinbras was still awake by the time Bilbo and the Rangers had fallen asleep. His thoughts were whirling fitfully. It seemed that there were many things he needed to discuss with his cousin. Some time later he finally joined them in slumber.

Bilbo and the two Rangers woke late the following morning.

They had become accustomed to rising with the light of the sun, and the windowless storage room they had slept in had confused their senses somewhat.

Fortinbras, they discovered, had already risen and left the room without rousing them. They found him in the small chamber they had dined in the previous evening. He was enjoying a second breakfast with Mirabella and Gorbadoc; this time, there were three tiny hobbit-children there as well. They were Rorimac Brandybuck, his younger sister Amaranth, and the youngest, Saradas.

"Cousin Bilbo!" they cried when they saw him, and swarmed over for hugs.

"Give him some space!" Mirabella called, while Gorbadoc laughed.

"Cousin Bilbo!" Amaranth said. "Fortinbras said you were visiting! But we were asleep when you got here!"

"You brought humans with you," Saradas whispered shyly, his face pressing into Bilbo's side. "They're so tall! And they have things on their feet!"

"Mama said we weren't supposed to say anything about the thing on your face, cuz it was rude," Rorimac said solemnly. "But I like it. You look like Bullroarer Took!"

The three of them did their best to emulate Bullroarer's namesake. Everyone else put their hands over their ears, while Mirabella gently cuffed and scolded them into silence.

So it was that three pouting and teary-eyed hobbit children looked up, up, and up at the two Rangers. The three fauntlings were terribly curious about them, having never seen humans before. Gilraen and Arathorn stared down at them, blinking rapidly.

"Saradas wants to know why you have things on your feet," Rorimac said bravely. "And why you're so tall."

"Rory!" Amaranth said, and punched her older brother's shoulder. "Be polite! 'Always be polite to guests,' Mama says."

"Ow!" Rorimac rubbed his shoulder and glared at his sister.

"Amaranth, be nice to your brother," Gorbadoc scolded. Amaranth just jutted her lower lip out, unrepentantly.

Gilraen and Arathorn exchanged glances, then kneeled down to they were closer to eye-level with the children.

"My name is Gilraen," Gilraen said.

"And I am Arathorn," Arathorn continued.

"What are your names?" Gilraen finished.

"I'm Rorimac," Rorimac said, "but everyone just calls me Rory. I'm going to be in charge of this place one day! So Papa always tells me to eat my vegetables and listen to my elders, cuz thats what you needs to do when you're going to be in charge. This is my little sister Amaranth: she is very mean. And our little brother Saradas. Saradas is four."

"I am not mean!" Amaranth protested. She then closely examined Gilraen. "You're pretty!" she said approvingly. "I like you. And you have dark hair, like me and Mama."

"Thank you," Gilraen said, amused. "I like you, too."

"And what about you, little one?" Arathorn asked Saradas gently.

Saradas, still hugging Bilbo, gripped tighter and hid his face. Bilbo patted his head.

"He's shy," Mirabella explained.

"I was much the same at that age, or so they tell me," Arathorn said softly. "You let me know when you wish to talk, alright, Saradas?"

Saradas nodded, peeking up at the Ranger. He hid his face away again when he saw that Arathorn was still looking at him.

"And how old are you?" Arathorn asked Rorimac.

"I'm eight," Rorimac said, "and Amaranth is six!"

"My goodness!" Gilraen exclaimed. "I thought you were ten at least!"

Rorimac smiled proudly. Amaranth hit him again for answering for her. Before they could begin fighting Mirabella swept Rorimac into her arms and Gorbadoc did the same for Amaranth.

Soon all nine of them were seated around the table, eating and talking. Saradas had refused to let go of Bilbo, and so was seated in his lap. The young fauntling entertained himself by stealing bacon off his older cousin's plate. Gilraen and Arathorn were boxed in by Rorimac and Amaranth, who refused to sit anywhere else and asked them a new question every five minutes.

In between questions, the Rangers would shoot glances at Fortinbras, who refused to look in their direction. Soon, Bilbo grew tired of such nonsense; he liberated a small piece of bacon from Saradas and threw it past his older cousin's head. When Fortinbras looked up at him, startled, Bilbo twisted his head in the direction of the two Rangers.

Fortinbras followed his gaze, and frowned.

'We need to talk with you,' Arathorn mouthed at him. Gilraen did her best to appear entreating and nodded.

Fortinbras' face pinched, but after a few moments had passed he nodded back.

Bilbo suppressed a sigh of relief.

Fortinbras looked back at Bilbo and raised his eyebrows at him. You still owe me an explanation, cousin, his expression seemed to say.

'After,' Bilbo mouthed to him. He would explain after the Rangers had apologized. Though he still did not know what he would say.

When breakfast was done, and Saradas finally let go of him, Bilbo left Brandy Hall to investigate Buckleberry for himself. Fortinbras and the Rangers would have to make their own peace, in their own way. It would be better if Bilbo wasn't there to interfere.

Meanwhile, Bilbo needed to see for himself what the situation in Buckleberry was. Bilbo quite agreed with his Aunt Mirabella's philosophy on firsthand knowledge, though he wouldn't dream of walking about now without at least his sword at his side. At that thought, his fingers traced over the hilt of his still unnamed Rohan blade.

Bilbo wore sword and scabbard openly visible upon his hip, and, as he walked through the crowded streets, those who caught sight of them didn't even raise an eyebrow. Why should they, after all? Weapons were good things now, they helped to keep everyone safe.

Upon reaching the Wall, Bilbo found that there had been an attack the previous night. Sections had been blackened by fire, and bits of blood and gore dotted the snow. The injured hobbits were being cared for by several healers, in a nearby watchhouse.

There Bilbo confirmed that such attacks were a nightly occurrence. One of the defenders, a bounder who had recently come over from Stock, claimed that the invaders were testing Buckleberry's defenses to prepare for a full-scale assault. Bilbo believed her. He only hoped that the reinforcements from the Shire would arrive in time.

One of the Buckland guardshobbits claimed that the invaders were coming through the Old Forest. Most seemed to believe that Tom Bombadil would never allow such a thing, and others remembered the old stories. The trees were alive in the Old Forest, one hobbit said, and they didn't permit trespassing.

Bilbo thought of his nephew's tale of adventure in the Forest and suppressed a shudder. Lore-master that he was, Bilbo had read accounts of the huorns of Fangorn and the north. They disliked anything that walked on two legs, but hated the orcs and goblins most fiercely. The invaders would not have made it through that way.

But how, then, had they reached Buckland? In the south, the Forest came right upon the Brandywine river. And below that were the marshes... Fairly impenetrable terrain, even in such cold weather. To the north... the north of Buckland met with the Great East Road, and was only protected by the High Hay. It would help explain why the villagers fled to Buckleberry, and not across the Brandywine Bridge and into the Shire, Bilbo thought. That they believed the Shire to be similarly under siege explained the rest.

The northern path was the one that Hobbitry-at-Arms would take, too, now that the ice on the river was thinning. It will make driving out the invaders far more difficult than would be otherwise, Bilbo fretted. If one simply killed enough goblins, the rest would flee, he had found. But if there was no place to run? Bilbo had seen rats before, backed into corners by cats many times their size. The moment escape was no longer an option they would fight with everything they had. Sometimes they even won. It was a worrying thought.

Bilbo continued his investigation of Buckland, strolling past tents and homes. The people, it seemed, had enough food for now and hopefully for a while yet. Many were bitter about the loss of loved ones and their homes, but there was a hopeful current in the air. The rumor of the Shirelings' march had spread, and some spoke of the Rangers accompanying them. The most optimistic claimed that the invaders wouldn't last a week.

Though the Shire was many times the size of Buckland, the population was fairly spread out. Most of the land was farm, field or forest. The East Farthing, the closest part of the Shire, had a fairly large population... But how many of them would be willing to come? Bilbo wondered as he returned to Brandy Hall. His Uncle Gorbadoc seemed certain that a rather large force was on its way...

Bilbo simply did not know. It wasn't likely he would find out, either, until they arrived. Worrying about things I cannot change will do no one any good, me least of all, Bilbo concluded, heading back to his party's room.

In one of the hallways, Amaranth ran past him, giggling, with Rorimac closely dogging her steps. Gilraen and Arathorn were right behind them, looking a bit awkward as they ducked down to avoid the ceiling. The Rangers stopped running when they saw him.

"It was quite an afternoon you missed, Bilbo," Arathorn said, collapsing at his friend's feet.

"Your cousins have decided to adopt us," Gilraen added from Bilbo's other side. "They are exhausting, but adorable. Saradas kept looking for you after breakfast."

Bilbo sat down between them, adjusting his sword so it lay neatly against the floor. "He wasn't too upset, was he?"

"He seemed to think you were playing hide-and-seek," Gilraen replied. "He forgot all about it at lunch. He should still be napping now."

"Good," Bilbo said. "I wouldn't want to make him cry."

There was a slight pause as the Rangers caught their breath.

"About... um, Fortinbras...?" Bilbo asked.

Arathorn's lips quirked. "He accepted our apology, though he is still a bit sore about it. I can't say I blame him for that."

"He is talking to us now, at least," Gilraen said. "Which is quite the improvement from before."

"And your opinion of him...?" Bilbo quirked one eyebrow.

"Prickly, long-winded, a bit blunt, but with a good heart," Gilraen answered. "I would never have imagined him a trouble-maker if not for your earlier words..."

"He says you promised to speak with him about something?" Arathorn asked. "He should still be in our room, I think."

Bilbo nodded. He still didn't know what he was going to say! The truth, unfortunately, was not an option. There were too many ears and too many eyes, and the knowledge he kept was too dangerous. He could not even afford to let Gandalf know, at least not until he held the Ring in his hands. Too many things could go wrong, and the path was far from certain.

But, aside from the truth, what would Fortinbras be willing to hear?

"Why did you stop chasing us?" Rorimac asked, snapping Bilbo out of his thoughts. He and his sister had noticed the humans' absence and had doubled back, looking for them.

"Just taking a bit of a breather," Arathorn answered the faunt. "We old people need to rest every once in a while."

"But you have great long legs!" Amaranth protested. "So you can run really really fast!"

"But little hobbits run faster, since they're closer to the ground," Gilraen smiled. "We're getting up, see?" she stretched her back out and then stood, hunching down a bit in the low hallway.

Arathorn joined her. "We will join you when we can, if our Lord and Lady permit it," he said to Bilbo.

"It's time to play now!" Amaranth demanded. "C'mon," she tugged at Gilraen's hand, though she had to reach above her head to do so.

Gilraen laughed. "I'm coming, I'm coming," she said to the hobbit girl. The female Ranger nodded her farewell to Bilbo, and wished him luck.

When Bilbo reached their room, he knocked once and then entered.

Fortinbras was seated on one of the bedrolls, an open book in his lap. He looked up upon hearing the knock.

"I thought you weren't much for reading," Bilbo commented, waving his hand at the book.

Fortinbras snorted. "There is little else for me to do here," he said, closing the book and setting it down carefully. "I fear our ickle cousins have found new favorites in your Rangers. If they're not careful, they will never be able to leave."

Bilbo hesitated, and then went to sit next to his cousin. "Are you still angry at them, then?" he asked.

Fortinbras shook his head. "They were... being protective," he said. "And their apology seemed sincere enough. You are lucky to have found such friends. Though, they seem to be under the impression that you are slightly older than them them for some reason."

"At first they believed me to be much older than them," Bilbo admitted. "Their captain told them to follow my lead, and nobody warned me of this. We had a bit of a mix-up as a result." His fingers traced the scar on his cheek. "I am actually slightly older than them," Bilbo added, "but humans show their years a bit differently than hobbits do..." It was somewhat entertaining to think, but if one were to make a proper comparison of it then Fortinbras wasn't much older than the two Rangers...

Fortinbras eyes flickered to Bilbo's face, and then to his hand. "You are their leader, then?" he asked.

Bilbo nodded. "We've come together quite well," he said. "They consider me part of their 'unit.'"

Fortinbras nodded. There was a moment of silence.

"Cousin," Fortinbras began, "this is a very dangerous situation we have found ourselves in. I must admit that when I first asked you to join the bounders, I was under the foolish impression that this was some kind of adventure. This... belief, has since been corrected. If I had known then exactly what this business was about, I never would have bothered you."

"Fortinbras-" Bilbo started to say. His cousin held up a hand to silence him.

"You are very mature, and very responsible, but you are also twenty-one. If you really were the twenty-five everyone seems to mistake you for, it wouldn't be so much of an issue... but..." here Fortinbras hesitated. "You are one of my favorite cousins," he said finally. "I don't want you to die. Especially before you have had a chance to live."

"I will not correct Auntie Mirabella on your age," Fortinbras added, "if in return you promise not to go running off into danger. Your Rangers will undoubtedly try to accompany you, but you are still but three before the horde. No matter how good your sword-skills, or your new prowess with the bow."

Bilbo was alarmed to see Fortinbras blinking away tears. His hand rose to grasp his cousin's shoulder. What happened to you? Bilbo wondered. His heart clenched to see his cousin so affected.

"I promise not to go gallavanting off," Bilbo said carefully. "If it can be reasonably avoided. There might not be much of a choice. And whatever happens, Fortinbras, you will be there, too. I can guarantee that much."

Author's notes:

In which Fortinbras receives his due, and cute hobbit children are cute. According to ye auld timeline Saradas is supposed to be two, but he insisted on talking in complete sentences, so... Yes. More handwaving. And, yes, this monster of a chapter is -finally- done. Am heading off to Ren Faire over the weekend... I'm debating between going as a pirate and going as an elven pirate. Because pirates are hilarious and elven pirates are even more so. Next chapter should be up a bit after that. There WILL BE ACTION! *fistpumps*

And if you think Mirabella and the rest not knowing Bilbo's age is a bit weird, remember how many children the Thain had. And how many of -them- had large families. That's a lot of kids to keep track of... And Belladonna is one of the middle children, too. So yes, no chance of remembering everyone.

Thank you all for your support! It's good to know I still have it, even after not writing for so long... You all rock!

Chapter Text

The Horn

"I promise not to go gallivanting off," Bilbo said carefully. "If I can reasonably avoid it. We might not have much of a choice. And whatever happens, Fortinbras, you will be there, too. I can guarantee that much."

Fortinbras gave a breathless chuckle. "That's a terrible promise, cousin," he answered.

"Fortinbras," Bilbo began gently, "we are in the heart of a town surrounded by orcs, goblins, wolves and wargs, all of whom are very very hungry. Buckleberry is attacked nightly, and the defenders believe that a larger attack is coming soon. We have three more days until Uncle Gorbadoc sounds the horn-call, and four or five until reinforcements start arriving. Aunt Mirabella is likely to ask the four of us to accompany her on her nightly walks -"

Here Fortinbras gave a start.

"I believe you were staring into your tea when she hinted at it," Bilbo explained. Then he continued on; "the most skilled defenders are needed at the Wall, and if I know Aunt Mirabella she will not ask for anyone else."

"There are surely others who can -" Fortinbras looked slightly desperate.

"Fortinbras," Bilbo released his grip on his cousin's shoulder and turned it into a kind of sideways hug. "Fortinbras, would you like to know how I got this scar on my face?"

Fortinbras froze. His eyes flickered to his cousin's face, and then to his own hands. Fortinbras frowned, but nodded.

"On the second day of our patrol," Bilbo spoke, "the Rangers and I came upon a cart in the road. There were signs there that a family had been dragged off, and recently at that. In the hopes that we would be able to rescue them, we followed the tracks into the woods nearby. The three of us snuck practically into the enemy camp before the wind revealed our scent to the wolves. We were outnumbered ten to one, and were still victorious, and the worst injury," here Bilbo released his hold on Fortinbras to pull up his left sleeve, revealing the scar Bilbo had received from the wolf's bite, "was this."

"It was very dangerous, and somewhat foolish, and occurred as a result of the mix-up I mentioned earlier," Bilbo continued, "but you do not have to worry about our skills or conduct in battle. And I will not let the Rangers do something like that again. I did not in Frogmorton, after we received word of an encampment of raiders nearby."

"I heard about that," Fortinbras said quietly. "Blanco was among the group that was sent there." Fortinbras tugged Bilbo's left arm closer and ran his fingertips over the scar. "Did you arrive in time?" he asked suddenly. "In the woods?"

"No," Bilbo answered, a rueful smile upon his lips. "But we were able to return their bones to their family."

Bilbo removed his arm from Fortinbras' grip and placed it once again around his cousin's shoulders. It helped that Fortinbras was hunching down a bit. His cousin was quite tall, for a hobbit. Then again, Tooks often were. Fortinbras leaned into the touch. In that moment, Bilbo's memory of his nephew Frodo rose so sharply that it pained him.

After a minute of silence Fortinbras spoke. "I was part of a small patrol, on the road between Tookburough and Woodhall, the one that runs through the middle of the Green Hill country. There were two Rangers and three bounders, including me. I was the oldest bounder. We had no reports of goblins or wolves in that area, but were sent there to keep the farmers happy. None of us expected trouble."

Bilbo's arm tightened. He had a terrible feeling that he knew where this was going.

"It was second watch when they came. Berilac, one of the bounders I trained, had his throat cut before he could call out. Falco was stabbed in his bed roll," Fortinbras was once again blinking away tears. "If I hadn't been sleeping close to the Rangers, I would have died, too."

Bilbo remained silent, waiting.

Fortinbras paused for several moments, breathing carefully. When his eyes were dry, he continued. "We brought their bodies back to Tookburough. The ground was too hard to bury them in the earth, so we put them in one of the sheds and covered them with snow. Uncle Isengrim sent me to the bridge after that."

Isengrim. Bilbo wasn't surprised. That daft fool... he thought. Did Isengrim even spare a kind word for his nephew? His heir? Or did he just send him off? "What happened was not your fault," Bilbo said in lieu of cursing.

"Your parents tried to tell me that," Fortinbras lips twisted upwards. Then he spoke of his patrol once more; "If I had not convinced them to join the bounders they would have been safe at home. Now they are both dead."

"'A ship is safe in harbor,'" Bilbo quoted, "'but that is not what ships are for.' This is a dangerous task that we have taken upon ourselves. Death was always a possibility." Harsh words, but true ones.

"It is a cold comfort you offer," Fortinbras replied with a choked laugh. He looked down again.

Fortinbras did not appear angry or overly upset, which Bilbo took as a good sign. "These things happen," Bilbo said. He squeezed his cousin's shoulders once more. "It was not your fault," he said again. "I will say that as many times as I need to until you believe it."

Fortinbras frowned, his body unmoving. He did not wish to listen. Finally, Fortinbras breathed a sigh. "When did you get so wise?" he asked. "Just this past midsummer, you were climbing trees and catching butterflies and telling everyone who would hear about your plan to go live with the elves."

Fortinbras was speaking of the Old Took's annual midsummer birthday party. Everyone in the family and all of Tookland attended them. In the time Before, Bilbo had only remembered Gandalf as the one who made the delightful fireworks for those occasions. Bilbo had gone many times before his grandfather's death, but could not quite recall the one that had been held just before the Fell Winter. It had been so many years...

"I still plan on doing that," Bilbo replied absently. "I've just... had to grow up a bit, that's all."

Fortinbras shrugged off the arm around his shoulder and pulled Bilbo into a full hug. "Don't grow up too quickly," he said into his cousin's ear. "And... thank you."

That evening, after supper was done and the children had been put to bed, Mirabella asked the four to join her in the small dining room.

As Bilbo suspected, she did indeed ask them to accompany her on her nightly investigations. After a quick conversation, the four agreed. If Fortinbras still held any reservations, he kept them to himself.

Several hours after the sun had sunk below the horizon, the group left Brandy Hall. Rangers and bounders all were fully armed and armored.

Fortinbras stamped his feet, doing his best to shake off the cold. Hobbit feet were sturdy, true, but most were sensible enough to stay inside when it got this bad. He quite envied Bilbo's Rangers, with their heavy boots, as blasphemous as it was for a hobbit to think such thoughts.

The night had been quiet so far, something that the bounder was very grateful for as they continued their walk in a thoughtful silence. Fortinbras was not particularly happy about being out and about at this hour, especially not under such circumstances. How Bilbo had convinced him of this plan mystified him. Then again, a lot of things about his cousin had been mystifying him lately.

The differences between the Bilbo he had seen six months ago and the Bilbo he had met in Tookburough had been great, but understandable. His cousin had had a great shock, and likely needed some time to deal with it. But now? Bilbo had never been so self-contained, so confident. 'Wise' and 'mature,' were the words that came to Fortinbras' mind. In hindsight, that Bilbo could fool practically everyone into thinking he was at least half a decade older came as no surprise.

His cousin was commanding human warriors twice his size, and they followed him around like puppies. Bilbo had led them into battle successfully, against what had to have been thirty foes or more, and escaped with nothing more than some scrapes. (Fortinbras refused to think of the scar on his cousin's cheek as anything else.)  Instead of assuming he was invincible afterwards, he had enough sense to request assistance when further trouble threatened. The cousin of six months ago would not have been capable of such things, or else Fortinbras was no judge of character. And then, their conversation... Fortinbras did not know what to think.

That Bilbo was capable of speaking a strange language that could only be elvish was one of the lesser surprises; or at least such was the conclusion that Fortinbras had come to after some thought. Auntie Belladonna had not mentioned befriending any elves, but Gandalf was well-known for it. It would be just like that wizard to encourage his cousin's plan to live among the elves, or Fortinbras was no Took! That Bilbo still nursed such a childish dream was in truth something of a relief. Oftentimes it seemed as if a stranger was standing before Fortinbras, such were the changes that had occurred.

Still, Fortinbras could not say he disapproved of them. He was... simply wary.

The ride to Buckland to offer aid had seemed like a mad venture to Fortinbras in the beginning, and in many ways it still did. If he had been thinking clearly, he would have offered to go alone and sent Bilbo and his Rangers back to Stock.

The ride itself was safe enough, but the destination... Fortinbras had been horrified at the sight of Slewberry, once a prosperous trading town, and now a pile of rubble and burned timbers. Fortinbras did not like to think of what must have happened to the people there, nor of what had likely happened to them on the road. Buckleberry could well end up the same as Slewberry and Crickhollow, except that this time there would be no place left to run. What would happen afterwards would be terrible.

At least Berilac and Falco had died quickly, small blessing that that was. Fortinbras could not believe that he had ever though of this as an adventure! Fool of a Took, he cursed himself. Fool, fool, fool, fool... Fortinbras would not lose Bilbo the same way. He refused to. The Rangers would help him with that, no matter how they felt about Fortinbras personally.

His aunt and uncle and little cousins were all depending on what aid the Shire could muster, and Fortinbras wished and hoped that it would arrive in time.

They had been out walking for at least an hour when the first sign of trouble came.

One of the Rangers - the male, Arathorn - made a hand gesture and pointed off into the darkness. The other - the female, Gilraen - nudged Fortinbras' cousin with a murmur. Bilbo's eyes narrowed, and he gently grasped Auntie Mirabella's elbow and began leading her away from the Wall.

When she asked why they were going that way, Fortinbras could barely hear his cousin's reply; "Arathorn saw something suspicious. It's probably nothing, but better safe than sorry, especially now!"

Fortinbras made to follow, and the two Rangers circled around behind him. Out of the corner of his eye he could see their hands on their swords. Fortinbras' fingers itched for his bow. It was already strung, and he could have it off his back and ready in a matter of seconds...

In the shadows of a nearby alleyway, something stirred. No hobbit moved like that. Fortinbras' bow was lifted and an arrow notched within an instant, and he let loose. The creature fell from the shed it was perched on and stopped moving.

Gilraen drew her sword and stepped forward, Arathorn trailing a dozen steps behind. When she came close enough to see it closely she called, "goblin!"

Mirabella shook off his Bilbo's hand and went to inspect the goblin herself. Fortinbras and Bilbo trailed closely behind her. The arrow was protruding from one of its eye sockets, and Fortinbras felt somewhat ill upon seeing it. Still, it was quite definitely dead.

"A bit smaller than they usually are," she mused, kicking it lightly. "Excellent shot, Fortinbras. I keep a dagger close at hand for occasions like this, but their blood is so very difficult to get out of clothing..."

"You've killed them before?" Fortinbras asked, somewhat taken aback. His hands had begun shaking after the creature had fallen, and his heart was beating something terrible.

"Every so often a few of them make it over the Wall, and seem to believe it a good idea to cause trouble." Mirabella drew back the opening of her winter coat and, sure enough, a sheathed dagger was belted to her waist. She let go and bundled up once again. "I'm getting far too old for such nonsense," she said, "and I have children to think about besides, but it seems that I am still quite capable with a knife. I have been rather thankful for that once or twice so far!"

"We're here now," Bilbo replied, "so your coat should be safe." Fortinbras' cousin sounded like he was hiding a smile. He didn't seem at all bothered by what had just happened.

The Rangers moved to stand next to the three hobbits. Their swords were re-sheathed, and they both appeared relaxed.

"We don't see anything else," Gilraen said, looking at Bilbo. Arathorn nodded his agreement. The male Ranger eyed Fortinbras' bow, still in his hands, and frowned.

Fortinbras' hands were still shaking. The bounder took a deep breath and slowly let it go. When he judged himself capable of re-strapping his bow without fumbling he quickly did so.

When Fortinbras next looked up, Arathorn was once more gazing into the darkness. Gilraen, however, was smiling at Fortinbras. Fortinbras met her gaze defiantly and her smile widened. He looked away. Rangers! Fortinbras groused to himself. Even for Big Folk, they made very little sense.

Still, Fortinbras made sure to keep his hands in his pockets until they stopped shaking. The Rangers' opinion of him was bad enough as it was, and Fortinbras felt no need to worsen it further.

When the five returned to their walk, the Rangers kept behind Fortinbras. There was no further trouble that night.

The next several days and nights passed without incident. The Brandybuck siblings did not lose any interest in the Rangers, and demanded to be played with constantly. Eventually, Saradas conquered his shyness and joined them. Fortinbras was most often found reading in the group's room, or speaking with various guardshobbits on official matters.

Bilbo, meanwhile, continued his daytime explorations of Buckleberry. He stopped to talk with every bounder he saw. Most wore single feathers, and their conversations with him felt more like official reports. Bilbo met several that sported two feathers, and discussions with them illuminated some of the strengths and weaknesses of the current plan of defense.

They had resorted to using the timbers from houses to build the wall and feed the fires - but for every home they tore down a dozen or so hobbits were forced into the cold. The very young and very old had been offered places in some of the larger homes, but the streets were still clogged with refugees and the newly homeless. One good chill and Buckleberry would have a terrible problem on its hands.

Bilbo was able to convince the Captain of the Buckleberry Guard, Merroc Brandybuck, to send out carts and wagons to Crickhollow and Standelf, the nearest villages. There, volunteers scavenged whatever they could and drove their spoils back to Buckleberry. After several days of work, with many volunteers, they had collected enough timber to double the height of the Wall and amass a surplus of firewood.

On the fourth day after the four had arrived at Buckleberry, Gorbadoc sounded the horn-call.

Bilbo was walking through the streets of Buckleberry on one of his mid-day expeditions when he heard it. It issued forth with a terrific blast; "Fear, Fire, Foes, Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes, Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes, Awake!" Everyone on the street stumbled, and some fell over, clutching their ears. Bilbo thought to himself that the call might have been heard as far away as Michel Delving or even Bree!

That night, the four were able to convince Mirabella to stay in. It was just as well, too, since that was the night that the feared attack came. The enemy had heard the horn-call as well, and, guessing at what it meant, chose to strike.

It was an hour before midnight when the group was roused from their slumber.

"Awake! Awake!" a voice shouted. "Foes have broken through the Wall! All defenders are needed! Awake!"

The Rangers hurriedly donned their weapons and armor, Bilbo right behind. Fortinbras was still blinking sleep from his eyes.

Bilbo hesitated. His cousin, it seemed, was still unused to violence and fighting and would likely be in great danger. Still, the situation had to be desperate and Bilbo had promised to bring Fortinbras along...

"Fortinbras!" Bilbo implored. "Awake! We are needed at the Wall! Hurry or we will leave without you!"

As Fortinbras fumbled into his winterwear, slinging his quiver over his back and stringing his bow, Bilbo had a quick word with the Rangers.

"I fear he is quite new to this whole business," Bilbo whispered to them in Sindarin, "we will have to keep an eye on him!"

"We will fight together," Arathorn said. "Fortinbras, you are an archer foremost, are you not? And a fairly quick one at that?"

"Yes...?" Fortinbras replied, straightening his coat.

"Good. The rest of us will form a circle around you, and defend against any melee attackers. You will need to aim first for their archers, and next for the orcs and wargs. Can you do this?" Arathorn asked, his expression fierce.

"Of course!" Fortinbras snapped, going red. His bow was clenched in his hands.

"This is one of the more common battle formations we Rangers use," Gilraen explained a bit more gently. "It is an effective way of dealing with many foes at once."

"Come," Bilbo said, standing beside the exit. "We must leave now."

The Rangers nodded, and followed him out the door. Fortinbras scrambled to join them.

The night outside was lit only by the ever-burning fires, but from what Bilbo could see the square outside of Brandy Hall was madness.

The children and elderly were nowhere to be found - inside the houses, Bilbo hoped - and every hobbit to be seen was slashing and smashing at their enemies with whatever implement they could grab. Most were farming tools, but some had knives and clubs. What bounders could be seen were firing their arrows from behind whatever cover they could find.

It was completely unorganized.

This will not do, Bilbo thought, looking out at the mess before him. He snagged a passing hobbit-lass carrying a blood-stained cudgel.

"Who is in charge?" he demanded.

A goblin made to attack the group, and fell, an arrow protruding from its neck. Arathorn decapitated it as it lay twitching.

"Who is in charge?" Bilbo repeated when his question went unanswered.

"N-no one!" the lass squeaked. "Begging your pardon, sir, but it was all very sudden!"

Bilbo loudly swore. "I need you to do something for me," he said seriously. "I need you to find everyone in this square with two feathers in their caps, and send them here to me. Can you do this?"

"Yessir!" the lass replied. "Right away, sir!" With that, she ran off.

"Fortinbras," Bilbo asked, "I don't see Merroc anywhere; who else is in charge of the Guard? You've spoken with them more than I!"

"More of Uncle's cousins!" Fortinbras replied. "But I don't recognize anyone!"

"Do you see anyone else, anyone at all, who might be able to direct them?" Bilbo demanded.

A wolf wandered close, and Gilraen stabbed it through the eye with her sword.

Fortinbras shook his head. "No!" he answered, letting loose another arrow. "Not in this chaos!"

Bilbo swore again. Nothing he had ever done had qualified him for this.

An orc reached them next, and Bilbo had no time for further thought. He ducked under the sweep of its curved sword and aimed for the creature's knees. The Rohan blade sliced through the stringy tendons and the orc fell, screaming.

The newest arrival silenced it with an arrow through the throat. It was Moro Hayseed, a bounder Bilbo had met on one of his strolls through Buckleberry, and he had two feathers in his cap.

"Bilbo Baggins!" the bounder exclaimed. "I should have known!"

"Moro! Do we have a plan?" Bilbo asked. "I sent a lass out to gather the rest of the heads; it seems no one has taken command of this mess!"

"Not-not a plan as such," Moro said, "we talked about it some, in the guardhouses, just in case..."

The bounders and guardshobbits had agreed that in case of a full invasion they would awaken everyone and form a militia out of all able-bodied hobbits, which they had already done. Bilbo was aware of that much.

"That was not a plan!" Bilbo replied. But then, what else did they have? Bilbo breathed in, held the breath, then released it. He needed to think.

Soon more head bounders appeared, the hobbit-lass with them.

By the time they arrived, Bilbo had settled on a course of action that should work well enough. If all else failed, well... They did not need to defeat the invaders, after all, simply prevent them from overrunning Buckleberry before dawn. There would be far more casualties that way, though, so it was in no way, shape, or form the preferable option.

"We need to clear the square," Bilbo told the bounders. "We will need four defensive groups, one for each of the main roads. Archers will be needed to watch the rooftops and prevent attacks from above. We will have to form a perimeter around the square to stop more invaders from coming here. The rest of our forces will clear out what enemies are behind this line. After that, we will need to move the perimeter outwards to expel the invaders from Buckleberry. The groups can move forward to reclaim the roads, then send fighters outwards to reclaim territory."

One of the bounders nodded. "There are defenders all across Buckleberry," she said. "We will be able to add them to our forces as soon as the line reaches them."

"The Rangers have a way of fighting large numbers of foes," Bilbo added, remembering Arathorn's words. "They place archers behind armed melee fighters. The archers eliminate the more dangerous enemies before they can strike, while the fighters take care of the rest."

"We've been doing that already," another bounder replied. "Not everyone here knows their business, though, I'll grant you that." The bounder sighed, looking over at the rest of the forces. "It's worth a shot," he said finally.

"What say you, lads?" Moro Hayseed asked. "And lass?" he quickly added when the female bounder glared at him.

"Aye!" they replied. And that is what they did.

When the square was cleared, Bilbo, the Rangers, and Fortinbras joined one of the defensive groups and headed towards the Wall. Moro stayed behind to direct the hobbit forces.

The group found several enclaves of defenders and added them to the lines. As they came closer to the Wall they began finding hobbit homes with smashed doors and broken windows.

Merroc Brandybuck was found near one of the guardhouses, leading a band of filthy and bloodstained hobbits through the alleyways. In the center of the band were a number of young hobbit children. They were crying, and a few were bleeding.

"They are breaking into the homes and carrying people off!" Merroc said to them as soon as they came near. "We've rescued who we could, but I fear that many more are unaccounted for."

"They got as far as Brandy Hall," Bilbo informed the Captain of the Guard. "We're driving them out now." He shook his head. "We haven't seen any prisoners, yet."

Merroc swore. "Can you get these faunts to safety?" he asked. "We need to go back for more."

"Yes!" Bilbo turned to one of the armed hobbits who had accompanied them. "Take five of the better fighters, and those who are wounded with you. Tell Moro that the invaders are taking prisoners, and that he needs to send runners to inform the rest of the groups of it."

When the faunts were safely on their way, several more groups broke off to reform the line. There would be more defenders behind them who would clear out what enemies remained.

The main group, including Merroc and his band, continued on.

They were able to rescue several more groups of fauntlings and send them back to Buck Hall. Before long, the invaders began turning and fleeing, the slowly brightening darkness warning them of the coming dawn.

The defenders chased them, hoping to regain more prisoners before then enemy retreated too far for them to follow. It was in this last, mad rush, that Bilbo saw a familiar face.

It was Bolg, son of Azog, one who Bilbo had hoped to never run across again.

Bilbo tugged at his cousin's arm. "Fortinbras! That one!" Bilbo pointed. His own bow was sitting in their room at Brandy Hall, along with those of the Rangers.

Fortinbras let fly one of his last arrows. It lodged in the big orc's back, and Bolg stumbled. He did not, however, stop running. Fortinbras fumbled with the next arrow, exhaustion robbing him of his sureness.

Bilbo put a hand on his shoulder. "It's alright," he said. "Never mind."

They had reached the Wall, which looked to be burned and ruined in parts. The defenders flopped down, unable to do much more than gasp for breath now that the danger had passed.

Bilbo sat, Rangers at his back and his cousin at his side. They had survived, and so had Buckleberry, though how many had been carried off no one would be able to tell for quite some time.

After several minutes a soft noise caused Bilbo to turn his head. Fortinbras had curled into a ball and was shaking. There was no blood, and Bilbo had not seen him get wounded…

Oh, Bilbo thought. He reached out an arm to comfort his cousin, but Arathorn beat him to it.

"The first battle is always the worst," the Ranger said, a hand on Fortinbras' shoulder. "It gets better afterwards, I promise."

"Not my first battle," Fortinbras choked out.

Gilraen moved around until she was sitting next to Fortinbras. She glanced at Bilbo, raising an eyebrow. Bilbo nodded, and moved closer until he was up against his cousin's side. Slowly, slowly Fortinbras relaxed.

They sat like that for some time.

The rest of that day was spent gathering the wounded and repairing the Wall. Many had gone missing during the battle; some were dead, some were captured, and others had simply gotten lost.

The next night was, mercifully, quiet.

On the day that dawned afterwards, the first wave of reinforcements from the Shire arrived, and, unnoticed, a storm was creeping out of the east.

Author's note:

Here is the action I promised (isn't it depressing? It was a pain to write, too. I'm not terribly happy with it.) Ren Faire got rained out. :( Phooey. Maybe next week... The poll is done with; looks like y'all want me to keep stacking on the chapters. Will do! And the arcs will be clearly marked - some of you might have noticed the new numbering system with the chapters ;).

Okay, and since I'm pretty sure some people are going to have questions: I'm going mostly from bookverse. In this case it means that Dain Ironfoot killed Azog at Azanulbizar at the tender age of thirty-two (crowning moment of badass, there), and Bolg is the one running around causing trouble. In other words, the one pursuing the Company across the mountains in movieverse style? Bolg. This is because Dain is awesome... and for reasons of plot.

Thank you all for your support!

Chapter Text

Battle of Buckland

The day following the night raid was a blur to Bilbo. Somehow, by an unanimous unspoken decision, he had become the unofficial leader of the bounders in Buckleberry. Bilbo spent his time asking questions and issuing suggestions -suggestions that were taken as orders, more often than not - on matters important to Buckleberry's defense.

The two Rangers were in their element; offering bits of advice that were quickly snapped up by curious and impressed hobbits.

"We have been trained for this," Gilraen told Bilbo after he questioned the two on the matter, "and have grown up underneath the feet of Chief Argonui's council, besides. These problems Buckleberry is facing are simple enough for us, I think."

The first night after the raid, Bilbo found himself in a meeting with Merroc Brandybuck. He wished to discuss the matter of the prisoners the invaders had taken. Specifically, he wished to know the chances of a successful rescue. Fortinbras had informed him of Bilbo's earlier experience, it seemed.

"Not very good, I am afraid," Bilbo was forced to answer. "They do not keep their captives long, unless they are particularly unfortunate. And we do not have the forces for a full assault, not without losing more than we hope to regain."

That was not what Merroc wished to hear at all. Still, the answer was an honest one. There was nothing to be done for the situation until the next day, when the first wave of Hobbitry-at-Arms arrived.

Marcho, the chief of the Tookland bounders, rode at their head. Upon reaching Buckleberry, he, and several of the Rangers accompanying him, were quickly swept into talks with Merroc.

They were discussing their options, Bilbo later discovered, for the rescue of the prisoners and the expulsion of the invaders. The group stayed cloistered in Brandy Hall all day, and did not venture out.

Other bounders, too, had joined the first wave of reinforcements. Several of these even had the three feathers of those responsible for the protection of a village or town. It was one of these who gifted Bilbo with his next feather. Bilbo was already leading those bounders who were first present in Buckleberry, the gifter, a hobbit named Hyacinth had said, and the feather would only make it official.

Fortinbras was also given another feather. Though he thanked Hyacinth for it, Bilbo's cousin did not appear terribly pleased. Fortinbras had kept quiet after the raid, and spoke only of trifling matters. He offered whatever aid he could to the rebuilding of the Wall, and spent the rest of the day working on it.

Whatever opinion Fortinbras might have had on the events of that night was unknown to Bilbo. His cousin had kept his word and had not spoken a peep as to Bilbo's actual age. Bilbo was quite grateful for this, though Fortinbras' hesitance to talk with anyone about his experiences was beginning to worry him.

Gilraen and Arathorn, meanwhile, were frustrated at once again being forced to the side. They had enjoyed the respect granted to them after the attack and to be suddenly supplanted in their role as advisors galled them.

That night Merroc, Marcho and the rest finalized their plan to rescue the prisoners. At dawn's light a large force set out.

The four did not accompany it.

Instead, Bilbo spent most of that day directing the defenders in scavenging extra firewood from the nearby villages, while Fortinbras continued aiding in the re-construction of the Wall. Arathorn and Gilraen were busy running errands for the rest of the Rangers: room had been found and camps established the first day of their arrival, but there was still much that needed to be done to make their stay at least somewhat comfortable.

The force returned that evening was weary and bloodstained. A relatively small huddle of hobbit children accompanied them, the more grievously wounded riding double on ponies. It seemed that many who had been taken had already perished before rescue arrived.

Worried parents met the party at the gates. Some cried tears of relief, others tears of sorrow.

That night, Buckleberry was once again assaulted. This time, however, they were prepared.

Cauldrons of boiling water greeted those who first dared to climb the Wall. Volley after volley of arrows met those who were next.

Orcs with shields raised began crossing over, blocking the arrows for the smaller goblins to amass behind them. Some of the goblins began firing arrows of their own.

Rangers, with raised shields of their own, rushed forward. The melee began.

By the time day dawned, the invaders had not passed beyond the circle of broken and dismantled houses that lay between Buckleberry proper and the Wall. The casualties were nowhere near as high as those of the assault several nights before, either. It was, all in all, a fairly successful defense.

The four had fought near the eastern section of the Wall, where the assault was worst. They had felled more than their fair share of foes, and escaped with no worse than shallow cuts and bruises. Fortinbras barely trembled, which lessened Bilbo's worry somewhat.

Bilbo had not seen Bolg in the combat, and hoped that Fortinbras' arrow had been enough to kill him.

When the four returned to their room, they pushed their bedrolls close together before they went to sleep.

They broke their fast with Mirabella, Gorbadoc and their children, as usual. That morning, after breakfast, Marcho requested to speak with them.

They met with him in one of the guardhouses. A spare room had been converted into a sort of office for the bounder, and chairs had been dragged in from who-knew-where for the party to sit on.

There, Marcho questioned them on the events of the night raid, where the invaders had penetrated to the heart of Buckleberry.

When they were finished speaking, he gave a nod of approval. "You have earned that feather well, young Bilbo," Marcho said. "I will admit to being somewhat doubtful upon hearing of it. It is not often that one so young rises so quickly within the ranks. And as for you, Fortinbras, your second feather has been long overdue. If Hyacinth had not gifted you with one I would have done so myself."

"Gilraen, Arathorn," Marcho continued, "your Captain was somewhere within the South Farthing when last I heard, but I believe he is even now venturing to Buckland. When he arrives I shall tell him of your deeds and the aid you have rendered. You have all done very well."

The four spoke their thanks and then began asking questions of their own.

They learned of the desperate plan to rescue the prisoners. The Rangers had tracked the invaders beyond the High Hay and into the edges of the Old Forest. They had not ventured deep enough to awaken the wrath of the trees, though how such beings had hidden themselves from the watchful eyes of Tom Bombadil was anyone's guess.

Upon finding the camp hobbit scouts had been sent to sneak inside and liberate what prisoners they could find. The ranks of the enemy were massive, beyond a direct attack even with the additional forces of Hobbitry-at-Arms. The only chance to rescue those who were taken was by guile.

Thankfully, the Rangers who had come with the rescue party were correct in supposing that the wolves and wargs were used to the scent of hobbit, and would not notice any newcomers among them. The rescuers were halfway out of the Forest before the napping watchgoblin discovered the escape.

There had been a quick and desperate melee before the rescuers were able to retreat into the light of day. The orcs and goblins were furious, but the wolves and wargs refused to venture out after the party. Their minds, Marcho suspected, were still upon their disastrous routing several nights previous.

"We must wait for the rest of the forces to arrive before we attempt to drive them out," Marcho said firmly. "We shall continue gathering wood from the nearby villages and adding to the Wall. Do any of you have any additional suggestions?"

Arathorn frowned and exchanged a look with Gilraen. "Very few of your hobbits are familiar with standard battle formations, I have noticed," he said. "Some training along those lines might be beneficial. Along with what sorts of weapons work best against which opponents and so on."

Marcho nodded. "Several other Rangers recommended that as well," he replied. "We will be starting their training tomorrow."

"Other than that..." the male Ranger trailed off. He shrugged.

"We'll let you know," Gilraen promised.

The next several days passed by much as before. The nightly attacks leveled off to more of a probing effort by the invaders. Training began, and was highly popular among the defenders. The mood ran higher than before.

Then the storm hit.

The four awoke one morning to grey skies and steadily falling snow. A chill was in the air, fierce and draining. Wind screamed through Buckleberry, shaking the houses and blowing out the camp fires of refugees and reinforcements alike.

The snow fell, and fell, and fell and kept falling. Barricade-like windbreaks were built to protect the fires, and all those outside bundled up as best they could to ward off the cold.

The light of the sun was so muted as to be nearly nonexistent. Eventually, the invaders noticed.

A full siege began, and the attacks came both day and night. The defenders warded them off as best they could, but their inexperience and the constant press of battle soon wearied them. They could not withstand such an assault for long.

Sometime later, after weeks of travel, Gandalf the Grey finally arrived at the North Gate of Buckland. A company of Rangers was with him, Chief Argonui riding at their head.

The party that had been set to guard the bridge had moved to the Gate instead. With them was a large contingent of Hobbitry-at-Arms. When the sky had turned grey and the snow had started falling, Blanco had guessed as to the results. The bounder refused to allow the second wave of the militia to travel any further until additional reinforcements came.

Upon seeing the visitors, Blanco emerged from the camp to greet them. "Hail, wizard!" the hobbit said to Gandalf. "Have you brought further help in this time of need?"

"Indeed," the wizard replied. "This is Chief Argonui of the Dunedain of the North, and his most trusted Rangers. They have come to drive the goblins from Buckland and the Shire!" Gandalf looked over the gathered hobbit forces. "Though from what I see you have already begun that process," he remarked.

"Well met, good sir," Blanco said to the Chief of the Rangers. "I am Blanco Whitfoot of Tookburough."

The Ranger nodded to him politely.

"I am afraid that the goblins and wolves are no longer alone," Blanco said to Gandalf. "Orcs and wargs have joined their forces. They wander in daytime now, thanks to this accursed storm! I shudder to think of what might have happened to the Bucklanders."

Gandalf frowned. "Hobbitry-at-Arms is here," he said. "Surely that means that Gorbadoc has sounded the horn-call?"

"Aye," said Blanco. He took off his cap and kneaded it between his hands. "Young Bilbo brought it to our attention that Master Gorbadoc might not be aware that our situation was less severe than his own. The horn-call sounded some days ago, before the storm hit, and many hobbits crossed the bridge into Buckland in that time. We have not yet heard from them, and do not imagine we will anytime soon."

"Where is young Master Baggins?" Gandalf asked. "I should like to talk with him, I think."

"Ah," Blanco hesitated. "He is in Buckleberry, I suppose."

Gandalf's eyebrows shot upwards. "Buckleberry!" he exclaimed, his voice sharp.

"Aye," Blanco agreed, and looked awkward. "He and his two Rangers and Fortinbras Took went to convince Master Gorbadoc to sound the horn-call. We believed family would stand a greater chance of it than a stranger."

"Master Whitfoot," the wizard pronounced slowly, each word sounding louder than before, until it seemed that the whole world reverberated with it. "Do you mean to tell me you sent a half-trained bounder, two youngling humans, and Fortinbras Took into the heart of goblin-invested territory!"

Blanco cringed.

"Argonui," Gandalf said gravely. "The two young Rangers he spoke of are Gilraen and your Arathorn. Bilbo is the son and grandson of several of my dearest friends. I fear that they are in terrible danger."

Argonui grimaced. "My grandson was well-taught," he said. "But he is ever-impetuous. Gilraen is much the same. I suspected this would be the case." He met Blanco's eyes. "Well, Master Hobbit," the Chief of the Dunedain said, "there is one boon that I would ask of you. Will your forces accompany us on this expedition?"

Blanco looked over the assorted hobbits that had gathered. All had come to this place, knowing of the danger, to aid the people of Buckland. He bowed to the Ranger. "Aye," Blanco said.

As quickly as they could, those of Hobbitry-at-Arms decamped and made ready to travel. Some few remained to guard the bridge, but the vast majority went to march.

And march they did, across the fields of Buckland, through the ruins of Slewberry and Crickhollow, growing more and more grim as the story of destruction unfolded.

Unknown to any of them, they had been spotted. A tiny hobgoblin, hiding in one of the trees peeked out at them as they went past. As soon as they were far enough away it fled east, towards its camp, to inform its cohort of what it had seen.

Goblins, once roused, can travel at a great speed, even aboveground. Certainly far faster than hobbits can walk over snow. That hobgoblin was no different. It reached the camp and informed the others in less time than it took Gandalf's company of hobbits and Rangers to travel a mile.

Upon hearing of this latest challenge Bolg let out a roar. He would crush these newest foes, as he would crush that accursed halfling that had shot him in the back. They would tear down the hobbit-city and make slaves of the strongest, and the rest would fill their cook pots.

After several barked commands the camp emptied. This time, they would strike with their full might. Nothing would stand in their way.

And so it was that two very different armies bore down upon Buckleberry.

The invaders, of course, arrived first.

A call came up from the East Wall the moment the army was spotted. "To arms!" they cried. "To arms! All defenders are needed, to arms!"

There was a massive rush to get to the Wall. Defenders on all sides readied their weapons.

The four stood at their spot on the East Wall, ashen-faced. The numbers that were approaching them were far greater than those they had seen in previous attacks. Not one of them liked their odds.

The army reached them.

And all was chaos.

Suddenly, out of the din of battle, a horn rang. Armor flashed in the dim light, and horses broke into a gallop over the snow.

The rest of the reinforcements had arrived.

Somehow, by some miracle, the defenders and their reinforcements were able to drive the invaders away from the Wall and from Buckland.

The invaders fled east, towards the gap in the High Hay and their camp in the Old Forest. All those who could follow were in pursuit.

Arathorn and Gilraen had reclaimed their steeds from the Buckleberry stables and rode out against the enemies alongside the rest of the Rangers. Bilbo and Fortinbras were tucked behind them, bows at the ready.

Swords flashed and arrows soared as they once more sank into battle.

Gilraen's eyes widened as a giant orc appeared at her side and threw her from Misty's back. She hit the ground with a thud, Fortinbras landing hard beside her. They gasped for breath.

The orc kicked her sword from her stunned hand and readied his scimitar. He grinned toothily.

An arrow lodged in his throat, and he clutched at it in pain and panic. A sword sliced through his neck, killing him instantly.

Arathorn and Bilbo looked down at them worriedly. Misty had disappeared in the confusion, and was unlikely to find her way back. With two of the group dismounted while the other two still rode... it would be very difficult to watch each others' backs as such. Arathorn climbed down from Arthedain's back and swung Bilbo down after him.

Arathorn patted his steed's withers, knowing full well that it might be the last time he would see the horse. "Find Misty and return home," the Ranger said to his loyal companion. "Be safe and good speed."

Arthedain gave a loud whinny and disappeared into the swirl of battle.

When asked, the four could only describe the rest of the battle in flashes of memory.

The arrow piercing Arathorn's right shoulder, his nerveless hand dropping his sword.

Gilraen's desperate defense of her childhood friend.

Bilbo throwing down his bow and unsheathing his sword to join her.

Bolg recognizing Fortinbras and charging at him.

The three arrows that struck the orc before he reached the four, Fortinbras aiming true.

Arathorn hammering the giant orc with his shield while Gilraen and Fortinbras fended off further attackers.

Bilbo's Rohan blade separating Bolg's hand from his wrist.

The orc's cry of pain and fury.

The invaders that swarmed over them at his command, driving the four away from the rest of the hobbit and human forces.

Then they were on the far side of the High Hay, running desperately into the Old Forest.

An army of orcs and goblins were behind them.


Author's notes:

I give you... a cliffhanger. :D. And hopefully some quicker updates, as the rest should be easier for me to write... (I was battling with this chapter pretty much every single day since the last one got posted. I still don't like it, but eh.) Fell Winter arc is winding down, but not done with quite yet. We've still got to get out of these woods... ;)

And apparently thirty is considered "of battle-age" for a dwarf, which surprised the heck out of me when I read it. I don't know if it's the dwarfish equivalent of sending a fourteen-year-old into battle or what, but from what I gathered it seems to be a common practice. *shrugs*. Going by that rule Fili, Kili and Ori as fifty-somethings (in movieverse) would have all been well into adulthood at the time of their quest... Gimli, dear boy, would have been thirty-something and also an adult. (Keeping the eighteen-year age difference from bookverse.) I'm guessing Gloin just didn't want his son along on a suicide mission. Of course, here we are twenty-nine years earlier... *grins*

Chapter Text

Of Magic and Monsters

The four ran deeper and deeper into the Old Forest, the horde of invaders close on their heels. They had gone far past the deepest any Bucklander dared to venture into the woods, even in wintertime. Deeper than even the Bonfire Glade, where the Bucklanders had once made their stand against the encroaching trees many years ago.

As they ran Bilbo tripped over an outstretched root, and Fortinbras paused to help him up. Gilraen and Arathorn stopped to see what was taking them so long.

It was then that the first signs of an even greater danger occurred.

Around the four the Forest began to groan and mutter. A nearby tree branch snapped, sending the heavy ice-covered limb down upon a hapless orc.

Loads of snow began dropping from the branches overhead. Icicles rained down as the trees began to shake. Even in the dead of winter, it seemed, the trespassing of the orcs and goblins was enough to wake them.

Bilbo looked up at the trees and, remembering the tales of huorns, the trees that had learned language and become entish, turned a stark white. To them all creatures that stood on two legs were as one, be they human, orc or even elf. All had felled trees, and so all were enemies of the huorns.

"Run!" Bilbo urged. "The Forest is wakening, we must run!" The other three stared back at him, puzzlement in their eyes. Finally, understanding dawned on Fortinbras' face and he blanched in horror.

The orcs and goblins had hesitated in dismayed confusion upon noticing the swaying of the branches and the voices of the trees. This was their downfall.

Newly cleared of ice and snow, the huorns were free to act.

Tree limbs creaked and twisted, reaching out to ensnare the trespassers. Branches reached down and tangled around the unwary, tightening as they went. Screams of fear and pain rang out.

The wolves and wargs scattered, yipping in sheer panic. They passed the four swiftly, ignoring them in favor of gaining sheer distance from this previously unheard-of enemy.

Finally, Bilbo was able to put one foot in front of the other and bolted, the others right behind him.

Several times the trees reached down to try and strangle them, but each time Gilraen and Bilbo beat them back with their swords. Arathorn's had been lost in the heat of battle when the arrow had pierced his shoulder, and the only blade Fortinbras carried was a pocket-knife. Arathorn's shield, too, had disappeared, sometime after the confrontation with Bolg.

Bilbo had occasion to curse his choice of weapon: his mother's axe would have been far more useful under such circumstances than even his trusty Rohan blade.

Finally, finally they had run far enough away from the noise of the orcs and goblins that the trees were still dozing. This part of the Forest was deeply, completely silent, and Bilbo felt as if he could cry in gratitude. They were somehow all alive.

The four had found their way to a hidden valley, and there they rested by the side of a river. A fair distance away stood a gigantic willow-tree, its roots reaching deep into the frozen river. There they sat and panted for breath.

Fortinbras, with fingers lightly trembling, began inspecting Arathorn's arrow-wound.

"It will have to be pushed through," Fortinbras said to the male Ranger, frowning. "Many of the arrows they used were barbed. If it was poisoned you would be dead by now, what with all the running we did..." he trailed off. "That it was not is a small miracle, seeing as I did not bring the herbs to treat such a thing."

"You are a healer, then?" Gilraen asked Fortinbras. She was checking herself any wounds she might not have noticed in the heat of battle. "Arathorn and I know a little of medicine, but not much."

"I've picked up a fair bit of knowledge on the subject, though I was never formally trained," Fortinbras admitted readily. "I'd been in enough scrapes as a lad that such learning seemed fairly useful." He gathered a length of clean cotton cloth and a bottle of ointment from inside a hastily packed bag. "Then, training the younger bounders..." Fortinbras trailed off. "They were always finding new ways to damage themselves, it seemed. Needless to say, I've dealt with such an injury many times before."

"This will hurt," Fortinbras warned Arathorn, his hand wrapped around the shaft of the arrow. Before the Ranger could so much as nod, Fortinbras shoved the tip through.

Arathorn let out a yelp of pain, and Fortinbras quickly broke off the shaft and drew what was left of the arrow from the Ranger's shoulder. Blood gushed from the wound. The Ranger's hands flew up to clamp at it, but Fortinbras waved them off. "It needs to bleed out a bit," the hobbit said. "Cleans out the injury somewhat."

Fortinbras carefully inspected the arrow for any missing pieces. Even a small splinter could cause a fatal infection in such a wound. Finding none, he gave a sigh of relief. A touch on his shoulder caused Fortinbras to jump.

"Will you need help wrapping Arathorn's shoulder?" Bilbo asked, his frown of concern contorting the scar over his cheek.

Fortinbras nodded at him. "It needs to be tight enough to stop the bleeding, but not so tight that it blocks the flow of blood to his arm," Fortinbras instructed. "We will need to watch the color of his limb to make sure." He gathered the length of clean bandages in his hands and began smearing the ointment on one side of it. "Ideally we would boil this in water first, but after what just happened..." Fortinbras shuddered. No one would be willing to risk a fire in such a place.

After several minutes of pulling and tugging and enduring Arathorn's complaints the bandage was snuggly wrapped. The Ranger's arm needed to be kept still and so it was tied into a makeshift sling in order to prevent any movement from jarring it further. The small scrapes and cuts Arathorn had picked up were treated and wrapped as well, as the Ranger was quite unable to do anything about them himself.

With Arathorn's injuries properly treated, the others tended to their own wounds. Occasionally Fortinbras would tut at them and take over. Bilbo and Gilraen gladly let him.

Bilbo made certain to speak loudly of his wrenched knee from his earlier fall. When Fortinbras raised his eyebrows at him, Bilbo glanced over at the Rangers. They were engaged in a quiet conversation with each other, seemingly paying the two hobbits no mind.

Bilbo wasn't entirely certain if he was allowed to share what he had learned about Ranger units, but it seemed harmless enough... "Rangers are expected to share details of their injuries with the other members of their unit," Bilbo explained softly. "Arathorn and Gilraen were both quite furious with me the first time I failed to do as such. It was a misunderstanding, of course, since bounders have no such rules. Still, the reasoning behind it was sound and I find that I quite agree with it."

"Ah," Fortinbras said with a nod. He opened his mouth to speak further but snapped it shut when the Rangers dropped down to sit beside them.

"Well," Arathorn remarked as he made himself comfortable, "it seems we have escaped from danger into an even greater danger, and now the worst lies in front of us. We did not bring any rations or blankets with us into battle."

"Rations are not so much a problem," Gilraen continued, "as all of us should be able to last at least several unenjoyable weeks without them. The blankets, however... a fire would be a spectacularly bad idea right now, but without a fire there is a good chance that we will not survive the night."

Bilbo looked over at the river, something about it tugging at his memory. It was the Withywindle, judging by the size of it. It emptied into the Brandywine, he knew, directly above the Overbourne Marshes south of Willowbottom. If they followed it west they would emerge from the Forest a little ways north of Standelf, in Buckland. If they followed it east...

"There is a person," Bilbo began, "that lives inside the Old Forest. One who is not elf, nor dwarf, human, hobbit or even a wizard. He is the master of wood, water, and hill, and goes by many names. In Buckland he is known as Tom Bombadil. He is a friend to hobbits, and will likely be willing to help us."

"Wait," Gilraen said. "Wait. Do you speak of Iarwin Ben-adar? They say that he was the first being to walk in this land, before even the awakening of the elves."

"He goes by that name as well, yes," Bilbo acknowledged. "I do not know how far off his house is from here, but if we follow this river east we should find it. The westward course would lead us back to Buckland, but I fear what else we might meet alongside it!"

"If ye be going to visit Old Tom," a voice squeaked out from behind them, causing the four to jump, "then ye 'ad best be quick about it. There be a terrible commotion goin' on now, and Old Man Willow will soon be wakin'."

A quick and frantic revealed only a tiny fox cub, clad in a white winter coat, peeking out at them from behind a snow-covered bush.

"Thank you for your warning, Master Fox," Bilbo said cautiously, while the others looked at him in astonishment. "I have heard of this 'Old Man Willow' before, but I must confess I have not seen him. Is he very close?"

"He be within twenty feet of ye now, Master Hobbit," the fox answered, causing the others to gape. "Dislikes two-leggers something fierce, he does, and us four-leggers as well. Right mean he is, Old Man Willow, does all he can to drive us good folk from the river. Old Tom keeps 'im in check, most times, but it being winter and all..." the fox trailed off.

"Twenty feet...?" Bilbo murmured, and then turned to stare at the nearby willow tree. That was the willow that had nearly eaten poor Merry in the time Before? "Ah," he said, blinking rapidly. "We'd best be going, then."

Several minutes later the four were on their feet, leaving the glade, and the slumbering willow tree, behind. The white fox was bouncing in front of them. It had been pleased by Bilbo's manners and had eagerly volunteered to lead them to 'Old Tom's' house.

By and large the fox followed the course of the river, heading ever eastward. Several times it veered away when thick copses of trees gathered near. Those were the talking trees, the fox explained, and they were deadly danger to any two-legged folk they could catch.

Fortinbras and the Rangers kept looking towards Bilbo, then the fox, and then away. Bilbo resisted the urge to cackle. Of all the things he had seen in his long life, a fox capable of speaking Westron was perhaps one of the least strange. Such a thing was common enough among birds, after all.

Darkness crept over the Forest and the renewed chill set the four to shivering, but still they pressed onward. Though hobbits and humans all were injured and weary, to stop and rest in such cold would doom them as surely as the threats they had faced earlier that day.

By the time dawn's light crept through the woods, the group had arrived at a waterfall. A little ways past it, the Forest ended, and a wide sweep of empty land stood to greet them. A slight depression in the snow outlined a path underneath, and they followed it over a hill and then down again, the little fox still in the lead.

The path ended at the top of a nearby hillock. A small house stood there. The door was open, and lights inside twinkled in the dawn's cloudy gloom.

A figure stood to greet them. Taller than a hobbit the figure stood, and smaller than a human. He had a long brown beard, and a red and smiling face lined with innumerable wrinkles. His eyes were twinkling as he stamped his bright yellow boots in excitement.

The fox cub bounded ahead. "Tom! Tom!" it cried. "I have brought ye guests!" The fox cub began prancing around the figure's feet. "Saved them from Old Man Willow, I did," it bragged. "But they are cold and hungry and yer house be best for that."

Tom Bombadil laughed cheerfully, and reached down to pet the fox. It wagged its tail and yipped in glee.

By the time the four reached him, the fox was laying down on its side, panting happily.

"Come in, come in!" Tom urged when they got close enough. "Winter time is mighty cold, for Big and Little Folk alike. It is well that Little Fox has brought you here! Goldberry is fond of guests, as am I. Well we will keep you, 'til the Spring has come and the paths are open once more. Master of wood, water, and hill I might be, but even one such as I cannot control the weather!"

The four grinned at him, something in his manner easing their spirits.

Tom ushered them inside to a table laden with food and instructed them to sit and eat while the guest beds were made up. He gave the fox one last pet and a gift of honeycomb, and it bounded merrily back down the path.

When their rooms were ready, and their stomachs full, the four murmured their thanks and went to their hard-earned rest. They fell asleep instantly, and if they dreamed, they did not remember.

Bilbo woke at noon. After several minutes of confusion as to his whereabouts, he recognized his companions sleeping in the beds nearby. Deciding to leave them to their slumber, Bilbo plodded down the hallway. He was still weary, but no longer able to sleep.

In the sitting room Bilbo found a woman. Her dress was the green of spring growth, her belt of golden flowers, and her yellow hair rippled down to the floor. Around her feet were set wide vessels full of white water lilies. Bilbo thought to himself that surely she was fairer than Arwen and Galadriel combined, though it felt a bit like betrayal on his part. She, Bilbo found, was Goldberry, the river-daughter.

"Welcome elf-friend and time-swimmer!" she said to Bilbo. "We have been waiting for you for some while. Such trouble you have caused us! But that was not your intent, it seems."

Bilbo jolted fully awake. "What do you mean?" he asked eagerly, a desperate hope flaring in him. "Do you know why I came back?"

Goldberry frowned, the expression strange on her face. "Tom perhaps could explain it better than I," she answered.

"And Old Tom shall!" Tom's voice rang out from behind them. "You have taken a Road that was not meant for you, Master Hobbit, nor indeed for any mortal folk," said he. "Well-meant were those who set this rule, for they had seen the consequence of such a journey and were saddened by it. However, there came those who cast this consideration away and so tarnished the image of all mortals in their eyes. It is well that you passed from your life before reaching that land, for their wrath is terrible once roused."

Bilbo felt a sort of dreadful apprehension at those words. "What, exactly, do you mean by that?" he asked hesitantly. The road Tom spoke of had to be the Straight Road to Valinor, of course, and... Bilbo had once spoken with Gilraen and Arathorn, not more than several weeks ago, of the fall of Numenor and the great destruction caused by the Valar's fury. They had been forbidden to step foot upon the continent of Aman, and had violated that decree. Did Tom really mean that the Valar had...?

"Time is a great-wide river," Goldberry answered. "One whose depth and breadth matches the echoes of all creation. Each and every one of us has a current within this river, and our currents swirl and eddy around those moments in our lives that are most important. When you stood Outside the worlds you were drawn into one such eddy."

"Mum," Bilbo whispered. Her death had changed his life forever.

"Do not take that same Road, nor allow other mortal folk to take it," Tom warned the hobbit sternly. "Big or Little makes no difference in the windings of the world, for similar is the make and same is the end. This world cannot endure their anger a second time."

The last time... the last time a human, one of the Big Folk, set foot upon the Blessed Realm, Aman and Arda were torn asunder and the seas were bent. Entire lands were drowned, and nations disappeared. Bilbo swallowed.

"You do not wish to know," Goldberry answered Bilbo's question before he could speak it. "It did not happen in any case, and so it hardly matters now. It has been undone."

Undone. Just as Bilbo's life had been undone, just as all of his accomplishments and terrible, terrible failures had been undone. He had lost... everyone. And everything. Even in death there was a continuance, a survival. Now all that remained of all Bilbo's friends and family was simply... him, and the scars of memory he carried still.

One tear fell from Bilbo's eyes, and then two. Soon there came of flood of them, and he could not stop them from falling.

Bilbo heard his cousin's voice speak, but could not focus on the words enough to make sense of them. Arathorn's strong arms bore him upwards and carried him back to their room. If he re-opened his wound on account of this Bilbo was going to kill him.

Gilraen's hand brushed the hair off of Bilbo's face and he shut his eyes. He did not want them to see him like this. Then again, Bilbo did not want a lot of things to have happened.

They stayed like that until the evening came.

 Author's notes:

Hopefully the quick update makes up for the cliffie... :D I was told it was quite evil. The talking animals come straight from the Tolkien Reader... Well, they -did- say that the wood was strange. Reading the Silmarillion gave me the idea for this chapter... a hobbit is supposed to be a type of human (at least according to the "Hobbit" prologue and a few other sources), and no humans are allowed in the Blessed Land. No matter how well-intentioned, or successful in defeating Dark Lords. The elves might not have realized that hobbits are related to humans but Gandalf, at least, should have known better... (Or should he have?)

And according to one school of thought, Tom Bombadil is supposed to be Eru Iluvitar and Goldberry some sort of Maia. Tolkien himself wasn't really sure.

4/30/13 edit - have cleaned up Tom's dialogue: no more terrible poetry. Have also kept the explanation.

As mentioned in "Fear, Fire, Foes, Awake!" humans were forbidden from setting foot on Aman (the continent that the city of Valinor is located on) at all, for any reason. The last time this happened the Valar (via Eru) ripped the world in half, separating Aman from Arda, and turned Arda round, in the process wiping out entire civilizations. The Valar left one path between Aman and Arda for the elves to take; the Straight Road. In the original timeline Bilbo died on the Road between Aman and Arda, "outside the world," and "outside time," but Frodo continued on to Aman. And when he stepped foot there... Let's just say that the result was not pretty. Like, "end of life as we know it" not pretty.

Tom was telling Bilbo that hobbits (as a type of human; "Big," and "Little," folk) are included in the ban. He was warning Bilbo not to try going to Aman again, because the reset was a one-time-only kind of thing. It was only possible because Bilbo died outside of time, and was capable of falling back into it. Specifically, into the time before his mother's death (one of his chief defining moments.) The price of this was that everything that existed after that moment he came back, the time Before or the original timeline, was completely undone. It no longer exists, and the only thing that remains of it is Bilbo's memory. His old friends are still alive (or unborn), but they are not the people he knew. Those people are deader than dead, for all that he might see one walking down the street. Which is why Bilbo was crying. He is going to be in mourning for a while.

Chapter Text

After the Battle

Several hours after the last of the invaders fled into the trees, Gandalf raised his weary eyes to the heavens. The skies were still a stark grey, and heavy with the snow that would soon fall. The Old Forest was feared for a reason, one that the surviving invaders would soon discover for themselves. Buckland would be troubled no more this winter.

Still, the wizard felt a vague unease that he could not explain. Something... something was wrong.

Argonui appeared at the old wizard's side. "Mithrandir," the Chief of the Rangers said in his own tongue, "come. We have yet to count the cost of our victory, and the chief of these halflings desires to speak with both of us."

"I would not call them halflings to their faces," Gandalf replied with a deceptive mildness. "They are hobbits, and 'hobbits' is what they call themselves. The term 'halfling' is seen as a confusion at best, and a dire insult at worst."

Argonui snorted at him. "They are half the size of a human at best, shorter than even a dwarf; it seems a quite fitting term for them." At Gandalf's sharp glare, the Ranger conceded; "We are in their land as guests, and have fought beside them on the field of battle against a hated foe. I will offer no insult to our allies."

Argonui nudged his steed, and began heading towards a tent that had hastily been erected as a meeting-place. Gandalf drifted after him, his mind still churning. Something was very, very wrong, but he could not put his finger on it.

The two passed the healers' tents, filled with injured hobbits and humans, on their way to the meeting place. Though victorious, many folk both Big and Small had fallen in the battle, either to injury or death. Those who had died were laid out in a nearby field, each covered with a sheet. Friends and relatives of those who were missing walked the line of corpses, searching for familiar faces among them. A wail went up each time one was found.

There had been far too many wails for Gandalf's comfort. If only he had realized the danger sooner, there would have been no need for this great loss of life. Not among people who had previously seen neither war nor battle in their lifetimes. Not among hobbits.

Soon they reached the tent. Ranger and wizard entered it, needing to bend down quite a ways to do so. The inside was roomy even by human standards, allowing both of them to stand freely.

A table stood in the middle of the tent, and around it sat five hobbits and a Ranger. Argonui nodded to Captain Galador as he sat by his subordinate's side. Gorbadoc, Master of Buckland; his wife Mirabella; Merroc, the Captain of the Buckleberry Guard; and the bounder brothers Marcho and Blanco were all in attendance.

Gandalf sat as well, and breathed a sigh.

"Now that we are all in attendance," Gorbadoc announced, "I call this meeting to order. And our first manner of business," he looked to Argonui. "My thanks, good sir, for your aid in this time of need. If there is any way we can repay you for your troubles..." the hobbit trailed off.

Argonui shook his head, affronted. "We were merely honoring the terms of an agreement made generations ago. Your people have kept their end of it: this is ours."

The rest of the hobbits looked at each other, confused, but Gorbadoc merely nodded. "Still, our thanks," the Master of Buckland said. That if the Kingdom of Arnor still stood, Argonui would be ruler of it and the hobbits his subjects went unsaid. In truth most had forgotten the origin of the Rangers, and the tale of it was only passed down to those who needed such knowledge, the Master of Buckland among them. It was not a secret by any means, but simply an old story that had fallen out of memory.

Argonui did not deign to reply.

"What reports have you from the field?" Gorbadoc asked of his cousin Merroc.

Merroc chewed his bottom lip before replying. "Most of our enemies were driven into the Forest, though some few fled to the south instead. If they are looking to leave Buckland and the Shire behind, they would have to pass through the Overbourne Marshes. The Marshes are not quite so dangerous as the Forest, but even at this time of year, I should not like to travel too deeply into either place."

Argonui's brow crinkled.

"The Marshes are treacherous even to light-footed hobbits," Gandalf explained. "And there are huorns in that wood, with no ents to guide them. All those who enter it take their lives into their own hands by doing so."

"The Forest is not quite so dangerous as Gandalf is implying," Gorbadoc corrected. "I have gone for walks there many times in my youth, and certainly would rather venture there than the Marshes. It is risky, to be true, but the Old Forest is a place of magic and there is much to be gained by venturing inside. The Master of those woods is a friend to hobbit-folk, and talk with him is almost always worthwhile."

"At any rate," Mirabella said, "it is not likely that goblins and orcs will know the correct paths to tread in either marsh or wood. Our problem will be solved for us in short order. I do not expect to see them again, and neither should any of you! And, onto our next order of business..." Mirabella trailed off. "Gandalf," she asked, "do you have some wizarding way of contacting Belladonna? If I know my sister, and I do, she will be halfway to Buckland with an army of her own by now!"

"I can send a messenger to her," Gandalf replied. "But I will need pen and paper for that." As far as Gandalf knew, no hobbit had learned the bird-language as of yet. Belladonna, regardless of her other attributes, was no exception to this. A written message would have to do.

"Good," Mirabella smiled. "Not that I don't appreciate her plans of rescue, but we have enough bellies to feed as it is."

"Those who are unwounded will need several days of rest at least before they can begin heading home," Marcho said apologetically.

"And there is still the matter of the Shire invasion to deal with," Blanco added. "We cannot afford to have goblins and wolves there come springtime. With a winter this harsh, the stores will be much depleted and we will need a good harvest to re-fill them lest we starve the next year."

"We did not come all this way to return after only one battle," Argonui said. "You will have our aid in this, Master Hobbit."

Blanco gave a half-bow from his chair.

"And ours as well," Gorbadoc said. "It is the least Buckland can do in exchange."

"Fortinbras and Bilbo must stay here for a few weeks longer at least, and their Rangers as well," Mirabella said to the bounder brothers. "They have been in some of the worst of the fighting, and deserve their rest."

Gandalf straightened at this. "Fighting?" he asked in an odd sort of tone.

"Oh, yes," Mirabella answered. "Bilbo, the dear, quite takes after his mother it seems, and Fortinbras is shaping up to be quite an admirable archer. Did you hear that, one night, the invaders penetrated all the way to Brandy Hall? And Bilbo, just awoken, took charge of all our defenders and led them to victory? And at his age, too! Fortinbras and those two Rangers were right beside him the whole time, of course, as it should be with him being the youngest one there and all. Though I can't imagine Gilraen and Arathorn being that much older; they play with our children like they were fauntlings themselves..."

Gandalf's brows rose higher and higher as Mirabella continued speaking.

Argonui, meanwhile, had finally recognized the hobbits' names. "I thought you said this 'Bilbo' was but half-trained?" he asked Gandalf.

"He is," Gandalf answered, his voice darkening. "His mother assured me that he had but begun his swords-training this past December. He has been a bounder for even less time."

The Bucklanders straightened. "What!" was the general exclamation.

"He did not, he could not..." Merroc sputtered. "He seemed as one who knew his business, and well at that. I would have guessed that he had at least a few years of experience under his belt... "

"Why didn't Fortinbras say anything!" Mirabella exclaimed, her hands waving. "We would not have let him into such danger, had we known!"

Marcho raised his eyebrows at them. "Bilbo has fought against such foes before he came to Buckland," the bounder said harshly. "And quite successfully at that. That is far more experience than most of us had before today! And several months of training is a luxury to those without any! Which is most, I might add! We are peaceful Shirelings, not wild-hearted Bucklanders! Fortinbras and Bilbo both knew the risks, unlike many of those who have accompanied me here."

"Fortinbras did not wish to allow his cousin into such danger in the first place," Blanco said, his mouth in a straight line. "If he changed his mind, then it was because he saw that Bilbo was fully capable of whatever duty he placed upon himself. And if I did not believe as such myself, I would have never sent them here in the first place."

"I would like to know," Argonui interrupted, his voice revealing his annoyance, "just where my grandson has gotten to. Arathorn was in the same party as this 'Bilbo' of yours, and a playmate to your children by your own words. I much desire to speak with him."

The hobbits exchanged glances amongst themselves. Where had those four gotten to?

Captain Galador, for the first time, spoke up. "You have not heard, then?" he said to his leader, his voice hesitant and wary.

"Heard what?" Argonui snapped.

"My men discovered their horses not but an hour ago, and have been searching for Arathorn and Gilraen ever since," Galador said. "They have so far discovered nothing. However..." and here the Ranger paused before continuing on. "Several hobbits reported seeing a small party fleeing into the trees ahead of our retreating foes. The descriptions match your grandson and Gilraen, and two bounder-hobbits were with them."

Mirabella gasped in horror, and the other hobbits blanched. Argonui closed his eyes and grimaced.

Gandalf's eyes tightened. This was the reason for feeling that had been nudging at him earlier.

"Neither Fortinbras nor Bilbo know the safe roads," Gorbadoc said grimly. "And the Forest will be angry with so many intruders running about. There is little chance..."

"We must try!" Mirabella whirled at her husband.

"If not for them, Buckleberry would have been completely overrun," Merroc agreed. "How could we repay them so poorly?"

Gandalf slammed his staff against the ground with a "thud" and stood, towering over everyone there. "What has been done, is done!" he said sternly. "I do not like it any more than you do, but at this point they are either alive or they are dead and there is nothing any of us can do about it in any case. We may well hear back from them soon, if we are fortunate."

The wizard sat back down. "Hobbits are lucky creatures, and Tooks more so than most. If Bilbo has even an inkling of his mother's own luck he may well pull his companions through. Meanwhile, there are other, more immediate matters, to be seen to."

"I have lost one grandson already," Argonui said. "I do not wish to lose the other as well. And Gilraen is the daughter of a dear friend."

"Any who enter the Forest now will die," Gorbadoc replied, matter-of-fact. "The trees will rip them to shreds. Fire will only infuriate them further. As Gandalf said, those four may yet be alive, especially if they entered the wood before the orcs. If they were quick enough, they might have ran past the trouble. All paths in that place lead towards the river Withywindle, and if they follow it in either direction they will find their way out soon enough."

"I assure you, Master Ranger," Gorbadoc added, "that in the time we have known them Arathorn and Gilraen have come to occupy a special place in our hearts. I do not look forward to telling my children what has become of their cousins and their Ranger playmates. However, no matter how distasteful we may find such a thing, there is nothing to be done for it now. All we can do is wait."

And wait they did. Merroc's several days came and went, and the Shirelings began their march home. The Rangers went with them, Galador and Chief Argonui among them. It was only after Gandalf promised to send any word he might hear of Argonui's grandson and honorary grandniece by way of bird that the Chief of the Rangers agreed. In the meantime he would hunt down and destroy any orcs or goblins he could find.

Gandalf's promised message had reached Belladonna and, though she sent her army back, she hurried on to Buckland, her husband beside her.

Upon meeting Gandalf again, Belladonna kicked the wizard hard in the shin.

"Ouch!" Gandalf yelped, dropping his staff. He hopped around on one foot, holding his hands over his injury.

Bungo held his wife back before she could kick their old friend again.

"I have been hearing some very disturbing things about my Bilbo, wizard," Belladonna said, her eyes narrowed in fury. "You're lucky that was my foot and not my axe!"

Gandalf opened his mouth to protest, then snapped it shut again as Belladonna continued.

"He is twenty-one, Gandalf! Twenty-one! He was supposed to be running errands and lighting campfires and listening to his elders' stories! Not charging into battle on the back of a horse and disappearing into a forest full of bloodthirsty trees! He should have waited at least a decade before trying that!" Belladonna's arms waved as she yelled louder and louder.

"Twenty-one?" the wizard whispered in horrified astonishment. "What!"

"I think I should know when he came into this world, seeing as how I was present for it!" Belladonna replied. "You were there as well if I remember it correctly!"

Bungo tightened his grip as Belladonna began to squirm. "You did not know?" he asked the wizard. "Truly?"

"I thought he was twenty-seven at least!" Gandalf exclaimed. "And a mature twenty-seven at that! If he had not looked so young, I would have guessed him past his majority!"

"How common, exactly, was this perception?" Bungo sounded deeply disturbed at this revelation.

Gandalf reached down and picked up his staff. "To my knowledge no one raised any objections as to his age," Gandalf said, brows drawn. "His experience and the danger involved, yes, but not towards his youth. I would guess that this perception was very common indeed."

"And Mirabella did not know?" Belladonna demanded. "Fortinbras I would not expect to, but my own sister?!"

Bungo frowned. "She does have twelve-odd other nieces and nephews to consider on the Took side alone..." he said apologetically. "I can hardly keep their names straight myself, I must admit, to speak nothing of their ages."

Belladonna huffed. "That is true," she admitted reluctantly. "Still, it is not particularly difficult to ask. Bilbo is an honest lad; he would have said something if he thought it an issue." Belladonna looked up at the wizard. "I am sorry for kicking you, Gandalf," she said tiredly. "But it has been a very long day."

"I accept your apology," Gandalf replied. "There is a good chance that your son and nephew are still alive," the wizard added. "Mirabella and Master Gorbadoc would be quite willing to accommodate you both if you wished to stay and wait for news..."

Belladonna snorted. "They had better," she replied. "I am still quite furious with them, I'll have you know. Isengrim as well. They shall all receive an earful!"

Bungo nodded, his eyes narrowed. He was both furious and sick with worry for his only child. It was for Isengrim that he reserved his wrath, however. Belladonna's eldest brother had been in charge of the bounders for years, and should have known full well how deceiving the appearances and mannerisms of tweens could be. As Belladonna said, it would not have been particularly difficult to ask.

Bungo decided that they would wait in Buckleberry until news came of their son and his party, or until the Forest was calm enough that the Bucklanders could send out search parties. Either way, he and Isengrim would be having words.

Several days earlier, in Tom Bombadil's house

Gilraen stood at the window of their room, staring out into the darkness beyond. Hours ago, Bilbo had cried himself out and drifted into an uneasy sleep. Fortinbras, still curled around his cousin, had joined him in slumber once the evening came.

Though both Gilraen and Arathorn had questioned them, neither of their hosts had been willing to explain just what they had said that had affected their hobbit so. The two Rangers were worried; such behavior was quite unlike the Bilbo they had come to know over the winter.

Gilraen had read once that Iarwin Ben-adar possessed great wisdom and powers, exceeding even those of the Lady Galadriel. Perhaps he gave a message to Bilbo, she mused, a portend of things to come? It must have been something terrible, to affect Bilbo so. Such things were none of her business, however, curiosity and friendship aside. A prophecy could easily be as much a curse as a blessing, or so Gilraen had learned from her own mother's visions. They would ask him no questions.

A whisper of movement told her that Arathorn was still awake. "I must confess," Gilraen said softly, "that this was not quite what I was expecting when we were instructed to go to the Shire."

"What?" Arathorn asked from his bed. His voice was equally quiet. "Talking animals, murderous trees, and figures out of legend inviting you in for tea? I can't imagine anyone expecting that. I also can't imagine anyone will believe us when we tell them of it!"

Gilraen snorted and waved a hand in dismissal of her friend's attempt at humor. "Not what I meant, though I wasn't expecting it either," she said. "It just seems... unreal. As if it were years since we left the Angle, and not a few short months. It's hard to believe that we will soon return to it."

Arathorn frowned, looking at the slumbering hobbits on the next bed over. "We can always take them with us," he said. "If Grandfather objects, Rivendell is not too far off..."

Gilraen raised her eyebrows. "We should probably ask them first," she replied. "Bilbo would be willing enough, I suppose, though Fortinbras would likely protest..."

"We can throw a sack over his head and put him on the back of a pony." Arathorn grinned. "It will be hard to for him to protest when he's already there."

Gilraen grinned back. "He still thinks that we don't like him," she said. "The look on his face if we did that..." She broke into muffled giggles.

"Ridiculous hobbit," Arathorn agreed. "It might finally get the message across, though."

"It's just..." Gilraen trailed off. "We finally get a proper unit, and they happen to be hobbits. All joking aside, we can't keep them. And it'll be back to kitchen duty and fetching things as soon as we return."

Arathorn sighed. "For at least another ten years, or until the Dark Lord returns. Whichever comes first, I suppose. We were lucky they let us out for this, and you know Grandfather and our parents will be furious when they learn we were not accompanied by any experienced elders."

"That was Captain Galador, not us," Gilraen protested.

"They'll find a way to blame us anyhow," Arathorn said. "For not informing anyone when we found out, at the least."

"We might be able to pass Fortinbras off as one," Gilraen mused. "He said he used to train bounders, didn't he? And he looks a bit older than Bilbo does..."

"We could say that we picked him up after discovering the confusion," Arathorn agreed, warming up to the idea.

"That solves that problem," Gilraen said. "But I still don't want to go back," she admitted.

"We can always run off to Gondor," Arathorn said, settling back into the bed sheets. "Or Rohan. Or Lothlorien."

"Or Rivendell?" Gilraen asked, raising her brows.

"Rivendell is too close," Arathorn replied, "and even if Elladan and Elrohir would be willing to hide us, I can't imagine Lord Elrond would agree."

Gilraen sighed, then moved to lay upon her own bed. Their talk was all foolishness and fancy, of course. Not even in their wildest childhood moments would they seriously consider running away from home. No matter how infuriating they found it. But still...

"Goodnight, Arathorn," Gilraen said finally.

"Goodnight, Gilraen," Arathorn replied.

That night Arathorn dreamed of the crash of battle, of eagles soaring through the sky, of a crown and a scepter with no one to bear them. He could feel the rush of heat on his skin, the press of dark dankness, and the smell of corpses long turned to dust. In the distance fire glowed, and steam billowed through a mighty closed gate.

Gilraen dreamed of a cloaked figure, wrapped in pale and distorted light. A star shone on its finger, and on its head there sat a twisted crown. A high-pitched shriek issued from its mouth. Gilraen shuddered in her sleep.

In his dreams, Fortinbras saw a twisted city filled with grotesque faces and an incredible stench. Gold glittered, and then disappeared. Some unknown threat towered above him, and a bass rumble shook the earth. Fortinbras' grip on his cousin tightened.

If Bilbo dreamed of anything that night, he did not remember. This was probably for the best.

The next day dawned clear and brilliant, the cold eastern winds blowing the storm across the Old Forest and further into Buckland and the Shire.

The four broke their fast with Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, feasting on bread and honey, winter roots and dried summer fruit.

Bilbo ate and drank and spoke to his companions, but it was as if he were acting through a fog. Bilbo felt clean and empty on the inside, as if the flood of tears from the day before had washed away the worst of the pain.

It was... Bilbo had already become accustomed to the idea that he would never see any of his friends or family from Before again, would have to rebuild all that he had created with them, and even then it would never be the same. But to learn that they had been completely destroyed...?

When Bilbo had first returned to his past he had comforted himself with the knowledge that Frodo and his friends were safe and sound in Aman, even if he would perhaps be unable to ever see them again. That they would be fine without him. This... was far worse.

During his studies in Rivendell, Bilbo had learned much of the ancient history of the elves. Of the ban laid upon humankind upon the arrival of Earendil and Elwing, Elrond's parents, on the continent of Aman to seek out the Valar's wisdom. Of the gift that allowed those elves of human blood to choose between mortality and immortality. Of the choice of Elrond's twin brother Elros, and the kingdom he had founded. Of the corruption and destruction of Numenor, when they defied the edict of the Valar and set foot upon the Blessed Realm.

Bilbo knew, through the stories of his mother's adventures, of the connection between humans and hobbits. "Big" and "Little" folk, as they were called, were kith and kin to each other. Hobbits had awakened at the same time as their larger relatives, and had similar lifespans and natures. Never, though, would Bilbo have guessed that hobbits were included in the Valar's decree. Neither, it seemed, had Gandalf.

The last time a mortal stepped foot on Aman, the world was sundered, the seas bent, entire lands risen up and others drowned. Whole kingdoms had been destroyed; human, elf, and dwarf alike. By the words of Tom and Goldberry, Frodo setting foot upon that land had caused such a thing to happen again.

Bilbo's death upon the Straight Road, outside the world and outside of time, and his subsequent fall back into it may very well have saved the world from the Valar's wrath. It was simply Bilbo's luck that he had not returned to the time immediately before they had set out upon their voyage to Aman.

His mother's death must have made a far greater impression upon him than even Frodo's safe return, if he had been drawn to the time before it had happened!

His mother and father were both alive, Bilbo reminded himself. The Fell Winter was done with. He had gained new friends in the Rangers, and in Fortinbras he had connected with a member of his family that he had always discounted before. Bilbo needed to remember this, these things that he had gained, or else the ghosts of his past life would rise up and devour him whole.

The feeling of empty cleanness would not last forever. Bilbo would likely carry the pain of the separation for the rest of his life.

Around lunchtime, Fortinbras sought his cousin out and requested to speak with him in private. Bilbo agreed.  They stood outside, a fair distance from the house. By mutual unspoken agreement they stayed well away from the trees.

Fortinbras stared at the ground for several minutes while Bilbo looked on, waiting.

Finally, Fortinbras spoke. "How old are you, really?" he asked quietly. His eyes were still on the ground.

"I... don't know what you mean," Bilbo replied.

"I overheard." Fortinbras looked up, meeting his cousin's eyes before looking away again. "Yesterday. Your conversation with Tom and Goldberry. There was much I did not understand of it, but the part about the river of time was quite plain. It explains your behavior quite well - you do not act like a tween."

Bilbo stared, his heart racing. He could not think of a word to say. "Please do not tell anyone," he whispered eventually. "And I was one-hundred and thirty-three when I traveled back."

Fortinbras started. Then he started to laugh. "How ridiculous my concerns must have seemed to you!" he said in self-deprecation.

"They were understandable," Bilbo replied. "Just... unnecessary. I very much enjoyed being treated as an adult, and so did not move to correct anyone as to my actual physical age..."

"You are an adult," Fortinbras answered slowly. "And have been one for many years..." he trailed off. "I am sorry. This is still quite strange to me. Was it... some sort of wizardry that sent you here? Do you plan to return?" here Fortinbras' voice twisted, becoming choked.

"No," Bilbo answered, eyes prickling with fresh tears. "And I cannot. The world I lived in no longer exists."

Fortinbras' features brightened, and then became dim. "I am sorry to hear that," he said hesitantly.

Bilbo stared over the rolling hills that lay to the east of the house. He remained silent.

Fortinbras hand clasped his shoulder. "Have you told anyone?" he asked gently.

"No," Bilbo replied.

"Not even the wizard?" Fortinbras pressed. "If anyone could understand, it would be him."

Bilbo sighed. "He would tell my parents," Bilbo answered honestly. "And everything... would change. I have missed them. And there are other reasons as well."

Fortinbras opened his mouth, and then closed it. He looked hesitant, and then awkward, but finally he spoke. "Are they anything you feel comfortable sharing?" he asked.

"I have to save the world," Bilbo told his cousin. He did not have the energy for further lies. "And I cannot tell anyone how, lest our enemies discover my plans."

Fortinbras stared at Bilbo, his face blank of expression. "Save the world...?" he asked weakly.

"And kill a dragon," Bilbo added, "but that is a lesser matter."

Fortinbras could only gape.


Author's notes:

Fortinbras found out! But not everything, just yet. Don't worry, Bilbo will still be an independent badass in all this. He'll just have back-up and someone he doesn't have to lie to. Which he desperately needs right now.

And I have edited last chapter's dialogue a bit and added in some author's notes explaining things a bit more thoroughly. If you were confused at all, they should help. If not, feel free to ask me. Bilbo's PoV in this chapter also explains part of it. Baow: yes, to all of it, pretty much. That is exactly what happened.

On a different note: 50,000 words! *throws confetti* This is going to be so very long, I can tell. We're not even a third of the way through yet...

Chapter Text

Arc II: After the Shire

Off Again

"I will explain later," Bilbo promised. "As much as I am able to without fear of discovery."

"What discovery?" Fortinbras frowned. "We are the only ones here!"

"Foxes are not the only creatures capable of talking," Bilbo replied. "Animals of any sort have their own language, and not all of them answer to Bombadil!" Bilbo took a deep breath, and then slowly exhaled. "Give me a few days, at least," he asked his cousin. "I have just had a rather unpleasant shock. In a few days I will be able to answer your questions, just not now."

"I need to think," Fortinbras answered, shaking his head. His brow was furrowed. "I..." Fortinbras frowned, gazing once more at the ground. "I will keep your secrets, cousin," he promised. "I seem to be in the habit of doing so. And once more I will await your explanation."

Fortinbras lifted his head and met Bilbo's eyes. He nodded once, squared his shoulders, and returned to the house.

Bilbo legs collapsed underneath him and he sat heavily. This... could be disastrous. He had kept his secret for months under the very eyes of the people who had once known him best, lying to everyone around him, and now... Giddy relief warred with his trepidation.

Fortinbras had proven that he could be trusted. Maybe Bilbo would not have to be alone.

Days passed by and Arathorn's injured shoulder seized up. It was not infected, Fortinbras and Tom Bombadil agreed, but it was at a delicate stage of the healing process and best not disturbed. Arathorn carrying Bilbo to bed the day after their arrival had not done his injury any good, much as the hobbit had feared.

They would have to stay until the strain of walking would not undo the good that several days of rest had done.

Bilbo was relieved at the delay. He felt... acute discomfort at the thought of returning to the Shire and his parents. Journeying with the Rangers had been a reprieve from the constant pressure of acting and the fear of talking out of turn, and quite possibly one he could not do without.

The plans that he had mused upon in the Great Smials returned to him once more. He had known, even as Gandalf had convinced him to join the bounders, that he might never return to Bag End and its way of life. He had imagined his own death as the cause, however. To not return of his own volition seemed strange to him.

Still, Bilbo could not imagine facing his parents after all of this, not with the guilt and strain of replacing their son, nor could he imagine pretending to be a rambunctious tween in the eyes of all of Hobbiton. Not for the thirty years it would take for the dwarves to arrive on Bag End's doorstep, if such a thing would even occur again.

The answer was plain. Bilbo would simply have to disappear, much like his uncles Hildifons and Isengar had done many years before. Hobbits so rarely left their lands that Bilbo could scarcely imagine being discovered, save by Gandalf. And one wizard, in all the world, would be easy enough to avoid.

He did not want to cause his family pain. That much Bilbo was certain of. Whether it would be kinder to let them think he had died in the Forest, or to leave them a letter explaining his actions was a more unclear matter. They would be upset either way. But with the actions Bilbo would need to take in order to secure the future, and the dangers therein, there was every chance that he would die before he had a chance to return. His parents should not have to wait decades in false hope.

But still... the unpleasantness of such a deed gnawed at him. They would mourn, and likely blame themselves.

Bilbo breathed a sigh. He would postpone the decision until later. More immediately, he needed to finish his conversation with Fortinbras. Grief still choked him, sinking teeth and claws into his throat and heart, but it was a dull pain now. Bilbo thought that he would be able to speak of his life Before without bursting into tears once more. Such a reaction was most... unseemly. Especially in front of one who knew his true age.

Bilbo mustered his courage and left the guestroom in search of his cousin.

He found Arathorn and Gilraen in the main room, amusing themselves with a game of queek. A checkered cloth was laid out on the floor and the Rangers took turns tossing small pebbles at it from a distance, calling out either "light" or "dark" in accordance with which color square they were aiming at.

A hobbit would have no challenge in such a game, of course, but the Rangers missed their square as often as they succeeded in hitting it. In truth, Arathorn missed far more often than Gilraen, forced as he was into using his left hand. Gilraen used the opportunity to gently mock her friend.

One of these days, Bilbo mused to himself as he watched the two humans, I will have to teach them conkers. It was a far more dignified sport than queek, after all, and who better to teach it than a master? He had no horse-chestnuts with him, though, so the teaching would have to wait until later...

A quick question revealed that Fortinbras' had gone outside not but a half-hour ago.

Fortinbras was deep in conversation with Tom Bombadil when Bilbo finally located his cousin.

"Heard you of the Farmer Maggot, who dwells near Crickhollow?" Tom asked Fortinbras. "Orc, goblin, warg and wolf were running near Tom's wood, frightening those who walked on two and four legs alike. They have caused much damage in hobbit-lands, or so I have heard. I am worried for Maggot, for he is master of neither blade nor bow."

"I remember meeting a Maggot family in Buckleberry," Fortinbras replied. "I don't rightly remember where they came from, exactly, but I believe the father was a farmer. They were all fine the last time I saw them."

Bilbo spent a moment wondering if the farmer Tom spoke of was the father or uncle of the Grigory he and the Rangers had met near Stock. It was likely. If Bilbo remembered correctly the Maggot family that Tom was known to visit in the time Before was the same Maggot family that Frodo kept stealing mushrooms from when he was a lad. The Bamfurlong farm, that was it! They lived near the Buckleberry ferry, to the south...

Tom, meanwhile, had noticed Bilbo's presence. His lips quirked in a smile. "Fear not the chattering of birds and beasts, for here Tom Bombadil is Master. Outside these lands I would not speak, if I were you, of those things said here, unless you are ready for everyone to know!" With these words, Tom walked back to the house, humming a tune.

Fortinbras gave Tom's retreating back a long, questioning look. He did not know quite what to make of this Master Bombadil, though he was a pleasant enough fellow. For all Bombadil's oddness, Fortinbras felt that he could be trusted.

Several minutes passed by. Fortinbras raised his brows at his cousin. "So...?" he asked.

Bilbo sighed. "Yes," he said, "I will tell you all that I am able to." He moved to a bench miraculously clear of snow and motioned Fortinbras to join him.

Fortinbras sat, and waited.

"I should start at the beginning, I suppose," Bilbo said hesitantly. "When I was twenty-one, the first time, Mother did not survive her encounter with the wolves."

Fortinbras started, his eyes widening.

"I did not press her for training, see, and so she fought alone," Bilbo explained. "When she fell the rest of the group attacked with whatever they had at hand, but it was too late. Father was heartbroken, and the rest of the family furious. I did not join the bounders, but to my knowledge the situation in Buckland was never as bad as what we faced. When the spring melt came, the invasion was done with, and Father and I returned to Bag End. Mum was buried underneath the willow-tree, and Dad joined her the following year."

"I became quite..." and here Bilbo paused, distaste contorting his features, "respectable, after that. It was only decades later, after I had become middle-aged and portly, that Gandalf decided to visit, knocking on the door with an offer of adventure!"

"And what an adventure it was..." Bilbo trailed off, organizing his thoughts. Used as he was to telling the tale of his quest to Erebor, that was not what Fortinbras was curious about nor what he needed to know. "I made some of the best friends I ever had on that quest, and lost several of them, too. Along the way, I discovered an item of great evil, one that I had foolishly mistaken for a blessing at first."

"Tell me, cousin, have you heard of the Dark Lord Sauron?" Bilbo asked.

Fortinbras flinched. "He was killed," Fortinbras replied slowly. "Eons ago!"

"Defeated," Bilbo said, "but not destroyed." Bilbo breathed in deeply, and then heaved a sigh. "His life was tied to the item I found. Destroying it would destroy him, but it could only be unmade in a fire as great as that with which it was created."

"This is what you meant when you said you had to save the world?" Fortinbras demanded. "To seek it out and unmake it as you did before?"

"I was old when its evil was recognized," Bilbo said, "far too old to be the one to dispose of it myself. My nephew and his trusted companions did the work of that! No," he said, "my great adventure began and ended with the Quest to Erebor. A great kingdom of dwarves, before the dragon came. The fire drake Smaug was not nearly so monstrous as Ancalagon, that legendary dragon, but he was indeed the largest and fiercest dragon to be discovered in these times."

Hopefully, the dragon was large and fierce enough to devour and destroy the One Ring. Bilbo did not fancy attempting the journey to Mordor: the road to Erebor was harrowing enough.

"I did not slay the dragon, either," Bilbo hastened to add when Fortinbras opened his mouth. Bilbo felt a surge of affection and, dare he add, pride at the thought that Fortinbras believed him capable of such things. Some days Bilbo hardly believed himself capable of attempting them. "I merely opened the door to him and roused him from his slumber."

"Then why...?" Fortinbras asked.

"It needs to be done," Bilbo answered, simply. "Many things went wrong the first time, things that I now know enough about to take into account. And there are other things that pose great danger, things that did not go wrong the first time but still might. The Necromancer, he who drove our people out of the south of Greenwood, is none other than Sauron himself. If he forges an alliance with Smaug..." Bilbo shuddered. He would never forget the sight of the ruined Laketown. To imagine such a thing occurring closer to home...

"Alright," Fortinbras said, his eyes closed. "Alright," he repeated. Fortinbras opened his eyes, glaring hard at Bilbo. "I know you, cousin," the hobbit said, "I know your character if not your life's story. You would attempt this madness on your own, if possible, or perhaps with those Rangers running after you. You would not think of the danger!"

"Clearly," Fortinbras added, "you will need someone with sense to accompany you." Fortinbras nodded firmly, though he was feeling quite faint. All this talk of Dark Lords and dragons was almost enough to put him off his dinner. Fortinbras had already seen enough violence for one lifetime, but it seemed he would be seeing more, and possibly worse. Such a thought was in no way reassuring.

Bilbo had frozen, his eyes gone wide. He had not considered having anyone accompany him. Parties to travel with, yes, of course, but not someone to fight beside, someone to risk everything with. He had not even imagined involving the Rangers in any of it. They were brave and capable and true, but they seemed so very young. Even Fortinbras, adult though he was, seemed but a babe to Bilbo. He did not want to see the light go out of their eyes.

They have followed you into danger before, something inside Bilbo whispered. They have fought and killed and known the pain of lost comrades. The solemn duty of the line of Isildur is to find and destroy the One, would you deny Arathorn that? Would you deny Gilraen her chance to see the world? To witness history unfold? Do you not trust them? the voice continued; they trust you.

Was this the voice of Sauron, Bilbo wondered, still whispering its poison into his heart and mind?

"I see that look on your face, Bilbo," Fortinbras said. "You have no choice, here! You would have to send me home tied in a sack if you mean to stop me!"

In that moment Bilbo was so reminded of Merry and Pippen that he had no choice but to chuckle. Tooks, he thought to himself, are nothing but trouble. This was especially true of Bilbo's cousins, it seemed.

Fortinbras began to look insulted.

"Fortinbras," Bilbo said, after his fit of humor left him, "this journey will be exceedingly dangerous. What we have already accomplished will be as child's play compared to what is ahead. If you accompany me, there is every chance that neither of us shall return. You should go back to Tookland."

"If I return to the Shire without you," Fortinbras replied evenly, "your mother will kill me. Then my father will kill me. And then Gandalf will light me on fire. I would rather face the dragon, thank you very much. It would be far less harrowing."

There was nothing Bilbo could say to that.

Arathorn glanced up from the game as Bilbo re-entered the house, Fortinbras trailing after him. Bilbo appeared pained, and Fortinbras wore an expression that seemed partway between worry and bewilderment.

Arathorn spared a moment to wonder at what had occurred before returning to the task at hand. Gilraen was winning the game of queek, and the prize was a forfeit from the loser to the winner. The traveling clothes that the Bombadils had gifted them with had already become soiled, and Arathorn was not looking forward to cleaning Gilraen's as well as his own.

"Black," the male Ranger said, tossing his stone down to the checkered cloth. The stone landed on white. He cursed softly. Even if he hit every square correctly regaining the lead would take the rest of the day!

Gilraen laughed at the expression on Arathorn's face. "White," she said, the stone leaving her hand. Her guess was true. She grinned.

The hobbits disappeared into the hallway that led to the guestroom. Gilraen watched them go. She frowned as she caught their expressions. Gilraen shook her head, dismissing the conclusion she had come to, and then returned to the game.

As the month passed, Arathorn's shoulder slowly healed. A blizzard came, and went, bringing the height of the snow up to Bilbo's shoulders even on the path. The hobbits, at least, would not be able to leave Tom's house until the spring melt came.

The four exchanged stories and games between themselves and their hosts. As the days passed, their mood gradually soured and they became anxious for the weather to change. Bilbo's melancholy began turning to annoyance, and the scars on his heart slowly began to mend.

Bilbo wished to keep his history secret from the Rangers, and Fortinbras accepted this wish. They seldom spoke of the time Before, and then only in vague terms that revealed little. Bilbo did not name the Ring, nor did he speak of where it was hidden. The risk, he judged, was too great, even in a realm such as Tom Bombadil's. Of the means and purpose of his return, Bilbo spoke little, only saying that the Valar were not always kind.

Rains came, and the snow began to melt. The Withywindle swelled and overran its banks, liquid spilling across the valley. Tom and Goldberry both laughed to see it, and soon they were ushering the creatures of the river and valley to safer territory.

"It is not safe to pass through the Forest, nor will it be for some time yet," Goldberry told the four one evening as they sat around the table. "Though Tom is master of wood, hill, and water, the lands beyond the trees belong to hobbit-folk. You will find them flooded now, I should think. Great was the snow which is melting, and great shall be the waters that flow from it!"

"Bree-town is safe enough," Tom said. "Upon a hill it is, and water travels downward. More sensible than we are!"

Bilbo nodded. Bree suited his plans well enough, and he had enough money that he could begin his travels. Fortinbras had packed a small pouch of coins as well, to buy supplies with in case of need. Between the two of them they should be set for a while, at least. Decent armor would be impossible, of course, but if they were lucky they would not need it.

He could always lose Fortinbras in Rivendell, if necessary. As the Rangers once said, the Angle was not so far away, and they had friends living there.

"There are Rangers stationed in Bree," Arathorn said, "so we would not be without supplies." He appeared... hesitant, for some reason.

"I would have liked to see the Brandybucks one last time before heading home," Gilraen said wistfully. Her brows furrowed in a sudden thought. "Do they even know we're alive?" she asked, finally realizing that it might be an issue.

Arathorn and Fortinbras sat up straight and exchanged looks. They had completely forgotten!

"We can send them a letter when we get to Bree," Bilbo offered. "It would have been quite difficult to send a letter from here, after all." Possibly Tom could have asked a bird or animal to carry one, but Bilbo saw no reason to mention it. It suited the hobbits' purpose to be some distance away from the Shire when the news hit.

Bilbo would be telling his relatives that he was going off to see the elves, and that Fortinbras, as a responsible adult, was accompanying him. The family would not be particularly happy with such a decision, but it would not seem horrifically out of character on either cousin's part. And Fortinbras, at least, needed a home to return to.

Gilraen and Arathorn blinked. Something about that statement seemed strange to them, but they could not put a finger on exactly what.

"When will we be departing, then?" Fortinbras asked. He was as anxious to leave as everyone else.

"Tomorrow morning, if you like," Goldberry replied. "We have waybread for your packs and water for your skins, and traveling cloaks to keep the rain off."

"Tom can guide you safely," Tom Bombadil offered. "To the north and to the east, near the road above. It will take you the rest of the way!"

"That will be much appreciated, Master Bombadil," Bilbo replied. He stood up and bowed to Tom and Goldberry. "Your hospitality has been most generous and kind, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart!" he said. "We would not have survived without your aid."

"Sit, Bilbo, sit!" Tom implored, "and rest easy. Tom is fond of hobbit-folk, and long has it been since Rangers have ventured here. The winter is brighter for your presence."

"But still, my thanks," Bilbo said. The other three quickly added theirs, and Tom and Goldberry laughingly accepted them.

The next morning, after bidding farewell to Goldberry, they were off. Tom had no ponies, and so they journeyed northward on foot, Tom walking quickly in the lead.

The four kept to a more sedate pace, and gradually fell behind. Snatches of song floated back to their ears; "Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!" and other bits of similar nonsense they could make neither heads nor tails of.

"I am so very glad not to go back into the Forest," Gilraen commented as they walked; the four were far enough behind Tom so as not to be overheard. "No offence to Master Bombadil, of course" she hurried to add, "but the sight of those trees tearing the goblins and orcs to shreds is something that will stay with me forever."

The other three shuddered in agreement.

"I will need to get a new sword, too," Gilraen added. "As my own became blunted and warped during all that excitement. I can use it, if our need be great enough, but I fear that it is in danger of shattering."

"My sword is still on the battlefield, as is my shield, and we left our bows and arrows in Buckleberry," Arathorn said morosely. "We are neither bowyers nor fletchers, to make our own. I fear that you two hobbits are the only ones armed, now."

Fortinbras, who had noticed this but not thought anything of it, frowned. "That is easily fixed," he said. Their extended stay at the Bombadil residence had given him greater confidence in the Rangers' presence, and he did not fear their disdain so much anymore. They told the most ridiculous stories of each other!

"I am no great maker of bows," Fortinbras continued, "but the one I now carry was made by my own hand. I have not made one for anyone quite your size," and here Fortinbras looked up at the two Rangers, "but the challenge of it should be interesting. I believe that cousin Bilbo has lost his as well."

Bilbo rubbed the back of his head. "My bow is also on the battlefield," he admitted. It had probably been snapped underneath some orc's feet, ere the battle's end.

"We bounders often make our bows from yew, as it is a flexible and resilient wood," Fortinbras said. "I would not dare to touch any trees within the Old Forest, yew or otherwise, but perhaps we might find some suitable trees in Bree."

"I believe our bows were made from walnut," Gilraen said. "It is a hardwood, but springy, and there are many of them in the Angle." Though Gilraen was not a bowyer herself, she did feel herself to be fairly knowledgeable about the end product.

Thus began a technical discussion of wood and bow-making between the two that neither Bilbo nor Arathorn wanted any part of. They hurried to join Tom at the head of the group.

"I fear what we have unleashed," Arathorn said, glancing backwards. Neither Gilraen nor Fortinbras gave any sign that they had noticed the other two escaping.

Bilbo winced. He had once had the misfortune of being caught between two dwarves discussing the optimum manner in which one should facet opals. Both dwarves were good friends of his, and both seemed to believe that it was only right that he take their side in the argument. And whenever Bilbo seemed unsure about the topic at hand, Balin and Oin felt it best that they explain the reasons for their views in detail. Perfect, excruciating, detail.

It had perhaps been the longest evening of Bilbo's life, save the night spent on Smaug's doorstep after he had exchanged words with the dragon. Bilbo's torment had been interrupted only when day had grown late enough that he could excuse himself from his guests with a claim of great weariness. And an empty threat of sleeping through the afternoon and being unable to make them breakfast. Dwarves did so like their food, after all.

Ori had enjoyed the conversation about as much as Bilbo himself, which was some consolation.

Bilbo and Arathorn fell into a comfortable silence. They walked, over the rolling hills and then under them. Tom doubled back once, and then twice, singing nonsense all the way.

Bilbo hummed the tune to one of his walking songs, and at Arathorn's urging, sang out loud:

"The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say."*

It was an older version of the tune, one he remembered singing upon taking leave of Bag End to begin his journey to Rivendell. It seemed... fitting, perhaps.

Eventually, they reached the invisible boundary of Tom's territory. Hills spread out before them, the narrow and grass-covered path winding through them. Scattered stones, overshadowed by the bright blades of new growth, showed the way.

They stood on top of a hill, and the view was such that when they looked northward, the Great East Road was visible in the distance. The sun was beginning its descent, and they had but a few hours until they would need to make camp.

There Tom stopped. "Here I leave you," he said. "Tom's country ends here; he will not pass the borders. Four miles along the Road you'll come upon a village, Bree under Bree-hill, with doors looking westward. There you'll find an old inn that is called The Prancing Pony. Long has the Butterbur family kept it! There you can stay the night, and several perhaps. You may find the guests stranger than expected. Keep up your merry hearts!"

Tom swept into a bow, and then strode off. "Goldberry is waiting!" he called back.

The four bade him farewell, and watched his venture back into the hills until he disappeared from sight.

They would venture northward until they reached the Great East Road, and from there it would be an easy journey to Bree. A shortcut directly east might have brought them there sooner, but between the Old Forest and Bree lay the Barrow-downs. And not even the most adventurous of Tooks would be willing to take that road.



Author's notes:

I snagged a beta for this chapter (horrible poetry!) who had family stuff come up before the thing was finalized. So Tom's lines might end up re-written later. Yes. His parting lines are shamelessly stolen from the book, chapter 8 to be precise. And if you've been paying attention, you can probably guess what the next chapter is about. :D!

Silmarillion stuff: Ancalagon was an enormous dragon that served Morgoth, the evil Valar guy and the first Dark Lord. Morgoth was the one who corrupted Sauron to evil, and also created the orcs. During the War of Wrath Ancalagon was killed by Elrond's badass father. He fell on Beleriand, which was a large country to the south of the Blue Mountains/Grey Havens of Lindon, and was so enormous that his landing pretty much destroyed the whole thing. And Elrond's family tree is composed entirely of badasses and legends, btw. Like, damn.

* J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, "A Long-Expected Party."

** J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Fog on the Barrow-Downs"

Chapter Text

Among the Barrows

The four made camp before sundown, a little ways off the path. The rolling hills that surrounded them cast great shadows upon the earth, causing hobbits and Rangers alike to lose their way several times before they decided to rest.

The East Road was still a good six or so leagues off, by Bilbo's reckoning. According to Tom it would be four more miles, or a league and a half, to get to Bree. Roughly a day's walk or so, this early in spring, Bilbo thought. He did not believe them to be in danger of an attack, not after the winter victory in Buckland, but it would likely be best to arrange a night watch in any case.

Now that there were four of them, one would be able to sleep through the night. But who? They were all tired and sore after the long day's walk.

When Bilbo brought up the issue, the Rangers were quick to suggest that a game decide. The winner would get a full night's sleep, while the losers would arrange their shifts as they willed. No one could agree on what to play, however, and they squabbled over the matter until their dinner was done and the shadows had crept over the tops of the hills.

Eventually, they settled on a game of hazard. Dice was not exactly a reputable pastime, in either the Shire or the Angle, but all four knew the rules well enough. Arathorn retrieved a promising stick from the stacked firewood and hastily carved out a pair of dice with his small knife.

"There," Arathorn said when he was finished; "we have our amusement for the evening." He set the dice down on the laid-out cloak that would serve to keep the game contained.

"I don't see why we couldn't have played riddles like Bilbo suggested," Fortinbras said, staring down at the dice like they were a particularly unappetizing side dish. "Or queek, even."

"This is the only game we can now play where you hobbits wouldn't have a terrible advantage," Gilraen replied. "You might have been able to fool us once before, but once was enough!"

Fortinbras looked away to the side, one corner of his mouth quirked upward. He had spent several particularly entertaining days doing just that before Gilraen and Arathorn had found him out.

Bilbo shook his head, hiding a grin. The Rangers had found the experience almost as amusing as Bilbo had. It seemed there was still a mischievous tween in his cousin, somewhere deep down inside.

As this was to settle the matter of watches, they had all agreed to play the game with small twigs instead of coin.

It was far less likely to end with resentment, as well, something that they all wished to avoid.

"The one with the most sticks at the end wins, yes?" Bilbo asked rhetorically. He tilted his head to one side, and his grin widened. Nori had been quite thorough in educating Bilbo after the quest to Erebor was done. And according to the dwarf, gambling was a skill that all gentleman rogues needed to know.

"In that case," Bilbo continued before anyone could reply, "I'll go first." He swept up the dice in one hand. "I bet... five twigs, on a seven." Bilbo rolled.

The dice came up eleven. It was a nick! Gilraen pulled five twigs from the bank's pile and handed them to Bilbo. He would roll again until he rolled an out or won three times, whichever came first.

In the end, it was Arathorn who won the game, though Bilbo finished second, to his disappointment. Fortinbras ended up taking the middle watch, while Bilbo and Gilraen took the first and third. With the matter settled, and the game done, the Rangers and Fortinbras went to their sleep. Bilbo stayed awake, contemplating his aching feet and back. Even youth was not enough to prevent some aches and pains, he supposed.

It was an eerie night, Bilbo thought as he looked out into the darkness. Neither the stars nor the moon were visible, and the hills around them were completely silent. Highly unusual for this time of year. Whip-poor-wills, mockingbirds, herons and all species of owl were well-known for their night calls, and spring was the breeding season for the small peeper frog as well. He should be hearing something, at least.

Time passed by slowly. The unease Bilbo had felt earlier grew steadily stronger. He felt as if he was being watched by some unfriendly creature, lurking in the shadows. Every so often Bilbo would turn back towards the fire, checking to make sure that the other three were fine.

As the hours whittled away, Bilbo neither saw nor heard anything. He dismissed his anxiety as the imaginings of a tired mind, and rose to wake Fortinbras for his shift.

The moment Bilbo stood, he heard it: a whispering from beyond the circle of light cast by the fire. He could not make out the words, but it was there nonetheless. His unease rose once more, and his heart was in his throat.

A wave of dizziness struck Bilbo then. He felt cold, and clammy. The fire crackled and popped behind him, but the noise of it was distorted, as if he was underwater. Bilbo's legs trembled, then straightened. With a great effort he turned back to the others.

His shout of alarm died on his lips. They were gone.

From behind Bilbo there came a whisper of sound. Before he could react the darkness came over him, and he knew no more.

Bilbo came back to himself in a rush of awareness. He was underground. Cold stone surrounded him, and his hands lay on his chest.

The hobbit silently cursed himself, feeling ten kinds of foolish. They had gone around the Barrows-downs, seeking to avoid the wights that lived there, of which so many stories were told. But the wights, it seemed, were not as limited as Bilbo or the stories of his youth had assumed.

Bilbo looked to either side. Gilraen, Arathorn and Fortinbras lay beside him, their faces deathly pale. Arathorn and Gilraen were clad in their armor still, but Fortinbras and Bilbo himself were clad in white. Golden treasures surrounded and adorned them, swords lay at their sides and shields at their feet.

Across their necks, and Bilbo's, lay one long, naked sword.

Bilbo panicked, as quietly as he could. Tom had never taught the four a song to call him, and Bilbo did not remember the song that Frodo had used in the time Before. He did not remember! Bilbo took one deep breath, and then another. He slowly exhaled, his mind whirling furiously. Panicking would not save them, and neither would Tom Bombadil. He would have to think of something, and quickly.

What is the nature of a wight? he asked himself. From where did they come, and what purpose drives them?

A murmur echoed through the darkness, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. It struck at the heart and mind alike, the coldness in it cutting deep into the marrow of the soul. Sleep, it urged, sleep forever, and forget. Gradually, the voice became louder, and its song fully audible.

"Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land."*

It was so cold. Bilbo shuddered at the sensation, his breath coming out in the form of mist in front of him. He was so very, very tired... He almost feel himself drifting away, as if on the edge of a dream... All would be well if only he closed his eyes, it would be so easy...

No. No, it wouldn't be. He had a job to do, a mission. One last mission, and it was an important one. He couldn't rest here, his friends, his family, the world - Bilbo's eyes shot open and he gasped soundlessly for air. He felt sluggish, forced upon, like a seedling that had yet to break through the soil and see the light.

The wight's spell was still upon him, but Bilbo held fast to his purpose. His will had survived the One, and even one of the fearsome wights of the Barrow-downs could not begin to compare to that Ring's power. Bilbo could endure it. He would endure it. The lives of his companions depended on it.

From behind the four there came a creaking and scraping sound. There was a doorway there, hewn into the rock, and it was through this doorway that the wight came. A long pale arm emerged and reached for the hilt of the long sword set across their throats. If the wight grasped it...!

Bilbo seized the barrow-blade that lay at his side, and, holding it in front of him, rolled out from under the sword. He stood at once. "Halt!" the hobbit cried desperately. "Halt!"

The long pale arm of the barrow-wight paused in its grasping, and came to rest upon the stone floor. "What manner of creature might you be?" the wight asked, its whisper of a voice filling the small chamber 'til it seemed to come from every side, pressing down upon the hobbit.

"Not elf nor dwarf nor man nor hobbit has to this day resisted my spell," the wight continued. "None save Bombadil himself, great pest that he is, has done so. What makes you so different?"

"I am the time-swimmer, the second chance, the lucky one," Bilbo answered. He knew better than to give any spirit his name; for to do so would give it power over him. "I am old and young, dead and yet alive, the destroyer of worlds, the imposter. I have opposed the dark lord and the Valar, and won against both."

At Bilbo's words the wight hissed; a low and terrible sound. "You are no elf!" it cried. "No descendent of Feanor can you be, unless that line is more degenerate than I thought."

"I am no elf," Bilbo agreed, his heart in his throat. "Neither am I human or dwarf."

"Hobbits," the wight muttered. "Confounded things, His favorites." The pale fist clenched. And then the wight moved fully into view.

It was tall, pale as a corpse, and shadows wove and twisted around it, obscuring its form. What Bilbo could see of the wight was similar to that of an armed and armored human, though distorted and lengthened in the arms and shoulders. From its eyes there came a cold and eerie light, and with a shock Bilbo realized that this was the source of the chamber's illumination. The wight towered over the Bilbo; it was more than twice his size. Likely it would tower over Arathorn, as well!

"You cannot possibly be old enough to have opposed the dark lord, hobbit," the wight said, once it had given Bilbo a thorough looking-over. "For it has been many eons since he was shut beyond the doors of night."

Morgoth, Bilbo thought. He speaks of Morgoth. How old was this creature? "Not that dark lord," Bilbo replied. "The other one. Sauron."

The wight gave a laugh like the scratch of fingernails on a chalkboard. "That upstart?" it chortled. "Dear to the dark one's heart he might have been, but he is no power in this world. Not anymore. Lost that trinket of his, last I heard. Of course, he did give us such pleasant accommodations beforehand, for which we are quite thankful."

"Did you truly work for him for a time, then?" Bilbo asked, attempting to stall the creature for as long as he could. Already the color was beginning to come back into his companions, and Bilbo himself no longer felt quite so chilled. A few more minutes and perhaps they would awaken on their own.

"I have heard as such," Bilbo continued. The wight's spell must have weakened in its distraction, he thought. Their only hope was for Bilbo to keep its attention squarely upon himself.

"Do you mean me or we, Master Hobbit?" the wight asked. "I so doubt your kind can tell the difference between us."

It stepped closer, and Bilbo fought with himself against moving backwards. His grip on the barrow-blade tightened.

"I do not believe you," the wight said, peering closely at Bilbo. "You have a will, and that is all. The prince of the Dunedain is in my grasp, the descendent of he who escaped me at Fornost, and you, hobbit, seek to keep me from my prize. You are only delaying the inevitable. Is he your prince as well?" the wight asked curiously. "Is that why you resist my spell? It will not matter soon enough."

Bilbo caught a flutter of movement out of the corner of his eye. They were beginning to wake.

"There was a company of hobbit-archers at Fornost, you know," the wight continued. "They were entombed within these barrows. Their prince, the one I spoke of, survived that battle. It was such a pity. He was buried in elf lands, far from those who fought and died for him. Whereas you, hobbit, will be buried with yours. Are you not thankful?"

"Not particularly, no," Bilbo answered honestly.

"You should be," the wight replied. It stooped and finally reached for its sword.

With a shout, Arathorn knocked the blade from its place against their throats. It hit the cold floor with a clatter.

The three leaped up, blades in hand. The wight hissed at them, that low and terrible sound setting its chill once more into their bones. The wight then lifted its hand, presumably to place its spell upon them once more.

Before it could, Bilbo charged, driving the barrow-blade into its thigh. The wight shrieked, the stones around them shaking with the force it. Its long pale arm swatted Bilbo to the side, flinging him across the chamber. He hit the wall hard and fell in a heap, stunned.

Arathorn and Gilraen attacked, their faces grim and swords flashing in the pale light. Fortinbras ran to his cousin.

"Are you all right?" Fortinbras asked anxiously. He ran his hands over Bilbo's skull, checking for blood and weak spots.

Bilbo waved him off. "I am only bruised," he said, knocking Fortinbras' hands away. "We must help the others!"

By the time the two hobbits reached the Rangers, one of the wight's arms had been hacked off and its black blood covered the floor. It hissed and it cursed but without its sword and a moment of time in which to cast its spell it could do little to stop the four.

Finally, Gilraen's sword evaded the wight's sweeping arm and pierced its chest. Its shape warped, and twisted, and it exploded into dust. Without the pale fire of the wight's eyes to illuminate it, the chamber went dark as pitch.

"Is everyone all right?" Bilbo asked loudly.

"I'm fine," Arathorn replied. He sounded deeply shaken.

"Me, too," Gilraen added, her voice wavering.

"As am I," Fortinbras said, his voice quiet.

Bilbo breathed a sigh of relief. "There should be an exit somewhere around here," he said. "The wight, spirit though it was, could not have brought us inside without one. And we must take as much of the treasure out of here as possible to break the spell on the mound, else the wight may return. If we gather it up as we find it, then we will not have to make many return trips."

They found their way outside, piling up lost treasures as they went. Bilbo and Fortinbras both removed the tunics that the wight had clothed them in and used them to carry much of what they stumbled across.

It was dawn when they finally escaped the barrow. The bright light blinded their eyes, and the four stood blinking for several moments. The Rangers and Fortinbras sat heavily once they were outside of that place; the coldness of the wight's spell had chilled their spirits something terrible and the warmth of morning had only made them feel it all the more keenly. They put their heads to their knees and rested.

While they did this, Bilbo dragged the tunics a good ways away from the mound and emptied them of their treasures. He stood for several minutes in the light and heat of the sun, letting its warmth chase away the lingering cold of the barrow.

Bilbo made several more trips into the mound, dragging more and more gold items into the light. By the time he was done the sun was approaching its zenith. The other three were napping lightly in the grass.

Bilbo had not been able to find the traveling clothes than he and Fortinbras had been wearing, but the Rohan blade and Fortinbras' bow had turned up eventually. The swords, scabbards and shield they had found seemed to be of high quality, so Bilbo piled them to the side for the others to look at, along with several sets of chain mail in what he believed was the Rangers' size. Bilbo kept the barrow-blade the wight had given him; it would make a useful back-up should anything happen to his mother's Rohan blade.

Bilbo shook the others awake. They needed their rest, surely, but he did not wish to spend one more night within reach of the Barrow-downs. Neither, as it turned out, did they.

Gilraen and Arathorn tested the swords Bilbo had retrieved, and, upon finding ones they liked, belted them on. They retrieved a small dagger for Fortinbras as well, despite his protests that he was an archer. He would learn to use a blade as well, they insisted. It might well save his life one day. Bilbo fully agreed with their decision; he planned to train his cousin in the way of the blade as soon as possible.

The Rangers were delighted with the mail - it was made of thin, light loops, silent in movement, and flowed like water upon shaking it out. They removed their brigandines, and donned the mail before replacing their plated vests. In addition, Arathorn claimed a shield to replace the one that he had lost earlier.

Once this was done the four gathered up as much of the treasure as they could manage, bundling much of it inside the tunics once more. They donned what they could; rings, bracelets, brooches, necklaces and circlets all heavily adorning them. The rest they would leave behind for anyone daring enough to wander close.

The Rangers were able to find their way back towards the camp. There Bilbo and Fortinbras donned their old winter armor. It was too warm for such clothing, but wearing the winter garb was preferable to traveling with aught but thin linen clothing. They would get something better in Bree; they could certainly afford it now.

At camp the four removed their spoils, counted and divided them and carefully packed them away in the pockets of their cloaks and the bottoms of their packs. It would not do for strangers to see what they had amassed; Bree was by and large a safe town, but brigands could and did wander close by. It was best to avoid the trouble entirely and not draw their attention.

Bilbo was pleased. His share of the barrow-trove did not quite equal the sheer volume of treasure that he had gained from the troll-hoard in the time Before, but to his untrained eye many of the pieces appeared quite valuable nonetheless. They would certainly make traveling around Middle Earth quite a bit easier than he had at first feared.

With that done, the four headed northwards, towards the East Road. Upon reaching it, they turned east. It was but a short distance from there to Bree. The four relaxed once they were beyond seeing-distance of the hills and mounds, and conversation returned.

"I've heard of the Prancing Pony, before," Arathorn said once they had reached the Road, "but I have never stayed there before."

Gilraen nodded. "We passed by Bree on our way to the Shire, but did not stop there," she added. "Or anywhere, really. We were in a bit of a hurry, and all."

"Well," Bilbo said, "they have excellent ale, and a good supply of pipe weed. Bree is a town of humans and hobbits both, so they should have rooms and beds suitable for each of us. Many travelers stop there on their way west, to the Blue Mountains, or south, to Gondor, so we should not lack for company or news."

"Have you been there before, Fortinbras?" Arathorn asked. "What is your opinion of the Prancing Pony?"

Fortinbras was giving the male Ranger a long, strange look. He had been doing this every so often since they had escaped from the barrow-mound. "I have never left the Shire before," Fortinbras replied quietly. "This is the farthest away from home I have ever gone."

The Rangers both nodded. "This was our first assignment out of the Angle," Gilraen said. "We have been to Rivendell before, many times, but that is not nearly so far away from home as the Shire."

"They're going to send us back to peeling potatoes as soon as we return," Arathorn said. "I just know it."

Bilbo snorted. "That would be a waste of your skills, Master Ranger," he said. "I'm sure they have some task for the both of you that involves more than kitchen duty."

"We need a full unit to be assigned anywhere," Gilraen said. "Four people, at least," this she said lightly, though her tone of voice was a tad odd.

Arathorn shot her a surprised look, blinking several times.

Fortinbras frowned. "How were you assigned to patrol in the Shire, then?" he asked. "Even with Bilbo present, your patrol still numbered three."

Gilraen shrugged. "It was an emergency," she said. "Somewhere, someone in charge got confused. It happens, I suppose."

Fortinbras did not look convinced. His frown deepened, but eventually he shook his head. "I do have one question," he said lightly, changing the subject. "The wight was saying something about a 'prince of the Dunedain...?'"

Arathorn winced, while Gilraen laughed.

"Wait... Really?!" Fortinbras asked, shocked. "You're a prince?"

Arathorn quickly assured Fortinbras that he was not. "If the kingdom of Arnor still stood, perhaps, but it has been many years since its fall. I am merely in line for the Chieftainship of my people, which my grandfather currently holds. I have truthfully not thought of it in some time."

"He's more like you than like royalty, in other words," Gilraen said.

Fortinbras shook his head. "The Thain holds the Shire in the name of the King, until his return," he said. "If that is you, then..."

"I am not a prince, Fortinbras," Arathorn said. "Nor am I a king. I have no wish to be, and I would make a terrible one besides. Do not worry for your future office."

"That's not -" Fortinbras began to protest. He stopped abruptly in mid-sentence, and then pinched the corners of his eyes. "Not what I was suggesting at all," he said. "I was merely surprised. I apologize if I offended you in any way."

"I'm not offended," Arathorn said. "I apologize. I am rude without thinking, sometimes."

Bilbo looked from one frowning face to the other, and then met Gilraen's eyes. She made a face at him, and Bilbo nodded back at her. Yes, Fortinbras and Arathorn were both being ridiculous. They needed something to distract them, but what? Ah, Bilbo knew just the thing. He began to sing;

"There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
One night to drink his fill..."**

Author's notes:

Fortinbras finds out the -other- thing as well. Yep. And Barrow-wights. Creepy critters, aren't they? Very... sassy, too. It's a good thing they like mysteries. And are easily distracted. The wights only being loosely bound to the barrows comes from the Tolkien Reader's Tom Bombadil verse, where one tried to ambush Tom in his home. Tom won, of course, but... Brainworm. :D. The He in question is Tom, of course. And Hobbits are totally his favorites. Yes. Go look up Feanor; he is awesome.

And now, on to Arc 2! *waves flag in celebration* First, Bree, then... Well, it's a secret. I did promise dwarves, though, didn't I... The hobbits still need armor, the Rangers and Bilbo still need bows, and Bilbo still needs to find a way to get to the Ring. This arc is mostly about the third thing, but dwarves are definitely involved. :D

* J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Fog On The Barrow-Downs"

** J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, "The Man In The Moon Stayed Up Too Late"

Chapter Text


Bree was much the same as Bilbo had remembered. Humans and hobbits alike walked the streets, most dressed in sensible spring clothing. The middle of April was nowhere near as cold as winter proper, but still far chillier than the full heat of summer would be. The sign for the Prancing Pony inn hung proudly from its spot next to main road, and it was to that sign that the four were headed.

As they walked through the street the group's weapons and armor drew attention and muttering, and more than one hobbit stopped and stared at the scar on Bilbo's face. Bilbo ignored them. Fortinbras and the Rangers would glare when this happened, causing the offending party to quickly look away.

There were just so many things to do while they were there, Bilbo thought. They needed to purchase ponies and supplies, exchange some of the less valuable barrow-treasures for spending coin, find maps and traveling companions... There was a letter that needed to be sent, as well. With that thought, something new occurred to Bilbo.

"While we are here, my name is Underhill," Bilbo said to the others. He paused for a moment, then added; "Fortinbras will need a new name, too, come to think of it."

The Rangers looked at him. "Why?" Arathorn finally asked.

"We are not returning to the Shire, at least not anytime soon, and I am afraid people may be looking for us," Bilbo replied.

"I've always liked Foxburr," Fortinbras said to his cousin.

Bilbo nodded in acknowledgement. For believability's sake, they should both have assumed a false personal name as well, but the fewer the names they had to remember the more likely they would remember them. This was something that Bilbo had learned during a regrettable holiday in the South Farthing, and he was most loath to repeat the experience.

"What do you mean you are not returning to the Shire?" Gilraen demanded. "Where else would you go?"

"The Grey Havens of Lindon," Bilbo answered. "We have family living amongst the elves there, two uncles to be specific." In truth, Bilbo did not know if that was the case or not, but it seemed as good an explanation as any.

"But why would you go visit now, hiding your names and all?" Arathorn looked befuddled. "Aren't your families worried about you?"

"My father arranged a marriage for me, to someone I detest," Fortinbras answered. "It is our hope that he'll give up the idea if I vanish for a long enough time. Bilbo has always wanted to see the elves, so he demanded to accompany me."

Arathorn and Gilraen both looked horrified at this explanation.

"We're going to leave a letter," Bilbo assured them. "Our families will know that we are alive, and well." And be under the impression that the two were headed for the much closer Rivendell, which should give them plenty of time to cut through or even around the Shire in order to avoid any possible search parties.

The two Rangers exchanged a long look.

"Are you planning on it just being the two of you?" Gilraen asked finally. "That seems like a dangerous journey."

Arathorn tugged on a strand of Gilraen's hair at her words. She batted his hand to the side in response.

"We were hoping to join a caravan of other travelers," Bilbo said. "Dwarves or elves or even human traders. Many pass through Bree, so it should not be particularly difficult to do so."

"You would travel with strangers across the Blue Mountains? They are full of goblins and orcs, or so I have heard. Even the East Road is not safe." Gilraen asked, her face set in an odd mixture of curiosity and fierceness.

Arathorn tugged on her hair again, harder this time. Gilraen retaliated by smacking his shoulder.

"It could hardly be more dangerous than our patrol," Bilbo answered with a shrug. "And there is some safety in numbers, after all."

"We survived a month-long siege, the Battle of Buckland, carnivorous trees, and being captured by a barrow-wight," Fortinbras said. "Compared to that, a simple trip through the mountains should be child's play."

"Yes, but you had us with you, then," Gilraen replied. "It is not the same at all!"

This time, Arathorn gave a hard pull. Gilraen yelped in indignation and elbowed her friend. They glared at each other for several moments.

"What Gilraen means," Arathorn said smoothly, "is that we Rangers do not like it when two members of our unit go off into danger without the rest of us accompanying them. You are both quite capable by any standard," and here the Ranger nodded, "and I apologize if Gilraen made it sound otherwise."

Gilraen rubbed her head. "That was not what I meant," she said, frowning fiercely. The female Ranger turned her glare upon a Bree-lander whose gaze lingered on the group for too long. The Bree-lander quickly scurried away upon noticing her expression.

"Apology accepted," Bilbo said quickly. He nudged Fortinbras, who echoed his words. Fortinbras appeared surprised by Arathorn's words, much to Bilbo's puzzlement. Surely Fortinbras knew that the Rangers considered him a part of their unit?

"If people are looking for the both of you," Arathorn continued, "then we probably shouldn't mention that we came out of the Old Forest..."

"There are Rangers stationed here in Bree," Gilraen added. "I imagine the first thing Captain Galador did once hearing that we were missing was alert them to keep an eye out for us. It is likely that he would have asked them to keep an eye out for the both of you, as well. The Rangers here might stay quiet about your presence, though, if we explain the situation to them. Dunedain do not believe in arranged marriages as a whole, and so we can expect them to be at least somewhat sympathetic."

"That would be very much appreciated," Fortinbras said, looking as if he had swallowed a lemon. He had forgotten about the other Rangers they were likely to run across. Hobbits rarely traveled outside their lands, even to Bree, and so he was not particularly worried about running across anyone who might recognize him or Bilbo on sight. Rangers, on the other hand…

"It would also be best to hide exactly how much gold we have," Bilbo mentioned, lowering his voice. "Bree is a safe village, as villages go, but it does have its share of thieves and ruffians. I would either recommend one of us staying behind as a guard, or sewing as much of our gains into our clothing as possible."

Or both, really. They had to travel sometime, after all. He and Fortinbras to the Grey Havens, and Gilraen and Arathorn to the Angle. The Rangers were a somewhat less favorable target, true, but that was no reason for any of them to invite an attack.

The other three nodded at Bilbo's words. Moments afterwards, they arrived at the Prancing Pony. It was an hour past supper-time, and so the inn was busy with throngs of customers. Most were human, and towered over the hobbits. Fortinbras edged closer to Arathorn and Gilraen. He had never before been surrounded by so many humans, not even when the Rangers rode into Tookburough, and found the experience somewhat unnerving.

Bilbo strode to the counter, the edge of which came up to his forehead. A tall, doughy human male peered down at him.

"Will you be needing rooms, Mr...?" the human asked.

"Underhill," Bilbo introduced himself. "This is my cousin, Mr. Foxburr, and the Rangers Gilraen and Arathorn. We will be needing two rooms, please; one hobbit-sized and the other human-sized. Thank you."

"Nobb will be right with you," the human said. "Nobb!" he called. "Party of four! Two humans and two hobbits. Better put them in the westward hall."

"Right away, Mr. Butterbur," a hobbit said, scurrying up to the counter. "Please follow me, messirs and m'lady."

The four followed Nobb gladly. After the excitement of the morning, they would all sleep very well.

Nobb set them up in their rooms, which were thankfully side-by-side with each other. He brought up their supper as well, still-steaming. They ate in Gilraen and Arathorn's room, the hobbits' legs dangling down as they sat upon the too-tall chairs. It was the first meat any of them had had in more than a month, and they dug in gratefully.

After they were finished, Bilbo volunteered to stay in his room to guard their finds while the others went to the common room for some ale and conversation. He wanted some time alone with his thoughts.

The Rangers deposited their bags into the hobbits' room and, after thanking Bilbo, disappeared. Fortinbras hesitated for several moments, and then followed them.

Bilbo lay upon the bed, eyes closed. He took a deep breath, and then exhaled. The Grey Havens. Again. Bilbo did not remember much of the first and last time he had seen it, before his party's voyage to Valinor. He had been ill then, succumbing at last to the infirmity of old age. It would be good to see it in all its splendor, as he had not had the chance to do so before.

Bilbo would much rather have gone to Rivendell, truth be told. But, much as he had explained to Fortinbras, Rivendell would be the first place that anyone searching for them would look. Bilbo could already imagine Gandalf dragging the both of them by their ears the entire way back to the Shire! And Bilbo had already had many conversations with the elves living in Rivendell, had read practically every book in Lord Elrond's library. There would be no further information there that he had not come across, no hints or clues on how to gain entrance into the Goblin City that he was not already familiar with.

There were exactly three ways in, or so Bilbo had learned while writing the tale of his adventures. The first required being captured in a goblin raiding party, the second being captured on their doorstep, and the third... The third way lay through the backdoor that the Company had escaped from in the time Before. That gate, Bilbo had learned, was under a constant guard by the most capable of the Great Goblin's warriors. The only sure way past it... the only sure way past it required that the one seeking entrance be invisible.

There were other things aside from the Rings of Power that could grant one the ability to become invisible, Bilbo knew.

There had once been many magical objects of great power, fashioned by elf and dwarf alike before the fall of Eregion and Moria at the hands of the orcs and Durin's bane. In Lindon, at the Grey Havens through which all elves must pass on their way out of Middle Earth, there stood a greater chance of encountering what remained of these objects than anywhere else.

Cirdan the Shipwright, oldest of the elves yet living in Arda, would certainly remember at least a few of them. Perhaps he had kept a few as well, to maintain the illusion that he held the third of the Elven Rings instead of Gandalf. That the old elf would take such a course of action seemed quite likely to Bilbo.

Finding such an item would take time, of that Bilbo was certain. But it would be a far less risky venture than attempting to gain entrance to the city without the aid of such a tool. Bilbo had no business dying before the matter of the Ring was settled, and certainly not if it could be reasonably avoided.

Bilbo's actions during the Fell Winter, which had seemed so rational and necessary at the time, now appeared quite rash to the hobbit. If he had died then, and he could have died many times, Bilbo recognized, what would have become of the Ring? And of all of Middle Earth?

I will have to be more careful from now on, Bilbo promised himself. It was more than his own life he was risking every time he went into danger. No more taunting goblins or barrow-wights.

It was then that Bilbo's thoughts turned to something he had been avoiding. What, he thought to himself, am I to do with Saruman?

If Bilbo's memory was correct, and he believed it was, the wizard had already gained the tower of Orthanc and thus the palantir that had been secreted there, but had not yet declared himself the Lord of Isengard.

Saruman had been great once, according to Gandalf and Elrond, kind and noble and wise. Had he already fallen into evil and alliance with Sauron? Or did he remain Saruman the White still?

Likely the wizard would not impact Bilbo's quest one way or the other, but the thought of destroying Sauron only to leave the world vulnerable to Saruman left a sour taste in Bilbo's mouth. Perhaps... Perhaps he would seek the council of Cirdan, once he and Fortinbras reached Lindon. The elf had seen many strange things over the course of his long life; in all odds Bilbo's story would seem the least of them.

Meanwhile, in the common room, Gilraen and Arathorn were enjoying themselves immensely.

Being deprived of a new audience for their tales for over a month, the Rangers took particular delight in describing their earlier tales of daring to whoever would listen, carefully omitting any detail that would suggest that the hobbits they were traveling with were related to anyone important.

Fortinbras agreed with them when they were speaking the truth, and argued when they exaggerated. This, more than anything else, convinced the Bree-landers that the stories the Rangers were telling were true. The three of them ended up getting several rounds of ale after word had spread around the common room.

Many of the Bree-lander hobbits had family living inside the Shire, or in Buckland, and all had heard about the invasion that had happened. All those who had fought the goblins were heroes to them, and to hear such tales firsthand! Why, that was worth a pint at least.

Eventually, a shadowy figure in the corner caught their eye. Arathorn recognized him as a fellow Dunedan, though he could not put a name to the face. Arathorn stood, gesturing to Gilraen, and the two of them approached the stranger. Fortinbras remained behind, sipping his ale. This was Ranger business, and not his to mind.

"Hail and well met," the stranger said when they reached him. "I am Finulias, son of Finrod, in case you don't remember me. You are Arathorn, son of Arador; and Gilraen, daughter of Ivorwen, yes? The chieftain will be most relieved to hear word of your safety. Huorns are terrible foes, or so I have heard, and everyone feared the worst when news of your disappearance reached us. I am much surprised to see you both yet among the living! Come, you must share your story. And not the one you shared with the common room, either."

"First we must ask something of you," Gilraen said. "You have heard of our companions, yes?"

"The two hobbits who accompanied you," Finulias nodded. "You came in with them, I believe."

"Yes," Arathorn said. "Is anyone... looking for them?"

Finulias frowned. "A search party stopped in here not more than a week ago," he said. "I imagine they've returned to the hobbit-lands by now."

"But no one is here at this moment?" Gilraen pressed. "You are certain?"

Finulias nodded. "Fairly certain, yes," he said. "Why do you ask?"

"One of them is seeking to travel out of the Shire in order to avoid an arranged marriage, and the other wishes to accompany him on his journey," Arathorn answered. "I believe they are worried about being kidnapped and For- the one with the arranged marriage being forced into it by relatives or family friends; they have even taken new names, they are so concerned. Would it be possible to delay word of our return until our friends are safely on their way?"

"Yes, certainly," Finulias agreed. "Might I ask where they plan on traveling to? I only ask so that I may convince others that they are heading in the opposite direction, of course," he hurriedly added.

"Across the Blue Mountains, to stay with their uncles in the Grey Havens," Gilraen answered. "They are hoping that any pursuers will assume they've gone to Rivendell."

"The Blue Mountains, the Blue Mountains," Finulias muttered several times. "Hmm. Actually, I have an offer for you, if you're interested. There is some trouble brewing there, between the dwarves and the elves, due to bandits or somesuch. The elves blame the dwarves, the dwarves claim that none of their people are responsible, and so on and so forth." "Cirdan the Shipwright has requested that the Rangers, as an unbiased neutral party, come to help find the perpetrators. With the invasion into the Shire and all the flooding that's been going on we've been unable to send anyone thus far. You are not required to deal with the problem, only to locate the cause, and given what I've heard of you both such a thing is well within your abilities."

Gilraen and Arathorn exchanged a long look.

"You will be able to accompany your friends," Finulias said. "I have heard the Blue Mountains are quite treacherous to unwary travelers. They may even help you on your assignment, if you so wish. They are bounders, yes? They likely have experience with such things. And you have fought together before."

"That sounds... perfect," Gilraen said. "We accept!"

It was only a short while later that the door to the hobbits' room creaked open.

Bilbo sat up at the sound, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Fortinbras shuffled inside, sitting down in one of the chairs. He put his head in his hands and sighed.

"Gilraen and Arathorn are still in the common room," Fortinbras said to his cousin. "They found the Ranger they were looking for, and he seemed quite surprised to see them here and whole. He was even more surprised to hear of the barrow-wight and the talking fox." Fortinbras paused for a moment before continuing. "He agreed to keep our secret," he added finally.

"That is good news," Bilbo said.

Fortinbras lifted his head from his hands and eyed Bilbo warily. "He was impressed by our friends' deeds," he said. "So impressed, in fact, that once he heard that we were planning to travel across the Blue Mountains he immediately offered Gilraen and Arathorn an assignment there. They accepted."

Bilbo jolted fully upright. "What?!"

"I was expecting something like this," Fortinbras said. "The moment you said that you were not returning to the Shire, I was expecting it. Those two would follow you to the very ends of Middle Earth. You are the only one who cannot see that."

Bilbo blinked at his cousin.

"This is a good thing, though," Fortinbras added with a nod of his head. "We are friends with them, and we all fight well together. They are trustworthy, and I would much rather travel with them than with strangers. Will you be telling them the truth?"

"No," Bilbo answered. "I cannot. They are too close to certain individuals of power, individuals who they are likely to inform if they learn of our quest. Destroying the... object, has long been held as a duty of these individuals, and Gilraen and Arathorn are aware of this."

No matter how loyal Fortinbras believed the Rangers were to him, their duty to their families and their people came first. They would inform Argonui, who would inform Lord Elrond, and from there... Every one of Sauron's spies would know. And Saruman as well.

"Why not just let them destroy it, then, if that is their duty?" Fortinbras asked. "Why does it have to be you?"

"The object... It holds the power to corrupt the mind and will. Humans, elves, dwarves... they are all vulnerable; humans especially so. But hobbits... I held the object for sixty years and was still able to give it up. My nephew was able to carry it to the fire I spoke of earlier, after holding it for seventeen years, and only succumbed at the last. The others of his party... The object was driving them mad, even after only a few short months of exposure to it. One attempted to take the object from my nephew by force, and Frodo only narrowly escaped from him."

That was, perhaps, the true reason why Bilbo did not wish for anyone else to accompany him. He had his own opinion on why Thorin and the rest of the Company had given into gold-lust upon regaining the treasure of Erebor. It was quite unlike them, who had all seen what the consequences of such greed could be. That they had all returned to normal, or indeed their version of it, once Bilbo had taken his leave of them was telling.

At the time he had imagined it the natural consequence of the deaths of Thorin, Fili, and Kili and of the Battle of Five Armies, and surely those events played a role... But knowing what he knew now, Bilbo was certain that the Ring had played at least a part in it, much to his dismay.

It was for his fallen friends, and for poor Boromir, who had been so polite and kind to him in Rivendell after the Council, that Bilbo refused to drag anyone else along on his mad adventure. It was safer for everyone involved if he went alone, or as alone as possible.

Fortinbras was silent for several long moments. "The Rangers' assignment will only last for so long," he said finally, "and then they will have to return home. The story we gave them, about an arranged marriage, would give us reason to stay for quite a while. All we have to do is wait long enough, and they will be safely out of the way."

Bilbo thought about it for several moments. "We will have to go to Rivendell anyway," he said finally. "It is on the way to the... object, and the dragon. If we find what we need in the Grey Havens before the Rangers' assignment is done with, then I see no reason why we cannot accompany them all the way home. I promised once that I would visit them in the Angle..." He had also promised to take them home with them, to see Bag End. Perhaps, if Bilbo survived this, he would be able to fulfill his promise.

"And it wasn't a story," Bilbo added. "About a year from now, in the time Before, you were married to Lalia Clayhanger. She made Lobelia Sackville-Baggins look pleasant, that one did." Bilbo shuddered in remembrance. There was a reason why Bilbo had ceased making trips to visit his Took cousins, and that reason was named Lalia. She had become particularly vile after Fortinbras was declared Thain, and remained so after his cousin had passed, even when she had become wider than she was tall and required both a wheeled chair and an assistant in order to move around.

Perhaps at least one good thing had come of Fortinbras joining the quest after all, Bilbo mused, if it enabled him to avoid marrying that… woman.

Fortinbras froze, the blood draining from his face. He felt faint. "You mean I actually did have an arranged marriage?!" he squeaked. Suddenly Fortinbras felt absurdly grateful to be accompanying Bilbo on his quest to save the world. Dark Lords and dragons didn't seem quite so terrible, compared to a lifetime of Lalia Clayhanger.

Author's notes:

In canon Fortinbras married Lalia Clayhanger about a year after the Fell Winter happened. According to Tolkien she was an evil harpy, and the reason why their son was never able to get married (no one wanted her as a mother-in-law.) She "accidentally" died when her caretaker "lost control" of her wheelchair and she tumbled down a flight of stairs. The caretaker ended up being gifted with some valuables by the grieving family later on. *Coughs* I can't see this version of Fortinbras marrying her willingly, so... Arranged marriage it was. Poor hobbit.

Lore-stuff: Eregion was a kingdom of elves. Smith-elves. Who were great friends with the dwarfs of Moria. They were infiltrated by Sauron, who taught them how to forge rings of power, and... Well, you know how that story goes. They tried to keep Mr. Dark Lord the Second away from the rings, but he kept hammering them with invasion after invasion until their kingdom eventually fell. This, as it goes, is the reason why the dwarfs of Moria went to go help out the Last Alliance of Men and Elves against Sauron back in the Second Age. And also probably why they had no problem settling next to a kingdom of elves after the balrog drove them out of their home. Yes - the people of Erebor came from a long line of elf-friends. Something I can't help but find endlessly amusing.

Dwarf stuff will be in the next chapter. Yes. I mean it this time! ;D

Chapter Text

Of Cabbages and Kings

Bilbo woke to the sound of gentle rainfall pattering upon the inn's roof. He lay in bed, listening to the sound, until the sun finally rose over the horizon. Then Bilbo roused his cousin from his slumber.

Upon awakening Fortinbras demanded breakfast, and, after alerting Nobb, the two hobbits ventured next door to the Rangers' room. Gilraen and Arathorn were already awake when they arrived.

Fortinbras and the Rangers sat blearily while they waited for their food. Bilbo pillowed his head upon folded arms and yawned. He rather enjoyed slow mornings. In due time Nobb arrived, bringing eggs, sausages, and fried potatoes, and as the four ate they discussed their plans for the day.

"Fortinbras and I will need summer clothing and armor," Bilbo said around a forkful of potatoes. "We should be able to find clothing in our size, but the armor might have to be custom-made..."

"And the three of you need bows," Fortinbras added. "After the most recent storms there should be enough fresh deadfall that I will not have to cut down someone's tree branches and thus incur their wrath. It should not take me but a day or so to fashion the bows, but I would feel more comfortable if you would each test them for your comfort before we leave. We shall also need to purchase hemp strings and a glue mixture to cure them in."

"We two do not require anything save foodstuffs and blankets, I should think," Gilraen said, exchanging a glance with Arathorn.

"Cards might be nice," Arathorn said. "And perhaps some additional bandages and medicines."

The other three nodded in agreement. They had been exceptionally lucky that Arathorn's shoulder had not been infected from the arrow-wound he had taken during the last battle in Buckland, and that luck had been more the result of the Dunedain constitution than a testament to Fortinbras' skill as a healer.

I will need a new journal as well, Bilbo mused. He was not entirely certain what had happened to the last one. Bilbo had often carried it at the bottom of his traveling pack, which had been inside their room in Brandy Hall during the Battle of Buckland and their subsequent escape into the Old Forest. There was a fairly good chance that it had remained there.

Bilbo was not particularly worried about anyone reading it and thus discovering his plans and purpose, however. He had realized the possibility of such an event during his stay in the Great Smials - Gandalf was fluent in Quenya, of course, and the Dunedain were known to use it occasionally in ceremonies - and so had written his thoughts in such a way that their meaning was not readily apparent to any save himself. No, it was more likely that anyone reading it would be far more puzzled as to how a hobbit tween had learned Quenya in the first place.

It would give their minds something to chew on, Bilbo supposed. At most, they would assume something similar to the story he had told the Rangers. Such an assumption would be, in and of itself, harmless.

"There is also the matter of horses..." Fortinbras mused. Then, looking at Gilraen and Arathorn, he added; "I don't suppose either of you are good judges of horseflesh? We hobbits know little of them, I fear."

Gilraen frowned, but it was Arathorn who answered; "we are used to swift elven-horses, well-trained in the ways of battle and understanding of elvish speech. The horses of Bree, I can only assume, are not of that like."

"Leave the matter to me, I ask of you," Bilbo said. "I have some experience of such things." Indeed, he had, though most of his knowledge extended to ponies instead of horses. They were similar enough, though, Bilbo supposed.

Fortinbras narrowed his eyes in confusion for a moment before widening them in realization. He nodded quickly.

"There is only one last matter to decide," Gilraen spoke. "Who will stay behind to watch our things?" She eyed Arathorn before continuing; "Bilbo and Fortinbras need to be fitted for clothing and armor, and Fortinbras must look upon the wood with his own eyes to tell if it is suitable for bow-making. It falls to one of us to stay behind."

"I think it should be you, Gilraen," Arathorn said, "as you are far more observant than I. You would make a far better guard."

"I think it should be you, Arathorn," Gilraen said. "You discount yourself far too readily, as usual. You are quite watchful, and being so tall are more likely to intimidate any intruders than one as slight as I."

"I have seen you angry, my friend," Arathorn replied. "I know exactly how intimidating you can be! Any would-be thieves would flee for their lives at the sight of your temper, much as the Bree-landers did yesterday."

Gilraen snorted at his response, but the upward curl of her lips betrayed her amusement.

"Actually, it might be best if Gilraen could accompany us," Fortinbras said. "She needs to instruct me on the proper length and draw for Ranger bows."

"We might wish to take turns afterwards," Bilbo said. "If nothing else, it would give each of us the opportunity to sew what items we can into our clothing. In the event that we are robbed of our valuables, keeping such a secret store might mean the difference between life and death."

Arathorn sighed. "I accept your wisdom, though I cannot say I am looking forward to the task," he said. "Tomorrow, perhaps, I will be able to explore the village."

"I shall tell you of anything interesting," Gilraen promised, touching his shoulder. Arathorn smiled at her in return.

Bilbo, Fortinbras and Gilraen left the inn mid-morning. The buildings; made of sturdy stone masonry, were much the same as Bilbo remembered them. The shops and inhabitants of those building, on the other hand, were rarely as such, and Bilbo soon gave up any hope of properly leading his companions through the village.

So it was that only after some wandering about the three were able to find an open-air market set a few streets apart from the main road.

All the great trade routes of Eriador went through Bree, and nowhere was this more apparent than at the village markets. Males and females, human and hobbit alike, were dressed in their best clothing as they browsed the stalls and tables. Jewels and finery were to be found aplenty there, alongside nearly everything else that a body could need.

It was a wonderful place to shop.

First, the three went to the merchants that dealt in finery and there they were able to exchange some of the less valuable barrow-treasures for coins. These were added to a money pouch that Bilbo quickly secreted inside his satchel. From there they traveled from stall to stall selecting what goods they needed. Waybread and dried meat, in great volumes, was delivered to their rooms, as were water-proof tents and blankets.

Bilbo made sure to purchase a bag of horse chestnuts and several flint-lighters, while Gilraen found playing cards and an extra pair of dice (they all had their own suspicions about the pair that Arathorn had carved out, before the barrow-wight's attack.) Fortinbras gathered up his hemp string and glue and was able to locate healing herbs and clean linens for bandages.

Several stalls sold hobbit-sized clothing, suitable for summer, but Bilbo considered none of displayed articles suitable for prolonged travel. In the end, the two hobbits had to commission several sets of traveling clothes, of the kind easily worn both under and over armor, from a village seamstress. With the aid of her apprentices, the clothing would be ready in several days.

Of all the goods at the market, however, arms and armor were not among them. So it was that with their other transactions completed, the three went in search of an armorer.

Several hours later, they left the fifth shop empty-handed. Not a single armory had sold anything hobbit-sized, and when asked, not a single armorer claimed to be capable of making two sets of light armor in any less time than a month. A month! They could not possibly wait that long!

It was outside of a cabbage stall that the three finally heard some good news. A fellow traveler had overheard their conversation with the last armorer, and had by chance stumbled upon them again after concluding his own business.

There was a traveling dwarf smith, the man explained, who once made custom weapons and armors for a living. He had come into good fortunes as of late, but might still be willing to take commissions. The smith charged exorbitant fees for his services, the man warned, but the quality of his work could not be matched by any smith of Bree. He was often to be found in the common room of the Prancing Pony.

"I can't think of the name," the man said, "but he was dark-haired, light-eyed, fair of face and had an unmistakably dour countenance."

Bilbo felt a vague sense of unease at these words, which he quickly dismissed. There was very little chance that the dwarf was someone he knew; there were hundreds, if not thousands, of dwarves living in the Blue Mountains, after all, and nearly all the major roads of Eriador passed through Bree. What was the chance?

Before returning to the inn, the three stepped outside of the village to gather appropriately-sized tree limbs. These they carried up to their rooms, along with their other purchases, ignoring the curious stares of the Prancing Pony's other customers. They deposited their goods in the Rangers' room, and, after explaining the situation to Arathorn, returned to the common room.

There was only a single dwarf present, sitting on a hobbit-sized stool near the bar. He was facing away from the small group, towards the doors. His hair was long and dark, and his clothing rich. He took long draughts of ale from a heavy tankard at his side, in between trading laughs with several sturdy human men.

It was with a muted sense of shock that Bilbo discovered that he could recognize the back of that head, even after so many years and decades since he had last seen it.

Thorin Oakenshield.

Bilbo blinked, and blinked again. He did not know how to feel. Every hair on his body stood straight up, even those on his feet.

They had parted on well enough terms, if a deathbed apology could be called that, but a part of Bilbo was still furious with the dwarf. It was a part that had long been buried under sorrow for the passing of his hard-won friend, a part that had grown stronger and colder with all the hindsight of age.

Fortinbras and Gilraen were looking at him curiously. Bilbo breathed in deeply, and attempted to still his trembling limbs. He felt like laughing. He felt like crying. He felt like marching over to the bar and shaking that fool dwarf until he fell over with dizziness.

Bilbo breathed out. This was not the same Thorin he had known all those years ago and Bilbo was not the same foolish hobbit, either. His limbs stilled, though that twisted discomfort filled him still.

Bilbo met Fortinbras eyes and inclined his head towards the dwarf. Bilbo felt that it would be best, perhaps, if he did not attempt to speak just yet. A few more minutes would be enough, maybe, but until then Fortinbras would have to take the lead.

"Are you..." Gilraen started to ask, trailing off into uncertainty.

"I'm fine," Bilbo answered, and shook his head. "Just a passing thought, and a most unwelcome one at that. It is nothing, I assure you." And it was nothing.

"Shall we, then?" Bilbo continued, once it appeared that neither of the other two were about to speak. "We do have some armor to commission, after all, and only a limited amount of time available to do so in."

"Yes..." Fortinbras said. He straightened his spine and squared his shoulders. "I believe I recognize that dwarf from yesterday; he was one of those who listened to Arathorn and Gilraen's tales. He did not seem so impressed by them as the Bree-landers were, but he appeared to believe them nonetheless. He will remember who we are, I should think."

Fortinbras led his companions over to the bar. One of the humans, recognizing the armed hobbit and armored woman, yelled out a welcome. The others turned to see who he was shouting out, and Thorin turned with them.

He looks much the same as he did the night of our meeting, Bilbo thought, his expression carefully blank. He has less white in his hair than he did Before, perhaps.

"Gilraen of the Rangers and Master Foxburr of the Shire, wasn't it?" someone asked.

"Is this your fourth companion?" another chimed in. "He's awful young, isn't he?"

"You got that during the Winter War, didn't you, lad?" a third exclaimed.

The bar patrons all peered interestedly at the scar on Bilbo's cheek. Bilbo raised an eyebrow at their behavior. They were traders by their dress, and assumedly well-traveled. A single cheek-scar was not a terrible wound in the minds of any save those who had seen neither warriors nor the battlefield. Perhaps it was because he was a hobbit. Or perhaps they were simply drunk.

Judging by their too-bright eyes, their sloppy gestures, and the way they could barely stay on their stools, it might even be because they were simply very drunk.

"Yes, yes, gentlemen," Fortinbras said, "this is my cousin, Master Underhill. He is older than he looks, rest assured." Fortinbras paused for a moment, judging the humans' mood. "I'm afraid we have come to steal away your drinking companion here, if your business has been concluded," he said, looking at Thorin.

The dwarf, who had been silent, met Fortinbras' gaze and nodded. "I believe we are done here. Gentlemen?"

The first speaker, the one who had loudly greeted the three, spoke again. "Go on. If we have any more celebratory drinks with ye, we will not be walkin' the next day, methinks."

Thorin's expression did not change. "My thanks, good sirs," he said stiffly. He rose from the stool, and, after giving his companions a regal bow, followed the three over to a small round table in a quiet corner.

The four of them sat, Bilbo and his companions on one side, and Thorin on the other. Thorin looked at the three in quiet interest, but remained silent.

After several moments, Fortinbras spoke. "As you might have heard earlier, I am Foxburr, of the Shire," he introduced himself. "These are my companions; my cousin, Underhill, and our friend and comrade, Gilraen of the Rangers. The last of our company is the Ranger, Arathorn, who is currently elsewhere."

"I am Thorin Oakenshield, of the Blue Mountains," Thorin replied. Then; "what business do you have with me, Foxburr of the Shire?" he asked.

"We are traveling northwards," Fortinbras said. "These Rangers seek their homes, and my cousin and I wish to visit them there. However, the journey is long, and perhaps perilous. We have seen and experienced much this past winter, and were lucky in our endeavors. Our arms are suitable for the road ahead, but our armor..." and here Fortinbras trailed off suggestively.

Thorin lifted his eyebrows and waited.

"You are quite skilled, from what we have heard," Fortinbras said.

"For yourself and your cousin, you said?" Thorin asked, looking over the two hobbits. "It will cost you," he cautioned.

"Anything worth having is worth paying for," Gilraen replied, and the two hobbits nodded. That was a dangerous thing to say to a human merchant, or even to an elven one, but to a dwarf such a statement was a fine compliment indeed and no more likely to raise the price than to raise the dead.

"We leave within the week," Bilbo spoke, finally. "Will you be able to finish in time?"

Thorin snorted at his question. "I am a dwarf smith!" he said, "and not a mean one at that. You will be wanting brigandine for the torsos, of course, and splinted armor for the greaves and vambraces. Those are simple enough. If you wish for mail underneath... If you wish for mail underneath, I may need as many as four days. If I take any longer than that, I will eat my boots!"

"Four days is agreeable, if you are able to make both mail and brigandine completely soundless as well," Bilbo smiled.

Thorin was fully capable of such a thing, Bilbo knew, and likely would have made their mail as such without Bilbo's prompting. The implication there, that he would not take the additional step without being asked, would surely sting at his professional pride, however. It was petty of Bilbo to act in such a manner, but he found he could not help himself. It was all he could do to resist strangling the dwarf.

Certainly enough, Thorin frowned at Bilbo's comment. He appeared uncertain as to whether or not the hobbit had meant to give offense. "Of course," the dwarf answered gruffly.

"If we are to discuss payment, however," Bilbo added, "perhaps we should continue this conversation in our rooms." He would control his temper. He would. This Thorin was not the one he was angry at, after all. This Thorin was merely someone who happened to look and act in a similar manner.

Bilbo had no quarrel with this Thorin.

The dwarf glanced over at Gilraen, his eyes lingering on her sword. Bilbo recognized in this Thorin's behavior his old friend's manner of evaluating a potential enemy's level of threat.

After a moment passed, Thorin replied; "lead the way."

It took half an hour, an explanation of where exactly their gold and jewelry had come from, and all of Bilbo's experience in negotiating with dwarves to work out a deal. Afterwards both parties were, if not exactly pleased with the price, satisfied that it was at least fair.

Bilbo had neither shaken Thorin, nor hugged him, nor wept into his hands. The only words that passed Bilbo's lips were courteous ones, and though he left the friendly words to his cousin and the Rangers Thorin had taken no offense at his actions.

The order had been altered at Arathorn's prompting. Two lightweight helms had been added to the commission, and as a result Thorin had amended his earlier promise; the two full sets were to be ready by dawn of the fifth day.

It was with lighter pockets and an aggrieved heart that Bilbo closed the door on the retreating form of one whom he had once called "friend." Gilraen likely would ask him no questions about his earlier reaction in the common room, but Fortinbras would be curious. He would want an explanation.

But how could Bilbo ever explain Thorin? How could he ever explain the unlikely friendship that had grown between them? Of the camaraderie, the respect and trust that had come to mean so much? And of Thorin's gold-madness, repeating the mistakes of his family and nearly causing a war all for the sake of a pile of shiny metal. Fili and Kili had died that day, ending the curse of that line, and it was only by sheer good fortune that no other members of the Company had joined them.

Dain had been a good king, a great king. Better, in hindsight, than Thorin would have been, had he lived. Dain had been both wiser and less stubborn than his ill-fated cousin, and possessed of an aura of leadership that dwarves, humans, and even the Mirkwood elves could not help but respect. He had been invaluable in the fight against Sauron, holding the Easterlings in the Northern lands where they could not reinforce the rest of Sauron's armies. Without his aid many more would have fallen.

Three times Dain had defied the messenger of Sauron, keeping the location of Bilbo and the Ring secret from the enemy. A lesser king would have given in to the promise of one of the Seven returned to his hands. A lesser king would have gladly accepted the bargain, acquiescing to the advice of his trusted councilors. If a lesser king had sat in Erebor the enemy, perhaps, would have won. It was a disquieting thought.

The next several days passed quickly. The following morn saw Fortinbras' turn to stay inside, and he took the opportunity to carve out new bows from the wood that had been gathered. Arathorn and Gilraen disappeared to explore Bree at their leisure, never having had the chance to do so before. Bilbo set to finding a scribe shop. Quills and ink they had in plenty there, and even some blank journals set in waterproof bindings. They would fit his needs quite nicely, and he was well pleased with his purchases.

By the fifth day, the hobbits' new traveling clothes were finished, as were the new bows and several arrows. Fortinbras had needed to remake the Rangers' bows several times until they were just right. The horse chestnuts that Bilbo had found at the open market were cleaned, holes drilled carefully into them, and leather cords threaded through. These Bilbo kept in a small pouch, tied at his belt. They would make a good surprise for later, he thought. As would the book on healing that he had purchased for Fortinbras.

Thorin was as good as his word, much as Bilbo had expected. The armor was exceptionally light, perfectly silent, and looked strong enough to turn a spear. Nothing they had commissioned could compare to Bilbo's old mithril mail, perhaps, but nothing ever would. The armor was perfectly suitable for their purposes, at least, and thankfully the price had been somewhat lower than "the cost of the Shire and everything in it."

After a cursory inspection, and a quick fitting, Bilbo paid the other half of the fee and the dwarf went on his way.

Now that their new armor was finished, there was only the matter of their mounts to see to. Their mounts, that was, and the letter home.


Author's notes:

If anyone could construct two sets of chain mail in less than five days (along with the other stuff), it would be a dwarf-smith. Especially a well-trained one, like Thorin presumably is. Technical stuff: brigandine is a type of armored vest where metal plates are riveted to leather or heavy cloth - either between two pieces of fabric or only to one side. The Rangers have the first kind, and that is what Thorin is making for the hobbits. Splinted armor is similar, but with metal strips instead of plates. It goes on the lower limbs, usually, and is also usually only riveted or sewn to one side. Both are pretty typical for traveling warrior-types... Especially since full scale-mail is a bitch to roam around in. In other words, after this, the Rangers and hobbits will match. :D

Also, "Barrow-wight" has been edited - the Rangers picked up some chain mail while they were there, since they didn't have any before and they kinda needed it (or else Arathorn would not have had an arrow poking through his shoulder -_-;;;.) I don't usually like doing that sort of thing, but it seemed ridiculous to have them buy some in Bree when, in all odds, there would have been at least several sets included in the wight's trove.

Chapter Text

The Journey North

"Twenty silver pennies for the lot of them," the merchant stated his final offer. "You'll not see a better price in these parts, I can promise you that."

Bilbo eyed the ponies and horses that the merchant was trying to sell him one more time. It was indeed a good price, less than half of what the beasts were worth, if Bilbo was any judge of horseflesh. That was the reason why he was so hesitant to buy them. Deals that seemed too good to be true usually were, though from what Bilbo could tell these beasts seemed to be the best available.

The merchant's story was likely enough, Bilbo supposed. Raids by orcs and goblins were common, particularly on those passing close to the Misty Mountains. It was entirely possible, if unfortunate, for the merchant's caravan to have lost riders while their mounts escaped from harm. Arrows, perhaps, or maybe the beasts had bolted and thrown their riders in the process.

It was the last possibility that worried Bilbo. He had had enough ponies bolting on him to last a lifetime.

"They are perfectly good beasts, and I would dearly love to keep them, but you see, I am traveling alongside men of Gondor, and they are terribly superstitious about such things. It is bad luck, they say, to keep the mount of a dead man. If I do not sell the beasts, and soon, I fear that they will either cut them loose or slaughter them!" the merchant implored.

"Include the bridles and saddles," Bilbo said, going against his better judgment, "and we have a deal."

In short order, the three ponies and three horses were led to the Prancing Pony Inn. There they were stabled, groomed, and fed. A closer inspection revealed nothing wrong with any of them, save perhaps the weariness that goes along with a long journey taken at speed. A long walk, through fertile country in spring, would do them a world of good.

The horses were riding horses, of a sort used to carrying heavy humans a great distance. They appeared to be well-trained, a good sign that they would not easily bolt, though they gave no signs of being accustomed to battle. Neither Arathorn nor Gilraen should have any difficulties with them, Bilbo thought. One horse was clearly of a lesser quality than the other two; this horse would serve well to carry baggage and supplies and, in the case that they lost one of their other mounts, serve to replace it.

As soon as the ponies were taken to the stable, Bilbo had tried mounting them and was pleasantly surprised to find that they took riders well. The merchant has assured him that the ponies had originally been trained for riding, though the caravan had found little use for them other than as baggage-carriers. Bilbo was glad to discover that, in this at least, the merchant had been honest.

He and Fortinbras could have ridden pillion behind the Rangers, but putting such a burden on the horses would have made the journey that much longer. The four of them would have been fine, Bilbo supposed; they all knew how to hunt, after all, and the Blue Mountains were hardly Mirkwood, but even still there was something to be said for hot food and a warm bed at night. The sooner they could reach those things the better, in Bilbo's opinion.

After an hour of riding each of the ponies around the stable-yard, Bilbo decided that one in particular was best suited to him. Fortinbras would later be able to choose which of the remaining two he felt suited him best, and the third would carry their baggage and supplies, the same as the third horse.

When he was finished, Bilbo fed their new steeds oats and brushed their sides. He felt a surge of nostalgia for Snowdrop; though he had only known her for several months during that time he had been in near constant contact with the pony.

Fate had been far kinder to Snowdrop than to the Rangers' mounts, who were separated from their masters in the rush of battle. Hopefully they had lived, and returned home as Arathorn had requested. Both Snowdrop, and Fortinbras' pony as well, come to think of it, had been safe inside the Brandy Hall stables when last Bilbo had seen them. The Bucklanders will take good care of them, he reassured himself.

Bilbo gave one last pat to his favorite pony out of the lot, and then returned to the inn. There, Bilbo entered the Rangers' room and took a seat at the table. Fortinbras was curled up under the window sill, reading his new book on healing. Bilbo felt a moment of smugness that he was able to interest his cousin in a book, any book, that was neither family history nor genealogy. One day, perhaps, Fortinbras would even read poetry. It would be elven poetry, too, if Bilbo had anything to say about it.

The Rangers were seated with folded legs on one of the beds, playing at cards. Expressions of furious concentration covered their faces. Undoubtedly there was some unpleasant chore at stake, as was the Rangers' custom.

It had been a little less than a week since they had first arrived in Bree, and very little had changed. Fortinbras and the Rangers were enjoying their freedom to come and go as they pleased, no longer confined to the Bombadils' small residence. Bree was a relief, a holiday almost, after the winter and all that it had brought. Even the latest pickpocketing attempt had brought a smile to his face!

The worst, I feel, is behind us, Bilbo thought gladly. The thought of the Goblin City and Smaug didn't seem so bad after such a fine day. With yet another smile tugging at his lips, Bilbo drew a sheet of paper from his new journal and began to pen a letter. Now, how to best word this...

The next morning, after exchanging their goodbyes with Master Butterbur and Nobb and leaving the letter with the Ranger Finulias, the four headed north. They would take the Greenway to the Old North Road and then follow that road northwest, across the Dim Hills. There they would find the River Lune and it's wide valley, which continued southward until it reached the sea somewhere near the Grey Havens.

There would be some small towns and ports between where they would first reach the river and their destination in the Havens, Bilbo remembered, though he couldn't quite place their names.  One of them is directly upon the Eastway, he recalled.  It would have been so much faster to cut directly through the Shire...

But, ultimately, taking the direct route would have raised questions.  The chance of being recognized by a bounder or relative was too great, and Bilbo did not relish the thought of getting dragged back to his mother by his ears. Both she and his father were bound to be quite furious once they discovered what he had done.  No, the northern road held a far slimmer chance of discovery.  Bilbo believed that the trade-off was worthwhile.  The others had agreed as well, and that was that.

It would have been possible, Bilbo supposed, to cut around the Shire from the south, but that path brought one close to the northern stretch of the South Marshes and required cutting through a great swath of woodland... Woodland much like that which the invaders had favored.

According to the Bree-landers the last of the invaders had been driven out of the Shire weeks ago, and the Rangers had left soon after, but still... Goblins are a tricky lot, Bilbo thought. What is the likelihood that at least some of the invaders still live? The Rangers of the North, while skilled hunters, were not perfect after all. There was certainly a chance that - Bilbo's thoughts were interrupted when Fortinbras spoke.

"Do you remember what happened to our caps?" Fortinbras asked, edging his pony closer to Bilbo's.

"Caps?" Bilbo asked, crinkling his brow. He was not entirely certain what Fortinbras was asking about.

"Yes, our bounder caps," Fortinbras said. "We had them when we rode out against the invaders, but for the life of me I cannot remember what happened to them after that. We do not have them now, so we had to have lost them at some point..."

Their bounder caps? Whatever did happen to those? Bilbo wondered. He did not think that they had been stolen by the Barrow-wight alongside their traveling clothes, but he did not particularly remember, either. He had no clear memory of the caps since after the last battle against the invaders, and, afterwards, there had been too many other things to worry about. "I don't know," Bilbo admitted. "I do not remember, any more than you do."

"They fell off when we were running through the Old Forest," Arathorn answered from the front.

"The trees knocked them off, then orcs trampled them," Gilraen added, twisting around in her saddle to look at the two hobbits. "Helms are better, I should think," she said. "There is more protection in a helm. You are less likely to get your brains addled by a bad knock to the head, at least."

Fortinbras frowned at her. The bounders' cap and its feathers had meant a great deal to Fortinbras, not very long ago. He had worked very hard to earn them and overcome the reputation of his youth, and had just begun to succeed when the winter had started. He did not like the thought of his cap and feathers destroyed.

"It's just as well," Bilbo said. "I can't imagine we would have a use for them, at least not for quite a while."

The group was silent for several moments, until Gilraen spoke. "While I understand that these horses were the best available, I do wish you had been able to get war mounts," she said to Bilbo, sounding worried. "I hope we are not attacked while riding."

"If we are to be attacked, dear friend," Arathorn answered her, "I assure you that it is far more likely to happen at night."

Fortinbras gave a slight flinch at his words, and Bilbo hurriedly changed the subject.

"What else has Finulias told you of your mission in the Blue Mountains?" he asked the Rangers. "That you can speak of, I mean," Bilbo corrected himself.

"We weren't told much," Gilraen said. "Simply that there is an unknown bandit, or group of bandits, robbing travelers and that no one can identify the culprits. The elves are blaming the dwarves and the dwarves are claiming they're not responsible, but no one has any real proof of anything. Cirdan the Shipwright, Master of the Havens, will inform us of the particulars when we arrive, I suppose."

"With our luck we'll find a Ringwraith," Arathorn said. "It would fit with the kind of year we've been having so far."

"A what?" Fortinbras asked, raising his eyebrows. "I don't believe I've heard of such a thing before."

"A Nazgul, by another name," Gilraen explained. "The Nazgul are the immortal servants of the Dark Lord. They are a kind of wraith, but far more powerful. They are our people's ancient enemies."

Arathorn eyed Gilraen for a moment before continuing her explanation. "The Witch King of Angmar, the mightiest of the Ringwraiths, destroyed our old country of Arnor. The battle of Fornost, of which the Barrow-wight spoke, was the last battle before the North Country fell. Angmar was later destroyed by the forces of Lindon and Gondor, but the Witch King himself escaped. He still lives, in whatever manner a wraith can be said to, foul creatures that they are."

Fortinbras gazed at the pair with wide eyes. "And you expect to find one at our destination?" he asked, dismayed.

"I suppose they are all in Mordor," Bilbo said, "and not anywhere at all close to the Grey Havens. They remember Cirdan well, I should think. I cannot imagine any of them prowling so close to his lands."

"Arathorn was attempting to be humorous," Gilraen said, lifting her eyebrows at her old friend.

"I was succeeding, thank you," Arathorn replied, affecting hurt at Gilraen's comment.

Fortinbras frowned at the ground for several moments. "Forgive me for saying so, but such an assignment seems particularly tricky," he said. "It strikes me as... strange, that it should be given you. You said before that your first assignment outside of your homeland was to the Shire, but have you done such work within the Angle?"

"Not as such, no," Arathorn said. "But we know how to track enemies, and implement strategies. Aside from that, it is simply a matter of speaking with the correct people."

Gilraen nodded her agreement with Arathorn's statement.

Bilbo and Fortinbras exchanged a glance. It seemed like the Rangers would still be needing their assistance after all.

It took less than three days after the four left Bree to travel northward for Bilbo's letter to arrive in Buckland.

Finulias had given the letter to a trader, who had given it to a bounder, who had, after asking around, given it to one of the Buckland guard. From there it found its way into Buckleberry, then to Brandy Hall, and finally to Belladonna and Bungo Baggins.

It was evening when the guardshobbit arrived at Buck Hall, and the Brandybucks, Bagginses, and Isumbras Took were having supper. Or rather, they were arguing over supper.

It had been nearly two months since Bilbo and Fortinbras' disappearance into the Old Forest, and even the most stalwart of believers were beginning to give up hope. Bilbo's journal had been recovered from the battlefield; pages waterlogged beyond repair and readability, but the distinctive cover instantly recognizable to his parents. Two bounder caps, trampled and so filthy as to be almost beyond recognition had been recovered from the woods by one particularly daring Bucklander.

Gandalf and the Dunedain Chief had disappeared to deal with the flooding that occurred elsewhere as a result of the heavy snow melt, and had taken the rest of the Rangers with them. Belladonna felt Gandalf's loss keenly; she very much wished for his advice, even though she was absolutely certain she knew what he would say. 'Wait and see' was not so easy to do when family was on the line, but when spoken by a friend the words did not seem quite so foolish.

"All that I am saying," Gorbadoc stated, as gently as he could, "is that the spring rains have come and gone and the snow has now disappeared. If Fortinbras and Bilbo were able to seek refuge with Bombadil, if, mind you, then there is now no longer anything preventing their return. And yet they are not in Buckland, and they are not in Bree."

"It is still too soon," Isumbras argued. "They may have chosen to wait until the waters receded - the party we sent to Bree may have arrived too soon. Another week, just one more, and we will know for certain."

"And after that it will be another week, and then just one more," Mirabella said, her hands raised in an attempt to sooth. "I do not like this any more than you do, brother, but after a certain point one must face the facts."

"It is easier to be of such an opinion when it is not your child who is missing," Bungo replied, his temper fraying at the ends. "A week is perfectly reasonable."

Belladonna shut her eyes. Yes, how she wished Gandalf were here! He would know just the right words to say, the right point to make, to get her family to cease its bickering. Belladonna was just getting ready to yell when a knock on the door interrupted the discussion.

A member of the kitchen staff entered the room, bearing a letter, which she then handed to Bungo. "One of the guard brought it here not more than a quarter-hour ago, Master Baggins," she said. "He did not know where it came from or who sent it."

Bungo thanked and dismissed her, not taking his eyes off of the letter. Eagerly, he tore it open and read it through. The joy in his eyes quickly turned to shock, and his eyebrows drew up higher and higher. Wordlessly, he handed the letter to Belladonna.

Belladonna read it, and found herself laughing helplessly. Tears pooled in her eyes, and she almost fell out of her chair.

"What about that letter is so entertaining?" Isumbras demanded to know.

When Belladonna was able to stop giggling, she read the letter aloud.

"'Dear Mum and Dad,'" she read, enjoying the looks of surprise that darted across her sister and Gorbadoc's faces. "'Fortinbras and I are alive and well, as are our Ranger friends and allies. After being separated from friendly forces during the battle we found that we had little choice but to flee into the Old Forest in order to evade our enemies. We made it safely past the trees, in part thanks to the Rohan blade you gifted me with.'"

"That's a 'Rohirrim' blade, son," Belladonna commented to the letter, as if by speaking out loud to it Bilbo would hear her. "You should know this by now; your father has only told you the story of my adventures in Rohan a thousand times or so."

Isumbras cleared his throat, causing Belladonna to raise an eyebrow at him. "I'm reading, I'm reading," Belladonna defended herself. "'A talking fox led us safely to the house of Tom Bombadil and his wife Goldberry...'" Here she paused once more. "A talking fox?"

"The animals in the Old Forest are peculiar, at times," Gorbadoc said. "I have met talking swans and otters there before."

The others gave him a strange look. Gorbadoc merely shrugged in reply.

"'A talking fox led us safely to the house of Tom Bombadil and his wife Goldberry,'" Belladonna continued after a moment, "' where we were given food and drink and kept as guests until the spring melts came. As of the current date, we are still in Bree, though soon we will head north to visit the Rangers' home. While there they have promised to accompany me to Rivendell, so that my lifelong wish to see the elves will be fulfilled. Fortinbras has decided to escort me there, as he is of the opinion that I am too young to leave the Shire without one.' Well, at least someone has sense," Belladonna said.

"Is that all of it?" Mirabella asked.

"No," Belladonna said. "'While I am there I hope to learn elvish and am planning on reading every book in the library. This might take some while, so expect our return home in several years' time. With love, your son Bilbo.'" Belladonna set the letter down on the table and chuckled some more.

"Shall I ready the ponies, dear?" Bungo asked.

"No, I think not," Belladonna said, relief and amusement coloring her voice. "Visiting his new friends' home is hardly as dangerous as battling orcs and goblins, and especially not as dangerous as that accursed wood. Besides, Bilbo has two human warriors and his older cousin with him and a good head on his shoulders. He will be fine. He had better not take several years to return home, though, or I am sending Gandalf after him."

Isumbras covered his face with his hands. "I do not know whether to be proud of my son or furious with him," he admitted. "Perhaps I am simply too relieved to hear that he still lives."

Mirabella reached over and patted her brother's shoulder. "He is a Took," she consoled him. "Having adventures is what Tooks do best. And a journey to see the elves is not, by any stretch, the most outrageous thing Fortinbras has ever done. It is quite responsible of him, I think, to accompany his cousin all that way."

Bungo frowned at his wife. "Bilbo is only twenty-one," he said, "and with all he must have seen this past winter the best place for him might well be at home."

"He sounded well enough in this letter," Belladonna replied. "Bilbo has wanted to see the elves ever since he first heard tale of them. A long journey with friends, away from the memories of the winter, in the hopes of fulfilling such a childlike dream... It may well be exactly what he needs."

"He should have asked first, at least," Bungo said. "It would have been nice to have seen him, to look at him and reassure myself that he is still among the living, and to speak with him about what he has seen and done these past few months." These words were said with a sort of icy politeness, belying the fury underneath.

Belladonna drew back at Bungo's tone, startled. "Bungo..." she started to say.

"No," Bungo said. He took a deep breath and then slowly released it. "No," he said again, and shook his head. "I cannot speak with you about this right now." Bungo stood. "My pardons," he said to the others, excusing himself, then left.

Bungo gently shut the door to the dining chamber, and started walking down one of Buck Hall's innumerable corridors. He had no particular destination in mind. Tooks! he complained to himself. Tooks were always mad, mad creatures, no matter how sane they could make themselves appear at times. And Brandybucks were hardly better.

Was it so much to want to see his son again? After all these months of hearing little to no word and fearing the worst, Bungo had been quite looking forward to sweeping Bilbo into a hug and never letting go. He should never have allowed Belladonna to convince him to let Bilbo join the bounders... Tears prickled at Bungo's eyes, and he stopped for a moment, attempting to force them down.

It was positively unseemly, for a Baggins to behave in such a manner, and especially at Bungo's age. He leaned against the wall of the corridor, supporting himself against the sudden shaking of his limbs.

Was it so much to ask that Belladonna be supportive of him in this? Bungo asked himself as he stood there, blinking furiously. Bilbo was an only child; his birth had been particularly difficult and it was only by Gandalf's intervention that Belladonna and their son had survived. Bungo had always felt fiercely protective of his little dreamer lad, though he reminded himself daily that Bilbo was a Took as well as a Baggins. The boy need adventures like most beings needed to breathe, and it was horrifically unfair to deny him them.

But still, Bilbo was only twenty-one. He was far too young to fight and kill and possibly die... Almost against his will Bungo thought back to his son's first battle, when he and Belladonna had taken their neighbors south, to Tookburough. His son had danced then, wielding his mother's Rohirrim blade, as if he had learned its secrets for years instead of weeks, as if he had been born to it.

He thought of the distance in his son's eyes, the distance that had begun mid-winter and grown with each day since. Slowly, but certainly, Bungo Baggins was losing his son. He did not like it. Not one bit.

"Bungo?" Belladonna asked from his side.

Bungo looked up at the sound of her voice, startled. He had not even heard her approach. "Yes?" he asked, his voice slightly scratchy.

"Bungo, I am sorry," Belladonna said. "I did not stop to think of your feelings on the matter. I do not believe that we would be able to catch up with our wayward son if we set out immediately, but it would be a simple enough matter to send a message to Gandalf. He will drag Bilbo back to Bag End by his ears, if necessary. And Fortinbras too, for that matter."

Her words caused Bungo to chuckle. "You mean Gandalf's bird?" he asked. "It has taken up residence somewhere in the garden," Bungo said. "It might take some convincing to get it to deliver any messages at all, what with its newfound love of the baker-girl's stale breads."

"Gandalf wished to hear word at once when news of Bilbo and his party arrived," Belladonna said. "The bird will comply with his wishes, I suspect."

Belladonna reached forward and enveloped Bungo in a hug. "I love you," she said into his chest.

"I love you, too," Bungo replied into her hair. He squeezed her slightly. It was good to know that, even if he could not hold his son, he still had this. Bungo loved Belladonna with all his heart, even if she exasperated him at times, and would not trade her love for anything else in the world.

He could not imagine what he would do without her.

Author's notes:

Rangers, no. That is not how investigations work. In the infamous words of Bilbo; that is not a plan! It's a good thing you brought hobbits with you. Fortinbras is used to looking for peoples' "missing" stuff and Bilbo was instructed by a master thief... *cough* Nori *cough* couldn't stand to see his trade so misrepresented *cough* Bilbo prefers the term "gentleman rogue" okay? Or is it "gentlehobbit rogue?"

And Bungo is an upset hobbit. Bagginses do not like this sort of thing. Not a bit. Make him happy Belladonna! *cries into handkerchief*

My teeth are still cracked, but the pain is better now, so I give you fic. Enjoy, because after this I've got a dentist appointment and mother's day craziness at work. I guess it's true what they say; when it rains, it pours.

Edit: 5/6/13

Silmarillion Stuff: Way back when the kingdom of Arnor was still young(ish) the Dark Lord Sauron sent his most trusted minion, the Ringwraith who would become known as the Witch King, to the northen part of the Misty Mountains to establish a stronghold. He created Angmar, a kingdom of evil humans, and declared war upon the kingdom of Arnor (Arnor was in three pieces at this point, due to some in-fighting in the royal family, and no longer called "Arnor," but later reclaimed its name.) Arnor lasted some six-hundred years before it finally fell, at the Battle of Fornost, when the men of Carn Dum (the capital of Angmar) attacked in the middle of the night. A year later, reinforcements from Lindon (effectively the Grey Havens), Rivendell (led by Glorfindel) and Gondor arrived, and the survivors of the Dunedain of the North (and some hobbit archers) marched with them. They were able to destroy Angmar, shattering it so completely that it never re-established itself. The Witch King, however, survived. It was during this battle that Glorfindel made the prophesy that "the Witch King will be slain by no man." After the final battle was over, the Dunedain of the North had their numbers depleted so severely that they were unable to establish a new kingdom. They left to live in the Angle, to the south of Rivendell, and established several villages there under Lord Elrond's protection.

The name of Arathorn's horse in the first arc, "Arthedain" was the name of one of the three kingdoms Arnor was split into. Arathorn is descended from its kings. Also, if you're curious about the geography, I've been using the Shire Post Map and the Map of Middle Earth version 7 by Jungles to figure out routes and distances and things. I've taken a few liberities with them, but for the most part these are the sources.

Chapter Text

Upon the Shore

The four journeyed north for the next several weeks. During their travel, the days-long rains had gradually ceased, leaving wildflowers in their wake. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds danced through the rolling fields; simple joy at the arrival of spring.

Bilbo reined in his pony, which he had still not named. He paused a moment to enjoy the sight before him. Waves of red, blue and yellow covered the hillsides, and it seemed that the butterflies and hummingbirds were making their rounds to each and every one. Bilbo felt a rush of nostalgia for his own garden as it once was.

When was the last time he had seen it? It must have been that last day in the Shire, Bilbo mused. Before the Party. It could not have been after, as I was busy with my final preparations for the journey... Frodo and Sam had taken good care of his old garden, Bilbo was certain. Bilbo took one last deep breath, letting the heady scent of the wildflowers swirl through his mouth and throat, before nudging his pony into motion once more. If he survived this, perhaps, Bag End and its garden would once again be his.

Bilbo angled his pony behind Fortinbras', the two pack animals trailing behind the four riders. He gazed across at his cousin, relaxed and smiling at the tranquil scene. There had been a time, in Buckleberry, before the Battle of Buckland, before Tom Bombadil and the news he brought, that Bilbo had despaired that such peaceful relaxation would forever be beyond his cousin, beyond any of them.

Days like this, Bilbo thought, make me happy to be alive. He glanced over at Fortinbras once more. In the time since leaving Bree, Bilbo and the Rangers had begun training Fortinbras in the way of the dagger, against his protests. He was a slow learner, to be sure, overcautious in a way that often resulted in clumsiness, but Bilbo felt confident that that particular trait would all but disappear in actual combat. His cousin had good instincts in battle, something that they had all been grateful for at some point or another.

Bilbo had never learned to use a dagger. It had never seemed particularly useful to him, not with Sting at his side, and now his Rohan blade. Neither had either Gilraen or Arathorn had been trained in the dagger's use beyond the most elementary instruction.

Fortinbras' training had been interesting, to be certain, a mixture of the Rangers' rules and drills and Bilbo's advice upon fighting much larger opponents. Between the three of them they had cobbled out something useful, but a distressing amount of it was still improvised.

Bilbo had even - briefly, in the moments that the others were busy - attempted to learn how to wield both of his swords at once before giving it up a bad job. He had the most difficult time getting the blades go to where they had to be without either hitting one with the other or tripping over his own feet. It was terribly unpractical, no matter what Elrohir had claimed. Briefly, Bilbo wondered how many years the elf had spent training before he was capable of winning a practice bout against the least-skilled of warriors, much less fight in open combat.

Bilbo would be keeping with his own single blade, and keeping the best care of it that he could. The barrow-blade had thereafter been kept alongside the baggage on the lesser pony's back. It would in all odds remain packed away for years, unless Fortinbras suddenly took up an interest in swordplay.

Fortinbras, take up an interest in swordplay! Bilbo spent the next several moments in apt contemplation of the road, lest his face betray his thoughts upon the subject. It had been difficult enough to convince Fortinbras to learn the dagger, Bilbo could not imagine that his cousin would be willing to carry a sword, much less learn its ways. He had been quite stubborn in insisting that the bow was the only weapon for him, but talk as to what Fortinbras would do if an enemy ever got too close, paired with comments on how any of them would hate to lose him, had eventually done the trick.

Bilbo's eyes lingered on the road. In the time the four had left Bree, they had twice been passed by riders headed south. The first had merely ridden past without comment, but the second stayed for a moment to exchange conversation. The rider was the son of the mayor of a small town within the Weather Hills, and he was headed to Bree for business. The rains and heavy snow melt had caused the soil on the treeless hills above the village to turn to mud, and a tide of it had swept away a good many buildings. The mayor's son had been sent to procure building and farming tools, and some additional hands to work them.

A number of those who would have held those tools were still unaccounted-for, believed to be buried underneath the mud. Alongside their wives and children.

The news had left a sour taste in everyone's mouths, a taste that had persisted for some while.

Bilbo looked back out at the fields as his pony continued forward, the world bright and the bees buzzing. He smiled, faintly. Best to enjoy it while he could, he supposed.

They rode one more day, and then another, before they made their camp upon the shores of Lake Evendim. In the distance, an old ruin stood, covered under grass and dirt, and nearly invisible to the naked eye.

The Rangers were somber as they gazed upon it.

"That is Norbury of the Kings," Arathorn said of the ruin, "or Fornost Erain, as it was once known. It was the capital of Arnor before the Witch King invaded, and the greatest stronghold of the Dunedain of the North. Now it is but a series of grassy knolls. The Bree-landers call it 'Deadman's Dike,' and shun it, but we Rangers remember it well."

Fortinbras frowned, following the Rangers' gazes to the ancient ruins. "The barrow-wight spoke of Fornost," he said at last. "I awoke in the midst of his mutterings, but I remember his talk of hobbit-archers... Living in the Shire, even as I did, I have heard nothing of such an event."

"I cannot say I remember reading about such a thing, either," Gilraen said, stirring the fire. Her brow crinkled for a moment in thought. "Many of the elves of Lindon, those who have not yet sailed West, at least, would have been present at that battle. They may tell you what they know of the hobbits there, if you ask it of them."

Fortinbras nodded in acknowledgement.

"Are you looking forward to seeing your uncles again?" Arathorn asked, looking at the two hobbits. "I imagine it has been some time since you last looked upon them.  By your own words hobbits are not usually much for travel."

Bilbo and Fortinbras exchanged a glance. Bilbo attempted to remember to recall the exact words he had given the Rangers when he had spoken about his uncles Hildifons and Isengar. He did not succeed.

"It has indeed been a great while since we have last seen them," Bilbo said finally. "I was very young when my uncles left the Shire, and in truth I remember little of them. Most of what I know of them I have heard from Gandalf, whom I would often beg to tell me of their adventures by the sea."

What will happen when we arrive in the Havens and they are not there to greet us? Bilbo worried, his whole body tense. Neither Arathorn nor Gilraen were fond of being lied to, and Bilbo feared their reaction upon discovering the ruse. They had been angry and hurt when he had done something so minor as to neglect to inform them of an injury: their response this time was likely to be far worse.

Fortinbras frowned. "When last we heard of them they were in the Havens," he said. "In truth, it is possible that they have ventured elsewhere. It has been some time since we have last had word from them. Their leaving caused something of a scandal, to put it delicately. Grandmother was particularly unhappy with them."

It was the Rangers' turn to exchange a glance.

Bilbo felt his muscles relax. They did not seem particularly upset. He breathed a silent thanks to Fortinbras' past as a trouble-maker, and his resulting ability to invent plausible excuses at a moment's notice.

"You decided to leave for the Havens without even knowing if they are there?" Gilraen asked, raising her brows.

Fortinbras shrugged. "If they are not there, then the elves will know where they have gone. At worst, we will be kept as guests for some few months before being shown the door."

Arathorn's brow was wrinkled. "If all you needed was a place to live, free from the worry of discovery, you could have come to the Angle," he said. "Not even the most determined of your relations would have been able to discover you there."

Fortinbras blinked at him. "It was more Gandalf that we were worried about," he said after a moment.

"Gandalf would not enforce an unwanted marriage," Gilraen replied with confidence. "You would be perfectly safe there, and in no danger of being 'shown the door.'" She looked at Bilbo. "You did promise to visit, once," she said, her voice a bit more uncertain. "If you are unable to find your uncles, for whatever reason, you are both welcome to come and stay with us, after our mission in the Blue Mountains is done."

Bilbo opened his mouth and then shut it, momentarily paralyzed by indecision. The Angle lay but a few leagues to the south of Rivendell, and was easily reached from the Great East Road. He and Fortinbras would be able to stop there on their way to the Misty Mountains, and Bilbo had indeed been considering such a plan, but... Without the device capable of inducing invisibility, the journey would be pointless.

Bilbo could feel the march of time pressing down upon him; life was fleeting enough to elves, to say nothing of mere mortals, of which Bilbo most certainly was. For every instant that they delayed was one more instant in which the forces of Dol Guldor mustered, in which the wizard Saruman edged ever-closer to his fall, in which one more foul creature had the opportunity to fall upon Gollum and seize the Ring.

If only he could simply tell them the truth and be done with it! But even as the idea announced itself to Bilbo, he rejected it. It was unthinkable. Such a path was far too dangerous; he would not take such a risk for the mere sake of making his life easier.

Fortinbras eyed his cousin's face for a sign as to the proper way to respond to the Ranger's offer. Bilbo did not meet his gaze. After several moments of silence, the Rangers began to withdraw, their faces and postures stiff.

"We must at least attempt to look for them first," Bilbo said finally, "and there is your work there to consider. These things are always trickier than one might suppose, or at least so I have heard. Neither do we wish to trouble you, or any of your relations. Perhaps we might wish to wait until we have arrived and see the situation for ourselves before making any plans?"

At the expressions of the two humans' faces, Bilbo hurried to add; "The both of us would very much like to come and see your home. I have not forgotten my promise - I am simply uncertain if we will be able to leave at the conclusion of your mission. If we are not, in fact, able, then I suspect that we will journey to join you within the next year or so, after the winter is done, if possible."

Gilraen stared at Bilbo for a long moment before beginning a conversation with Arathorn in Ranger-sign. Their hands and fingers moved faster and faster until they seemed to blur as the two Rangers communicated with each other. When they stopped, Arathorn sagged and Gilraen seemed almost triumphant.

Fortinbras raised an eyebrow at the two of them, but neither made any attempt to explain.

Bilbo suppressed the urge to pout. It had been many years since anyone had begun conversing around Bilbo in a language he could not understand; he had forgotten the feeling. It was not one which he enjoyed, though it had provided useful motivation during his own period of learning spoken Sindarin.

The Company had rarely spoken Khuzdul around him - at first he had attributed it to politeness on their part, but was later saddened to discover that it had far more to do with a lifetime spent traveling amongst humans. In their time Westron had become more and more the spoken tongue amongst Durin's folk, and even Fili and Kili, royals though they were, had known fewer of the old tales than either their mother or uncle. Regaining Erebor had helped the dwarfs to retain their old ways, somewhat; in the time Before Balin had often despaired of the dwarfish youth associating more and more with the people of Dale...

"I have but one uncle," Arathorn said suddenly, "and one cousin. It has been several years since I have seen either of them."

The other two hobbits stared at him, for it was rare for Arathorn to speak of his family.

"There was an incident, years ago..." Arathorn trailed off, and then shook his head. "One that ended more than a bit unpleasantly. In my experience, family troubles are usually difficult to resolve."

Bilbo shrugged. He wouldn't really know: he had been estranged from most of his family - save, of course, for Frodo - for most of his life in some form or another. 

Arathorn's lips quirked, and he looked down and to the side. Gilraen grasped his shoulder. It seemed that whatever he was remembering, he was not particularly happy about.

"My mother's line is one of seers," Gilraen said, "and I alone have little gift in that regard. This has caused some difficulties for me," and here she chewed on her lower lip. "But I cannot say that I would seek to leave home because of it." She eyed each hobbit before tilting her head in thought. "Are arranged marriages common in your family?"

Fortinbras blinked. "Ah, not as such, no," he answered. "It is more likely to happen when a family has but a single child, and the parents or parent believes that they are unlikely to marry otherwise." Fortinbras winced slightly at his own words.

Arathorn nodded. "You seemed to have many aunts and uncles," he said, and that was the end of that conversation.

They slept that night under the full moon. Bilbo spent his watch gazing upon the ruins of Fornost. The hours passed, and Arathorn replaced him at the fireside. Bilbo went to his bedrolls, and tossed and turned in restless sleep.

It was near midnight when the horses screamed.

Bilbo wakened with a jolt. Human men, dressed in rough clothing and with naked blades in their hands, surrounded the campsite.  A sword found its way to Bilbo's neck, and pressed into the soft skin there in warning.

Bilbo froze.

In front of him, Gilraen lay blindfolded and gagged, her hands and wrists tied together. She writhed as she fought against the bindings, her lips forming muffled curses against the gag. On the other side of the camp, Arathorn lay motionless at the feet of an armored figure. Whether he was unconscious or dead, Bilbo could not see.

Fortinbras was not visible at all.

When retelling the event, Bilbo would later say that it would have been better if he had slept straight through that night. He certainly would have been of better use in the following days. For at a barked command, the man holding a blade to Bilbo's throat removed it. Before Bilbo could leap to his feet, or even fight his way out of his bedroll, a mighty blow struck the side of his head and he fell unconscious.

Bilbo would remember very little of the first few days following the assault. Mostly he remembered cool hands on his brow, desperate shouting, and Fortinbras' worried face peering down at him.

Bilbo returned to himself on the back of a pony, his hands tied around the midsection of the person sitting in front of him. He yawned, and blinked several times as his awareness slowly returned.

"Fortinbras...?" Bilbo asked slowly.

"Yes, Bilbo?" Fortinbras replied, exasperation warring with exhaustion in his voice.

"Why am I tied to you?" Bilbo winced as the pounding in his skull made itself apparent. "And why does my head ache so? The last I can recall, my watch had ended and I had gone to my bedroll for the evening..."

"You are tied to me because the first time I tried to ride with you, you fell off the pony, armor and all, and we can ill-afford you dashing your wits further," Fortinbras answered. "The reason your head hurts is that your wits were dashed, presumably by someone striking your thick skull, and that is also the reason why you have forgotten everything that has happened in the past two days and continue to pester me with the same inane questions."

Bilbo paused for a moment in consideration of his cousin's words. He then angled his head from one side to the other, and did his best to turn around and look behind himself without falling off the pony. This would be much easier if I had my hands free... he mused.

"The Rangers have been kidnapped," Fortinbras said. "By the humans who attacked us. That is the answer to the next question you will ask. I will even include one more; we are going to get them back."

Fortinbras pressed his heels into the pony's sides in a firm nudge, and the pony darted forwards.

In the distance, the ruins of Fornost loomed closer.

Author's notes:

Alright. It has been a while since I last updated, hasn't it? I'm sorry. Life kinda happened to me. There was dental pain, crazy work hours, writer's block, trouble with getting grad school set up, resulting panic attacks, visiting grad school and attempting to fix things, and then tornado warnings, runaway dogs (scared of thunder) and flash flooding and... Gah. The downside of living in Texas. If any of you readers are living in Oklahoma, my heart goes out to you. This has been a bad year for weather in the US. And I don't know about you guys, but I am not looking forward to hurricane season.

Retconned a particular conversation.  If you do not know which one it was, then, good.  It was ooc anyways.  ;p

Chapter Text


Fortinbras nudged the pony into a trot. His cousin sat behind him, wrists unbound for the first time in days. Bilbo could now remember events that had occurred after the blow to his head, but instead suffered from occasional bouts of dizziness and confusion.

It was an improvement, a step in the right direction... but a hazard all the same. If he is not well soon... Fortinbras tightened his grip on the reins.

He would rescue the Rangers somehow, with or without his cousin's help. It was the least Fortinbras could do for them, after his actions the night of the kidnapping.

Fortinbras' breath hitched, and he reminded himself that if he had not escaped their assailants' notice, if he had not hidden himself the moment he realized what had happened, had not shut his eyes against the sight of his companions - his friends - bound and bleeding and desperate, he would have fared about as well as Bilbo had.

Even all together, it was nearly inconceivable that the four of them would have been able to escape, much less win. And with both he and his cousin incapacitated, there would have no one to rescue the Rangers.

It had been the right decision, the only decision...

He had only slipped away for a moment... And they...

It had been his watch.

The breeze tugged at Fortinbras' hair. A dragonfly, bright red, darted in front of the hobbit's face, and then away.

Fortinbras drew a deep shuddery breath. If they were dead, dead like Falco, dead like Berilac, Fortinbras was never going to forgive himself.

A hand tightened on Fortinbras' shoulder, as Bilbo leaned forward. "It might be best if we rested now," his cousin said, his voice bright with false cheer.

"Are you feeling unwell?" Fortinbras asked. They did not have the time to stop, they had already spent days waiting for Bilbo to recover, every moment they wasted was one more moment in which - "I would rather avoid another incident like yesterday," Fortinbras continued, "especially as we no longer have the river quite so near at hand."

Fortinbras could almost feel the back of his head burning with his cousin's furious gaze at the reminder.

"If you do not wish for me to topple off of this pony -" Bilbo started to say.

"I'm stopping!" Fortinbras tugged at the reins. It was not Bilbo's fault that the blow to his head had affected him so - he wanted the Rangers harmed about as much as Fortinbras himself. Less, even; though the friendship between the three of them had come in time to include Fortinbras as well, he was still very much aware of his status as a latecomer.

The three adored each other, after all; the Rangers followed Bilbo around like puppies, they seemed to read each other's minds, they even had secret conversations with each other, it was almost sic-

Bilbo clambered off the pony's back and sat heavily in the dirt. He drew up his legs and leaned forward, placing his head upon his knees.

Fortinbras dismounted and led the pony to a nearby tree. There, he tied the reins to one of the branches and spent several minutes soothing the beast he had become inordinately fond of. It was a reliable thing, moreso than any of the other creatures.

Unlike the others, it had returned.

Bilbo was still curled tightly when Fortinbras seated himself beside his cousin.

"Are you feeling any better?" Fortinbras asked.

Bilbo sighed. "I apologize for my uselessness as of late," he said in the direction of his feet.

"You are not useless," Fortinbras protested.

Bilbo lifted his head and raised an eyebrow at his cousin.

"Usually," Fortinbras added, "under most circumstances."

Bilbo snorted at him, and Fortinbras' lips quirked upwards.

"Fortinbras," Bilbo said. He rubbed his left thumb across the fingers of his right hand, near the knuckles. "I need to tell you something. I should have told you earlier, and indeed would have, had my nerves not failed me."

Fortinbras frowned, his gaze sharpening upon his cousin's face. Bilbo appeared taut; weary and hesitant, yet as tightly strung as a fully-drawn bow. "Yes?" Fortinbras asked cautiously.

"I have kept my cards too close to my chest, I fear," Bilbo said. His thumb stopped at the third finger, squeezing down.

"The secrets that I hold may well die with me, if I do not share them." Bilbo stated.  "The world can ill afford such a thing, any more than it can afford those secrets whispered into the wrong ear."

Fortinbras blinked. Twice. He leaned forward.

"If, for whatever reason," Bilbo said, "I am unable to continue the quest, I need you to go to Gandalf, and Gandalf alone. Tell him everything. Make sure that he does not inform the white wizard, Saruman. He cannot be trusted with this secret. In the world I came from, the time Before, he betrayed his office and entered into the Dark Lord's service, though I know not if he is a yet a traitor."

"Everything?" Fortinbras asked. "But I don't even-"

"The item, that which we seek to destroy, is hidden deep within the Misty Mountains, in the keep of the creature 'Gollum.' He makes his dwelling in a lightless lake, at the very end of one of the Goblin City's twisted, wandering roads."

"He is quite mad, that Gollum," Bilbo said, smiling without humor. "Which is to be expected, as he has held that accursed thing for nearly five hundred years."

Bilbo looked away, his gaze unfocused. "He was a hobbit once, or so I have been told," he added. Bilbo's grip on his third finger had tightened to a stranglehold.

Fortinbras inhaled sharply. "Ah," he said, carefully keeping his gaze away from Bilbo's hands.

"Yes; 'ah,'" Bilbo replied. His head dropped back to his knees.

"You made it there before? And escaped?" Fortinbras asked, his mind whirring. "How?"

"My party was captured," Bilbo said, "and I managed to slip away. Finding the... Finding it was sheer luck on my part. Both good and bad. I would not have survived without it, nor my companions, later on, though I am sorry to say so."

"That is why we need the invisibility device," Fortinbras said, blinking. "To gain access to the road, and walk it unmolested and without notice."

"One of the reasons, yes," Bilbo said. "I have also found it far easier to converse with dragons when they cannot see me. In that it makes them slightly less likely to attempt to charbroil and eat me."

"I would imagine that to be so," Fortinbras replied absently. He rubbed at his temples. "You wits are still addled," he said.

"Yes," Bilbo agreed. "I am not certain I would have been able to tell you, otherwise."

"Will you be upset that you told me, later on?" Fortinbras asked.

"It is quite likely," Bilbo said. "However, this is more important than my fears." He finally released the grip on his finger, his hands coming up to cradle his head.

They sat in silence.

Shadows gradually slid across the landscape, and the buzzing of the bees made way for the sound of crickets.

Fortinbras made camp.

That night, they were awakened by a deluge. Both hobbits shot upwards and shook out their cloaks, wrapping them around themselves as quickly as possible. They huddled together under a nearby tree, peering out miserably into the encompassing darkness.

The pony, well-protected from the rain, snorted at them in contempt.

Fortinbras ignored the beast. The rain was falling heavily... The tracks they had been following for days, the kidnapper's trail... There was no chance that the trail would survive the storm.

Fortinbras was not a skilled tracker by any means.

He shut his eyes and breathed.

There came a brilliant flash of light, and thunder sounded.

The next day dawned brilliant and clear. The pony, having tugged his lead free of the branch he had been tied to, slunk closer and closer to the two slumbering hobbits.

For a moment, the pony debated biting the creature that kept falling off of him. It was still fast asleep, and would make an easy target. After careful consideration, the pony instead leaned forwards, towards the-one-who-gives-apples-and-pats and thoughtfully blew a great blast of air into its face.

Fortinbras awakened with a yelp, his flailing arm connecting with Bilbo's mouth and nose.

"Ouch!" Bilbo covered his face with his hands, still mostly asleep.

Fortinbras stared at the pony, wide-eyed, and then, realizing what had occurred, glared. "That is not a polite way to wake a body," he groused.

The pony snickered at him.

Fortinbras, now wide awake from his momentary terror, rose. Much as he had feared, the soil and dust had transformed into mud overnight.

There was little chance of finding the trail now.

Surrender is not an option. Fortinbras squared his shoulders. They had passed the ruins of the Dunedain city of Fornost days ago, and continued steadily to the northwest ever since. We will have to continue along this line, and keep our eyes and ears open.

What else where they to do?


Four steps. Turn left. Four steps. Turn. Four steps. Turn.

It was dark, in their room, their prison, their cell. A single candle burned in its spot on the wall, illuminating the thick bars that separated Gilraen from Arathorn, from the door that led outside.

Gilraen's hands squeezed into fists. Her breath hissed through her lungs.

Four steps. Turn left. Four steps. Turn. Four steps.

Arathorn was unconscious. Still. The hobbits were both missing. Their things had been taken. No one had answered her questions, not even when she had screamed at them. Arathorn had not even twitched.

Four steps. Turn left. Four steps. Turn.

She and Arathorn had been taken (days, a week even?) from their camp in the middle of the night. They, and Bilbo, had been fast asleep, when the party had been attacked.

It had been Fortinbras' turn at watch. Bilbo had taken the first, and Arathorn the second. Gilraen had been looking forward to sleeping through the night.

There was a blade at her throat, and blood in her mouth. Her wrists were held tightly in one hand, while another pulled her head back by her hair. She could barely breathe.

"Surrender, now. Or she dies."

Arathorn dropped his sword where he stood. He lifted his hands. His gaze met hers, unreadable, expressionless.

One of the men struck the back of his head, and he fell.

She did not think to count mealtimes. Not until later. Until she had stopped panicking and started thinking. Six. There had been six so far. And she had not felt particularly ravenous between. Three days, maybe, and perhaps two beforehand. Perhaps.

Four steps. Turn left. Four steps.

Arathorn had not woken since, the faint movement of his chest all that told of his continued survival. He had had neither food nor drink since their capture. The Dunedain were not so frail as the rest of their race, but even they could only last so long without sustenance.

How much more time did Arathorn have?

Four steps. Turn...

With a terrible squeal, the thick wooden door burst open. A great bear of a man, armed and armored, his face obscured partially by his helm, strode through the doorway.  He bore a tray in his hands. A petite robed figure emerged behind him, her hood covering all but her mouth.

The armored man unlocked Gilraen's cell and placed the tray on the floor. His eyes flickered across the cell for a moment, searching.

Gilraen met his gaze and smirked, pointing behind him. She had thrown the previous tray, and its assorted crockery, against the stone wall the night before. The shards of it were scattered across the floor.

The guard's eyes narrowed at the sight, but he only backed out of the cell, locking it carefully.

In the other cell, the robed woman rose from where she had been kneeling beside Arathorn.

"Is he still alive, then?" Gilraen asked her. "Will you be in much trouble if he isn't, one day? I imagine that day is coming fairly soon. Will they execute you for your failure, do you wonder, or simply beat you? Your leader will be quite furious, you do realize, if he dies."

The woman stiffened slightly, the only sign that she had heard Gilraen's words. The two figures left the room much as they had entered it, and all was once again silent.

Gilraen watched them go, though her attention was focused inward. Throwing the crockery had been a risk, although a calculated one. She had expected to be beaten for it, at the least. That the guard had ignored her taunting, coupled with the healer's presence and behavior, settled the matter for her.

She and Arathorn were hostages, most likely against the Dunedain. Against their parents.

Did Bilbo see this, too? Gilraen wondered idly, as she squatted down on the heels of her feet. If so, I wish he had warned us against it. It was unfortunate that neither hobbit had taken the bait she had offered the night before the kidnapping. They hadn't even reacted to her mention of her mother, not even to ask what being a seer entailed. She had not expected that.

Gilraen sighed and settled down fully upon the floor, kicking her legs out in front of her. She tapped one heel against the cold stone. There was little to do in that place but wait.

Are the hobbits still alive? she wondered for what had to be the hundredth time.

She was bound, helpless. The horses screamed. Bilbo was staring at her, wide-eyed with shock, blade at his throat. The hilt descended.

Bilbo had been breathing, at least, when last she had seen him. Fortinbras...

Fortinbras was missing. It had been his watch.

The horses screamed.

Hobbits were so terribly small.

When Gilraen next woke, Arathorn was pressed against the bars of his cell, complaining about how thirsty he was.

Gilraen grinned, and hugged her friend as tightly as she could through the bars.

They had plotting to do.


Author's Notes

You have been very patient people, and I am very sorry that this took so long. I am almost moved into my new place near the grad school now, and I've got an interview lined up for a new job, so... hopefully the crazy and stress is almost over. "Hopefully," she says. _;;

You will find out who the kidnappers are in the next chapter, I promise. If you are very impatient and want to cheat, there is at least one person in the comments who got it right. Not saying who ;p. But yeah, someone got it.

Chapter Text

At Sixes and Sevens

Fortinbras frowned at the dried mud that encrusted his toes. It had been a day since they had lost the trail and most of that time Fortinbras had spent on foot, leaving his cousin and the nameless pony behind while he searched for it again.

Needless to say, he had not been successful. And now he was lost.

What a miserable state of affairs! Lost Rangers, lost ponies, lost treasure, and now a lost me, Fortinbras groused to himself. He flicked a patch of mud off of his foot. It was in such times that the hobbit almost wished for the Rangers' boots. Almost. He would prefer that the Rangers be in them, actually...

Fortinbras continued walking.

It was as the sun was just starting to set that the hobbit heard something. A faint sound, like the snapping of twigs as a large animal passes through the brush, was coming through the trees.

Perhaps a horse? Fortinbras hoped. The mysterious sound was the most promising sign he had encountered since the tracks had been washed away, though that was not saying much.

He could not see the animal through the thick vegetation, and so, uncertain of heights and doubting that it would amount to anything at all, Fortinbras climbed the largest nearby tree. After several minutes, and more than several splinters, he arrived at the top.

The source of the sound had long since disappeared, but off in the distance, in the fading light of the setting sun, Fortinbras could see the outline of a large structure through the foliage. In the hobbit's excitement, his grip on the tree limb loosened. He slipped.

"By Bullroarer's balls!" Fortinbras swore as he fell, hitting what he believed to be every branch along the way. His landing was cushioned by a large bush at the bottom of the tree.

In the future, Fortinbras decided as he looked up at the darkening sky, I shall leave the tree-climbing to Bilbo.

He lay there until his breath returned to him, and then, splinters, bruises, and all, went to find his cousin.

There was no way of knowing if the Rangers were inside that structure, but it was certainly their best lead. Whatever that building was, it was no farm. And there was little else such a place would be good for, so far from civilization.

The next morning, after Bilbo found him (in truth, it was the pony who had found Fortinbras, but Bilbo took the credit for it in any case) Fortinbras shared his discovery.

"... and at the top, I saw a large building, made of stone, not more than a mile off!" Fortinbras concluded, omitting his own tumble from said top.

Bilbo frowned at him, his brow puckered. "There are many ruins about," he said, choosing his words with care.

Fortinbras shook his head. "The roof was made of wood - split logs, from what could be seen," he replied. "The ruins are thousands of years old. Mere wooden logs would not have survived so long."

Bilbo's eyes crinkled. "Well, then," he said. "That is entirely a different matter."

Fortinbras clambered up the tree again, his weary body complaining all the way. As much as he would have liked to have made Bilbo do the climbing, his cousin was still subject to dizzy spells at the worst of times. If one such spell struck while Bilbo was airborne, worse than an addled head might occur.

The structure was, to hobbit eyes, easy enough to spot in the morning sun. The roof was indeed made of wood, the brownness of the still-intact bark contrasted with the mottled grey of the stone walls. Fortinbras made quick note of the building's direction and distance before descending once more, in a more restrained manner than the last time.

They split the remaining food stores between them and left the pony where it stood, freed from its tethers. They did not know if they would be able to return for it, and to leave it bound there, unable to forage for food or run from predators... it seemed too cruel a deed for words. In any case, it was unlikely to be able to help two hobbits and two humans escape from pursuit via horseback.

For convenience's sake, Bilbo's barrow-blade had been strapped to Fortinbras' back, much to Fortinbras' displeasure.  Fortinbras' book and the playing cards had also escaped the notice of the kidnappers, and these found their way into the pockets of Bilbo's traveling cloak.  The dice, unfortunately, had been unrecoverable.  The treasure, aside from what little of it had been sewn into their clothing, was likewise a complete loss.

"This isn't the first time I've mounted such a rescue," Bilbo admitted as they walked. "But I did have the benefit of the, ah..."

"The object, yes," Fortinbras nodded. "You've said as such before."

"It did help a bit, yes," Bilbo chewed his lower lip. "What with the learning of the layout and all. But sneaking thirteen dwarves through the dungeons of the Elvenking is no small matter, when the only one invisible is you!"

Fortinbras stared at him. "One of these days, cousin," he said, "you will have to explain your story in full."

"I wrote a book about my adventures, actually," Bilbo said. "Took me years to get it all down the right way. 'There and Back Again, A Hobbit's Tale,' I called it, and I wouldn't let anyone take a peek until it was done. Not even my dear nephew, for all the good that it did him! I don't suppose I shall write it again." He shook his head. "No sense in writing about things that never happened in the first place."

Fortinbras shut his lips tightly. He looked away. "Should you be telling me this?" he asked.

"Who else could I tell?" Bilbo replied, one eyebrow raised archly. "Who else is there, Fortinbras? Truly?"

Fortinbras was silent.

Bilbo shook his head. "I have to speak of these things, cousin," he said. "I have to speak of them, or I will go mad. Madder," he corrected himself. "I am already quite mad for undertaking this damn fool quest."

"What does that make me then," Fortinbras asked, "and those two ridiculous humans of ours? We're the ones mad enough to follow you!"

Bilbo's laughter was enough to choke him for the next several minutes, and finally Fortinbras had to resort to slapping him on the back in an effort to get him breathing again.

Bilbo was still wheezing when he answered. "We're all just as mad as each other, I suppose," he said. "The whole world might be mad. It would certainly explain the state of it."

"It certainly would," Fortinbras agreed. "Objects and dragons and kidnapped Rangers, all." He jabbed a finger into his cousin's side. "But now we are getting closer to where those kidnapped Rangers were taken, and now we should be quiet."

Bilbo huffed in response.

Less than an hour later, the building lay in plain sight. The two hobbits had hidden themselves in the dense undergrowth, and from there were able to watch, unobserved, as a pair of riders exited from an underground entrance. Several minutes later, another pair approached the entrance and disappeared through it.

What windows existed were high up, thin and narrow slits cut into the rock. At those slits archers would stand, their arrows issuing outwards at the enemy, while the thick stone walls protected them against retaliation. The entrance, and the hobbits had only found one, was set at the far end of a massive tunnel. The wooden supports looked to be easily collapsible, in the case of an assault. And, of course, the doors only opened outwards - any attackers would have a terrible time trying to gain them by force.

"These kidnappers seem quite confident that they will not be attacked," Bilbo murmured. "These defenses are pitiful."

Fortinbras agreed. The orcs and goblins of months before would have had little difficulty setting fire to the roof and entering through its wreckage. The kidnappers' archers would not have enough room at those few and tiny windows to pick them off as they swarmed.

"There is but a single pair to patrol," Bilbo marveled.

They had dismounted from their horses and begun playing at cards in the shade, even.

"We might be able to directly enter through the front door," Bilbo said with a nod. "Big Folk, as you may have noticed, have this peculiar habit of never looking down."

Fortinbras frown. "The front door?" he asked. "Right before their noses?" He had imagined sneaking aboard a supply cart...

"Time is of the essence, of course," Bilbo smiled. "It should be easy enough."

And that is what they did.

It was near sundown when the next patrol finally made their way outside. The two hobbits had taken up a position near the tunnel's entrance, hunkered down beside a bush.  They could hear the creaking of the heavy door, the clomping of hooves. Two mounted figures trotted past, and another two made their approach. 

As the last horseman passed, Bilbo darted after him, Fortinbras only a step behind.

The doors were open! They raced through, hidden behind the horses legs. Just as Fortinbras' heel cleared the doorstep, they shut with a "clang!"

"Any news for today, Bert? I imagine gossip the only perk to your job, what after your demotion to a humble doorkeep," one of the guards gibed. The other chuckled in response.

The lone doorkeeper grunted at the two mounted guards. "If you had an ounce of brain between your ears, William," he said, "you would realize that this is a promotion. Or do you enjoy baking in the sun all day, with nothing but the badgers and ol' Tom here for company?"

The hobbits edged around to where they would not be seen. Sure enough, the guards did not look behind them, nor beside, and the doorkeeper did not look down.

Fortinbras gave a start as Bilbo tugged at his sleeve. His cousin's eyes were fixed on the three humans and their increasingly belligerent conversation. When the insults came to a fever pitch, Bilbo yanked on the sleeve, towing Fortinbras behind as he dashed into a nearby hallway.

Mercifully, it was empty.

Fortinbras took a moment to marvel at the absurdity of it all. They were inside. They were inside. His hands started to shake, and black dots swam in front of his eyes.

Bilbo's wits were still dashed, and Fortinbras had no idea what he was doing. What was he doing?!

We are going to fail, we are going to fail, and then we will die. The Rangers will die, and Bilbo will die, and then you will die. It is hopeless. If you had walked away when you had the chance, then at least you and your cousin would have lived. You should have saved yourself. You should have done what you did the night of the kidnapping and saved yourself.

Sheer and utter lunacy, Fortinbras thought, though he knew not at what. The voice of doubt inside of him, or his own actions leading here? One of them, certainly. Perhaps both. Perhaps Bilbo is right, perhaps we are all mad.

Hands on his shoulders pushed Fortinbras into a walk, guiding him hither and yon. Fortinbras let them. While it was Bilbo who had the addled head, Fortinbras was the one feeling dizzy. And, addled head or no, it was Bilbo who had the experience. Fortinbras could not let himself forget that.

Four times they hid from passersby, doubling back and darting down dimly-lighted corridors. They passed through a large room, filled with tables and benches and empty of humans. No broom closet or alcove went unexplored.

They encountered the stables, recognizing several of the beasts penned there as their own.

In the flickering torchlight, Fortinbras' lips tightened in fury, but Bilbo's eyes brightened.

"The mounts are here, that is good," Bilbo whispered, "they are familiar enough with us to ease our escape. First, however, we must recover the treasure. The Rangers' arms and armor also. Such a thing is perfectly do-able, so long as we are careful about it."

"We will never find anything other than trouble if we do nothing but roam about!" Fortinbras hissed in reply. "There is neither rhyme nor reason in these tunnels of theirs, not like our smials!"

"I do not imagine they have a map handy, cousin, not even for thieves and rescuers," Bilbo murmured.

"We are not thieves!"

"Technically," Bilbo cleared his throat. "Technically, we killed the barrow-wight and then stole its property. It was not murder, as we were clearly acting in self-defense, but it was certainly thievery. Possibly even burglary," Bilbo said, his eyes twinkling. "We didn't even look for its will."

"I don't believe towering phantasms leave wills, cousin." Fortinbras said to the palm of his hand.

"How should we know? We certainly didn't check."

Fortinbras other palm rose to join the first.

Bilbo snorted, and eyed the steeds one last time. "There is certainly a place where we might hope to stumble upon a clue," he said. "It has been some time since we have last enjoyed an actual supper, but my stomach still remembers the proper hour for it, and it is fast approaching!"

They left the stable and returned to the big room, dodging several more humans along the way. They secreted themselves underneath one of the tables there, just in time for the Big Folk to start arriving.

They came in twos and threes, chattering amongst themselves, some cajoling, some threatening, most engaged in simple gossip. It was the gossipers that the two hobbits were concerned with, and so when they heard one human proclaim, "Chief Argonui is dead!" they crawled around several sets of feet to get closer to him.

"That ol' tomcat finally shuffled off the mortal coil, eh? Took him long enough."

"No, no, no. Galador finally screwed up the courage to do it himself, from what I heard. Drowned him like a rat while cleaning up those floods in the east. And right under that wizard's nose!"

"After how many tries, again? Are you sure the old man didn't simply trip?"

The table roared with laughter.

"Argonui is Arathorn's grandfather, isn't he? The Chief of the Dunedain?" Fortinbras whispered. "And Galador... The Rangers' captain? He killed Arathorn's grandfather? Why?"

Bilbo's eyes were as wide as saucers. He held up a hand to cover Fortinbras' mouth.

"With the bratling in the dungeon, it will be easy enough to convince Arador to meet our terms. He won't risk his only son's life," the first voice, the one that had announced Argonui's death, said with confidence.

"Wouldn't be much of a loss, I say."

"You were there when we collected him, weren't you, Finrod?"

"Aye," Finrod said. "He was easy pickings, he was. Dropped his sword as eager as could be when we held a blade to his girl's throat. Not a good trait, for one who would be Chief. Wasn't like we would have actually cut it - Ivorwen the Clear-sighted is not a woman you want to be angering, mind, and nothing makes her madder than threatening her sprog."

"You couldn't have left her there with the halfling you lot decided not to kill? And the one that ran off?"

Finrod snorted. "And have her charging in to rescue her love? No - better to have her here, and watched. And don't you be talking about killing halflings, Jorge, they be peaceful folk, and ours besides. It wouldn't feel right, killing one. Especially not after this past winter."

"Dunedain," Bilbo muttered at that, "they are Dunedain. I never even knew... But, Aragorn...!"

Fortinbras elbowed his cousin. Quiet!

With Finrod's last comment the chatter turned to other things; promotions and demotions, who owed who what, and how the commander refused to share any of the recently begotten treasure with anyone else.

The hobbits heard little of it, save the last, which they noted with interest. They stayed under the table until the hall cleared and the servants began gathering up what remained of the meal. It was only when their own stomachs gurgled in complaint that they took heed, swiping half-eaten plates off of the still-laden table above.

When the servants' task was complete, Fortinbras and his cousin devoured what morsels remained.

Fortinbras felt disgusted with himself as he ate the leavings of a human, and an enemy human at that. But what else was there to do? They were ravenous, and needed their strength, he reasoned.

"Like old times," Bilbo commented as he chewed his bread. Fortinbras did not ask, and Bilbo offered no explanation.

Fortinbras stared down at the remains of his ill-begotten meal. Bilbo knew - how could he not, with the way the kidnappers had been carrying on? Fortinbras had thus far gotten away without having to explain his actions that night - those first few days Bilbo could have hardly remembered it, and afterwards... Well, afterwards they had the Rangers to save, didn't they? In the face of that, what business did Fortinbras have, confessing anything? It changed nothing, after all. Nothing...

He peeked at his cousin's face. Bilbo was contentedly crunching an apple, paying Fortinbras no mind.

Perhaps it really did change nothing. At any rate, now was not the time. There would be opportunity enough for recriminations later. It was the Rangers who had the most reason to revile him, after all. Best to get the whole thing sorted at once.

They waited in that room for several hours, until Bilbo judged that it was near time for the midnight snack.

The Rangers were in the dungeon, most likely in the lowest level of the structure. Their weapons and armor were most likely in the armory, where ever that was, and the treasure... The commander had it, and would not share. His quarters, or hers, possibly, was where it was most likely to be hidden.

It did not seem possible, to find all that they needed to find without getting caught. And how would they possibly carry it all? Fortinbras asked Bilbo as much as they wandered.

"We only need to find two of these things in one night," Bilbo said. "If we cannot find all three... You will have to trust me."

"I have done little else," Fortinbras replied, his brows lifted.

"Our enemies are Dunedain." Bilbo peered around a corridor, checking that it was unoccupied before hurrying through. "This... complicates matters, somewhat. Arathorn and Gilraen cannot return to the Angle. It is not safe for them there."

Fortinbras scowled at the reminder. "I should have known something was off when they sent you three to patrol the East Road by yourselves. I did know. Galador was trying to kill you! And the Rangers' assignment in the Blue Mountains... it was too easy. Too convenient. A trap. Either they changed their minds, or someone other than Galador is behind this. Hostages, those humans said, against Arador - Arathorn's father? Their next chief?"

"Yes," Bilbo said, peering into yet another room.

"They want something from him, concessions, 'terms,' that they could not receive from Argonui. But what?"

"I don't know," Bilbo replied absently as they crossed into another corridor. "Gilraen, and Arathorn himself, might better be able to answer that question."

Fortinbras nodded. He would ask them when he could. "I said," he continued, "when we were leaving Bree, I said; 'such an assignment seems particularly tricky, it strikes me as strange that it should be given you.' That is exactly what I said."

"It is," Bilbo said, closing the door to the closet that he had been investigating.

"And we went anyway. We even told Finulias, that rat, we even told him what route we would be taking."

"We did," Bilbo acknowledged. The next door was locked, its keyhole a hand's width above Bilbo's head. He rooted through his pockets before pulling out several metal tools. These he applied to the keyhole. After several minutes of furious work, the door swung open, revealing the armory beyond.

Fortinbras stared. "Lock picks?" he squeaked.

"A certain... individual of my acquaintance, a friend, even, I should say, thought I should learn. I was shaming his profession, apparently," Bilbo explained, and then frowned. "It was Gandalf's fault," he clarified after a moment.

"But where ever did you even get them?" Fortinbras demanded, his inner bounder dismayed.

"There is a pickpocket in Bree who even now is mourning his choice of prey," Bilbo smiled. "A stroke of luck on my part, really."

Sure enough, both the Rangers' arms and armor were there, stacked haphazardly in a corner, swords and bows and all. It took the hobbits three trips to transport all the pieces from the armory to the stable, but they managed. When they were done, the hobbits buried them in a pile of straw to protect them from prying eyes.

"It is a common trait of humans and elves," Bilbo remarked, "that those higher in status also make their dwelling higher above the ground. Their commander's room, I imagine, lies upward. We have only to find the stairs."

That was easy enough. Each corner of the structure housed a stairwell leading upwards, to the habitations of the rogue Dunedain. The next level proved trickier to reach, as gaining access to the third floor of the structure required the use of another stairway, located elsewhere.

It was fortunate that Bilbo's prediction that the Dunedain were not expecting an attack was true; though a guard was posted, he was asleep - with a large and rank jug of some unidentifiable beverage sitting next to him. The two hobbits tiptoed past, and then were safely on their way.

"Are you certain we should be chancing this?" Fortinbras asked, as quietly as he could. "We still have what gold was sewn into our clothing; it is not as if we risk starvation any time soon. Would it not be better to simply collect the Rangers and disappear while we are able?"

"For the journey I am planning, we may well need every last coin and trinket," Bilbo replied, his voice equally soft. "Reaching the Rangers is a simple matter, but we have but one opportunity to secure our trove!  I do not plan on starving again, if I can help it."

"Simple?!" Fortinbras hissed. "How is it simple?"

"You won't like it," Bilbo whispered, "which is why I haven't explained. But that is only the last resort."

"Your wits are dashed," Fortinbras objected. "Why is it that you're the one making plans?!"

"It's a bit late for that at the moment, isn't it Fortinbras?" Bilbo replied. "Now, hush!"

The top level of the building featured but several large rooms, each decorated with thick bear skins and silken draperies. One door, larger and grander than the others, stood locked.

After a few terse minutes spent on Fortinbras' shoulders, Bilbo had it open.

Two entwined figures lay slumbering upon the massive bed, their sleep secured against sudden drafts by the warg skins covering them. Rich oil paintings dotted the walls - two towers shining in the sun, a white tree standing between them; an island city glittering by the sea; rich gardens and exquisite fountains and portraits of unknown humans. A massive dresser stood against one wall, its lack of seams suggesting that it had been carved from a single piece of wood.

A brooch stood upon the dresser, its flawless gems twinkling like stars in the flickering torchlight. It was Gilraen's favorite piece, Fortinbras remembered her saying so when they had been counting their spoils, after the barrow-wight's defeat. It had been in Arathorn's pile, but he had promptly handed it to her after she had displayed interest in it.

Fortinbras snatched the brooch up and tucked it into his pocket. It wasn't much of an apology gift, but it would have to do.

Bilbo, meanwhile, had stopped at a large chest near the foot of the bed and was doing his best to open it. Fortinbras winced at the sound of metal scraping against metal, but neither figure stirred.

Gently, Bilbo drew out sack after sack of valuables, each on gently clinking and clanking as their contents shifted. Still, the figures slept on.

The two hobbits slunk back, out of the room and down the stairs, past the slumbering guard. They padded down the corridor, towards the stairwell leading back to the first floor.

The two hobbits were almost upon it when they were interrupted.

"Just where do you think you're going?" a voice drawled from behind.

In dread, Fortinbras turned around to look.

Three armed and armored humans stood, their towering bulk filling the corridor. Their swords were still sheathed, and their expressions amused. That all changed when they caught sight of what the two hobbits carried.

"Surrender now, and we will let you live," said the Dunedan on the right, his gaze fixed on the treasure-filled sacks.

As one, Fortinbras and Bilbo ran for the stairs.


Author's Notes

Here is your chapter! It is a nice long one! And, look, there is actual plot progress! Yay! I don't know if a Dunedain insurrection was canon or not, but it did strike me as possible, reading through the wiki. Both Arador and Arathorn died kinda suspiciously young in canon, through various "accidents..." And baby Aragorn needed his identity hidden for his own protection. Both Rivendell and the Angle are well-defended against external threats, so that just leaves... Well, you guessed it. Gilraen must have had her hands busy the first time around. I've been planning this particular plot-twist since before I wrote "Of Rangers and Wizards," if you were curious. ^-^

I am now in the land of no internet, and am busy dealing with real life and all of its shenanigans. Updates are still coming, but slow. Very slow. As I'm sure those who are left have noticed. *winces* I'm trying to work on that, I promise. And, I did get the job, so yay! I am gainfully employed, once more. It is a good feeling. :D.

Chapter Text

Snap, Dash, Crack!

Gilraen stared at the guard through the bars of her cell. He had arrived less than a half-hour beforehand. In keeping with the actions of his fellows, the guard had not spoken a word to either her nor Arathorn. He had also not made any action other than entering the room of their prison.

She did not recognize him as one of the previous guards, either. Something has changed, Gilraen frowned.

A movement from Arathorn caught her gaze. [Question] he signed, and then [new guard] Arathorn paused for a moment before adding, [rescue?]

[Probable yes] Gilraen signed in return. There was little other reason for a guard to suddenly be posted. Although Arathorn had both drunk and eaten since his awakening, he was still too weak to stand for long stretches of time. He would have difficulty running, let alone fighting. It was the only reason they had not yet attempted to escape.

Have Mother and Chief Argonui already heard what has happened? Gilraen wondered. Fornost was some eighty leagues from the Angle... if their kidnappers had attempted to negotiate already...

How far in advance was this planned?

As Gilraen signed her reply, the guard's head angled to where he could watch the both of them. However... There was something about the look in his eyes, the set of his mouth, the balance of his stance...

He understands us. Realization swept through her mind like fire, like flood, like trees before the hurricane. He understands us.

He knows Ranger-sign.

Only the Dunedain knew Ranger-sign. It was never taught to outsiders. Such a thing would be almost inconceivable.

So that is why they never said anything, Gilraen thought distantly. The kidnappers were afraid that she or Arathorn would recognize their manner of speaking.

Gilraen turned her face to the wall so that the guard would not guess at her churning thoughts. We are hostages and our captors are Dunedain. It... Gilraen blinked for a moment, her eyes feeling too large for her face. She could feel Arathorn gazing curiously at her.

This was almost beyond comprehension.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I am just imagining it. Maybe he didn't understand anything at all - just saw us making strange gestures and thought it curious - Gilraen could feel herself beginning to panic. Get ahold of yourse-

It was at that moment that the door to the prison burst open and more five armored figures entered, two struggling hobbits in tow: Bilbo and Fortinbras!

Arathorn bolted upright, his eyes wide.

Gilraen gaped. "You're alive!" she exclaimed in shock and joy. Without news, and considering the last time she had seen them... she had feared the worst. Unfortunately, they were also captured. I had hoped you managed to escape...

Fortinbras, red-faced and nearly upside-down in the hold of two men, met Gilraen's eyes. His face was grim, mouth set in a thin line and eyes heavy. "I'm sorry," he said, looking between her and Arathorn. "I don't know how I can ever make it up to the both of you -"

The guard from before opened Gilraen's cell and Fortinbras was tossed inside. He landed with a 'thump!' and cursed. Gilraen knelt at his side, her hands hovering over him.

"-but I will certainly try," Fortinbras finished speaking with a wheeze.

The door to Arathorn's cell creaked open and Bilbo was similarly thrown. The younger hobbit rolled into the landing and sprung to his feet immediately afterward. He raised an unimpressed eyebrow at his captors. Gilraen repressed a laugh. Ah, Bilbo, she thought fondly. It was exactly what she would expect of him.

All six guards filed out of the room, leaving the four alone.

"I believe the both of you owe us an explanation," Arathorn said, sitting once more. His gaze wandered between the two hobbits, but lingered upon Fortinbras. He, too, had feared the worst for their archer.

"We're here to rescue you," Bilbo said. He was investigating the keyhole to the cell with his hands. "Everything is going according to plan."

"Is that so?" Fortinbras asked, still laying upon the floor. "Because it seems as if we have been captured. And they took your lockpicks."

Gilraen blinked. She exchanged a glance with Arathorn. Lockpicks?

Bilbo smiled, producing a key from his sleeve. "I once pickpocketed a troll, I'll have you know," he said. "I will admit that I did not do a particularly good job of it at the time, but I have improved since then..."

Gilraen, Arathorn and Fortinbras all stared at the key, dumbfounded.

"Arathorn can barely stand, let alone walk," Gilraen said at last. Her old friend would not be delighted to hear her say that, but he knew as well as she did that the safety of their unit depended on all its members knowing the truth. In the back of her mind a voice whispered 'troll?' in the same manner as it had asked 'lockpicks?'

"Bilbo's wits were dashed," Fortinbras replied, still staring at the key. "And I believe my ribs are bruised." He sat up, grasping Gilraen's hand. "This is still our best chance."

Gilraen frowned. "I have to warn you," she said, "I believe our captors may be Dunedain. This may make escape... difficult."

"What?!" Arathorn demanded, his eyes wide. He turned a disbelieving gaze upon Gilraen.

Both hobbits winced.

[Apology not tell] Gilraen signed, releasing Fortinbras' hand. [Enemy know Ranger-sign] She did not want to imagine what might have happened if their kidnappers had realized that their prisoners knew their secret. She did not believe that the result would have been pretty. [Silent - danger near]

"You are correct," Bilbo said. "They are attempting an insurrection, or so we had overheard. It is not safe for either of you to remain here." He shook his head, raising a hand to ward off any further questions. "We need to make our escape immediately, before they discover where we have hidden our things."

"We were able to find your weapons and armor, and recover the greater part of our treasure," Fortinbras explained to Gilraen and Arathorn. "They are hidden in and near the stables. Our weapons and helms we placed with the treasure when we became certain of our impending capture."

Bilbo huffed a laugh. "I am thankful they let us keep the rest of our armor," he said. "Though I suppose it would be of little use to them, sized for a hobbit and all. Still, armor forged by a dwarf ki -" Bilbo abruptly stopped speaking, a pained expression taking over his face. He shook his head. "Forgive me, I am not yet well."

With that, the hobbit inserted the key into the lock and twisted. The door to the cell creaked open. Arathorn staggered to his feet.

Unfortunately, the guards had not gone so far as the four had hoped. They had merely stopped outside to gossi- ahem, discuss the situation - without their prisoners hearing them, in line with their commander's orders. With the door's loud squeal, the surged back through the doorway, swords at the ready.

Gilraen and Fortinbras, still locked behind the metal bars, watched in horror as the door burst open.

Arathorn straightened up as best he could. He would fight, Gilraen knew, hopeless as it might be. We should have waited, she thought dumbly. There is no chance of escape now.

Bilbo merely huffed. He threw the key into Gilraen's cell, and dove at the guards' feet.

One guard tripped over the hobbit, landing heavily on his face. His sword flew from his hand, skittering across the floor and into the second cell.

Gilraen rushed for the sword, grasping it firmly in her hand as Fortinbras unlocked the cell door. Several of their captors rushed in in an attempt to restrain them.

Gilraen disarmed one, his sword arcing through the air before landing with a clatter upon the hard stone. Her new blade darted upwards, the flat of it slamming into his temple.

Out of the corner of her eyes, Gilraen could see Fortinbras kick the newly discarded blade to Arathorn, aiming carefully through the bars. Then her next adversary was upon her, and she had no more time to think. His blade darted up, down, to and fro! She blocked and deflected, searching out the weak points in her opponent's defense.

In the middle of his next strike, her attacker crumpled to the floor with a yell of agony, clutching at his knee. Behind him stood Fortinbras, dagger in his hand.

Gilraen kicked the kidnapper in the head.

On the other side of the room, Arathorn and Bilbo stood over the fallen bodies of three more traitors. Only one last newcomer remained, and, swordless and daggerless, he stood with his hands raised in a gesture of surrender.

"It would have been wiser to wait until tomorrow night," the stranger said to Bilbo. "The commander is searching the hallways even now for the gold you stole."

"Your commander stole it first, if you recall," Arathorn answered instead. His hands were trembling, though Gilraen could not tell if it was with excitement or exhaustion. "His manners thus far have been remarkably unseemly. We would be much obliged if you would give us his name."

The stranger shook his head. "If I had a name to give you, I would," he answered. "I am not allowed on the third level."

"You would so easily betray your side?" Arathorn asked, his eyes sharp.

"No," the stranger answered, lowering his arms. "I would not." He straightened his posture, the vertebrae in his spine cracking. "We are near the Trollshaws now. Your best hope of escape is through them, if you are quick and clever. You should have little difficulty with that."

Arathorn stared at him in silence for several moments. He nodded slowly.

Fortinbras held up the key. "We should lock them in," he said, waving towards the guards. "Now, before they wake up."

"You as well, Master Guard," Bilbo added, glancing towards Arathorn.

Arathorn bowed his head in acceptance. He tilted to the side several inches before righting himself. Gilraen moved forward, her shoulder pressing into his side. He leaned against her for a moment.

They stripped the five unconscious guards of their remaining weaponry, and dragged them into one of the cells. The other they stacked with the guards' discarded swords and daggers, after claiming a few extra for their own. Both cells were firmly locked.

The stranger sat on the stone floor in the cell that had once been Arathorn's, his hands clasped in front of him. The four turned to leave, Bilbo at the front, Arathorn and Fortinbras in the middle, and Gilraen acting as rearguard.

As the others exited the room, the stranger lifted his hands. [Unit-commander Mother-eyes] he signed. [Recognizance mission - duration unknown.] The stranger hesitated a moment before adding, [home-base compromised - seek new location.]

[My thanks,] Gilraen answered. Her mother was already aware of the threat. That was good. And neither Gilraen nor Arathorn were planning on returning to the Angle soon at any rate. But, still... Why didn't Mother say anything before we left, if she knew? We were at war, at risk? Why...?

When they were all safely on the other side of the door, Fortinbras thrust out his fist at her.

Gilraen blinked at him.

"I was able to find your brooch," he said, the pointed tips of his ears turning red.

"Thank you," Gilraen said softly, taking it in hand. It was the brooch that Arathorn had given her so many months ago, that had reminded her of the one so often worn by her beloved grandmother. She tucked it into her own pocket carefully. "I did not think I would see it again, although that hardly mattered to me at the time."

"I am sorry, you know," Fortinbras said, hunching in on himself. "For what I did to you and Arathorn both."

"What have you done, then?" Arathorn asked, turning to look at the hobbit. He wiped a bit of blood off his face, his brow furrowed in confusion. "You have nothing to apologize for that I can recall..."

"I -" Fortinbras started to say when he was interrupted.

"Shh!" Bilbo hissed. "We must be quiet. I am sorry, but you will have your chance for discussion later. Now we must hurry if we are to escape!"

They hurried.

The four made it the stairwell, escaping upwards to the ground floor without difficulty. With Bilbo acting as scout they were able to avoid much of the searchers that, true to the stranger's warning, were swarming the halls.

Their luck could not hold out forever, though. Halfway to the stables, they were spotted.

"Halt!" a young voice cried out from behind them. "The prisoners are escaping!"

Cursing, the four ran. Heads were knocked and knees were stabbed, and several times they hid themselves in closets until finally they made their way to the stables.

Gilraen helped Bilbo to barricade the door, while Fortinbras dug in the nearby straw. Arathorn leaned heavily on his sword, the cut across his temple seeping a line of red down his face.

In no time at all, the recovered arms and armor were exposed. Gilraen slipped her chain mail over her head, tugging it into position before shrugging the fitted brigandine vest over it. She buckled her bracers and greaves into place, donning her helm last. A spot of color caught her gaze, and she looked down at her hand. Red...? she thought, staring at it. When...?

"Your head," Arathorn said, his fingers tracing the suddenly throbbing wound in her scalp.

"I didn't even notice." Gilraen blinked. She chuckled. "We match, I suppose."

Arathorn huffed. "I do not like to see you injured," he said softly, leaning forward to examine her wound more closely. His eyes flickered down to her lips.

Gilraen's breath caught in her chest.


The door shuddered in its frame. Gilraen and Arathorn both whirled to stare at it, their hearts in their throats.




Gilraen's grip tightened around the hilt of her sword, the previous moment forgotten. Off to her side, Bilbo and Fortinbras began opening the horses' stalls. The horses whinnied and stamped their feet in uncertainty, but one by one backed out into the open.

When they were all released, Bilbo began pushing a table towards the nearest torch alcove. Arathorn stepped over and plucked the torch from the wall, handing it down towards the hobbit. Bilbo nodded his thanks.

"In several minutes time," Bilbo said, "I will take this torch to the straw and open the door. The horses will panic, and clear our way."

Arathorn choked on a laugh. "By the Valar," he said, his eyes squeezing shut.

Gilraen's gaze darted to the dry wooden stalls, the hay all around, the thick stone walls. This could go very wrong, very quickly. If they were not trampled, they would likely be burned, and perhaps suffocate.

Arathorn had reason to dislike fire, to say the least. And while a campfire was no struggle, this... Well. Gilraen caught his shoulder, and squeezed.

"The exit is not so far from here," Fortinbras said. "We will be out in mere moments." He cocked his head to the side. "Ah." His eyes widened, and he turned to look at Bilbo. "Our weapons and the treasure!" Fortinbras said. "We forgot them!"

Bilbo scowled. "It is more important that we escape," he said, shaking his head. "Our lives are worth more than any amount of gold, or weaponry no matter how useful it might have proven. Your bow can be remade, and while I shall miss my swords, this dagger will serve well enough for now."

"But still, your mother's blade-" Gilraen started to say.

Bilbo smiled sadly. "It seems that I have forgotten that which is most important in life," he said. "Mere things, no matter how special or useful they might be, are not among them."


Gilraen's eyes darted towards Arathorn. He nodded grimly, his determination banking his fear. Well, then, she thought, breathing one last sigh.

It seemed the time to escape had arrived.


Bert grumbled to himself as his... unfortunate... new workfellows continued in their gossip. He did not know what he had done to anger his superiors to the point where they would send Tom and William to help him guard the gate!

Well, no... That wasn't exactly true, now, was it? Damned halflings... Bert cursed. This is all their fault. How could anyone expect a body to be able to account for them and their disappearing faerie-magic? I am a scion of Numenor, not a hound of Orome! I cannot sniff them out!

It was no sooner that the halflings had been discovered that Bert had been blamed. There was no other way in than the gate, they had said. The doors were locked at night, they said. The halflings must have come in during the day, they said. At least William and Tom were also blamed. If only they did not have to stand guard with him! And in the dead of night, no less!

Bert paused in his thoughts to adjust himself, when he caught the faintest whiff of... something. Something familiar. He took several deep breaths in an effort to draw more of it in. It was - it was...

"Smoke?" Bert asked in puzzlement.

"No, we're fine, thanks," Tom answered. Beside him, William chortled in amusement.

Bert was just about to yell at the two dunderheads when a distant noise distracted him. It was coming from inside the compound...

"Hooves?" Bert blinked.

The two stopped their chattering, first looking at him, and then back, down the hallway. They heard it, too, then.

Louder and louder, the noise grew.

Bert shifted in his armor. Tom and William took several steps backwards.

The stamping of hooves became a thunder. Bert's back hit the wall. His hand grasped for the handle. Beside him, Tom and William shook in terror.

The horses rounded the corner, and an undulating surge of brown rushed at them.

Bert yanked at the door, and the three guards fled down the tunnel and out into the night.

The flood of horses burst out right on their heels. Bert whirled away, gasping. The gasp turned into a gape as he caught sight of the two horses at the rear of the herd.

Two horses, laden with four riders. Two humans in full armor, with two similarly-armored hobbits riding pillion behind them. It was the captives! They had escaped!

Bert cursed, suddenly and loudly. The bosses would have his head for this.

Author's Notes

Not dead! Still! So, yeah, grad school - it is crazy. Working two jobs and doing four grad classes, even crazier. Thankfully the online class is done now, so things are a bit more calm. Not much of a chance of me keeping a regular schedule with the fic, I'm sorry to say. :( I am going to stick it out until the end, though, so no worries there.

Took a bit of artistic license on the Trollshaws - according to the map they're much closer to the Angle than Fornost. And yes, that was the stranger saying that he's a spy working for Gilraen's mother, Ivorwen the Clear-Sighted. Whether or not he's telling the truth... We'll see :D.

And a little while back someone emailed me about something that should worry everyone who reads and writes fanfiction. Do you guys remember the SOPA bill that came up a while back? Well, the politicians keep recycling it. If you don't mind having your name attached to a petition, there's one going around now on the White House petition site to stop the ridiculousness. If you are an American citizen, please go sign it. It might stop you from paying thousands of dollars in fines at some point in your life. And possibly going to jail.

Edit: have changed a plot-point - the treasure was not recovered, and neither were the hobbits' weapons. The reviewers convinced me... Sorry to spring this on you guys, but this version seems truer to character.

Chapter Text

Into the Blue

Bilbo grasped tighter to Arathorn's midsection as the stream of horses burst through the compound's door. Every bone in his body jarred with each bound of their steed, and his teeth clenched so firmly that he feared putting a crack in them. This would be quite possibly the worst possible moment for him to fall off.

A wall of green appeared before them. The trees! They were out! The herd screamed their freedom to the skies, circling around the compound. A stream of smoke emerged behind them, billowing out into the night. Above them, the moon's light shone but faintly through the clouds.

"Arathorn, Bilbo, this way!" Gilraen's voice called. She and Fortinbras waved at the two from where they were mounted, halfway across the clearing. "We must ride at once!"

Bilbo shook his head. Setting their captors' horses loose had given the four some precious time in which to plan, and the nighttime darkness and encircling clouds gave them shadow in which to hide. Bilbo needed only to think.

Arathorn gave a dry, rasping cough, expelling the smoke from his lungs, and nudged their mount over to where Gilraen and Fortinbras' horse stood shivering. Thankfully, the Rangers had been able to retrieve the mounts that they had purchased in Bree: the horses were familiar with each other and trusted their riders, even under such stressful circumstances.

Their method of escape had taken the kidnappers by surprise, but pursuit would be coming soon. Their enemies would be rested and well-fed, they would have access to supplies, they would know the territory better... They would be master trackers as well, and quite at home in the wilds, if Bilbo knew the Dunedain.

"The Trollshaws," Bilbo said, his mind working feverishly, "the guard was right, we can lose our pursuit in the Trollshaws."

"The Trollshaws?!" Gilraen echoed in disbelief.

"Trolls?" Fortinbras questioned weakly.

Arathorn tilted his head back at the hobbit, raising his brows. "They'd have to be mad to follow us there," he agreed. His opinion perhaps would have carried more weight with the other two if he had sounded a bit less unstrung.

"It will do us no good if we escape from these humans to be eaten by trolls," Fortinbras protested. "We can outride them even if we take the road south."

"Their horses will be carrying a lighter load," Bilbo explained. "Even with a head start, their speed will exceed our own - we will be unable to lose them on the safer paths -"

Gilraen eyed the rebels' compound. Human shapes were spilling outwards, the steel of their arrowheads glinting in the moonlight. "Whatever we choose, we need to choose now," she warned. "They are sending out archers!"

"North!" Bilbo ordered. The two Rangers whirled, and their horses whirled with them. They galloped north at full speed, ignoring the frustrated shouts coming from behind them.

Many of the escaped mounts followed their lead, the rest scattering in all directions. Quite a few elected the easy route south, keeping to the road that the renegade Dunedain had already cleared.

One of the party's horses hit upon a deer path, cutting through the towering trees and thick vegetation that had risen up to greet them. The encompassing darkness had obscured the party's forms from their pursuit, but now obscured also the sharp branches and trailing vines often found in woodland areas. The group was slowed to a trot.

Eventually, the trees grew taller and the vegetation scarcer. The clouds had been swept away by the winds, and the moon's light grew brighter. The deer path opened up, and the horses' pace quickened to a canter.

It was only when the moon set and the sun's light began to creep up over the horizon that the four relaxed their pace. The horses were gasping for breath, great rivulets of sweat dripping from their sides.

Gilraen and Arathorn slowed their horses to a trot, and then a walk. Gradually they came to a river, and there they rested for a short while.

The Rangers collapsed into the dirt in relief. Bilbo and Fortinbras joined them after grabbing what little supplies the insurgents had stored within their horses' saddlebags. What little of the herd had remained with them during their long flight milled about the riverside, bathing and drinking and taking small bites of the wild grasses and flowers growing nearby.

The four were littered with cuts and bruises. Some they had picked up during their escape while they had fought their way through the compound, while the rest were from the thorn-like branches and hidden tree limbs they had often stumbled into in the darkness. The saddlebags, unfortunately, did not contain any medical supplies.

Thankfully they did contain several small loaves of elvish-style lembas, which were wrapped neatly in waxed cloth. Bilbo broke off several small pieces to share amongst the group. The two Rangers bit into theirs immediately, mumbling their thanks.

When Fortinbras looked doubtfully down upon his, Bilbo explained; "that is a type of lembas - a sort of waybread commonly made by elves for long journeys. One mouthful of it will be enough to sustain you for at least the day."

Fortinbras nodded, taking a small bite cautiously. His eyes widened at the flavor, and he hurriedly finished his share.

Arathorn cracked the bones of his wrist and then spoke. "My thanks for your rescue," he said.

"And mine as well!" Gilraen added with a tired smile. "Though, we are sorry for your lost weapons."

Arathorn nodded solemnly in agreement. "It could not have been easy, gaining entrance to the keep," he continued. "But, how did the two of you even find us? Gilraen said that Bilbo had been struck unconscious and then left behind, but that she had seen no sign of Fortinbras during the struggle. We feared the worst."

Bilbo looked at Fortinbras, who sighed.

"I was... a short distance away from camp when I first noticed the intrusion," Fortinbras replied, looking carefully at the two Rangers. "By that time, the three of you were already surrounded. They did not seem as if they were going to try to kill any of you, so I decided to hide away and bide my time for a rescue."

The Rangers exchanged a glance and nodded, expressions of acceptance on their faces. Fortinbras seemed to deflate in... Is that... relief? Bilbo thought, puzzled. What would he need to feel relieved about? Surely he couldn't have thought they would blame him for their capture...? On second thought, that was perhaps exactly what Fortinbras would have assumed. Bilbo resisted the urge to wince.

"After the two of you were... taken," Fortinbras continued, "Bilbo was in a bad way. The rogues had struck him a hard blow against the side of his head, and for the first several days he would forget everything that had happened afterwards. I had to tie him to me so that he would not fall off of the pony!"

"Things would have been better if I had just slept straight through the night," Bilbo added, shaking his head. "I was fairly useless for most of the journey here."

"It wasn't so bad," Fortinbras protested weakly.

Bilbo raised an eyebrow at him.

"Alright," Fortinbras admitted. "Yes, yes it was."

The Rangers looked over Bilbo in worry.

"You are alright now, are you not?" Gilraen asked.

"Yes, mostly," Bilbo answered. "A few more days and I should be just fine."

"He still becomes dizzy at times," Fortinbras informed the two. He looked as if he wished to add more, but bit his lip and remained silent.

Gilraen carefully eyed Arathorn for a moment. He rolled his eyes at her and shrugged before making a quick hand sign at her.

Arathorn had been weak and injured, Bilbo remembered Gilraen saying earlier. Thankfully, it seemed as if it was not quite so bad as she had feared, else the group would have been in some trouble while mounting their escape. The Dunedain constitution is a marvel, Bilbo thought to himself.

"I am by no means a skilled tracker," Fortinbras readily admitted, continuing his story. "But I was able to follow the signs the kidnappers left for some days. We lost the trail after a rainstorm, but fortunately we were able to stumble upon the compound itself."

"Fortinbras climbed a tree," Bilbo said with a proud smile. The memory of it would amuse him for weeks to come.

Fortinbras shuddered. "Don't remind me!" he said. "We gathered what we could from the remaining pony's saddlebags and set out to watch the compound. We were able to gain entrance -" at this Fortinbras looked up at the two humans, his lips quirked in humor, "apparently Bilbo was right in saying that Big Folk rarely look down - and snuck about, keeping out of sight. We were able to locate and retrieve your weapons and armor and also the barrow-treasure before we were captured. The rest you already know."

"But," Arathorn said, looking at the other three. "You said that our captors were Dunedain?"

Here it was Bilbo and Fortinbras' turn to exchange a glance.

Gilraen bit her lip. "Our guard understood Ranger-sign," she said. "I could see the comprehension in his eyes."

Arathorn inhaled sharply at the news. "They were Rangers?" he asked, stunned.

Fortinbras stared at Bilbo for a long moment, attempting to communicate his intentions without speaking. Bilbo's cousin, it seemed, did not wish to be the one to inform the both of them about Arathorn's grandfather. Bilbo could find no fault in that: his wishes were much the same!

"We overheard many conversations while we were hiding," said Bilbo finally. "One discussed a plot to obtain 'concessions' of some sort, using the both of you as hostages against Arador. Arathorn's father, I believe?" Bilbo asked, already knowing the answer.

When Arathorn nodded, Bilbo raised his head, looking both Rangers in the eye. "I have some unfortunate news for you," he said slowly, and as delicately as he could. "Chief Argonui has died. He was assassinated by your old captain, Galador, while dealing with floods in the 'east.'"

Arathorn and Gilraen blanched in horror, speechless.

"Grandfather... is dead?" Arathorn said at last, stunned.

"Galador killed him?!" Gilraen demanded, her face stark white.

"That is what we heard," Bilbo said gently.

Fortinbras shook his head. "It would not surprise me if Galador had meant for the goblins to injure or kill the both of you during the winter," he said grimly. "You yourself said that a Ranger unit always numbers four, at the very least." Fortinbras did not add his other suspicion: that it also seemed probable that at least several of the Rangers on the Brandywine bridge had likewise been in on it.

Arathorn's head hung low, his eyes shadowed and his mouth in a thin straight line. "I am sorry," he said at last. "We have dragged you into our own troubles." He shook his head. "You did not ask for this." He began to reach for Gilraen's hand before freezing, an awkward expression on his face.

Gilraen did not appear to notice, caught as she was in apt contemplation of a patch of dirt near her feet. "The guard we spoke to before our escape claimed that he was one of mother's spies," she said. "He said not to return to the Angle." She looked up at Arathorn, her expression anguished. "What are we going to do?" she asked.

Bilbo blinked at the both of them. "Continue to the Blue Mountains," he said, matter of fact. "While it is possible that the Ranger in Bree invented the mission there so that you could be captured, whoever orchestrated the plot could not have known about your arrival there beforehand. It strikes me as far more likely that they only took advantage of the situation. And, even if there is no mission there at all, we can still stay there for a time."

"If the matter is not resolved by then," Fortinbras said firmly, "then you can always stay with us." He gave Bilbo a defiant look, as if daring his cousin to question him.

"Your uncles won't mind?" Arathorn asked hopefully, Gilraen matching his expression.

"If they do," Bilbo said, "then we can always stay elsewhere. There are always inns, even in elf-lands. While we may have lost the greater part of our treasure, Fortinbras and I still carry what we have sewn into our clothing."

The Rangers nodded. "They took our clothes shortly after our capture," Gilraen said, tugging at her sleeve in discomfort - a different color than the one she had worn before, Bilbo finally noticed. Arathorn winced - he had been unconscious at the time, if Bilbo recalled correctly.

Bilbo and Fortinbras' mouths set in displeasure at the thought of what had happened to the two humans. It was one thing to be captured by enemies, but to be stripped by them as well - Bilbo shook his head. It was over and done with, there was nothing for it now - Suddenly, a horrible thought struck him, and he recalled his Aunt Hildegard.

Surely Gilraen would have mentioned- Bilbo's thoughts stuttered, -she is important, they said, they fear her mother - they certainly wouldn't have dared -

Bilbo eyed her warily for a moment. Gilraen looked alright: a bit singed, and covered in cuts and bruises, and perhaps a touch uncomfortable at the memory - if something like that had happened, surely she would carry some sign? In her countenance, if not in her eyes...

"We are fine," Gilraen said, noticing his gaze. "Just fine," she added firmly, meeting his eyes straight-on. Her mouth was set in a severe line.

Gilraen had not been harmed - or at least, not in that way. Bilbo nodded in acceptance, relief flooding him. The four of them would be alright. Both Rangers had been recovered, alive and undamaged. What gold they had left would be enough to carry them onwards for the next year, perhaps, if they were careful.

Though failing to retrieve the treasure had left him sore, losing his mother's Rohan blade had been a far worse blow. Still, there was nothing for it now. They still had their armor and he and Fortinbras were able to steal some halfway decent weapons to replace the ones that they had lost. A good dagger, Bilbo reminded himself, was far more useful than a sword when one was wandering the wilds without supplies.

Furthermore... Fortinbras is right, Bilbo thought to himself. Both Rangers would be far safer staying with them for a while, even after their assignment was done. Hopefully Cirdan will be willing to keep them until the Angle is once again safe. Even if that was not the case, he and Fortinbras would hardly abandon them to their fates!

But what of the quest? Bilbo was forced to ask himself. In the horror of the attack and the scramble to rescue Gilraen and Arathorn, his mission had flown straight out of his head. Bilbo could not afford to stay within the Blue Mountains for too long. He had to retrieve the Ring! And he could hardly bring the others with him!

If all else fails, Bilbo thought, I can leave Arathorn, Gilraen and Fortinbras in Rivendell before venturing into the Misty Mountains to retrieve the Ring. Fortinbras knows enough of my plans that he will realize my intent at once, but he might not be willing to act if it will put Gilraen and Arathorn at risk. He has grown fond of them as well.

Bilbo liked that plan. It solved the problem of his oversharing quite nicely. There was no telling what his cousin could have gleaned from his speech. In the future, Bilbo thought, if I am struck upon the head, I shall shut my mouth and refuse to open it the symptoms are past. Bilbo had spoken far too frankly for his own comfort, and felt acutely embarrassed at the memory of his own words. His actions, too, had been quite rash, even if they had so far all worked out for the best.

It was almost worrying how much they all trusted his judgment, even Fortinbras, despite all his doubting.

With that, the four cleaned and dressed their wounds as best they could. Fortinbras reclaimed his book, and Arathorn the deck of cards. Their horses were exhausted, but no longer on the edge of death by exhaustion, and they were able to ford the river.

If this is the Hoarwell, Bilbo thought, then we have safely crossed the Trollshaws. If we are fortunate, then our pursuers will be following any number of false trails at the moment. If we are particularly fortunate, he added after a moment, then they have also met any number of trolls.

Bilbo took a moment to reminisce about his own experience with trolls fondly. The three brutes were still alive, in the Now, as strange as the thought seemed.

I can hardly think of any who I would rather meet with them.

Several days passed as the four rode on, and what remained of the herd kept with them. After the lembas had been all consumed; Fortinbras proved himself to be a surprisingly capable hunter, while the Rangers were admirably skilled at foraging for wild eatables. Bilbo, for his part, focused on making the resulting dishes not only eatable, but palatable as well. 

The four of them were managing, which was more than Bilbo could say of his time with the dwarves.

At one point, Bilbo awakened in the pre-dawn light to find his three companions deep in conversation. Fortinbras seemed to be explaining something to the two humans, his hands sweeping in nervous gestures as he spoke. Arathorn and Gilraen's brows were furrowed, their expressions concerned. Finally, understanding dawned on their faces.

Fortinbras squeaked as both Rangers picked him up, hugging him fiercely. His face was a bright red, up to the pointed tips of his ears. The murmur of the two humans' reply was so quiet as to be inaudible, but Fortinbras, proving the impossible, blushed an even deeper shade of scarlet.

Bilbo smiled at the sight, shook his head, and went back to sleep.

Author's Notes

Happy generic winter holiday! And I'm sorry it took me so long to write this stupid chapter. Grad school was busy, busy, busy! And then I lost the plot... (Thankfully I found it again, but I was worried for a bit. On a side note, I've done another round of editing.) Also, I have a tumblr now: rwaughthings. Look me up for plot updates and random headcanons and things. I cannot promise that they will not mentally scar you.

Edit: Borys noticed that the time-line was a little off... agreed, so now the end scene has happened several days since escaping.

Edit 2: well, as a re-reader might have noticed, there has been a bit of an edit to the last few chapters... The treasure was not recovered, and neither were the hobbits' weapons. I've been dithering on this for a while now, and finally decided that the naysayers were right: Bilbo recovering the treasure goes against his characterization in the hobbit and Tolkien's major themes (greed is baaad~ and friendship and life is more important by far). So, that has been changed... I apologize for not thinking it through entirely in the first place. :( Also new dialogue sparked off by new dialogue... 

Chapter Text

Trigger warning: Um, graphic scenes of leatherworking and rendering prey. If you are an ethical vegan I apologize...


Gilraen patted her horse's nose, her other hand moving up to stroke softly through the mare's mane. The Ranger sighed. It had been four days since the small group had escaped from the renegades' compound, and in that time not one of them had noticed any signs of pursuit. They had no bedrolls, little food save what little they themselves gathered, had had to make their own waterskins out of deer stomachs, and were being made to boil water in their helms and use Arathorn's shield and some carefully placed rocks as a makeshift frying pan.

Gilraen peeked over at Bilbo. He was currently skinning their latest catch, and whistling to himself as he worked in the late afternoon sun. Doubtless the rabbit's fur would end up sewn into the lining of the newly tanned deerskins the hobbit had staked out to dry several hours beforehand.

Bilbo was still whistling as the skin fully detached from the rabbit's red flesh, and he placed the denuded body into Gilraen's own discarded helm. In several hours' time it would become a thick and hearty stew, if Arathorn could find the proper vegetables and seasonings in time to add them.

The Ranger sighed, closing her eyes. Bilbo was far, far too cheerful about the whole arrangement. He was acting as if losing nearly all of their supplies was but a grand adventure, instead of the time-consuming danger that it was. Every moment that they delayed was another moment that their captors could use to find them.

But still... We do need to eat, Gilraen reminded herself. Even taking as much time to gather food as they did, they were still hungry more often than not. And while the weather has been fair so far, the nights are still cold. The last thing they needed was for either of the hobbits to catch ill. And it was just as well that Bilbo kept himself busy while the rest of them procured food. Keeping watch and guarding camp was important work, but it did tend to leave one's hands idle. It was best that he keep his spirits up.

I will be much relieved when we actually arrive at the Grey Havens, uncertain welcome or not, Gilraen thought grimly. The constant watchfulness tired her, even moreso than the siege of Buckleberry. There, at least, they knew from what direction the enemy would be coming.

The Ranger was not certain what, if anything, they should share with Cirdan and his elves when they arrived at the Havens. The insurrection was Dunedain business, Ranger business, and displaying her peoples' weakness to other nations went against everything that her mother and her tutors had ever taught her.

It would depend on their reception there, Gilraen supposed, and what Cirdan and his councilors would be able to guess at. Though, she and Arathorn would need to discuss the matter with the hobbits beforehand. Still, the four of them had some time before such things became of concern. They had several more days still until they had recovered the ground they had lost before, even figuring in their new route.

According to Bilbo, we crossed the Hoarwell the night of our escape. The next great river should be the Brandywine - and from there we continue directly west until we reach the River Lhun. We then must ford it, and then follow it along its western bank. We will come across several small towns where we can find food and supplies and a road, we have only to follow the road south to the sea...

It's a spot of luck that our hobbit companion is so good at maps and things, Gilraen mused. Though... It was at this point that Gilraen's thoughts turned to something she had long been ignoring. Improbabilities and inconsistencies that had built and built upon each other: the bit about the trolls was but the straw that broke the oliphant's back. It is still possible, Gilraen thought carefully, that Bilbo is a seer. If that is the case, though, then he is like no seer that I have ever encountered before.

Where could Bilbo have encountered trolls? Gilraen struggled to find a plausible explanation for his words. She did not remember Bilbo ever saying that he had left the Shire. And yet... and yet... He knew horses. And could bargain with dwarves. He could pick locks and pick pockets, and... He knew things, things about the world, and things about himself... At times he seemed more as if he were her grandfather's age than hers!

An elven friend and an adventurous mother, even a love of books, could only explain so much. Even seers did not live their lives in reverse! And- and- they do not even have locks in the Shire! She would have known! She was not that unobservant!

Gilraen sucked in a breath, and expelled it slowly. She looked again at Bilbo in quiet consideration, utterly unsure of herself. Normally, she would have taken her concerns to Arathorn, discussing the matter at hand until a course of action presented itself. But... things between them had been so awkward, lately.

She knew the stories that the others had whispered about them, about their friendship, all the snide jokes that had been made while they were growing up and later after joining the Rangers. Gilraen had paid them no mind and neither had Arathorn, or so she had thought at the time. In truth, Gilraen had always considered him to be something of a brother - the brother that she had never had.

But now... Gilraen closed her eyes. Arathorn had almost kissed her, back in the rebel's compound... and she had almost let him. Now they could barely so much as talk to each other without at least one of the hobbits nearby. It was too... strange. Gilraen felt herself starting to flush, and she quickly shook her head to ward it off.

She would talk to Fortinbras instead. Bilbo was his cousin, after all, and surely he would have noticed the inconsistencies as well.

And, whatever had developed between herself and Arathorn in that dank and desperate place... It would die in time, if they let it. And Gilraen would have her friend back. She refused to lose him to something so... silly.

Fortinbras was sitting upon one of their saddlebags, fletching a new arrow. Gilraen walked over and sat beside him, and he looked up.

"Yes?" Fortinbras asked, his knife hovering over the shaft of the arrow.

Gilraen hesitated for a moment before speaking, wondering how best to phrase her worries. "I have a question for you," she said slowly. "Umm..." The Ranger bit her lip. "Have you, by any chance, noticed with Bilbo... something a bit strange? I mean, pickpocketing? Trolls? It just doesn't seem very... possible."

Well, that was just a pitiful example of questioning, she thought to herself in dismay. I should have just spoken to Arathorn... Almost-kiss or not, it would have been far less awkward than her fumbling for words.

Arathorn had always understood her, Gilraen reflected as Fortinbras stared at her blankly.

"Wha-?" the hobbit started to ask before comprehension dawned in his eyes. "Oh!" he exclaimed. "Oh..." Fortinbras continued in a very different tone. "Ah, perhaps Bilbo would be the best one to explain..." he finished meekly.

"So, he told you, then?" Gilraen asked eagerly, leaning forward. Fortinbras knows! A thought struck her then, and she frowned. "Why did he think that he could not tell us?" she asked, hurt.

Fortinbras had set down his arrow and knife and was now waving his hands at her. "He wouldn't have told me, either," he hurriedly explained, "had I not confronted him at a particularly low moment."

Meeting Gilraen's eyes, Fortinbras was quick to add, "I did not know it was quite such a low moment at the time! Though, I cannot regret it: if I had not done as such, I fear my cousin would have made a very foolish decision..."

Fortinbras cleared his throat. "Bilbo, you see, has gotten himself into a spot of trouble, and, for some reason, believes that he is the best possible one to get himself out of it." The hobbit took a deep breath, as if to fortify himself. "We can't tell you everything," he said firmly. "Bombadil warned us against speaking of this matter where we could be overheard, but I don't see why we can't share at least some of it..."

Gilraen blinked several times, attempting to digest this. "Overheard...? By whom?" she asked finally. What trouble could Bilbo have gotten himself into? she wondered. The hobbits had left the Shire because of Fortinbras' arranged marriage, hadn't they? Or, did it have something to do with their uncles instead?

Fortinbras gestured to the forest around them. "All animals talk, apparently," he said, pitching his voice low. "It's just that while very few of them may speak Westron, enough of them understand it."

Oh. Gilraen had almost forgotten the little talking fox they had met, so many things had happened since then. But... What secret could Bilbo be keeping that he was worried about animals discovering it? And who would they possibly tell? She stared at the hobbit in confusion.

Fortinbras threw up his hands. "I will go speak with him!" he said. "It is past time he shared this with you in any case."

Gilraen smiled at this, ruefully, and more than a bit concerned over this new development, whatever it was. Rebels look to be attempting a coup and nobody has seen fit to warn us, we are now all wandering about the countryside without supplies or a map or even a road, are utterly unsure if our future hosts are even expecting us, and now we find that Bilbo has been keeping secrets...

What Fortinbras mentioned had sounded... well, bad, truth be told. And with our terrible luck... Gilraen thought, trailing off. Valar, please, please, let this be something manageable. No more Barrow-wrights, or huorns, or traitors come to ransom us off. No. Just... no.

The Ranger thanked Fortinbras for his help, squeezing his shoulder. She then purposefully wandered off, letting the hobbit get back to his fletching. Fortinbras was an excellent archer, and they would all feel far safer when he was properly armed once more. Especially since Bilbo was now armed only with a dagger - a weapon that he himself had admitted to knowing little about, or so he had claimed when they had been instructing Fortinbras' in its use.

Gilraen chewed her lip, and then headed for the forest. They could always use some more roots for tomorrow's stewpot, she supposed. And a fresh salad of greens for the following morn wouldn't hurt, either. That she would be able to avoid Arathorn for a few hours longer was simply an additional bonus.

Thankfully the area they were in was rich in plant life. Wild asparagus and burdock, clovers, chicory and chickweed, curled dock, dandelion, pennycress and rosemary all grew in abundance there and she was able to gather enough for the four of them. The work, simple as it was, unfortunately left her mind free to wander.

Fortinbras had been unusually kind to both her and Arathorn ever since escaping the compound, Gilraen had noticed. Before, he had felt free to grump or fret or dither about whatever had concerned him - and he would certainly argue if he disagreed with something - but now... He still feels guilty, I suppose. Even after our conversation earlier this morning.

Gilraen's brow furrowed, remembering. Fortinbras had explained the events of that night in full, and made his apology. She and Arathorn had not been... particularly happy about being captured without so much as a shout of warning, but...

The odds had been pretty fiercely stacked against them, and even if they had been awake and ready... victory would have been very much unlikely, and certainly impossible without sustaining a great deal of injury. Likely one or several, perhaps even all of them, would have died in the process.

By keeping silent, keeping away, Fortinbras had allowed them to remain uninjured. And... most importantly, he had come to their rescue.

Absently, Gilraen fingered the brooch that Arathorn had given her, and Fortinbras returned. She and Arathorn had forgiven him at once, of course - they had agreed to such in a quickly signed conversation while Fortinbras had held his head in his hands - and explained their reasoning for doing so. Fortinbras had proven himself to be courageous and noble and true, and he had always done as he felt was right... Of course he wouldn't have abandoned them! And how the hobbit had blushed at their words! Gilraen bit back a smile at the memory.

It would still be some time before either Ranger would feel comfortable sleeping outdoors. Not that they had much choice, at the moment, of course... Time, she hoped, would be enough to heal them.

It was shortly before nightfall when Gilraen returned to the camp. The stew smelled delicious: apparently Arathorn had been able to find the proper plants in time. Her friend was sitting between Bilbo and Fortinbras near the fire, and Gilraen took the open spot across from him. She carefully stacked her findings on the inverted shield to prevent them from getting dirty.

The others smiled and greeted her, Bilbo filling up one of the cups from the saddlebags for her and handing her one of Arathorn's newly carved spoons. Gilraen thanked him and sipped at the broth, letting it cool a bit before devouring it ravenously. There was enough left in the improvised pot for seconds, and she gratefully ate her fill.

They would be hungry again come morning, she knew, but hopefully what she had been able to gather that evening would be enough to keep their hunger at bay for a while longer. She would be far more comfortable with at least another hard day's ride between them and their captors. Their shortcut through the Trollshaws would only buy them so much time, after all.

The four sat comfortably in silence for a while, until Gilraen remembered the promise that Fortinbras had made. Her booted foot nudged carefully at his ankle and he looked up, startled. Gilraen raised her eyebrows meaningfully at him, and the hobbit gave a short nod in reply.

Their exchange had not gone unnoticed. Bilbo was eyeing them with unease, while Arathorn's expression was one of mild suspicion. Awkwardness aside, her friend deserved an explanation.

[Bilbo's been keeping secrets,] Gilraen signed.

[The visions?] Arathorn asked. [He's finally admitting to them, then?]

[His secret is bigger than that.] How best to put it? [Too many impossible things.]

[Trolls?] Arathorn raised one eyebrow, his mouth set at a wry tilt.

So Arathorn had noticed too, then, Gilraen concluded. Well, she had expected nothing less.

[And everything else.] Gilraen added, with more than a bit of trepidation. She didn't know what the secret could be, but her mother's blood had given her a sense of the shape of it. It loomed large in the dark unknown, huge and foreboding.

They needed to know, Gilraen felt with a quiet certainty. Everything would depend on it.

Across from her Arathorn exhaled, long and slow. As one the two of them turned to face Bilbo, Fortinbras echoing them by leaning forward and planting his elbows on his knees. They all stared at the youngest hobbit in expectation.

After a long moment, Fortinbras spoke. "Well, cousin," he said, "time to get on with it."

Bilbo blew out a long sigh. He looked one way, and then another. "I do not know how to start," he admitted.

"The beginning is usually a good place," Fortinbras replied, lifting his brows.

Bilbo snorted. "If you insist," he said wearily. Then, "Arathorn, Gilraen, I have not been completely honest with you, ever since the beginning. I will understand if you are angry with me, but I cannot apologize for keeping this from you. My intent was to keep the both of you, and everyone else, safe. My secrecy was meant to accomplish that."

Gilraen straightened where she sat, frowning, and Arathorn did the same.

"A month or so before we met," Bilbo continued, "I was on a ship sailing to the undying lands. I went to sleep, and when I awoke I was twenty-one again and in my home in Bag End."

Gilraen blinked once, twice, thrice, in utter incomprehension of the hobbit's words. "Again?" she finally managed to ask.

Bilbo smiled bitterly. "I was not particularly overjoyed to find that over a century of my life suddenly accounted for nothing," he said. "Which, according to Bombadil, is all that is left of the world I came from."

Gilraen met Arathorn's eyes, speechless. She swallowed hard. "There's more, isn't there?" she finally ventured.

Fortinbras coughed back a laugh and the two Rangers startled, shooting him wary glances.

"Yes," Bilbo said, rubbing his hands together. "The last eighty or so years of my life were rather... eventful."

Fortinbras had a rather worrying smirk on his face, Gilraen couldn't help but notice.

Bilbo closed his eyes. "There is much I cannot tell you," he said, "for fear of my plans being overheard. Even in the Old Forest I could not speak of them in their entirety."

Realization dawned on Arathorn's face. "That night, when I had to carry you up to our room..."

"That is when I first discovered what became of my world," Bilbo confirmed.

"I thought you were a seer..." Gilraen inhaled sharply. "Or that Bombadil had given you a prophecy."

Bilbo smiled at that. "I am something like a seer now, I suppose," he said. "For I only know of things that may come about, not what will. My actions have changed many things, and not always for the better."

"The Old Forest..." Arathorn mused out loud. "I suppose that's when you told Fortinbras?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at the hobbit in question.

"He forced it out of me, you mean," Bilbo said with wry amusement.

Fortinbras snorted. "You would have gone off alone if I hadn't, and don't pretend otherwise," he said, scolding his (far older, Gilraen now knew) cousin. "This quest of yours would have been your undoing."

"Quest?" Gilraen asked sharply. "What quest?" Fortinbras' arranged marriage, their uncles, Bilbo's very identity - was anything they knew about the two hobbits the truth?

"Bilbo here," Fortinbras pointed, his voice almost dripping with satisfaction, "aims to kill a dragon. And that is the least of his plans."

Both Rangers' jaws dropped.

"S-Smaug...?" Gilraen finally stuttered out. The fire drake was the only one she had heard of that still lived. How such a thing could be the least of Bilbo's plans was beyond her ken.

"The dragon that destroyed Erebor?" Arathorn echoed, his voice laced with horror.

Bilbo grimaced. "If the Necromancer that lives to the south of Mirkwood gains control of him, then all of Middle Earth may well be in peril," he said. "I know his weakness now: it should not be nearly so troublesome as the last time around."

Neither Gilraen nor Arathorn could think of a single thing to say to that.

"Bilbo wasn't the one who killed him back then," Fortinbras said reassuringly. "I thought the same thing, too."

"Ah," Gilraen finally ventured, glancing between the cousins. Arathorn held his head in his hands. He looked as if he would have rather had the Witch King lying in wait for them.

It seemed that they had been cursed to live in very interesting times. So much for manageable, Gilraen thought to herself.

They were all doomed.

Author's Notes

Yes, the chapter you have all been waiting for! Gilraen muses about lots of things, and... the Rangers find out. Well, they find out the important stuff, anyway... The rest will just have to wait :D. And, we are finally almost at the Blue Mountains. (For a given value of almost.) Yay! (And, Fortinbras was not being mean or heartless about Bilbo, he just really wanted to see the Rangers' faces when they heard about the dragon and kept jumping the gun a little. Can you blame him?)

Also, in case you are curious, Bilbo was using the brain-tanning method to tan the hides... It is exactly what it sounds like. Umm... Yes. Eww... This method takes about sixteen hours in total, not counting the time to clean the leather beforehand and dry it out after. The hides are currently stretched out on stakes, and the rabbit fur will be stretched out when they make camp the next day. Bilbo did them in stages, to account for travel-time. And yes, all those plants Gilraen was talking about grow wild in Europe and are edible. Some of them are even tasty... 

Chapter Text

Secrets and Lies

It seemed that they had been cursed to live in very interesting times. So much for manageable, Gilraen thought to herself.

They were all doomed.

"I-" Gilraen started to say, "Bilbo, you-" The Ranger shook her head, wordless.

"Is anything we know about you the truth?" Arathorn asked at last, his head still bowed. He looked up, his face pinched and his lips tight. "What are we to you, then, that you thought you could trust nothing to us?"

Bilbo blinked rapidly, his eyes wide. He looked to Fortinbras, who shook his head his head.

Gilraen bit her lip until it drew blood, the rage, helpless and frustration of the past week surging through her veins. "Tell us," she urged, "we wish to know. When we fought together, back to back, thinking we were all going to die, you said you trusted us with your life. Was that a lie?"

Bilbo raised his hands in a gesture of peace, a look of horror on his face. "Of course I trust you!" he said. "But my life is worth so much less than my secrets, and I did not want to risk yours."

Gilraen laughed in response to this, a sharp, harsh noise, while Arathorn just glared. "That is what a unit is, hobbit," she said, shaking her head , her emotions a mix of rage and bitterness. She stood, and Arathorn stood with her.

Fortinbras was beginning to look alarmed by their exchange. Good, Gilraen thought savagely. He hadn't trusted them with the truth either, or at least not enough to go against Bilbo's wishes. Fortinbras had probably only agreed to speak to Bilbo out of guilt from before.

"I don't want to talk to either of you right now," Gilraen stated flatly. "Don't follow us." She turned and strode into the growing darkness, Arathorn a silent shadow at her right.

Gilraen headed in the direction she had taken earlier, remembering a fallen log that would be comfortable to sit on. She lapped the blood from her lips, her fists still clenched. The silence lasted only until they reached their destination.

"How could he have-" Arathorn demanded, gesturing in frustration.

"I don't know," Gilraen said. She sat heavily, blinking at the surrounding trees.

"If he had - done this all before - then why, why would he have not at least warned us about the coup - " Arathorn cut himself off here, swallowing.

Gilraen slowly shook her head. They had been used, she thought. Convenient swords and shields and not much else. That Bilbo had only spoken the truth when they were no longer capable of leaving him - of betraying his secret - said much.

"Months, months we've known each other now," Arathorn added finally, " through war and fire and death, carnivorous trees and barrow-wights - and then to be kidnapped, and to hear of Galador's betrayal, Grandfather, and, and-"

"And he never breathed a word of any of it," Gilraen finished dully.

Arathorn seated himself next to her and they slumped together until their shoulders touched.

"Now what do we do?" Arathorn eventually asked. "If... if we aren't even a unit, then..."

Then what was the point of continuing their acquaintance? And an acquaintanceship it was, instead of the friendship they thought it had been. Friends did not lie about something this big, nor use another so. The affection between the four of them might have been real, but there could be no true friendship with neither trust nor respect. And the hobbits did not trust them with the truth, not even when it could have saved them so much grief, and they certainly did not respect them even enough to explain why...

Could Bilbo, could Fortinbras, truly have sought to use them? If they had just told us that there were matters they could not discuss, we would have accepted their word. We could have investigated Galador, uncovered the conspirators, saved Chief Argonui... He didn't have to die.

Gilraen stared at her hands for a long moment. "They came for us, when we needed them to," she said at last. "And Fortinbras, at least, wanted to tell us. He bullied Bilbo into it, after all. Possibly... Possibly, they did not know the truth of Galador, or your grandfather. Certainly that did not know that we would be captured."

Perhaps they had been told only out of pity and guilt and fear that the two bumbling humans would raise too many suspicions for the hobbits to deal with, but it was still something, at least.

Arathorn exhaled slowly. "So, we go back, then?" he asked quietly.

Gilraen raised her head to look at him. "What choice do we have?" she replied.

The two of them could survive on their own for a while, but without a map and coin of their own they would not last the year. And that is to say nothing of the schemes of our enemies... There were Rangers stationed all across Eriador, and no matter where she and Arathorn chose to stay the two of them would be discovered before long. Cirdan's realm was truly the safest for them, at least on the west side of the Misty Mountains. It was farther than most Dunedain would be willing to tread.

Arathorn let out a sharp bark of laughter. "Elbereth," he said, his voice wavering. "It all comes at once, doesn't it?"

Gilraen snorted at that. "It certainly seems so," she said with fell humor. "I know I have said it before, but this was most definitely not what I was expecting when we left the Angle."

The minutes rolled past and the Ranger let her eyes fall shut, focusing on keeping her breathing calm. The forest and her friend's company worked to slowly leech her rage away, leaving a cold pit of anxiety in its place. She did not want to think such things of Bilbo and Fortinbras. She did not. Gilraen discretely lifted her sleeve to wipe the gathering moisture from her eyes.

Intellectually, she knew that there was nothing stopping her from marching back to where the hobbits were and demanding the true reason why Bilbo had kept this from them. But - she feared the answer. And if she knew Arathorn at all, he felt the same. After all, Captain Galador had been their mentor, not so long ago. And if he was capable of such betrayal...

A hand gripped Gilraen's shoulder then and she looked towards its owner. Arathorn met her eyes, though he had to blink many times to hold the watering of his own at bay.

"We are alive, and whole," her old friend said. "Surely that counts for something." He took a deep breath before slowly exhaling. "Bounders are not like Rangers, and hobbits are not Dunedain. They knew nothing of units when they joined ours, and they know but a little now." Arathorn's voice was rueful as he spoke.

"Are you saying that you...?" Gilraen prompted, her voice trailing off.

Arathorn shook his head. "I still quite angry with them, but... perhaps..." He swallowed. "If they truly did not know of the coup - I do not see why - we - would not have told Bilbo of the matter, though I could say the same of the Ranger way of operating in a unit. I suppose our group would have been parted after the invasion was routed, but..." but they still would have kept in contact, in letter if by nothing else, he did not say.

"Perhaps it came to nothing, without either of us having known of it," Gilraen said uneasily. Of course, if Bilbo truly had been ignorant of the matter, it could have also been because...

Well. As certain as death was to a mortal, one did not often like to think on the matter at length. Particularly when the deaths in question involved oneself and one's closest friend. Gilraen was no different.

Arathorn slowly shook his head. "I do not see how our presence or absence would affect matters in such a way," he said.

They were silent for a long moment. Whatever the answer to that particular question might have been, it was probably better not to ask about it. Better to focus on something else.

"What do you think Bilbo was doing on a ship to the undying lands?" she asked eventually, for lack of anything better. "And how did that bring him back to his... youth?" And turn his... world... to nothing?

Arathorn looked at her. "That is the part of his tale that concerns you? Not the dragon, nor the Necromancer, who, apparently, has spies even in the wilds of Eriador?" He frowned suddenly. "This is the same Necromancer that drove the hobbits out of their old homeland east of the mountains?" he asked.

Gilraen blinked at that. "I suppose," she said slowly. "I did not ask."

Arathorn chewed his lips. "If so," he said, choosing his words carefully, "then he is their ancient foe, as the Dark Lord is ours."

Gilraen sat up straight, ice jolting through her veins. She had not thought of that. "Do you think that's why the Shire was invaded?" she asked uncertainly.

Arathorn nodded. "Possibly," he said a bit more firmly. "The Necromancer is said to command all sorts of foul beasts, and orcs are the least of them. He might have wanted to finish his work."

"But why would he move against the hobbits now, of all times?" Gilraen asked, dismayed. Much time had passed since the last time the Necromancer had menaced the hobbits - they had moved west more than a century before Arnor's fall, and that had happened more than a thousand years ago.

Arathorn shook his head. "The Greenwood is failing," he said, "and the Misty Mountains are overrun. The orcs grow stronger daily." He frowned. "Long have the Rangers defended what remains of Arnor, but if the Necromancer is aware of the dissent within our ranks..."

The ice in Gilraen's veins reached her heart and her eyes flew open. "You think he knows about the coup?" she demanded.

"Given what Bilbo has shared, it seems... probable," Arathorn answered, looking to the side. "It would certainly answer a few questions if he did."

"I can't imagine even rogue Dunedain would have any dealings with orcs..." Gilraen said with unease, remembering the written accounts of the survivors of the Dunedain kingdom of Rhudaur. Of the corruption that had allowed the Witch King to conquer and occupy their lands. Of those who had neither fled nor been killed, but had instead turned to his will. "However..." she began.

"It has happened before," Arathorn continued, his face grim.

Gilraen's lips twisted. "And it could certainly happen again," she finished.

They sat in silent commiseration for some time afterwards.

Eventually something terrible occurred to Gilraen and she frowned. "If it was the Necromancer who was responsible for the invasion, then... Do you suppose that the dragon Bilbo mentioned, Smaug... Do you suppose he attacked the Shire in Bilbo's... world?" And that was why Bilbo came... back?

Arathorn choked, his eyes going wide. He swung his head around to stare at Gilraen. "I certainly hope not," he exclaimed in horror.

Both of them contemplated the idea of the Shire in flames while the rest of Eriador was invaded by orcs and goblins and other fell things. That image was enough to decide them. They stood up, and headed back for camp.

It was fully dark when the two Rangers returned. Both hobbits were still awake, the campfire and their fretful pacing casting strange shadows on the trees around them.

Fortinbras was the first to notice them, and he shook Bilbo's shoulder to get his attention. The two hobbits looked up at the both of them, wide-eyed and anxious.

It was Arathorn who broke the silence. "You should have told us before," he said grimly. "During our stay in the Old Forest, at least, if not earlier. And you must be honest with us from now on, if we are to forgive you and trust you once more. If your enemy is as terrible as you say then we understand that you cannot tell us everything - but say that, at least, and do not invent an excuse."

Bilbo nodded quickly at Arathorn's words, while Fortinbras slumped in relief.

"You still have some explaining to do," Gilraen said. "And you can begin with, the, ah-" she trailed off, exchanging a glance with Arathorn.

"The dragon," Arathorn said, wincing. "What... did he, ah, do?"

"Ah, Smaug," Bilbo said. He swallowed. "Besides taking Erebor, you mean?" he asked. "Well, before the dragon was killed he managed to destroy Laketown. Thankfully, the humans there had a superior archer among them. He shot Smaug down before too many lives could be taken."

"So he didn't attack the Shire, then," Arathorn said, sounding much cheered. "Did the Necromancer manage to invade Eriador?"

Bilbo blinked at him several times. "Err, somewhat," he said. "Your folk and the elves were enough to hold the Misty Mountains - Erebor had been retaken before that and they, the Iron Hills, New Dale and the Greenwood held much of his might on the eastern side. Gondor, Rohan and Lothlorien did the rest."

"It wasn't some terrible disaster, then?" Gilraen asked, wishing to make certain.

"It was no where near as bad as it could have been," Bilbo answered, sounding bewildered.

"Was the Necromancer defeated?" Arathorn added.

"Well, yes-" Bilbo said. "I can't tell you how, exactly, you understand-"

Then why- Gilraen's brow crinkled in puzzlement, and she exchanged a glance with Arathorn. "Then how... why would you have returned to your past if there was no need?" she asked.

At this, Bilbo sighed, shadows creeping under his eyes. In that moment he almost seemed as old as he claimed to be. "The Valar are not always kind," he said.

Arathorn straightened. "You said you were... on a ship to the undying lands?" He exchanged a glance with Gilraen. The question of howand why a hobbit would be there went unasked. Bilbo would probably refuse to tell them, anyway.

"I was," Bilbo nodded. He paused a while before continuing, hesitation writ large upon his features. "However, I died before reaching my destination."

Fortinbras looked up at this sharply.

Gilraen stared off into the distance. She had never before heard of anyone dying on the Straight Road before, much less a hobbit. Mortals were not allowed at all, and she could not begin to guess at the consequences of such a thing. "Was that how...?"

"According to Bombadil and Goldberry, yes," Bilbo answered with a nod.

"But, if the world was going well, why would the Valar...?" Arathorn blinked.

Bilbo sighed. "Unbeknownst to all of us who sailed, they apparently consider hobbits to be the same as humans, and banned us from venturing there as well," he said. "I was not the only hobbit among our party: my nephew also sailed. And he did not die before reaching our destination. The Valar were not... pleased by his arrival."

"Ah," said Gilraen. She winced. "How, ah, bad was their reaction?"

Bilbo swallowed. "To the point where the world could not endure..." he answered, trailing off. "Goldberry said it was best that I did not know, but I can guess at any rate."

"Why would the Valar not have warned you, if they so objected to your presence?" Arathorn demanded. "The last time they acted against the world, it was to destroy a conquering and corrupt nation and those who refused to stand against it - a hobbit merely setting foot on the undying lands is not nearly the same thing!"

If Mandos had truly considered the hobbits to be the same as a human then Bilbo's nephew should have merely been struck dead, Gilraen thought. Not... not that.

"I do not know," Bilbo said, looking up at the two humans. He shook his head. "It was naught but chance that sent me back, and when I came the world behind me was unmade. Gandalf himself did not remember what had transpired in the time Before - he is but a Maia, but he is powerful among them - and if he does not remember..."

"You do not believe that the Valar remember, either," Gilraen said. But then how would Bombadil and Goldberry know? she wondered. And what were they that they could remember when one of the Maiar could not?

Bilbo threw up his hands. "There may be no answers beyond those I have already discovered," he said.

Fortinbras blinked. "Wait, wait - so, Eriador was invaded by the Necromancer, you died, the world was destroyed, the Valar were responsible for it - but, but Gandalf is a what?"

"One of the Maiar, or, the lesser Ainur," Arathorn answered. "It is not common knowledge, even among the Dunedain and the elves," he offered hesitantly.

Fortinbras turned his head first to one side, then to the other. "You mean to tell me," he said slowly, "that the old wizard who peddles fireworks in the Shire, Grandfather's old friend who delights in turning hobbits to mischief and adventure, who goes wandering about the countryside both looking and smelling thoroughly unkempt is one of the powers of the world?"

"Yes," Arathorn said with a nod and a twitch of his lips. "Bilbo told you none of this?" he asked.

Fortinbras glared at his cousin. "No," he said.

"Err," said Bilbo. "You know now?" he volunteered.

Fortinbras sighed and rubbed at his temples. "Cousin," he said, "sometimes I do not know what to do with you."

Arathorn snorted at this while Gilraen looked off to the side, her lips quirked. So Bilbo wasn't just like that with them, then. That was good to know.

Gilraen chewed on her bottom lip. She was curious about the answer to her next question, for it would reveal at least some of the extent to which the hobbits had lied to them. "You aim to destroy the dragon and defeat the Necromancer, yes?" she asked. "Why, then, are you traveling to the Grey Havens, if your enemy lies in the east?"

Bilbo exchanged a glance with Fortinbras. He grimaced. "I was traveling with a caravan of dwarves, when I first faced the dragon," the hobbit explained. "They sought to re-take their home from the beast and needed me to, ahem, retrieve a particular jewel from Smaug's horde in order to do so. Apparently the other dwarf clans had sworn an oath on it, to come to the holder's aid when asked. The leader of the dwarves wished to reclaim that jewel, the Arkenstone, and force the clans to uphold that oath - to send out armies and defeat Smaug."

Arathorn blinked in realization. "The dwarves of Erebor now dwell in the Blue Mountains," he said.

"Yes," Bilbo nodded. "As does Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King under the Mountain. I believe you remember the dwarf from Bree?"

The Rangers choked. "The smith we hired was an exiled king...?" Arathorn asked, once he had recovered.

Bilbo smirked. "Indeed," he said.

"A dwarf king made your armor?" Gilraen asked in astonishment.

Fortinbras frowned. "I don't see what's so exciting about a king-in-exile," he muttered. "Arathorn is one, after all. Or a prince-in-exile, at least."

"He's a dwarf king!" Arathorn protested. "From Erebor!"

Gilraen blinked, remembering the scene from the inn, which already seemed like so long ago. "You knew him from before," she said slowly. "It is no wonder you looked at him so strangely."

Bilbo's lips twisted. "Thorin was a harsh dwarf, but an honorable one, at least before the gold madness struck," he answered. "Our -my- actions awakened the dragon, and, unable to strike at us directly, Smaug destroyed Laketown before he was struck down by Bard the Bowman. The Elvenking Thranduil sent aid to the humans, but the elves of the Greenwood have never been wealthy and they were already fighting a war on two fronts. There was not much that they could spare."

"With the winter coming on, the humans were set to starve unless they were able to purchase food from the south. So they went to the mountain to learn of our fates and see if they could recover the treasury of Dale. The Elvenking and his guards accompanied them. Thorin..." Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut. Despite committing the tale to pen and paper, he had never quite gotten used to telling this part of his story. "Thorin was greatly angered by their presumption, and refused them. They, in turn, decided to just starve us out."

Gilraen listened, her eyes wide. Arathorn gripped her hand, and she squeezed tightly.

"Of course, what they did not know was that an army of dwarves was arriving from the Iron Hills to help defend the Lonely Mountain against interlopers. We were all headed for a terrible battle and - over what? A pile of gold and jewels? I was not... particularly happy with the dwarves' decision. I had already found the Arkenstone some time beforehand and, seeing the madness descend upon my companions, had told no one of it. And so, in the dead of night, I crept away from the mountain and entered the encampment of the humans and elves and offered them the Arkenstone itself."

"'Take it,' I implored them. 'And use it to bargain for your share of the treasure. The heart of the mountain is the heart of Thorin Oakenshield as well, and he values it above a river of gold.' They accepted, and, though the Elvenking feared for my safety, I returned to the mountain to face the judgment of the dwarves. I barely escaped with my life." Bilbo shook his head at the memory.

"It all came to naught, of course: orcs, goblins and wargs invaded, seeking the treasure and revenge against the dwarves. The armies all fought together against their common foe. Thorin was badly wounded in the battle, and his nephews and heirs fell defending him. He apologized to me upon his deathbed, having come to repent for the destruction his madness had nearly wrought." Bilbo's lips quirked in fell humor at the memory.

"The Thorin Oakenshield that we met is not the same as the Thorin I once knew," Bilbo said finally. "So I bear no grudge against him. But, all the same... It is not an experience that I can ever forget."

Gilraen swallowed. "No, I imagine not," she said.

"Then, your aim in the Blue Mountains...?" Arathorn asked eventually, his question trailing off.

Bilbo shook his head. "There are... several items that will make gaining access to Smaug's cavern easier. If I am lucky, then the dwarves still carry them. If not, then I will simply have to go without. In either case I do not intend to inform Thorin as to my plans. There is also, of course, the matter of the Necromancer... He was felled by an item of magic - I know of its location, but it will be exceptionally difficult to retrieve. It is my hope that I might find something in the Havens that I can use to gain access to it."

"So, you do not have uncles living there, then?" Gilraen asked.

"We did," Fortinbras answered. "Though we have not heard of them for some time."

Both Gilraen and Arathorn nodded at that bit of news.

"And your arranged marriage," Arathorn asked of Fortinbras, "was that true as well?"

Fortinbras winced. "Yes, Father engaged me to Lalia Clayhanger!" he said. "And I would prefer a lifetime of hunting goblins and orcs over marrying that harpy! Even the dragon is better!"

"Oh," Gilraen breathed. The hobbits were being honest, before, then. Or, honest to some extent, at least. Time would tell the extend of the damage. "Good. I would hate to think that you had our sympathy for nothing."

Fortinbras only huffed at her in reply.

"And the elven friend you told us of, back when we first met," Arathorn asked of Bilbo. "Was he...?"

Bilbo smiled. "He was Lord Elrond, of Rivendell," the hobbit said. "And I first met him on my quest with the dwarves. I lived in his house for nearly twenty years, near the end of my life, and he was my good friend for all of them. We sailed together, when the time came."

The hobbit looked up at the two humans, then, utter sincerity shining through his eyes. "Everything I told you about myself was true, in some form or another," he said. "Do not doubt that."

Gilraen grimaced at his words, wishing that she could believe him.

Actions spoke so much louder anyhow.

Author's Notes

3.5k+ words of angry teary-eyed Rangers, awkward explanations and jumping to conclusions... Why brain, whhhhhyyy? And, did you guys think the Rangers were going to take the news well? Heh, no. They've been kidnapped, betrayed by their mentor, found out that one of their parental figures was murdered by said mentor and then Bilbo and Fortinbras go and drop a bombshell on them. And yet, this reaction is still far better than if they had found out on their own... And yes, the Rangers can tell that something was a bit fishy with Bombadil and Goldberry's explanation of Bilbo's time-travel... (Don't you just love it when I smile at your questions and then purposefully misdirect you? Bilbo had to get it from somewhere :D)

Silmarillion-stuff: Rhudaur, along with Cardolan and Arthedain, was one of the splinter-kingdoms of Arnor. Rhudaur was composed of a small population of Dunedain and a larger population of Hillmen. (Of course, they had a Dunedain king... *Cough* colonialism *cough*) Supposedly Angmar offered power to one of the leaders of the Hillmen if he would be willing to oust the old order - he did, and Rhudaur was afterwards an ally of Angmar. Most of the Dunedain there were killed or fled, but I imagine some (likely those who married Hillmen or were part Hillman or were especially friendly towards them) probably stayed. And ended up working for the new order.

Chapter last edited on 2/23/14. You will see the Rangers' reaction making much more sense, and the scenes flowing together much more smoothly. This was so very, very painful to write. And I really, really need a beta. Or something.

Chapter Text

Arc III: Conspiracy in the Blue Mountains

Old Friends and New

With the added burden of procuring their own foodstuffs, it took the four over a week from the time of their escape to reach and cross the River Lhun. In that time the Rangers had recovered somewhat from their surprise, but were still acting noticeably hesitant with both Bilbo and Fortinbras. More so with me, thankfully, Bilbo thought, glancing at the two humans.

He had not expected them to be happy with the discovery that he had been keeping such a secret from them, but Bilbo had expected perhaps a bit of shouting, some frustration and confusion, and then finally acceptance. It was what Fortinbras had done (minus the shouting, at any rate.) Bilbo still didn't quite understand the... depth of their reactions. Bilbo had been as honest about himself as he could have been, under the circumstances.

Changing a few names or dates did not make much of a difference, after all, and no one could reasonably expect another person to trust them with their entire life story after only knowing them for a handful of months, no matter what amount of danger they had gone through together. Some things were just too painful, or too private, to be shared.

Human teens are quite like hobbit tweens, Bilbo reminded himself. It didn't help that the two humans acted so much older than their actual age at times. Storming off into the night when they knew they were in danger of pursuit notwithstanding. How he and Fortinbras had panicked!

Then the sheer irony of Bilbo thinking that about another stabbed at the hobbit sharply, and he snorted. Though, in my case, I suppose I am acting my actual age...

Somewhere along the line there had been a rather large misunderstanding, Bilbo suspected. The Rangers' further questions, what few of them there were, seemed to hover around... something, but never quite come straight out and ask it. Bilbo, of course, was having the greatest of difficulties identifying just what this something actually was.

It wasn't the further details of his quest, which they had staunchly refused to question him on any more. Bilbo had already said too much, he feared, although he didn't deem it particularly likely that the mere mention of the Necromancer would alert Sauron's forces to his goals. Hopefully. If anything, a listener would think him quite mad, and discount his ramblings entirely...

Come to think of it, Bilbo was quite fortunate that the other three had believed him at all, strange reactions aside. The hobbit sighed, adjusting his grip around Arathorn's middle as their horse evaded a particularly treacherous looking patch of bog.

I have already been considered mad once in my life, Bilbo supposed. It had been somewhat annoying, and more than a trifle depressing, but it wasn't as if he didn't know how to handle it. It might even have been easier to deal with than the Rangers' new accursed timidness. Though, it was nice for them to trust in his sanity. He himself didn't, at times.

Bilbo turned his gaze to the marsh-like land they were now riding through. This land was uninhabited by any peoples that he knew of, yet there were still the occasional signs of travelers. A scrap of dangling cloth, a hint of smoke on the breeze, the occasional long-butchered animal carcass. Such leavings made them all particularly wary, for they were far from any trade route. That they were the signs of orcs and goblins seemed the most likely.

When he had lived in Rivendell of the Before, Bilbo had heard a little of the troubles of Lindon. Foremost among them was the difficulty of managing a land whose residents were determined to create no further connections with the world. Apathy and the sealonging were the greatest threats to the elves of Lindon, according to Gildor of the Havens, and not a word of orcs or goblins in those lands had passed his lips while he sat at the Council of Elrond.

Though, as Bilbo had recently learned of Aragorn's close-mouthedness with regards to troubles, that didn't necessarily mean anything at all.

The four made their camp shortly before nightfall, eating a quick supper made of yesterday's leftovers. In deference to their suspicions they kept watch in pairs, cutting the night into two shifts instead of three. Bilbo and Gilraen took the first, while Fortinbras and Arathorn agreed to take the second.

Bilbo sat and poked at the fire while Gilraen paced, both keeping a careful eye on the densely packed mess of thorn-covered thickets around them. The horse herd would serve as excellent sentries also, but their noses would be of little use if attackers approached them from downwind.

The silence was tense, and both watchers were wary. While they had feared pursuit from the renegade Dunedain, the humans had at least been proven to treat their captives moderately well. A night raid by orcs, on the other hand...

Bilbo flinched at the memory of the rescue that Hobbitry-at-Arms and the Rangers had mounted, shortly before the Battle of Buckland. He had participated in enough battles in his time to have witnessed some truly gruesome sights, but the aftermath of that day... the haunted eyes of what few faunts remained, their broken bodies, the parents and grandparents who were missing digits and entire limbs...

No. They would not be captured by orcs.

But fear was tiring, and the night passed slowly. Bilbo mused on many things, eventually falling into a vivid daydream of what he planned to do in Ered Luin. He would like to see the dwarves again, if such a thing was possible. He had managed well enough seeing Gandalf, and he had not acted a complete oaf around Thorin...

Of their dwellings within the Blue Mountains, the dwarves of the Company had said little. Some of them had informed Bilbo of their professions before joining the quest, and the others he could make educated guesses of. They had all lived somewhere within Thorin's Halls, Bilbo supposed, and it was likely that any investigation of banditry would lead to at least one member of the Company...

It is not as if I am in any danger now of confusing them with ghosts, Bilbo thought, his eyes melancholy and a corner of his mouth tucked upwards. Nori is sure to be aware of much of the illicit goings-on at least... And I wonder if Dwalin has been made captain of Thorin's guard yet-

A rustle of wings interrupted Bilbo's thoughts, and the hobbit looked up into a pair of merciless yellow eyes.

An enormous bird stared down at him, a brown-bodied giant with a grey head and ferocious-looking talons. Its dispassionate gaze pierced him for what felt like minutes. Bilbo did not dare to look away. Finally, the bird let out an ear-splitting screech before flapping off into the night.

Gilraen jumped about a foot in the air at the sound, and the other two started awake. Bilbo watched the bird as it disappeared into the darkness.

"What was that?" Fortinbras asked, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

The other three stared at each other, befuddled.

"It wasn't an eagle," Bilbo offered finally. "Though it was somewhat similar in appearance, I suppose."

Gilraen shook her head. "I have heard... just a little, about giant menacing birds living in the lands to the west. I had guessed that the others were just having us on..."

Arathorn rubbed at the corners of his eyes. "That was a hendroval, if the rumors are true. They are flock-birds and are known to be particularly vicious foes. We are lucky that one was alone."

The others paused at his words, reflecting on them for a moment.

"Perhaps they don't like to fight in the dark?" Fortinbras eventually volunteered, his tone hopeful.

"With our luck?" Gilraen demanded of him, throwing her hands up into the air.

"It hasn't been that bad, so far," Fortinbras argued. "While we do get in situations, yes, we usually get out of them just fine -"

Arathorn slowly shook his head before dropping his face into his hands. Bilbo merely sighed. Needless to say, none of them slept particularly well for the rest of that night.

The morning saw no further signs of trouble, hendroval or otherwise. Still, the four made the unanimous decision to break camp without gathering further supplies and chose instead to ride as far as they could before sundown.

By noontime their plans abruptly changed. The river bent around a body of hills, and when the four emerged from behind their cover they discovered a large port town looming in the distance. They attracted little notice upon entering the town, though the procession of horses following behind them soon drew stares and envious looks.

The townsfolk appeared to be composed primarily of dwarves and the occasional elf and human. Bilbo's brow furrowed as he glanced around the streets. I know the name of this place. I do. But what in blazes is it..? he wondered for a long moment before smacking himself in the head. "Kheledul!" he exclaimed. "Of course!"

"You know where we are, I take it?" Arathorn asked, pointing his horse in the direction of what looked like a stable.

"Yes," Bilbo said excitedly. "We are perhaps only several days away from where the Eastway enters into the Blue Mountains. Quite close to our destination, as a matter of fact."

The others let out sighs of relief.

Of course, the stables were already full of ponies, and there was no room for all of their horses.

"We can't possibly abandon them," Fortinbras said after they had been waved away. "They are not wild horses, after all, and with those signs of goblins..."

"We will not have to," Bilbo said. "They have been trained to respond to commands in Sindarin, after all, and there should be several elvish settlements farther to the south. I am sure that any of them will be more than happy to accept them."

"Horse dealers, are you? And from Bree, I suppose, given your mixed party?" A passing dwarf spoke up, eying the horses and their riders curiously. "Kheledul is perhaps not the best place for those - you'll be looking for Duillond, most likely. It is to the south, yes, and not too far from here. Err, if you don't mind my asking, masters and mistress, did you get lost?"

The Rangers exchanged a glance, unsure of how to respond. Fortinbras bit his lip. None of them had expected to get stopped and questioned, and they hadn't thought to work out a plausible explanation beforehand. The truth, alas, was not an option. Or, perhaps it was...?

Bilbo shook his head and sighed. "A short cut turned into a long cut, unfortunately," he said honestly. "You have heard of the trouble in the Shire, this past winter? Not all of the invading orcs and goblins were killed - many were merely driven off, to regions unknown. We hoped to avoid them by taking a more northerly route."

The dwarf raised her eyebrows. "And you still live?" she asked, stroking her pale blonde sideburns in astonishment. "Haudh Lin, the region you passed through, is overrun by goblins and other vicious beasts... I have heard of attacks near the Eastway in Needlebole and even here in the Gate, but that route should still be the safest by land. Though I suppose you travel with armed escort for a reason," she added, gesturing at the two Rangers.

"I knew those were goblin-signs," Arathorn muttered into the palm of his hand.

"We were lucky, I suppose," Bilbo answered the dwarf, frowning. "We saw no goblins, nor were we set upon by any vicious beasts."

"Haven't been to these parts before, have you?" the dwarf asked, not without some sympathy.

Bilbo blinked at her. Something about her appearance was vaguely familiar to him, though he couldn't quite place what it was. "I'm afraid not, mistress," he said.

In front of him he could feel Arathorn give the slightest of starts. The dwarf, however, merely nodded as if such a reply was to be expected.

"I thought so," she said, her eyes twinkling. "There's only one thing for it, then."

Fortinbras eyed her warily. "And that would be...?"

"Why, my husband and I are wholesalers," she explained. "We import goods from distant lands, and sell them to neighboring merchants who go on to sell them to their customers. Naturally, this means we do a great deal of traveling about the countryside. Unfortunately our daughter, Gimris, managed to break her leg while exploring the rigging of one of our suppliers' ships," she said, looking ridiculously proud of her adventurous child.

"Now, we are under contract to deliver these goods to particular individuals at particular times," the dwarf said sternly. "We cannot break this contract! But neither can we leave our little lass here on her own. Our families live in the Halls, and they cannot get here in time. The solution is obvious: one of us must stay to care for our daughter. But, it is not wise to travel alone, with a cart full of goods!"

"So you want us to escort you or your husband to... Duillond, in exchange for guiding us there," Fortinbras said with a sigh.

The dwarf shrugged at him. "It is no hardship on your part, if you are headed there anyway," she said. "We both stand to benefit from such an arrangement. I am Mizim, daughter of Ilga, by the way."

"I am Fortinbras Foxburr," Fortinbras introduced himself, "this is my cousin, Bilbo Underhill, and our friends and companions..." Fortinbras trailed off, glancing first at Gilraen and then at Arathorn.

It took Bilbo a moment to realize why, exactly. It was perhaps not the best of ideas for either of the two Rangers to introduce themselves by their actual names. If word of their location traveled back to the wrong ears, or potentially even the right ones... The two humans could end up in quite a bit of trouble. Bilbo spared a moment to curse himself for his lack of foresight. We should have discussed this yesterday, hurrying be bothered!

Thankfully, Gilraen realized Fortinbras' purpose at once. "I am Rae," Gilraen said, "and this is Thorn." Both Rangers gave a polite half-bow from where they sat.

Mizim clapped her hands together, a smile breaking over her face. "Well, then, masters and mistress," she said. "Do we have a deal?"

The four looked at each other. It seemed as if none of them had any objections. Bilbo shrugged.

"I believe we do," Fortinbras said, speaking for the group.

Mizim grinned. "Follow me," she said, leading the four and their horses past the docks, where a great crowd of people swelled.

Humans of Gondor mixed with those of Umbar, of Harad, and those of even more distant lands that Bilbo did not recognize. The occasional elf darted through the seething mass - most were dressed in fashions that Bilbo was familiar with, but several times he saw those whose garb was unlike anything he had seen before.

And, of course, there were the dwarves. Dwarves shouting and gesturing and flinging great crates of goods to and fro. An enormous ship had newly arrived, and was being lashed to the pier. Their standard, a black serpent set upon a red background, flapped in the breeze. The Southron sailors were talking with the dwarven deckhands and soon goods and coin were being passed from person to person. The din of their shouting was terrific to hear.

Bilbo gazed at the town around them, a modest port that nonetheless boasted of one of the most diverse mixes of people he had ever before seen. The hobbit spared a moment to wonder at how the elves of Rivendell had ever complained of the reticence and isolation of the dwarves. To Bilbo, it seemed quite the other way around.

The Rangers and Fortinbras were looking every which way, drinking in the sights in front of them in absolute amazement. Bilbo smiled at the three. None of them had ever seen so much of the world all in one place before, he knew. Bilbo remembered the feeling.

After a moment, though, Bilbo had to poke Arathorn in the side before Mizim disappeared completely from their view. The Ranger broke from his daze, and gently nudged their steed forward. The rest of the horses soon followed.

Mizim stopped outside of a ramshackle inn and gestured for them to wait. She disappeared inside, leaving the four travelers to mill about. They dismounted, stretching out their aching muscles.

"Is this a good idea?" Gilraen asked, gazing after the dwarf. Her expression was vaguely pinched. "We will have to watch our words the entire time..."

"Probably not," Bilbo said, "but announcing ourselves to all and sundry would likely invite trouble we cannot afford. It is no different from our time in Bree: it is only that this time the stakes are somewhat higher."

Fortinbras frowned. "It might be wise for you to use those names you chose among the elves as well," he said slowly. "If they are in contact with the rest of the Rangers, then rumor of your presence here might reach them."

Arathorn frowned. "We have not decided if we should inform Cirdan as to our troubles," he said. "Lord Elrond likely already knows, of course, but it is perhaps not wise to alert our other allies and trading partners as to our potential... weaknesses. "

Gilraen glanced at Bilbo, then quickly looked away, feigning at disinterest. "In your... time, was news of the coup... common?" she asked.

Bilbo shook his head. "I had never heard of such a thing," he said.

"We never told you?" Arathorn asked, startled.

Bilbo blinked. "I first met Gilraen sometime in my sixties," he explained. "We were acquaintances, but not, ah, exactly friends." Oh, dear, Bilbo thought to himself. Somehow, in all the time he had known the two humans he had quite managed to separate the younglings in front of him from his memories of the tired and bitter Chieftess of the Dunedain and her dead husband. That would be a terribly awkward conversation to have with the Rangers. And how could he possibly explain their future son Aragorn? The two weren't even betrothed yet! Bilbo hoped that they wouldn't question him any further on that particular vein.

Gilraen and Arathorn exchanged startled looks at Bilbo's response.

"Bilbo never joined the bounders, the first time around," Fortinbras said somewhat uncomfortably. "Many things happened... differently." He winced.

The Rangers looked horrified. "Then the Horn of Buckland was never sounded?" Arathorn asked. "Or did someone else..."

"It did not need to be, then," Bilbo said, his eyes sliding shut. "The Fell Winter was nowhere near so bad in the time Before as what we faced. I do not know what changed this." I can certainly guess, however, Bilbo thought bitterly. He had only made one great change before that time, after all, unless some activity he had undertaken during patrol had had a greater affect than he had been aware of.

The four waited in uncomfortable silence until Mizim finally returned, three other dwarves in tow. The three were all red-haired and stocky, unlike Mizim.

The young female, presumably the previously mentioned "Gimris," looked to be only half-grown. Her sideburns were nothing more than the faintest of wisps, and only served to make her look utterly adorable. Her lower right leg was tightly wrapped in bandages and set in a sort of wooden frame that held it at such an angle that her foot did not reach the ground. She hobbled about on a pair of wooden crutches, babbling enthusiastically at her mother.

But Bilbo only noticed the dwarf child in a distant sort of way, so surprised he was at the sight of the other two. Gloin and a young Gimli were standing in front of him, the former looking utterly besotted and the latter mildly suspicious.

Fortinbras looked at Gloin and the young Gimli, and then back at Mizim. He raised an eyebrow at her.

Mizim shrugged at him. "I might have exaggerated somewhat," she admitted cheerfully. "Still, a party of two isn't much safer than a party of one, especially in times like these."

Gimli frowned fiercely at that and addressed his mother in Khuzdul. Gloin slapped his son on the back and laughed at whatever he had said. Gimli shook his head and huffed at his father's response, while Gimris giggled.

Mizim sighed. Her reply to her son was brief and curt, and also in Khuzdul.

Bilbo blinked. He only knew a few words of that particular language, but he was absolutely certain that he recognized the terms "humans," "halflings," and the expression "not a threat." Bilbo felt vaguely offended by such an insinuation, but supposed that he couldn't be too angry at it if it made his life that much easier.

"I apologize for my son's behavior," Mizim said, reaching over and pinching one of Gimli's cheeks. He reddened , attempting to wave her off.

"While Thorin's Gate has been a relatively safe land for many years," Mizim continued, releasing her son, "we have recently had some problems with bandits and the like. As a result, my Gimli has become quite... cautious, around individuals he does not know so well."

Fortinbras nodded. "Perfectly understandable," he said graciously.

"But still," Gloin said, bowing, "that is no reason to be rude." He cleared his throat, looking over the four and their assorted horses, now milling about the yard. "I am Gloin, son of Groin, at your service," he introduced himself. "You already know my wife, Mizim, and these are our children, Gimli and Gimris."

"At your service," Gimris said, curtseying cutely.

"At your service," Gimli echoed sullenly, giving a curt bow.

"I am Fortinbras Foxburr," Fortinbras said, bowing as well. "This is my cousin, Bilbo Underhill, and our friends and companions Rae and Thorn."

"And we are at your service and your family's," Bilbo added, remembering the proper response just in time. After all, it certainly wouldn't do to appear ill-mannered for his second introduction to one of his good friends, now would it?

Author's Notes

Finally! We have actual plot progression! Whoot! And dwarves! I did say that I was using LoTR online as one of the background sources, yes? If not, there it is. If you've played, then you probably are familiar with the hendroval... :D The "Gate" refers to Thorin's Gate, which is the region of the Blue Mountains that is under Thorin's control. It has a number of different towns in it - the Halls is the big one, with Kheledul a somewhat distant second. The names of the spouses/children of the Company dwarves are from Sansukh, and used with determamfidd's permission. And, if you are curious, Gimli is 32 right now - young for a dwarf but only one year younger than Dain Ironfoot was in his crowning moment of awesome.

Trade is a very good way of meeting people from all over the place, isn't it? :D And I imagine dwarven goods are very much in demand... Even as far away as Harad. And with Sauron and his forces still stuck in Dol Guldor... The rest of the world stands to be free of his particular brand of mischief. I imagine that would make diplomacy quite a bit easier.

This is one of the few times when everyone's lives would be easier if hobbits actually understood the concept of treachery.  Because Gilraen's question should have been a clue-by-four.