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And What Happened After

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It is ten years since the Battle of the Shire: ten years of prosperity and plenty, of weddings and births and joyous occasions, of the dwarves of Belegost and the hobbits of the Shire making alliances and marriages and friendship and, occasionally, feuds. (There is a gentle conspiracy among the Thains and the rulers of Belegost to make sure that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Dis daughter of Thrain are never within a mile of each other, after their third meeting nearly came to blows.) Tonight there is to be a great party in Belegost to celebrate the Battle of the Shire and the continuing alliance, and Bilbo Baggins, Prince Consort of Belegost, is about ready to tear his braided hair out.

“Thorin,” he says, slowly and clearly, “give the dwobbits back to Peony and come help me welcome your father.”

Thorin, King of Belegost, is seated on the floor with three dwobbit babies in his lap. The eldest is inexpertly braiding his beard; the youngest is chewing on his knee. Thorin grins up at his husband. “Sure the Prince Consort can welcome his father-in-law without me?”

Bilbo drops his head into his hands. Thorin chuckles and begins handing the babies back to their mother. “Very well, very well. Do not look so downcast, husband.”

Bilbo finally raises his head. He is shaking with laughter. “You are utterly impossible, Thorin,” he says through his giggles, and reaches out to unbraid the tangles in Thorin’s beard. Thorin holds still until Bilbo is done, and then rises and tucks his husband’s hand into the crook of his arm.

They greet Thrain at the entrance to Belegost. When Thorin’s company first arrived, the entrance hall looked like nothing more than a giant, ragged tunnel. Since then, of course, much has changed. Dwarven craftsmen have built giant doors which fit the tunnel perfectly, inlaid with brass and iron and carved in intricate patterns and runes which read, simply, “Belegost.” Today the doors are open wide, and Thorin and Bilbo are framed in the entranceway. Thorin has always had a talent for the dramatic.

“Hail, Thrain son of Thror, Lord of Moria! Be welcome in Belegost!” Thorin calls, and the old dwarf at the head of the small party beams.

“Hail, Thorin my son, King of Belegost, and Prince Consort Bilbo,” he returns. “You look well.” He and Thorin rest their heads together for a minute, and Thrain claps Bilbo on the shoulder. (All of the dwarves have learned that hobbits react badly to bumping foreheads. They have adjusted their greetings accordingly.)

“You come in good time,” Bilbo says cheerfully. Thrain nods.

“A rainstorm caught us a few days ago, and we were worried that we would be late, but the new roads in the Shire more than made up the time.”

Thorin and Bilbo usher the dwarves of Moria into Belegost, and Bilbo chatters away while they lead them to the rooms which have been set aside. It is one of Thorin’s favorite things about his Prince Consort – as opposed to his favorite things about Bilbo, which are all rather more obscene – that he can make small talk about anything, with anyone, in such an inoffensive way that they cannot help but be drawn in. It is an invaluable skill for a ruler, and one Thorin has never had.

Both Thorin and Bilbo have been forbidden on pain of pain from entering the great feasting hall before Dis gives them permission, so Thorin is a little apprehensive when the hour finally rolls around and he prepares to step through the door, Bilbo on his arm. Dis, he trusts to have some sense about the decorations, but he has overheard Fili and Kili and some of the younger hobbits whispering in corners, and the words ‘streamers’ and ‘flower crowns’ were clearly audible. Thorin is willing to wear a flower crown in the Shire, if a hobbit child insists – he is not heartless – but not in the heart of his own kingdom.

To Thorin’s immense relief, the hall is decorated in a perfectly acceptable dwarvish style, no streamers or garlands of flowers to be seen, and the guests are seated at long tables, with the Thains and Thrain up at the head table, and two spaces in the middle for himself and Bilbo. Bilbo grins beside him, and Thorin takes a deep breath and leads the way.

The party is a great success. The Thains and Bilbo gossip about friends and relatives who couldn’t make it to the mountains – Thorin has never quite been able to understand how Bilbo can hold so many people’s names in his head. Thorin knows everyone in his kingdom, but there are only a few hundred of them. Bilbo seems to know every hobbit in the Shire, every dwarf in the kingdom, and half the elves in Middle-Earth.

The food is good – there are hobbits involved, of course the food is good – and Thorin does not have to make small talk, because Bilbo is doing that, so Thorin spends most of the feast talking with his father about the ores and gems available in Moria. Thrain is especially excited about one vein of gold which seems to go straight down into the heart of the mountains: when he returns to Moria, the new tunnel will be started. Thorin carefully does not brag about the rich veins of gold and silver in Belegost, and especially does not mention the most recent discovery: a vein of mithril-silver, rarest and most precious of metals. Thorin is already planning the beads he will make of mithril and gold, to adorn more braids in Bilbo’s hair.

The part of the party Thorin has really not been looking forward to comes at the end of the feast: Thorin’s speech. He would have made Bilbo give it, but, as Bilbo pointed out, Thorin is the king. Bilbo is only the prince consort. It would be rude to have Bilbo give the speech when Thorin is right there; it would look like a calculated insult to the guests: you’re not important enough for the king to talk to, so here, have the prince consort instead. Thorin bows to Bilbo’s superior logic.

He stands and takes a deep breath. The crowds at the long tables hush. Dwalin, at the head of the nearest one, winks at him, one arm around a blushing Ori, and Thorin has to suppress the urge to roll his eyes.

“Dwarves of Belegost, and hobbits of the Shire,” he begins. “Today we celebrate the safety and prosperity of our realms, our political alliance and our many personal alliances.” He smiles deliberately at Dori and Peony, the first dwarf-hobbit couple, and their three children (Peony is pregnant again). There is a round of soft chuckles. “But today we should also remember,” Thorin continues solemnly. “Ten years ago on this day, our combined forces destroyed the orcs of the Misty Mountains. Without the expert marksmanship of the hobbits, the dwarves would have been overrun.” The hobbits in the audience beam at each other. “Without the axes of the dwarves, the Shire may well have perished.” The dwarves slap each other on the back. “Let us remember those who died in the Battle that we might sit here today in fellowship,” Thorin finishes, and Bilbo stands beside him. Together, they recite the names of the thirty-two casualties of the Battle of the Shire. The guests sit silent through the list.

Thorin picks up his mug from the table. “To our honored dead, and the peace they bought us,” he intones. The guests join the toast, a low rumble of “The honored dead” which seems to shake the hall.

Then it is Bilbo’s turn. He sets his tankard down and spreads his hands wide, drawing all eyes. “We stand here in the fellowship they forged for us,” he proclaims. “Let us enjoy the peace they bought!” He claps his hands sharply, and the band of hobbits on the platform at the back of the hall strikes up a dancing tune. The hobbits cheer as one and make for the cleared space to dance, dragging dwarf partners with them. Bilbo sits down beside Thorin.

“That went well enough,” he observes.

“You’re going to insist that I dance, aren’t you,” Thorin grumbles.

“Yes,” Bilbo replies calmly. “But not quite yet. You can wait until everyone’s drunk enough to be a bit blurry about details.”

“Thanks ever so,” Thorin mutters, but half an hour later he follows Bilbo out onto the dance floor and does his best to keep up with the fast-footed hobbit dances. His people cheer him on, and for all the embarrassment of being so very bad at the hobbit style of dancing, still it is good to hear his people happy and well-fed, peaceful and prosperous in the kingdom they have built together.

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When the party has dispersed, or at least enough of it that the king can politely excuse himself, Thorin urges Bilbo out of the hall. When they are well out of sight of the great doors, he pauses, and grins to himself, and sweeps his unsuspecting husband into his arms. Bilbo squeaks and winds his own arms around Thorin’s neck, laughing against his shoulder as Thorin bears him to their rooms.

Bilbo is strong, for a hobbit, but Thorin will always be stronger: forge-trained, warrior Thorin, with all the sturdiness of the dwarves in his bones. His hands are broad and burn-scarred and blunt, calloused from the hammer and the axe, and he can hold Bilbo down against all of Bilbo’s false struggles and do whatever he pleases – whatever pleases them both – to his lovely hobbit.

Tonight what Thorin pleases is to pin his husband’s hands beside his husband’s hips and sprawl between his husband’s legs. Bilbo is well endowed for a hobbit, but hobbits are much smaller than dwarves, after all; Thorin can take Bilbo into his mouth easily, and when he does, Bilbo makes the most wonderful sounds: moans, and bitten-off pleas, and high sharp breaths that end on delightful little whimpers. Thorin loves making Bilbo make such sounds, revels in every gasp and half-spoken effort to beg.

The wooden beads in Thorin’s hair are cold on Bilbo’s hips, and his beard tickles Bilbo’s thighs, but both of those sensations are nearly lost in the warmth of Thorin’s mouth and that incredible thing he does with his tongue and Thorin’s warm grip on Bilbo’s wrists, holding them down and still when all Bilbo wants is to bury his hands in Thorin’s braids and hang on. But that is half the fun of it, knowing he is at his husband’s mercy and that Thorin wants nothing more than to see Bilbo come apart beneath his hands and mouth, scream himself hoarse in pleasure and let go of all propriety and manners. So Bilbo does.

Thorin swallows eagerly and licks Bilbo clean, and crawls up the bed to gather Bilbo into his arms. Bilbo goes willingly, limp with the outrush of pleasure, and Thorin contents himself for long moments with the soft weight of his husband in his arms, the gentle clinking of the beads in Bilbo’s hair as Thorin plays with them. It is a great treasure, Bilbo’s trust and love for him, and Thorin never wants to lose it.

When Bilbo has recovered a bit, he wriggles around so he can kiss Thorin, pulling Thorin’s head down by the braids while he slides one hand between them. Bilbo’s hands are small and soft and clever, with a few old scars from long-past whittling lessons and more recent training in swordplay; hands fit for a scribe or a thief. In ten years, Bilbo has learned every place on his husband’s body that makes Thorin laugh, or moan, or gasp; has made an art out of teasing Thorin with almost-perfect touches until Thorin can do nothing but roll Bilbo over and pin him to the bed and rut against him, too desperate to do anything more.

But tonight it is late and Bilbo is blissfully sated and not in the mood to torment Thorin unduly, so his clever fingers make quick work of bringing Thorin to a panting, moaning climax. Thorin sags over his husband, nuzzling his face against Bilbo’s braids, and mutters, “Quick-fingered, light-footed hobbits will be the death of me.”

“Not for many years yet, I hope,” Bilbo murmurs back. “I plan to grow old with you, and I will be very put out if you deprive me of the pleasure.”

Thorin snickers a little and pulls back to kiss Bilbo. “Far be it from me to deprive you of anything, husband,” he says cheerfully, and finds them a scrap of cloth to clean Bilbo’s hands and Thorin’s own stomach. Once they are clean, Thorin pulls the blankets over them and curls around Bilbo, comforted by the darkness and the steady sound of Bilbo’s breathing.

Bilbo tucks his head under Thorin’s chin, letting his beaded braids scatter across Thorin’s chest, and sighs deeply as Thorin wraps his arms around him. “You do pretty well for a dwarf,” he says, muffled against Thorin’s throat. “Dwalin can’t do the jigs at all.”

Thorin chuckles a little, remembering a pretty hobbit pulling Dwalin out on the dance-floor and urging him to attempt a particularly fast dance. Ori, watching from the side, had laughed uproariously at Dwalin’s complete failure to keep up with the hobbit’s pace, until Dwalin hauled Ori onto the floor with him and kissed him silent.

“Dwalin’s abject failure at jigs notwithstanding,” Thorin says quietly, “I do not think I am meant to dance as hobbits do.”

“It amuses the people of the Shire,” Bilbo points out. “And don’t start fretting about your kingly dignity again. Everyone was far too drunk to remember anything embarrassing, and Dwalin was much more noticeable anyhow.”

Thorin sighs and bends his head a little to bite, very gently, at Bilbo’s pointed ear. “Your attempts at reassurance are not very effective, I am afraid.”

“Oh well,” Bilbo replies cheerfully, and falls asleep in Thorin’s arms. Thorin lies awake for some time, contemplating ten years of kingship and alliance, ten years of marriage to a hobbit – a creature he had never even seen before his wedding night – and ten years of having his warm, sweet little husband in his arms at night.

The night they married, Thorin was baffled by his grandfather’s orders. The first day they were married, Thorin was furious at his grandfather’s machinations. And now, ten years later, Thorin lies in his own kingdom, far from his grandfather’s tomb, with the faint strains of dwarven and hobbit singing floating through the halls, wealthier than his grandfather had ever dreamed in the greatest wealth a dwarf can have: children. None of his blood, no, but his sister’s sons are married or soon to be so, and there would be no dwobbits at all had not Bilbo brought home the elven spell, so in a sense all the dwobbits of Belegost are Thorin and Bilbo’s.

Thorin is content, here in the darkness with his softly snoring husband, here in his deep-tunneled kingdom where the veins of gold run deep and the songs of his people echo through the halls. Ten years ago, Thorin could see little future before him save long years beneath his grandfather’s insanity and his father’s grief; and now he can see the future opening before him, his reign and his sister-son’s to follow and the dwobbits filling Belegost, the wealth of the mountains and the fertile land of the Shire in blood-bound alliance and peace for many years to come. Thorin is content. He gathers Bilbo a little closer to him and falls gladly into dreams.

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When Thrain leaves, he brings Bilbo with him, on an official diplomatic mission from the Kingdom of Belegost to Moria. Bilbo points out that he’s not going to be able to do much more than nod at the tunnels and say, “What lovely tunnels” – hobbits are not, apparently, skilled at mining, and Bilbo has never mastered more than the most basic of stone lore – but someone should go and be diplomatic, and Thorin points out that that’s usually the job of the Prince Consort, who is, in this case at least, rather better at it anyhow. Thrain swears up and down that no harm will come to Bilbo – there are no orcs in Moria anymore, after all.

The trip to Moria is fast and muddy – it’s spring, and rainy, and the long-suffering pony Bilbo is riding keeps its ears back in misery pretty much the whole way. Bilbo, huddled in his cloak and missing his husband, sympathizes entirely and slips the pony pieces of dried apple at every stop in apology. Thrain does his best to keep Bilbo entertained, but he’s not talkative at the best of times and a late-spring march through mud and rain is not even close to the best of times. Still, the dwarves know the way and nothing goes too catastrophically wrong, and two weeks after he leaves the Shire, Bilbo is looking up past a black lake at the vast stone doors of the Mines of Moria.

“We had a time killing the thing that used to live in the lake,” Thrain remarks, and Bilbo stares at the dark water and gulps. It looks like it could hide legions of hobbit-eating things. The dwarves tramp past it without any visible anxiety, though, so Bilbo urges his pony around the edge of the lake and through the doors.

Moria is vast and cavernous. A whisper echoes in the great halls; a shout is deafening. The clatter of the pony’s hooves is like a thunderstorm, and Bilbo winces with every step until a young dwarf steps out from the side and takes the pony’s bridle. “I’ll wrap his hooves,” he murmurs to Bilbo, and Bilbo dismounts and follows Thrain with some trepidation. To be sure, he lives in a dwarf mine, but Belegost is a much friendlier environment, even leaving aside the three or four dwarves who are giving him nasty looks. Some of the dwarves who went with Thrain ten years ago did so because they didn’t like hobbits, and apparently ten years away from the Shire has not completely dimmed that opinion.

The echoes and the glares notwithstanding, Moria is very impressive. Over the next week, Thrain shows him all over the mountain, glowing with proprietary pride over the veins of gold and silver, the piles of gems waiting to be faceted, the long dark tunnels and the intricate stonework and the occasional beautiful caverns full of stalactites and dripping water and limestone so finely carved by time it looks like lace. Bilbo dutifully admires everything, and watches his step, and wishes he were home in Belegost.

The day before he’s supposed to leave, he is following Thrain down another long, dark tunnel, and trips over a loose stone. He’s tripped before, in Moria, and usually all it means is a bruise and a look of concern from Thrain; but this time when he falls the floor gives way, up against the wall, and he is plummeting through blackness and hearing Thrain cry out in horror above him until there is a sickening crack and then nothing.

When Bilbo wakes up, it is darker than a clouded midnight and his head hurts. This is not the most auspicious awakening in the history of the world. He fumbles about to see where he is, and one hand lands on a little circle of metal on the ground. Without really thinking about it, he tucks the trinket into his pocket and keeps fumbling. Eventually, he finds a wall.

“Nowhere to go but up, I suppose,” he murmurs to himself, and sets off along the wall in whatever direction he happens to be facing. He can’t hear anything except the occasional slow drip of water, anyhow, certainly no sounds of dwarves digging to find him, so getting out of this mess appears to be up to him.

(As it happens, Thrain is nearly mad with worry over having lost his son’s consort, and there are a number of dwarves examining the hole which swallowed Bilbo. Unfortunately, it leads into a small maze of holes, apparently created by an underground river quite a while ago, and there is no good way to tell which one Bilbo fell down, and several of them are too small for a dwarf but just big enough for a hobbit.)

After a while, the dripping sound grows louder, and Bilbo starts to hope that he is approaching something vaguely resembling civilization. There is still no light, however, which does not cheer Bilbo up at all. It is cold, and his head hurts, and if he could see at all he’d draw the little sword he carries always (at Thorin’s insistence), because something about the dark makes him wonder if Thrain really has cleaned all the orcs out of Moria.

Bilbo stumbles over a loose stone and lands knee-deep in frigid water. He yelps aloud and backs up fast – there is a lake or a river or at the very least a deep pool in front of him, and while Bilbo can swim, he has no particular desire to try to swim an underground lake in his clothes. He stands shivering on the edge of the water for a long moment.

Out in the blackness there is a sound, a hissing sort of voice: “What is it, my precious?” it asks. “Is it a little orcling come to be eaten, precious? We are hungry, gollum, gollum.”

Bilbo backs up against the nearest wall and draws his little sword. The hissing voice is coming closer, and there is a faint glow upon the water. As it nears, Bilbo can see that the glow comes from a pair of bright and hungry eyes, the eyes of an emaciated, pale, horrid creature. It is staring directly at him.

“We haven’t eaten meat in days, precious,” it muses as it paddles closer on its little boat. “Nothing but slimy fish for us, precious, and now what comes down to our lake, gollum? What is it, precious? Is it crunchy and juicy?”

Bilbo takes a deep breath. “I am Bilbo Baggins of Belegost and the Shire,” he says clearly, projecting as Thorin has taught him. His words echo in the dark of the cavern, and the terrible creature checks itself and sits up in the boat. “If you will lead me out of here, I will give you food and drink,” Bilbo offers.

“It promises food, precious,” the creature murmurs. “Yes it does. But it’s a tricksy thing, with its sharp little knife. Maybe it lies, precious.” Then a change seems to come over it; it sits straighter and cocks its head entreatingly. “Perhaps it doesn’t lie, precious! Maybe it will give us bread, gollum, gollum. Maybe bread and cheese!”

Bilbo dares a step forward. “Bread and cheese and rabbit stew,” he promises. There is always rabbit stew available in Moria – Thrain’s cooks are not terribly imaginative, but the stew is good and thick and well-spiced. “As much as you can eat.”

The creature appears to consider his offer. “If we leads you out, precious, you promises to feed us?”

“I swear it,” Bilbo says firmly. “Lead me out of here into the tunnels of the dwarves, and I will give you as much food as you want.”

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The creature cocks its head and considers him, and hums and hisses to itself. Bilbo holds still, his little sword out in front of him, and hopes desperately that this will work. At last the creature nods. “We will do it, yes, precious,” it says, but there is something worrisome and cunning in its gaze. “We must go and get something first, gollum,” it adds. “Then we will do it, yes, precious, we will.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo says, and lowers the sword a little. “Go and get what you need, then.” The creature turns and paddles away into the darkness. Bilbo takes the opportunity to sag against the wall in relief.

His relief does not last long. From the darkness of the lake comes a hissing shriek of fury and malice: “Thief! Thief! My precious!” Then there is the sound of furious paddling – not the soundless movements of before, but a swift angry splashing. Bilbo has no idea what the creature thinks he may have stolen, but it clearly is coming for revenge, and Bilbo turns and flees into the darkness.

The creature reaches the shore, and he can hear it behind him, its wet feet slapping on the stone floor and its angry hisses of, “Thief! Thief! Baggins!” Even as he begins to despair, to prepare to turn and fight – though the creature is fast and strong and it is dark, and Bilbo does not think that is a fight he will win – he trips over a spur of stone and falls full length with his sword sprawled out in front of him.

Something falls ringing out of his pocket, and without thinking – for if he had thought, he would not have done so – Bilbo puts out his hand, and the ring slips onto his finger. Mere moments later, the creature speeds past him, hissing its fury. Bilbo gapes. He is easy prey, flat on the floor and helpless: and yet the creature did not see him!

Bilbo is fond of wondertales and old stories. It takes him only a moment to put two and two together: the ring is a ring of invisibility, such as were common long ago.
He gathers himself slowly and quietly to his feet, and closes his fist to make sure the ring stays on his finger. Then he follows the hissing sounds of the creature. Perhaps, if he is lucky, the creature will still lead him out of these dark tunnels, even if it doesn’t mean to.

As he follows the creature, he notes that it has begun to slow down, and to look around nervously. He sneaks a little closer, as silently as he can – and hobbits can be as silent as snowfall when they wish to be. The creature is muttering to itself. “Almost to the dwarves now, precious, and we cannot go there, no, no, they would slay us and take our precious. But the precious is gone! Thief, thief, Baggins. We hates it. It stinks of dwarves, precious, they are loud and they dig and dig everywhere, precious, they will find us.” Abruptly the creature stops, staring at a tunnel in front of it. Bilbo can see, very faintly a light at the end of the tunnel, as of torches.

“Dwarves,” hisses the creature to itself, and hunkers down in the entrance to the tunnel, staring hungrily up at the light. Bilbo is trapped within sight of safety. He could call out, but the creature would be upon him long before any dwarves could reach him. He could kill the creature, but while Bilbo has killed spiders and a warg before now, while he is reasonably skilled with his little sword, he cannot find it within him to stab even a crazed, malicious little creature like this one in the back, in the dark, without warning.

He takes a few steps back, takes a deep breath, and then sprints forward, launching himself at the last minute into a great leap. He clears the creature’s head and lands squarely on his furry feet, running forward towards the light. Behind him he hears the creature’s screeching, hissing cries of fury, but it does not follow him.

He bursts into the lighted room at the end of the tunnel: a guard station, and the two dwarves are looking curiously down the tunnel, alerted by the sound. Bilbo suddenly realizes he is still wearing the ring, and pulls it off, tucking it into a pocket in his waistcoat. The dwarven guards cry out in joy.

“Your Highness!” says one. “Thrain has had everyone searching for you! Thank Mahal that you are safe!”

Bilbo nods, wishing he could sit down and shake for a while and knowing that the Prince Consort of Belegost cannot be seen to be so terrified. “It is a great relief to me to see you,” he says instead. “There was a creature, in the low caverns, which tried to eat me; and it was only in my attempts to escape it that I found this post.”

“To eat you!” cry the guards in horror. They bang upon their great signal drum for reinforcements, and push Bilbo into a corner, standing shoulder to shoulder in front of him. Soon Thrain arrives with many of his people, and Bilbo tells his story again, though he does not mention the ring. Thrain sends a company of guards down the tunnel towards the low caverns, ordering them to find the creature which tried to eat Bilbo, and escorts Bilbo back towards the rooms of state he has been given, apologizing every step for the danger in which Bilbo found himself.

Eventually Bilbo is able to convince Thrain that he does not hold the old dwarf accountable for his misfortune, and that Thorin will not be too angry, since Thrain after all did everything in his power to try to find Bilbo again. Thrain vows that his dwarves will search the lower caverns and the unlit tunnels without cease until they find the creature and slay it: nothing will threaten his son’s consort in Thrain’s kingdom.

Finally Bilbo is left alone in his rooms, with a tray of dinner and guards outside the door, and Thrain’s promises of a swift escort out of Moria on the morrow. A healer has seen to Bilbo’s bruises and concluded that he has a very slight concussion, but Bilbo is adamant that he is well enough to travel. He has nothing against Thrain or Moria, he assures that worthy; it is no slight upon the hospitality of Moria’s dwarves that he wishes to leave. It is only that he wants to see his husband again, and that the dim halls of Moria are not the brightly-lit and child-filled halls of Belegost, his home. Thrain, desperate to keep Bilbo placated, agrees with everything.

Bilbo’s sleep that night is filled with dripping water and the hissing fury of a pale creature who calls him thief. He is just as glad to awaken to the polite knocking of a dwarven guard, to break his fast on bread and cheese and rabbit stew, to take his leave of Thrain and mount his sturdy, placid little pony, and ride out of Moria, more battered than he came but with a small golden ring safe in his waistcoat pocket.

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Bilbo leads his escort north instead of west. If anyone will know the provenance of his new ring, it will be Lord Elrond of Rivendell; and in any case, it will be best if he is completely healed from his ordeal before he gets back to Belegost. Thorin will be worried enough by the tale; he need not also see the bruises. The dwarven escort leaves Bilbo at the entrance to Rivendell: Lord Thrain’s dwarves are even more insular than Thorin’s, and want nothing to do with elves.

Elrond receives Bilbo with great pleasure, exclaiming over his mostly-healed bruises and calling for healers to ensure that Bilbo is otherwise uninjured. Bilbo puts up with the fussing with laughing good grace: he and Elrond have been friends these ten years past, writing letters back and forth (carried usually by the Ranger Gilraen, who takes the opportunity to stop a while and gossip with the Lady Dis). Bilbo cannot visit Rivendell often, but he comes when he can, and Elrond is very gracious about the fact that Thorin, despite the debt he owes the elves, is still not terribly comfortable with the idea of elves visiting his kingdom.

At length Elrond’s healers finish fussing, and Bilbo and Elrond retire together to a balcony, where there is a good meal set out awaiting them. Bilbo sets to with glee, glad for a meal which does not involve rabbit stew. When the food is quite gone (and a hungry hobbit can clean a table like no other being), Bilbo sits back and sighs with contentment.

“My thanks, as always, for your hospitality, my lord,” he says happily.

“You are always welcome in my House,” Elrond replies. “I am glad to see your ordeal has not injured your appetite!”

Bilbo laughs. “I do not know of anything which will injure a hobbit’s appetite,” he says merrily. “Thorin still hasn’t quite gotten the Thains to believe he’s not starving me, you know. It’s very funny to watch.”

Elrond grins. “So I can imagine,” he agrees. “But from what I know of Thorin Thrain’s son, King of Belegost, he would sooner cut off his own arm than harm his husband.”

Bilbo nods and reaches up absently to toy with the beads in his hair. It is a habit he has gotten into over the last ten years, and it never fails to make Thorin smile.

“I did not come only to gossip,” Bilbo says at last. “While I was in Moria, I found a ring of invisibility; and as I know there were once many such, I wished to know whether this one was of any particular importance, or had some great tale attached to it.”

Elrond nods. “I know your love of wondertales,” he agrees. “Let me see it, and I will tell you if I know its history.”

Bilbo pulls the ring from his pocket and lays it gently on the table between them. Elrond leans forward to look at it, reaches out as if to touch it – and then draws his hand back with a sudden hissed oath. Bilbo starts in surprise. Elrond is looking at the ring as though he has found a serpent where he expected a mouse.

“It cannot be,” he says softly, as if to himself. “It cannot be.”

Bilbo leans forward. “Lord Elrond, what is it?”

“I must be sure,” Elrond says, standing suddenly. “Bring the ring – we must find a fire.”

Bilbo, baffled, picks up the ring and follows his host down to the kitchens. There is no one there at the moment – it is well before the next mealtime – but there is a banked fire in the open fireplace. Elrond gestures at it. “Throw the ring in,” he instructs Bilbo. “It will take no hurt of it, if I am correct – and even if I am not, gold is not that soft a metal.”

Bilbo shrugs and obeys. The ring lands on the coals and sits there, glowing steadily warmer, for a moment; then abruptly words appear around its circumference in a script Bilbo has never seen before. Elrond gasps as though he has been stabbed.

“Here,” he says, and hands Bilbo a pair of tongs, “take it out. It will be quite cool, I assure you.” Bilbo obeys, and the ring, when he drops it into his hand, is as cold as it was when he found it in Moria.

“What is it?” he asks softly as the lettering on the ring fades away.

Elrond takes a long, slow breath, as though preparing for a hard battle. “It is the One Ring,” he says solemnly, “forged by the Dark Lord Sauron Ages ago. The writing reads, in the common tongue: ‘One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.’ I saw it first when Isildur, King of Gondor, failed to destroy it; it corrupted his mind and heart and made him desire it above all things. When he was killed, the Ring was lost, and has never been seen since. And now it has come into your hands, Bilbo Baggins. If any dark thing should find it, if any of Sauron’s minions yet live and hear of it, you will be slain, and the darkness shall rise again. And yet I dare not take it from you – dare not touch it or keep it in my house, for there lies the great temptation of my long life, that I might take it up and repair the harm which Isildur unleashed on Middle-Earth, that the elves might again rise as kings and queens of all the lands.” Elrond backs up a step, still staring at the Ring. Bilbo gapes at the little circle of metal in his hand.

“What shall we do?” he says at last. Elrond shakes his head, as though waking from a dream, and manages a faint smile.

“Go home to Belegost,” he says, “and keep the Ring safe and hidden. I will call a great Council of the wise – Gandalf I will summon, and I will send word to the Dunedain and Galadriel, queen of Lothlorien, and others who have great knowledge of the darkness. When the Council is assembled, come back again to Rivendell, and we will all together decide what to do and who must bear this terrible burden.”

“I will do so,” Bilbo promises. “I will keep it safe and hidden, and I will neither wear it nor attempt to use its power. I want nothing to do with the darkness, and there is nothing such a Ring could give me that I would desire.”

Elrond actually laughs, a sudden joyous sound. “Let all of Middle-Earth rejoice,” he says, “that the finder of the One Ring is the Prince Consort of Belegost, a hobbit of simple tastes and great contentment; for I can think of few people of any race, Bilbo Baggins, who could say honestly that the One Ring holds no appeal for them, and yet I think you speak truth.”

Bilbo departs the next day for Belegost, with Gilraen his escort. He is uncommonly quiet upon the journey, as though there is a great weight upon his thoughts; but by the time he reaches Belegost, he has begun to cheer up, and he greets his husband with a glad embrace, and his people with a broad and honest smile.

Chapter Text

Less than a month after Bilbo returns home to his husband and his people, a small, bedraggled group of injured dwarves arrives at Belegost. Bilbo, summoned by the door-guards along with Thorin, recognizes them with blank astonishment as some of Thrain’s people, the colonizers of the Mines of Moria. Thorin orders them given rooms and food, summons healers for their injuries and tailors to repair their clothes, and then he and Bilbo wait on tenterhooks until dinner. The dwarves of Moria are invited – firmly – to dine with the King and Prince Consort of Belegost, and they attend obediently.

“King Thorin,” says the oldest of the dwarves of Moria, “I am Inon son of Eron.” He takes a deep breath. “I come bearing sad news, your majesty: Thrain son of Thror, Lord of Moria, is dead.”

Thorin inhales sharply, and his hand tightens on Bilbo’s where they lay upon the table. “How came his death?” Thorin demands.

Inon bows his head. “When your Consort came to Moria, as I am sure he told you, he fell into the low caverns, where we have neither dug nor delved. There he encountered a creature fell and treacherous, which threatened his very life.” Thorin nods, and Bilbo shudders a little in memory. “When Prince Consort Bilbo had left Moria, Lord Thrain gave order that we should scour the lower caverns, to ensure that neither beast nor orc nor fell creature of the depths should ever again threaten the people or the guests of Moria. So did we do, and many days we marched through dark places and low places, and what few orcs and other foul creatures we found, we slew immediately.

“Then came we at last, with Thrain at the head of our army, to the deepest tunnels and caverns of that deep mine; and there, in the darkness, came an undying flame.” Inon covers his eyes, as though to block the memory. “The Balrog of Moria came forth from the depths, and before him fell Thrain son of Thror, and nearly all of those who followed him.”

“A Balrog!” says Thorin in horror. “I did not think any of those baleful creatures yet lived!”

“One does, at least,” Inon replies, “for we did not slay the beast; indeed, it was all we could do to flee from it, and even pausing to recover the body of our lord was beyond us. Up through Moria we fled, and the Balrog behind us; but when we emerged into the light of day, it could not follow. Those few of us who survived agreed that we must leave Moria forever. Some of us went east to Erebor, to tell King Frerin of his father’s death; the rest of us made haste to Belegost.”

“How many survived in all?” Thorin demands.

“We six,” says Iron, “and five who went to Erebor; and of them one so badly burned that it will be a miracle if he survives the journey.”

“Ten of fifty, and none unscathed,” Thorin muses. “If the Balrog could slay forty dwarves, all strong fighters and bold, then there was nothing you could have done but die beside them. Let there be no judgment upon you for your flight.” Inon relaxes visibly, as do the other dwarves from Moria. Bilbo blinks in surprise.

“If they had had any hope of victory,” Thorin murmurs to his husband, “it would be a black stain upon their honor had they not stayed to defend the body of their lord. But as there was no hope, it is better that they came to tell me of my father’s death than if they had died in Moria.”

Bilbo nods, but he murmurs back, “I do not think I will ever understand dwarves, husband.”

Thorin chuckles a little. “I shall never understand hobbits, husband mine, so do not fret overmuch.” Then he turns to the dwarves of Moria. “You are welcome in Belegost, should you choose to stay,” he assures them. “If not, we will be glad to provision you for a journey to Erebor, or wherever else you should choose to go.”

Inon nods. “We would all be pleased to stay in Belegost,” he replies. “We will swear fealty to you, and to your consort, if you will allow.”

“Tomorrow,” Thorin decides, “in open court. And I will let the Lady Dis and the chief of scribes, Ori son of Korin, know that you will be staying; they are in charge of domestic affairs, and will help you to find permanent lodgings and work which suits you.”

The dwarves murmur their thanks, and soon the dinner is over. Once the survivors of Moria have left, Bilbo sags back in his chair and tugs at his braids.

“I feel rather guilty about your father’s death, Thorin. If it were not for me, they would not have delved so deep.”

Thorin shakes his head. “No, Bilbo, do not feel guilty. If you had never fallen, still Thrain would have gone digging. Do you remember, he told us of a vein of rich ores which he planned to excavate? Surely that, too, would have brought him to the Balrog – and without any preparation, little good though it did him in the end.” He reaches over to rescue the braid Bilbo is tugging on. “In a way, it is better so,” he continues softly. “I know my father was planning to send to Erebor, to see if any of the women of the mountain wished to come to Moria. Had he done so, there might have been children in the mines when the Balrog awoke. All of the dwarves of Moria would have died to protect them, of course, but a Balrog is beyond any dwarf’s power to kill.”

Bilbo nods slowly. “You…are almost certainly correct, husband.” He grins, a little weakly. “You often are. Still, I grieve for your father and his people.”

“As do I,” Thorin assures him. “Tomorrow night we will hold a memorial, and my father’s name will be remembered by the children of Durin’s line. It is likely that Fili’s Mim, when she bears a son, will name him for his grandfather.”

The next day, in open court, the survivors of Moria pledge themselves to Belegost; and that evening, the dwarves and hobbits of Belegost gather to recite the names of the dead of Moria. Thorin speaks last, and he recites the whole long lineage of Durin’s line, down through Thrain son of Thror, Lord of Moria at the last, father of kings.

It is that night, in his grief and guilt for Thrain’s death, that Bilbo tells his husband of the Ring.

Chapter Text

The one thing which saves them is that Bilbo does not tell Thorin where he keeps the Ring. As it happens, he has sewn the thing into the hem of his mail-shirt, where it very nearly blends in and is almost impossible to lose. Bilbo does not intend to use the Ring at all, and indeed has been rather hoping that when Elrond’s Council convenes, he will be able to give it up to someone and forget the whole matter.

It is not to be. As the days pass, Thorin thinks more and more often on the Ring. It is the curse of Durin’s line to be covetous, to value gold and gems above all things; and though Thorin has, for the most part, been distracted by Bilbo’s presence, and indeed considers Bilbo to be his great treasure, to be cherished and kept safe, still there is only a very slight difference between gold-madness and Ring-madness, and the one can feed the other easily enough.

Thorin thinks of the many things which he could do with the power of the One Ring. A King who wielded its power would never fall in battle; Belegost would be sure to become the most powerful dwarf kingdom in Middle-Earth. The Iron Hills and Erebor would be in awe of such might; perhaps would even send tribute. The Blue Mountains would disgorge their rich treasures, gold and silver and mithril, gems of greater value even than the Arkenstone, and Belegost would wax rich, and the peoples of Middle-Earth would stand in awe. With the power of the Ring, Thorin is sure, he could even – most marvelous of all, perhaps! – avenge his father’s death. Even the Balrog of Moria could not stand against the power of the Ring.

Thorin could be king of Belegost and Moria. Or he could give Moria to Kili, and leave Belegost to Fili, and provide for his sister-sons in such magnificence that no one would doubt that Thorin, Thror’s despised grandson, has so far surpassed his grandfather that there is no comparison. Thorin could even – marvelous thought! – unite the dwarves of Middle-Earth again, as they have not been for Ages past, and make of them one empire across the mountains of the world.

For many days he broods on these ideas, turning them over and over in his mind, and as he sinks deeper into the Ring-madness, he does not notice that his people begin to worry. Dis, especially, clever Dis, frets over her brother’s uncharacteristic melancholy, his strange outbursts and his quick temper, and takes her worries to Bilbo.

Bilbo, too, has noticed Thorin’s strange moods, and tells Dis what he can of their probable source: an object of great power has come into his possession, but it corrupts the hearts and minds of those around it. He made the mistake of telling Thorin of its power, and now – appalling as the thought is – Thorin seems to have fallen under its spell.

As Bilbo watches his husband descend further into the Ring-madness, he makes a choice. It is true that hobbits are not a warlike people; they are peaceful and cheerful, they prefer dinner and dancing to the art of battle. But it is also true that if a hobbit decides that something must be done, not fire nor flood nor hurricane, earthquake nor enemy army, will dissuade that hobbit from his course. They are made from the earth, as dwarves are, but while dwarves are the stone of the mountains, strong but brittle and infertile, hobbits are the deep earth and its endless strength. So Bilbo Baggins makes a vow: that he will see the Ring destroyed, and his husband’s mind restored, and nothing in Middle-Earth will sway him from his path.

That same night, Thorin comes to their bedchamber looking agitated. He does not lie down beside Bilbo, nor sweep his husband into his arms and hold him as he normally does when he is worried. Instead, he paces fretfully, and at last kneels down beside the bed where Bilbo is sitting.

“Husband,” he says softly, with an odd gleam in his eye, “I have been thinking on the Ring.”

Bilbo shudders. This is what he had feared. “What of it?” he asks, trying to keep his voice light.

“Bilbo, if you gave me the Ring, think what I could do with it! I could avenge my father, Bilbo, and all the dwarves of Moria. I could give the Mines of Moria as a wedding-gift to Kili. Belegost would never fall, Bilbo; we would be stronger than any other kingdom in Middle-Earth. We would be richer than Erebor ever was; our defenses would be stronger than those of the Iron Hills!”

“You have always said that our children are our riches,” Bilbo replies, fighting to keep his voice even. Thorin is content in Belegost, or was before the Ring.

“Yes, yes,” Thorin says, waving a hand to dismiss the argument. “But think of it, Bilbo! You need only give me the Ring – I would not put you in danger of its corruption – but I am sure that I could control it. I am of Durin’s line; we are strong as stone.”

Bilbo takes a deep breath. He has never lied to his husband before, never wished to. “You’re right,” he says quietly. “Tomorrow, I will give you the Ring. I have hidden it away, you see; it is too late tonight to fetch it, and would rouse our people, who would be curious. Sleep now, Thorin; tomorrow I will bring the Ring to you.”

Thorin rises, beaming, and embraces him. “I knew you would understand!” he says joyfully. “Tomorrow will be a great day!” He undresses and gets into bed, gathering Bilbo to him as he always does, and Bilbo curls in his husband’s arms and feigns sleep until Thorin’s even breathing tells him that the dwarven king is deep in slumber.

Then Bilbo rises, silent as only a hobbit can be, and gathers up his clothing and his mail shirt and his sword. He leaves the room without a backward glance: to look at Thorin would be to despair. Instead, he hurries to Dis’ chambers. She wakes instantly when he enters.

In swift whispers he explains the disaster which has come upon him. Scant minutes later, they are both dressed for the road, and Dis rouses her sons while Bilbo brings Dwalin and Ori to her rooms as quickly and quietly as may be. They hold a hasty, whispered, desperate council of war, and soon all is decided:

Bilbo, Dis, and Kili will leave at once. Kili’s fiancé, Primrose Took, who had been sleeping in a guest room beside Dis’ quarters, insists that she will accompany them, and no one is quite willing to spend the time in argument that would be required to dissuade her. Dwalin and Ori and Fili and Mim will hold Belegost together and keep Thorin, in his madness, from sending pursuers after Bilbo, or from going himself. In the event that Thorin is too maddened even to continue ruling, Fili will take the regency. Dwalin, as chief of the army, and Ori, as chief of the scribes, will support him; and all of Belegost has seen that Thorin is unwell. A strong, sane voice will do much to keep them from panic.

Kili and Primrose go to saddle the ponies. Dis and Bilbo gather provisions. In the deep darkness of the earliest morning hours just after midnight, two dwarves and two hobbits set out for Rivendell. Bilbo tethers his pony to Dis’ saddle and clings to his own saddlehorn, blinded with tears.

An hour out of Belegost, there are hoofbeats behind them, and Kili and Dis turn back, taking up their axes. It is only one rider, however: Gimli son of Gloin, outfitted for the road, stops outside of axe-reach and raises empty hands. “I come to pledge my fealty to Bilbo Baggins,” he says clearly. “I was guarding the ponies and saw you go, and if my axe can guard you, let me come as well.”

Dis glances back at Bilbo, who dashes the tears from his eyes and nods. “He is a good friend and a fine warrior,” he says. “And I will be glad for his company.” So it is three dwarves and two hobbits who come, weary and heartsick, at last to Rivendell.

Chapter Text

Elrond asks no questions when a bedraggled and clearly unhappy Bilbo Baggins arrives on his doorstep with a tiny escort and exhausted ponies. Bilbo is eternally grateful for Elrond’s forbearance. Instead of questions, Elrond simply welcomes them, leads them to rooms made ready for them, and tells them that the Council will convene within the week.

“I was about to send Gilraen to Belegost to fetch you,” he says mildly, “but you have absolved me of that duty. Rest, my friends; soon enough we will have time for the decisions which must be made.”

Bilbo spends his first full day in Rivendell alone, sitting on a balcony, looking west towards the Blue Mountains. He frets over Thorin’s reaction to his leaving, over the safety of his people and the stability of his kingdom; but he is doing the only thing he can, and if – when – he sees the Ring destroyed, then he will return to Belegost and make his apologies to Thorin for the lies he told and the hurt he has given.

After that day, he wanders Rivendell with one or more of his companions, chatting with the elves and making an effort to be cheerful and friendly. Still, he and his companions are all greatly relieved when the day of the Council dawns, and they are summoned to the great chamber where it is to be held.

Elrond makes the introductions. Besides Bilbo and Dis, Kili and Primrose and Gimli, Gandalf is there, leaning on his staff and looking graver than Bilbo has ever seen him. Gilraen is attending as the representative of the Rangers, and Arwen, Elrond’s daughter, who has been fostered with the Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien, has come as that worthy’s representative. Bilbo is also pleased to see Prince Legolas of the Greenwood with the delegation from that kingdom. Frerin of Erebor has not sent anyone, and Elrond shakes his head when Gilraen asks if Gondor has responded to the call.

Gandalf rises first, and tells the story of the first war against Sauron, of the Ring which was taken from his hand and which holds much of his power; of how that Ring was lost with Isildur’s death and how, at last, it has been found again.

Then he tells another story, known to Bilbo and Elrond (and to Thorin) but not to the others. “Ten years ago,” he begins, “I brought Bilbo Baggins to Erebor, to be the consort of the eldest unmarried prince. On our way through the Greenwood, I sensed a great evil gathering in its southern regions, and when I had brought Bilbo safe to Erebor, I went at once to find what had alarmed me. I found in Dol Guldur, in the southern reaches of the Greenwood, a great and terrible sorcerer calling himself the Necromancer; by his arts he had begun to raise the dead, and among those he raised were the wraiths called the Nazgul.

“The Nazgul are wraiths, I say, and yet that is not all they are. They are the spirits of great kings of men, who in earlier days grew jealous of the rings of the elves and of the dwarves. Then Sauron crafted ten rings, and nine of them he gave to kings of men. Those rings gave them great power, and they were mighty kings and strong, and their kingdoms flourished, and they lived long past their allotted years; and yet when they died, their souls were bound by the rings into Sauron’s service, and there they have remained ever since. They vanished from the world when Sauron was first cast down, and it was a great dismay to me to see them again.

“The Necromancer was still weak, and the Nazgul weaker yet; and so when we battled, I was able, with great effort and sacrifice, to cast him down; and indeed I thought that I had killed him, for there was a tremor and a shaking in the world as there often is when a great evil is cast down. Yet I was so weakened by the battle that I lay senseless many days, and afterwards took many months to recover in the good care of Lord Elrond our host. When I had recovered, I sent word to the head of my order, to Saruman the White of Isengard, to tell him of the evil I had found and vanquished; but from Saruman no word has come in ten years past, save that he is busy with his studies and cannot be disturbed. So I alone wandered the world and found strange tidings here and there, never enough to fret me but always something stirring in the dark.

“When Lord Elrond sent to me with news of the One Ring, I began to doubt and worry; and so before I came to Rivendell, I went by secret ways and silently to the mountain where once Dol Guldur stood.

“There is no evil there anymore – indeed, there is nothing there at all but the bare stone, so terrible was our battle – but it seemed to me, standing upon the mountain where Dol Guldur was, that I could sense an echo, faint but unmistakable, of the black taint which I thought erased. And more: I could detect a direction. The echo came from the south and east, from the lands of Mordor.

“The creature I had thought was the Necromancer only – the black sorcerer I struck down – was, I am convinced, Sauron himself attempting to return. Had I not found him when I did, he would have grown so strong that even the entire council of wizards would have been hard-pressed to defeat him; but though I cast him out of Dol Guldur, still I had not the power to kill him while his Ring remained undestroyed. Now he returns to Mordor, and I am sure that his Nazgul have joined him there. He will be building an army, of that I am certain, and he will begin to look for his Ring.”

The Council dissolves into murmurs of dismay: Sauron himself, still alive and rebuilding Mordor? Elrond raises a hand for silence.

“I fought against Sauron, these Ages past,” he says solemnly. “I saw Isildur taken by the Ring, and driven mad by it. I saw Sauron’s fall. I tell you now that it will take him many years to regain his former power, for the orcs who followed him have been scattered and slaughtered, his fell beasts destroyed and his strongholds burnt and ruined. If we strike now, and destroy the Ring, Sauron will truly fall at last, and his black magic will never again rise to threaten Middle-Earth.

“Yet if what Gandalf says is true – and I do not doubt it, for the counsel of Gandalf the Grey is always wise – then a journey to destroy the Ring will be fraught with grave danger. An army of elves and dwarves and men might be arrayed to guard the Ringbearer as he performs his task, but this, I fear, would bring Sauron’s attention to that army. He would send his Nazgul and his fell beasts, his orcs and his sneaking magics, to harry and betray the army, and such might well spell the doom of the light. He is weak, yes – but only in comparison to his old strength! He will still have the power to strike down even the strongest warrior, to summon fell things from the dark places of the earth.

“Therefore I think it wise, when we assemble those who will go questing to destroy the Ring, that the company be small, the companions wise in woodscraft and in war, so that they may protect the Ringbearer both with weapons and with wisdom, and may pass unseen through dangerous places and unnoticed through perils, as an army could not do.”

Gandalf nods. “Lord Elrond speaks wisely,” he agrees. “The destruction of the Ring will be hazardous enough to begin with; an army will not make it safer, but rather the contrary. Let there be a small party, then, with men and dwarves and elves and hobbits all included, so that all the races of the light may see that the Ring is destroyed and Sauron cast down forever.”

Chapter Text

“The Ring must be destroyed,” Gandalf concludes. “And yet that will not be a simple task. I have spent much time since Elrond summoned me examining the oldest scrolls of wisdom that I know, and I have discovered how the Ring may be unmade. It must be returned to the fires of Mount Doom, whence it was created; no other fire will do. Yet Mount Doom is far from here, in the valley of Mordor, and I do not know what dangers lie in wait for those who take up this quest; and to bear the Ring is a dangerous task, for it will try to corrupt any who come in contact with it, and turn them to Sauron’s service.”

Bilbo rises. “I have sworn an oath to see the Ring destroyed,” he tells the assembled Council. “I will bear the Ring. There is nothing it can give me, for my one desire is to see my husband hale and sane again, and that he cannot be while the Ring endures. I will bear the Ring.” He takes a deep breath. “But I do not know the way.”

Gandalf bows to him. “I will go with you,” he says calmly, “and guide you and guard you as best I may, Bilbo Baggins of Belegost and the Shire.”

Dis rises. “I, too, will go, and my axe shall be between Bilbo and all his enemies. Belegost will protect her prince.”

Kili and Primrose rise together. “We will go,” they say, and Primrose adds, “Bilbo is my cousin; I’ll let no harm come to him. The Shire remembers her Thains, and the hobbits of the Shire owe Bilbo a great debt indeed.”

Gimli and Legolas stand at the same time, and Legolas laughs a little and gestures for Gimli to speak. “I guard my Prince,” is all Gimli says, and moves to stand beside Bilbo.

Legolas nods. “The bows of the Greenwood go with you,” he promises, “for I will come as well.”

Gilraen stands beside Legolas. “I am skilled in the wilderness, and there should be one human with you, that all the races of the Light may stand together in this quest. In my person the Dunedain will go with you.”

Finally, to the blank astonishment of her father, Arwen stands. “I, too, will go,” she says, and nothing more.

Elrond nods. “A fellowship of nine; may your path be smooth and your journey swift, and the Ring bring none of you to grief. My people will provision you, and we have maps of the land between here and Mordor, though none within that foul place.”

So it is decided; and Bilbo draws aside with the fellowship to speak with them. Prince Legolas he knows, a little, from his journey through the Greenwood ten years past, and Gilraen is a good friend, but the Lady Arwen he knows not at all. She smiles at their questions. “The Lady Galadriel saw that you might need me,” is all the explanation she gives. “I am good with a sword, and have some knowledge of woodscraft and magic. I will not slow you, never fear.”

It is decided, after some little discussion, that Gandalf will lead them, for he has great knowledge and power; but Gandalf names Gilraen as his second-in-command rather than any of the elves. “She is a woman of great strength,” he says, “and it is proper for her to lead the quest which will repair Isildur’s folly.” Gilraen nods, and neither will explain to a confused Bilbo why it is proper for Gilraen to complete what Isildur left undone. But all are agreed that the most important goal of every one of the Fellowship is to keep Bilbo alive and unharmed until they can reach Mount Doom.

Lord Elrond provides them with sturdy ponies and horses, with well-made cloaks and boots for those who need them, with elven trail-bread and oiled leather saddlebags, with waterskins and medicine kits and all manner of things needful to a company beginning a long and dangerous journey. Gilraen has her sword, and Gandalf his; Arwen carries twin blades. The dwarves of course have their axes, and Elrond is pleased to present Primrose with her own bow, of elven make, and finer than any in the Shire. She and Legolas practice together, calling out targets, until the two of them can feather ten targets in half as many seconds, each struck through the bull’s-eye. Bilbo has his little sword and his mithril mail, but they are all hoping that he will never need to use them. He also brings a little pouch of smooth stones, and after the third time he brings down a bird on the wing, none of his companions ask if he can use them effectively.

The only problem to arise before they leave is that Gilraen’s son, Estel, who is being fostered with Lord Elrond for reasons she has never told Bilbo, comes to beg to be allowed to accompany them. Gilraen forbids it.

“You are only nineteen,” she tells him, “and though you know not why, your fosterage with Lord Elrond is of great importance. Moreover, I will not – I cannot – see you slain by orcs as your father was. I am your mother, and you will obey me: stay in Rivendell. Learn well, and be obedient to Lord Elrond. If we should fail, war shall come to all, and you will have a place in the lines of battle; if we succeed, a greater destiny awaits you.”

“Gimli is going with you, and he is also young,” Estel points out. Gilraen glares.

“Gimli is an adult of his people, and has sworn his blade to Bilbo’s service,” she tells him sternly. “You are not yet an adult, and even when you are, you must never swear your blade to any king. You will understand when you are older. Now. You will remain in Rivendell. Obey your mother.”

Estel agrees reluctantly to obey, but Bilbo notices, with some amusement, that the lad spends the days that the fellowship remains in Rivendell following the Lady Arwen around and watching her with wide and wondering eyes. The Lady Arwen does not seem to notice this at all, but then, it is often hard to tell what an elf has noticed and has not. He mentions Estel’s behavior to Dis, who laughs.

“He is smitten,” she says easily. “So did Thorin look at you after the Battle of the Shire, and so will he look at you again when this quest is done. So does my son Fili watch his wife, and Kili follow Primrose. Yet humans are not as hobbits or dwarves or elves – it may be that this is an early love, and he will forget it when we have gone.” She looks suddenly sad.

“Dwarves love but once, you know that, Bilbo. Do not fret that Thorin will cease to love you; even in the madness of the Ring, still he adores you.”

Bilbo nods. “I know, and did I not love him so much I could not go so willingly into Mordor. But I will see my husband sane again: I have sworn it, and I will do it, or I will die in the doing.”

“If you die,” Dis promises, “it will only be because all of us have fallen in your defense. I will bring you safe again to Belegost if it can be done.”

Three days later, provisioned and equipped as well as anyone could ask, the Fellowship sets out upon their quest. From Rivendell they will go south to the pass above Moria, and cross the Misty Mountains to Lothlorien. From there, their path depends upon the advice of the Lady Galadriel. Bilbo rides at the center of the party, with Dis and Gilraen at his sides and Gandalf ahead of him; the Ring is sewn to his mithril mail.

Chapter Text

The morning after Bilbo promises to give Thorin the Ring, Thorin wakes happy. Even Bilbo’s absence from their bed does not dim his joy: clearly his husband has gone to fetch the Ring, and will return swiftly. It bodes well that Bilbo could not even wait until Thorin awoke; Bilbo has ever been a devoted husband.

When Bilbo does not return, Thorin begins to worry. He leaves his rooms and hurries down the hall to Dis’ chambers: if Bilbo is missing, he must assemble search parties. Perhaps he hid the Ring in a dangerous place, and needs rescue!

But Dis is also gone. Fili greets Thorin at the entrance to her chambers, and the expression on his face is strange and bleak. Dwalin and Ori are with him, and Mim is nowhere to be seen.

“Where is my husband? Where is the Ring?” Thorin demands.

“Bilbo has taken the Ring to Rivendell,” Fili says softly. “There will be a Council there, to discover how to destroy the evil thing.”

Thorin hears nothing past the word ‘Rivendell.’ “The traitor!” he snarls. “He has stolen the Ring from me to bring it to elves?”

“Bilbo is no traitor, uncle,” Fili replies. “He is going to destroy the Ring. It is the only thing to do. It has infected you, uncle – you would never call Bilbo a traitor else! Cast off its corruption. Remember that Bilbo loves you.”

“A fine love, to bring the Ring to elves,” Thorin spits. “But no matter. He cannot have gone far – I will send guards after him. He will be brought back in chains! Dwalin, summon my guards!”

Dwalin shakes his head. Thorin has never seen such an expression of despair on his old friend’s face. “No, Thorin,” he says, and the lack of any title, from ever-respectful Dwalin, is a shock. “You are Ring-mad,” Dwalin continues. “Bilbo warned us of this, but I thought surely you could overcome its compulsion.” He steps forward and takes Thorin’s shoulder, manhandling him up the hallways towards Thorin’s rooms. Ori and Fili follow behind them.

Thorin is too flabbergasted by this sudden outbreak of treason to fight against Dwalin’s hold until they have nearly reached his rooms; and then, when he does attempt to break free, Dwalin’s great strength overpowers him. Dwalin fought a great brown bear alone, and triumphed: a king of dwarves is easy enough to control. Dwalin forces Thorin through the door of his rooms and slams the door shut. Thorin hears the unmistakable sound of a bar being dropped across the doorway.

Fili calls through the door. “Uncle, when you recover from the Ring-madness, you will thank us for this. We will see that you have food and drink and medical care if you should need it, but you cannot rule Belegost in this condition. I will be regent for you, uncle, until you are yourself again.”

“Traitors!” Thorin bellows back. “You plot to steal my kingdom while my treasonous husband goes traipsing off to the elves! Will I even have a kingdom, or will you give that to the elves as well? Shall I wake one day to find you have slain me for my own good?”

There is no answer from the other side of the door. Thorin rages for hours. He screams insults through the door at whoever stands guard, destroys Bilbo’s wardrobe in a near-berserk fury. The door is solid and the guards are steadfast, however, and finally Thorin can do nothing but sit upon his bed and brood furiously upon the treason of everyone he trusted.

Outside the rooms, Dwalin instructs artisans as they carve a flap into the bottom of the door. It is just large enough for platters of food and drink to be passed through. Fili calls the kingdom together in the great hall, and with Ori beside him gives the people of Belegost the terrible news.

“A month ago, our Prince Consort Bilbo brought home with him an object of great power, the One Ring of the dark lord Sauron,” Fili tells the assembled dwarves and hobbits and dwobbits. “He planned even then to bring it away again, to take it to Rivendell for the great Council and thence to destroy it, for it corrupts and poisons the minds and hearts of those who encounter it. Bilbo is strong, and is not yet corrupted; but our king, Thorin the Great, has fallen prey to the curse of Durin’s line. He wishes to possess the Ring; but to possess it would be to fall into darkness and the grasp of the dread lord Sauron himself.” The dwarves and hobbits hiss through their teeth and draw their children closer to them.

“Bilbo has gone away to Rivendell, to the great Council,” Fili continues. “There he will learn how to destroy the Ring, and he has sworn in my presence that he will not return to Belegost until the Ring is no more. My mother and brother have gone with him to protect him on his journey.” There are nods and murmurs of approval: all the people of Belegost like and trust Bilbo, and it is very like him to take on such a burden in order to protect them.

“Sadly, our king, overtaken by the Ring-madness, believes Bilbo to be a traitor,” Fili says, and the dwarves and hobbits cry out in protest. “For this reason, and by the orders of Bilbo and of my mother Dis, Thorin has been confined to his rooms, and must remain there until he no longer desires the Ring, or until the Ring is destroyed. While he is thus confined, I will stand regent in his name. If Thorin has not healed when Bilbo returns, Bilbo, as Prince Consort, will become the ruler of Belegost. I ask you to stand with me in these dark times; to keep Belegost strong while her king is weak and her prince far away.”

The people of Belegost agree, though some, doubting Fili’s motives, go to Thorin’s rooms to speak with him. His frothing rants at Bilbo’s treason – Bilbo! Who all of Belegost knows would willingly die for Thorin! – convince Thorin’s people that Fili speaks nothing but truth. The guards volunteer to stand shifts outside Thorin’s door; the hobbit cooks make the best meals they can, in hopes that Thorin will be placated by food. Ori sits outside Thorin’s door many hours each day, reading from old scrolls of the history of Durin’s line and from the new scrolls describing the founding of Belegost and the Battle of the Shire.

Still Thorin rages and broods, and nothing anyone can say will convince him that Bilbo has not betrayed him and brought the Ring to the elves, there to be used against Belegost. He calls every visitor to his door traitor and worse, reviles Bilbo’s name, commands guards to be sent after him and Fili to be bound in chains and exiled forever. The people of Belegost mourn their king’s sanity and pray to their various gods that Prince Consort Bilbo will be able to destroy the Ring and heal their king.

Chapter Text

Despite Bilbo’s worry for his husband and the overshadowing knowledge of the Ring, the first leg of the Fellowship’s journey, south along the Misty Mountains towards Moria, is almost pleasant.

Dis and Gilraen renew their long friendship, gossiping cheerfully about the vagaries of sons, to Kili’s vast embarrassment and Primrose’s great amusement. In more somber moods, however, they speak of their husbands, now long dead.

“I married young,” Gilraen tells her friend as they sit beside the fire one night, “for it was foreseen that Arathorn would have few years, even for a human; and indeed he has been dead nearly twenty years now. My father nearly forbade the match, for my people do not marry before thirty at least, and I was barely twenty-two; but I argued that he should have love while he lived, if his life was to be short. My mother sided with me, and so we wed; and four years later he was gone, and me with a just-weaned child. I took Estel to Elrond that he might be safe from the orcs who slew his father. I have never been so glad to hear of a battle than when word came that the dwarves and hobbits had utterly defeated the orcs of Moria.”

Dis nods, and pats her friend’s hand, then glances about to make sure that Kili is well out of hearing range. He and Primrose are off hunting rabbits, however, and unlikely to return for some time. “I did not wed for love,” she says at last. “Most dwarves do, but the only daughter of the line of Durin is a prize beyond price. My father promised my hand to the son of a dwarf who saved his life at Azanulbizar; the dwarf died the next day, I’m told, and my father informed me when he returned home that I would be marrying Vili son of Virin as soon as the arrangements could be made.” She pauses, looking into the fire; Bilbo, on her other side, leans against her as if to lend her strength.

“Two sons in five years,” Dis says at last. “A great feat for dwarves. And when Fili began to grow up, to look so like Virin around the eyes, Vili went mad. That is the only way I can describe it. He tried to kill Thrain, in open court, with a hundred witnesses.” She laughs, harshly. “Even a despised prince is a prince still, and regicide is punishable by death among dwarves. I do not think Kili even remembers his father. Certainly he does not claim his name. He is Kili of the line of Durin, and that contents him well enough.”

Gilraen passes Dis a bowl of soup, and pats her softly on the shoulder. Neither of them speaks again that night.

Arwen spends much of her time with Gandalf, speaking in low tones, and often in Elvish, of high destinies and the future and history of Middle-Earth. The Lady Galadriel, Arwen’s mentor, has apparently seen things in her great Mirror which give her pause, and which seem to foreshadow the end of the elves of Middle-Earth; and Gandalf has begun to see omens and signs which point towards the day when the wizards of Middle-Earth shall go into the West with the elves. Yet that day is still in the future, and so they also speak of the coming road, and what dangers can be expected.

Kili and Primrose, of course, spend most of their time together, laughing and chattering and flirting as young lovers will. Primrose is a Took, with all that implies: adventurous, quick-tempered, mischievous, swift to anger or to laugh. She and Kili compete with each other with bows or flung stones, to hit targets ahead of them on their trail. Primrose most often wins; she is a hobbit, after all. They ride ahead of their companions sometimes, and come back laughing with handfuls of mushrooms and sometimes rabbits or squirrels to add to the stew-pot; and though once the Fellowship reaches the pass, such antics will not be safe anymore, no one can quite bring themselves to call the two to heel just yet. Besides, they make Bilbo laugh.

Legolas and Gimli tend to ride at the back of the little party. They met first ten years and more ago, when the dwarves of Thorin’s company crossed the Greenwood, and despite the glares and glowers of Thorin and Gloin, became friends of a sort. Now they renew their friendship, trading stories of the past years.

Gimli speaks of the Battle of the Shire, and his father’s courage, and the marvelous marksmanship of the hobbits, without which the Battle would surely have been lost. He describes the antics of the flirting dwarves and hobbits, and the mischief of the dwobbit children (and his own young brother, Gamli, born but two years past and already crawling for his father’s pick whenever it is set down). He lingers long over the food the hobbits make; but then, every dwarf in Belegost has fallen deeply in love with hobbit cooking. He speaks of Thorin, and of Bilbo, and of the kingdom they built together, their people joined and buoyed up by their love.

Legolas tells the tale of the hunting of the spiders, of their foul webs and their surprising cunning; of the scouring of the Greenwood for any remnants of the Necromancer’s magic and the discovery of many hidden dells and vales which not even the elves of the Greenwood had imagined were there. He speaks of his father, Thranduil, and the lessons in being a prince which he has endured for so many of his long years. Legolas is young yet, as elves count time, with not even a thousand years behind him; but then, Gimli is a bare year past his own majority, and more than pleased to speak to someone as relatively young as he is. Kili and Primrose are both some years past their own majorities, and though they are both pleased to laugh with their companions, they are very much wrapped up in each other, so it is pleasant for both Gimli and Legolas to have found a friend.

“You should come to see Belegost, once this is over,” Gimli urges. “The halls are wider than a wagon-width, and the ceilings vaulted so you would not even miss the sky. My father and the miners find gold and mithril and strange gems in the depths, and the artisans craft them into beads for the women’s hair and runes of protection and peace to hang upon the walls. The thrones in the great hall are carved so intricately that not an inch of them is plain. The hobbit lasses weave such beautiful tapestries, of forests and fields and the Blue Mountains rising against the sky, and they hang on every wall. And everywhere there are children.”

Legolas beams. “The wood-elves, my people, are more fertile than the elves of Lothlorien or Rivendell,” he replies, “but not so much more so that an abundance of children is anything but a great blessing.”

“The hobbit lasses have many children,” Gimli says proudly. “Some have three or four already, after so little time; and the hobbits of the Shire have families of ten and twelve sometimes.”

Legolas laughs in astonishment. “I can offer no such riches,” he says, “but the Greenwood is fair and peaceful now that Dol Guldur has been cleansed, and the spiders come no more into our lands. I could show you a hill from which you would swear that the forest went on forever, and butterflies which shine more brightly and in more colors than the jewels from the dark mines of Belegost. The white deer roam our forest, and it is said that the great Stag who is the father of their race hides in the deepest parts of the woods, where not even elves go. On summer’s days the new leaves shine greener than emeralds, and my people dance long into the night around great bonfires and feasts; and in winter the bare branches are dark beneath the lace of snow and the icicles hang like great diamonds from the gates of my father’s house.”

“Almost you convince me to love forests!” Gimli laughs. “Yet there can be nothing as beautiful, I am sure, as the caverns beneath Belegost where the walls shine with gems of every color and no dwarf puts pick to stone for fear of breaking their beauty.”

Legolas smiles. “Well, if we have not driven each other to swordspoint by the end of this quest, do you come with me to the Greenwood so that I may show you its glories, and I will come with you to Belegost and immure myself in stone.”

“That I shall do,” Gimli agrees. “Perhaps the Prince Consort will appoint me a diplomat, and I may go back and forth to the Greenwood regularly.”

Bilbo, who has been listening, laughs. “Gimli, my friend, I regret to tell you that diplomacy is not usually performed with axes! But I shall be glad to send you to the Greenwood if you wish to go, and I will tell my husband that it is on my orders if he begins to grumble again about elves.”

Legolas grins. “I remember well your husband’s dislike for my people,” he tells Bilbo cheerfully. “It is reassuring that such has not changed – I had always heard that dwarves were as stubborn and unchanging as stone, and it is good to learn my lessons were correct!”

Bilbo and Gimli both laugh. “I have never understood Thorin’s hatred for elves,” Bilbo says, and for the first time since he left Belegost he thinks of his husband without pain. “It is good to see that there are those of my husband’s people who do not follow his opinions.” He nods to Gimli, who beams proudly at Bilbo’s evident approval.

Chapter Text

They reach Moria in good time, and Bilbo casts worried glances at the dark pool of water before the gates of the mines, but it seems that Thrain’s assurances were true, for nothing reaches from the water to grab the passers-by. They do not intend to enter Moria, of course, not with the Balrog loose within it, but the pass rises from beside the gates, and so the Fellowship skirt the lake and slip past the door and guide their ponies up the first steep slope of the mountains.

They are a good ways into the mountains, and it is growing dark, when the first clouds begin to gather above them. Legolas and Arwen regard the sky with some worry. “This weather is strange,” Arwen says softly. “It is not the season for great storms.”

The clouds gather more swiftly now, and they are black and ominous. The Fellowship stop and make camp in the lee of a small overhang, watching the sky with anxious eyes. Bilbo remembers well the storms which buffeted Thorin’s Company on their trip across the Misty Mountains, but none of those came on so fast nor blew so cold. And Bilbo had Thorin’s fur coat and Thorin’s warm arms around him then. For all he adores Dis and Kili, and trusts the others of their Fellowship, it is not the same as his beloved husband’s protection. But Thorin is far away, and mad.

When the storm comes, it is full night already, and the howling winds and bitter snow make the protection of the overhang a mockery. The nine of them huddle together, with ponies and horses pressed against them in fear and cold, and even keen elven eyes can see nothing in the mess of storm and night which surrounds them. Gandalf calls over the whining of the wind, “This is no natural storm!” Natural or not, they can do nothing about it, and they curl around each other, coats and cloaks making a thin layer between frail flesh and cruel nature, until dawn.

Dawn is not much better than darkness: the snow blows every which way, and even the elves can see only a little way into the murk of the storm. There is, quite clearly, absolutely no way they can reach the top of the pass in this weather; equally, there is no sign of the storm letting up any time soon. If they stay here, there’s a decent chance they will freeze; if they go on, they will either freeze or fall of the mountain. There is only one choice, really.

“We must go back,” Bilbo shouts above the wind. “We must go through the mines.”

“There’s a Balrog in the mines!” Dis hollers back.

Gandalf shakes his head, dumping snow off of his hat, which has somehow stayed on despite the wind. “If we are swift and silent, we should be able to avoid it!” he cries. “But we cannot stay here!”

Primrose, curled in Kili’s arms and shivering nonetheless, nods hard. The elves glance at each other, then at Gilraen, and nod also. Gilraen shrugs. Dis finally nods. “Very well!” She grabs the reins of the nearest pony and begins turning it towards the downhill slope.

In the end, Legolas and Arwen have to scout ahead, running atop the snow to find the trail. Gilraen and Dis and Gandalf lead the string of horses and ponies; Bilbo and Primrose and Kili bring up the rear, following in the tracks of the ponies. The snow is piled nearly as high as Bilbo’s head, but down in the trench the wind is less biting, and the lower down the slope they go, the less snow there is, until the Fellowship stands again beside the black lake, looking up at the pass, still cloaked in snow, and then down at the open gates of Moria.

“We will have to leave the ponies,” Bilbo says finally. “The tunnels are not that large – and their hooves will echo.” They unload the ponies and horses, re-distributing the packs so that everyone has only as much as he or she can bear; and then Arwen murmurs to the animals. They turn and trot off north towards Rivendell, giving the black lake a wide berth.

“I know a path through Moria,” Gandalf tells them. “It is deep but not so deep as the Balrog ought to be; I do not think it will take us much past two days to reach the other side. We must light no fires, and speak but little. Whisper if you must speak.”

Bilbo nods. “The tunnels echo horribly,” he agrees. “Use Iglishmek if you know it; otherwise, Dunedain trail-sign or other simple hand-signals. Walk carefully and keep to the middle of the tunnels if you can. There should be no orcs or goblins left in the mines. There will be bodies – Thrain’s people could not bring them out. We cannot do so either.”

The others agree solemnly, and Gilraen demonstrates a few of the most useful Dunedain hand-signs: stop, danger, rest, food. Dis matches them with the Iglishmek signs for the same ideas. The rest of the Fellowship mimic their movements until they all can understand at least those few signals.

Then, grouped together and quiet as they can be, the Fellowship enters Moria.

It is dark as soon as they have left the faint sunlight near the doors, but no one wants to light a torch. Gandalf whispers something to his staff, and the end of it begins to glow a faint blue, just bright enough that they can see the ground before them, but not enough even to illuminate the ceiling of the entrance hall. The shadows dance around them, and Dis and Kili make warding-signs against the place which killed their kinsman.

Gandalf does seem to know where he’s going, and the tunnels are clean and well-kept from the efforts of Thrain’s doomed expedition. They stop the first night in a small room with only one door, and keep watches nervously all night. Waybread is not pleasant to eat without stew or hot tea, but no one dares light even the smallest fire, and Gandalf’s staff does not provide heat. Bilbo curls into a corner, coat wrapped around himself, and dozes fitfully, noticing every time he wakes that his companions, too, are waking to stare towards the dark doorway and the possibility of death beyond it.

They all wake early, or at least what Arwen claims is early, here under the earth with no way to tell time. Breakfast is more waybread, dry and cloying, and they move on deeper into Moria, twitching at shadows and noises. Along their way, they start to find the bodies of the dwarves of Thrain’s expedition, all burnt or clawed beyond recognition. They lie in little heaps, and the Fellowship skirts them with averted eyes. Dis breathes the prayers for the valiant dead so softly no one can hear her, but Bilbo catches her eye and mouths the words with her. He learned them years ago after the Battle of the Shire, and has never forgotten them. Kili walks between Primrose and the bodies as if to shield her from the sight of them.

At last they come in sight of a bridge across a deep ravine. Gandalf points at it, urging them forward; beyond the ravine, there is another tunnel slanting up, and the barest hint of sunlight. The Fellowship move forward eagerly, hoping desperately that they will be able to leave Moria without disaster.

Of course, this is when the Balrog appears.

Chapter Text

The Balrog is vast and terrible, a confusion of shadow and flame against the darkness of Moria, and Primrose screams when she sees him. Bilbo is silently grateful to her, because if she hadn’t, he would have had to: the Balrog is a thing which should not be, more terrible than any orc or warg because of it.

“Run!” cries Gandalf, and Gilraen sweeps Bilbo off his feet and races for the bridge; behind them, Kili grabs Primrose and does the same, with Dis and Legolas, Arwen and Gimli behind them, and Gandalf standing tall between the fleeing Fellowship and the Balrog. Bilbo cannot see what is happening; when they have crossed the bridge, Gilraen does not stop, but pelts up the tunnel into the sunlight and on, down the long slope of the Misty Mountains, until she finally slows and puts Bilbo down. The others gather around them, staring back up the mountain at the tunnel where they emerged: one human, two hobbits, three dwarves, two elves…and no wizard.

It is Gilraen who breaks the silence. “We must reach Lothlorien before we can rest,” she says softly. Arwen nods.

“But what about Gandalf?” Kili asks plaintively.

“If he lives, he will find us easily enough,” Gilraen tells him. “If he does not…nothing we could do would make any difference against a Balrog.” Kili’s face falls. Gilraen pats him gently on the shoulder. “He killed the Necromancer,” she reminds him. “A Balrog cannot be harder than that.”

*

Gandalf faces the Balrog across the ravine, sword and staff in hand, and knows he faces death. The Necromancer wounded him grievously, and though he seems to all his companions to be hale and whole again, he knows it is not so. A Balrog, fire in the darkness, is a great and terrible evil, and even at his strongest Gandalf would have hesitated to confront one.

But he can wound it. He can drive it bleeding to its den, not to emerge for another Age. He can keep it from following the rest of his companions up into sunlight and safety, can hold it here so it cannot follow them to Lothlorien and beyond. That much is still within his power, and so he raises his staff and calls the Light to him and stands defiant before the Balrog. He will die here, but the Fellowship goes on, and Bilbo Baggins will triumph in the end.

So Gandalf braces himself for the first blow of the Balrog’s sword, for the hiss and crack of the flaming whip in its hand, and his return strikes cripple the creature, cast it from the bridge into darkness; but he is wounded too, and it drags him down with it, down past the tunnels of Moria into the depths of the earth, and all Gandalf can think to do is strike, and strike, and strike again until even his ageless and unwearying body gives in to its wounds and he slumps over his foe.

The world goes white, and he knows nothing more.

*

Gilraen and Arwen and Dis herd the rest of the Fellowship down the slope towards the forest. Bilbo looks shocked, as though he had not thought Gandalf, of all people, could be in danger from their quest; Kili and Primrose walk close together with their fingers laced and do not speak. Legolas keeps glancing behind them as though he thinks Gandalf will suddenly emerge from the dark tunnels with his familiar smug smile. Gimli walks as close to Bilbo as he can, watching his prince warily as though he expects Bilbo to break at any moment and is prepared to scoop him or step in front of him, axe drawn, as the moment requires.

They reach the fringes of the great forest of Lothlorien as dusk begins to fall. There has been no sound from behind them, no familiar wizard’s voice calling out. Bilbo is sunk in gloom; the rest of the Fellowship is wary and tense, lest orcs or Balrog emerge from behind them.

(They do not see or hear the small figure which pads, hissing at the sun, many paces back. They do not hear it murmur, “Baggins. We hates it, precious.” But then, their follower is good at hiding; it has been hiding for years beyond counting, after all.)

As they pass beneath the shadow of the first trees, a figure steps out of the woods and bows to Arwen. “Lady Arwen,” the stranger says. “Be welcome again to Lothlorien, you and your companions.”

“Haldir!” Arwen exclaims in delight. “I did not know you were among the forest-watch. My companions and I would speak with the Lady Galadriel, and ask the sanctuary of Lothlorien and the help of her people.”

Haldir bows. “Might I perhaps be made known to your companions?” he inquires delicately.

Arwen bows back. “Be made known to our leader, Gilraen of the Dunedain; Prince Legolas of the Greenwood; Lady Dis of Belegost, her son Prince Kili of Belegost, and his betrothed Primrose Took of the Shire; Prince Consort Bilbo Baggins of Belegost and the Shire; and his sworn guard, Gimli son of Gloin of Belegost.” Turning to the Fellowship, she gestures to Haldir. “My great good friend Haldir of Lorien.”

Gilraen bows in her turn. “It is our honor to meet you,” she says politely. “We are weary and sick with grief, and would be brought to the Lady of Lothlorien as swiftly as may be.”

Haldir nods, and more elves fade out of the woods to surround them. He leads them into the forest at a quick walk. Bilbo seems to rouse a little as they go deeper into Lothlorien, and though Gimli is not quite at ease among so many strange elves, he is glad to see his prince looking less lost.

The Fellowship reaches the city of Lorien – such as it is – sooner than any of them save Arwen expect, and the Lady Galadriel comes out to greet them. She embraces Arwen joyfully.

“My dear granddaughter! I had hardly hoped to see you again so soon!”

“Grandmother,” Arwen replies, relaxing into the embrace. “I come in haste, and with sad tidings, but to see you again is a great relief to me.”

Galadriel draws back. “Come in; bathe and eat, and give me your tidings, and I will give you whatever you should need for your journey.”

The Fellowship follows her gladly into the great palace of Lorien.

Chapter Text

When they have bathed and dressed and been led by silent elves to the dining hall, Galadriel is waiting there. She bids them eat, and turns to Arwen and Gilraen as the others set to with a will. Even Bilbo seems the better for a hot bath and a full plate.

“Tell me your tidings, then, granddaughter, and I will aid you as I can.”

“We came through Moria,” Arwen begins. “The pass was closed by a great storm, which arose unseasonably and drove us into the mines. They are clean of orcs, but as we reached the last bridge, the Balrog of the depths emerged.” She takes a deep breath. “Our company was nine when we left Rivendell, Grandmother. Mithrandir stayed behind to slay the Balrog, and as he has not rejoined us, I fear the worst.”

Galadriel looked suddenly much older, and grave. “If Mithrandir has fallen, Middle-Earth has lost a great champion,” she says sadly. “Yet he would not have brought you through Moria, knowing of such a monster within it, without good reason. Is that reason such as you may tell me, or is there some secret so dire I may not hear it?”

Arwen glances at Bilbo. “My grandmother is a wise and great elf,” she says softly, “and I think that Gandalf always meant to tell her of our quest; but you must decide, my friend. It is your burden to bear.”

Bilbo considers a moment, then shrugs. “I, too, think Gandalf meant to reveal all to you, Lady Galadriel. I have come into possession of the One Ring, and we go even now to destroy it.”

Galadriel loses her composure for a moment, eyes widening with blank astonishment. “Isildur’s Bane has come into the world again,” she breathes; then suddenly smiles. “And into the hands of a Halfling who wishes to destroy it! Truly the world is still full of great marvels.”

Bilbo blushes a little. “I am hardly a marvel, Lady Galadriel; only a hobbit.”

“I shall see marvels where I please, Master Baggins,” Galadriel replies dryly, and then turns to Gilraen and Arwen again. “Do you travel south, then?”

“By your leave, Grandmother, we would borrow some of the river-boats; it will be swifter to take the Anduin down nearly to the falls and cross the Emyn Muil than to walk.”

“River-boats you shall have, and cloaks and waybread and all other necessities,” Galadriel agrees at once. “And I bid you stay two days, or three, to recover from the pain I see you bear.”

Gilraen agrees to the short delay, and the Fellowship retires to comfortable beds.

*

Gimli rises early the next morning. He has liked elves since Bilbo brought him to Rivendell, ten years ago, and the elves were kind to a young dwarf who stuck his nose into everything and asked every question he could think of. He is eager to use the Fellowship’s short reprieve to explore this glorious new city of elves.

He meets Galadriel, as if by chance, in the entrance hall of her palace, and she smiles at him. Gimli gives her the best bow he can. “Lady Galadriel, good day to you.”

“And to you, Gimli son of Gloin. Where do you fare this fine morning?”

“I wanted to see the city,” Gimli confesses. “It was very beautiful last night, and I am sure it would be more so in the daytime.”

Galadriel’s faint smile turns into a genuine grin. “Well. It has been long and long since a child of Durin’s race called an elven city ‘beautiful.’ Come; I will show you Lorien.” She leads him out of the palace, still smiling.

*

Gilraen spends most of their stay in Lorien closeted with Celeborn, perusing the maps of the lands they have yet to cross. Arwen and Legolas go out into the city to meet several of Arwen’s friends; Dis and Kili and Primrose take the opportunity to relax, re-pack their luggage, and eat something other than waybread. Bilbo wanders the palace, chatting with the elves who choose to speak with him and cordially ignoring everyone else; something about the peace of Lorien seems to relieve him of some of his great grief for Gandalf’s death.

The morning they leave Lorien, Galadriel escorts them to the boats which will bear them down the Silverlode to the Anduin. To each of them she gives an elven cloak, warm and light and well-camouflaged; their packs hold lembas and sturdy, lightweight rope and blankets. Just before they step into the boats, Gimli seems to gather up his courage and turns to the elven queen.

“Lady Galadriel, if it’s not an imposition…might I, perhaps, have a single strand of your hair?”

Galadriel gives Gimli a very odd look, and Arwen breathes in sharply, as if the request is both astonishing and slightly appalling. “What would you do with it?” Galadriel inquires.

“I would set it in crystal and mithril,” Gimli replies, “as a reminder to my people that the most beautiful things in the world are not all gold and gems.”

“Would you now,” says Galadriel slowly, and then she smiles, and reaches up to draw three perfect strands from her head. “Here,” she says, “take them and remember me; and know, Gimli son of Gloin, that what you ask I have never given to another, elf nor man nor dwarf nor any other race, and never shall again.”

Gimli looks utterly gobsmacked; Arwen is almost as astonished. After a long moment, Gimli takes the strands reverently, winds them gently around a finger, and stows them safely in the pocket of his coat under his mail, close to his skin. “I will remember your beauty and kindness forever, I and all my kin,” he promises. “I will make of these a jewel to outshine the very Arkenstone of Thror.”

“Go well, then, Gimli son of Gloin, and all your companions,” Galadriel smiles. She turns to embrace Arwen. “Be safe, granddaughter; return to me in good time.” Then, to Bilbo, “Ringbearer, there are dark things in the East; some evil rises I have known before and hoped never to know again. Be swift and silent, cautious and clever; may all the blessings my goodwill may summon attend upon you and your quest.”

Bilbo bows to her. “I thank you, Lady Galadriel, for your aid and blessings.”

Then there is nothing for it but to scramble into the boats and wave to the elves along the bank as the Silverlode takes them east.

Chapter Text

Gilraen and Dis and Bilbo are in the lead boat, Bilbo safely in the middle, while Dis perches up front as lookout and Gilraen steers. Dis has both hands firmly locked on the sides of the boat, and a rather green look on her face. Once they are out in the middle of the river, with few worries until they meet the Anduin, Gilraen relaxes her grip on the steering oar and looks sympathetically at her friend.

“Are you well, Dis?”

Dis scowls more emphatically. “I hate boats,” she says. “Dwarves are meant to be underground, or at least on the ground. Bobbing about in boats is just wrong.”

Bilbo grins a bit, remembering the trip from Dale down the Long Lake to the edge of the Greenwood, nearly eleven years ago. Every one of the dwarves had been huddled in the center of the barges, most of them green-faced and all of them visibly unhappy. The rush off the boats at the end of the trip had been worryingly fast. Dwarves are, indeed, not meant for boats.

“Well, this should be a short trip, as such things go,” Gilraen reassures her friend. “A few hours; not more than half a day. We’ll be stopping before we get to the great statues which mark the waterfall, of course. Then we get to tromp overland. Through mountains, even!”

Dis gives Gilraen a sour look. “I thank you for your kind words,” she mutters. “Just…don’t tip the boat over, alright?”

*

Gimli, in the second boat with Legolas, is slightly less unhappy than the Lady Dis. Boats are something new and exciting, after all, and Gimli is still young and eager for adventure.

This does not mean, however, that he plans to budge from his seat on the bottom of the boat anytime soon, no matter how much Legolas teases him. The bottom of the boat doesn’t sway, and if the water is cold through the planking, at least it is not cold because he has fallen in! Dwarves do not swim well, and Gimli does not want to find out if the Silverlode is shallow enough to wade through.

Legolas does not mind steering by himself, as it happens, but the sight of his dwarven friend plumped on the bottom of the boat, ignoring seats and propriety, will never stop being funny.

*

Kili is as miserable as his mother, and for similar reasons, but with one added aggravation: Primrose, standing in the bow of the boat, holding on with only one hand, and beaming as she leans forward. Arwen is in the back of the boat, steering skillfully.

“Isn’t this fun, Kili?” Primrose chirps, leaning out farther. Kili grabs her belt with both hands.

“No,” he says firmly, “this is not fun, and if you fall overboard, I will have to jump in after you, and I can’t swim.”

Primrose laughs. “I’m not going to fall in, silly,” she replies. “The boat’s not even rocking at all, and Lady Arwen won’t let us run aground or anything like that. Look how the water ripples!”

Arwen chuckles behind them. “When we approach the Anduin, I will ask you to sit down,” she tells Primrose, “but until then there is no danger in standing.”

Kili sets his hands more firmly on his fiancé’s belt and tries hard not to think about boats tipping, or waterfalls, or sandbanks.

*

The boats make the transition from Silverlode to Anduin easily enough; a little bouncing, a few splashes, but the Anduin is wide and calm and there is nothing to fear. This does not particularly reassure the dwarves, who cling to seat and sides with white-knuckled hands and cannot decide whether closed eyes are better than looking ahead at sure disaster.

Once in the Anduin, however, even the dwarves begin to calm: the water is wide and swift but does not jostle, there are neither sandbanks nor tree-branches to catch upon the boats, and the trees on either side give way to plains and rolling hills, a much more comforting view. Still, a dwarf in a boat is not a happy dwarf.

The elves and Gilraen are busy with their steering, the dwarves with their misery, and so it is left to Primrose and Bilbo to admire the sight of the great statues of Argonath rising on either side of the river, growing ever taller as the boats approach. The waterfall’s roar is soft at first, barely a whisper in the distance, but the sound grows louder with each passing minute, until it sounds like thunder on the mountains.

Gilraen steers to the left as they draw closer to the statues, Legolas and Arwen following her lead; and at last they reach the shore, a few miles above the waterfall. The dwarves scramble frantically out of the boats, and though Dis has too much dignity to fall to her knees as her son does, she plants her feet firmly on the shoreline and glares at the water.

“I sincerely hope that our journey home will not include boats,” she hisses. Gilraen laughs as she helps Bilbo out of the boat.

“Almost certainly not,” she reassures her friend. “It is always easier to go down a river than up it, and we shall be going upstream all the way back to Belegost.”

“Good,” Dis snaps, and stamps away up the bank to find someplace to camp. It is late in the day, and none of the dwarves is in any mood to do anything but sit on a rock – a rock which does not move, thank you very much – and smoke pipeweed and try to forget about large expanses of water.

Bilbo and Primrose cook; most of their supplies from Lothlorien are merely lembas-bread and water, but Lady Galadriel did supply them with some fresh fruits and vegetables and enough dried meat to put together a respectable stew. Primrose is known throughout the Shire for her deft hand with seasonings, and has brought along a selection of dried herbs in a waterproof pouch in her pack. All hobbits can cook, of course – any people who love to eat so will be good cooks – but Primrose’s stew took the blue ribbon at the Winter Fair two years ago, and her herb-flavored breads are much sought after.

The food settles the dwarves – Kili makes sure to praise Primrose’s cooking, of course, having been quite firmly instructed in proper hobbit etiquette by Bilbo when he made his intentions towards Primrose clear – and Legolas amuses the company with a story of hunting spiders when he was very young and foolish. Boats notwithstanding, it is a pleasant evening.

(Late at night, cloaked in darkness, a small figure clambers off a log onto the shore and kicks the log away, to float over the waterfall and thence at last to the sea. The figure eels up the bank and settles down in a clump of weeds, staring towards the embers of the fire and the figure of Arwen, standing tall on her watch. She does not see it.)

Chapter Text

The Fellowship skirts the Emyn Muil mountains, keeping to the plains and regretting the loss of their ponies. Dis and Gilraen make sure to keep Bilbo in the center of the party: just because nothing has threatened them yet does not mean they are safe. Legolas scouts ahead of them, Arwen keeps watch behind, and Gimli and Kili and Primrose keep hands on weapons and eyes peeled for danger, though none arrives.

Finally, the mountains fall away, and across a wide and marshy plain the Fellowship can see the Ash Mountains of Mordor and, faintly, the Black Gate that leads swiftly to Mount Doom. Bilbo’s breath catches at the sight, and Gilraen mutters under her breath.

“The Dead Marshes,” Arwen says softly. “We must be ever wary in their confines. Try not to look too closely at the water.”

“Why are they called that?” Primrose inquires.

“Once, long ago, there was a great battle here,” Arwen tells her gravely. “The dead were left upon the battlefield, and the water rose over them; their bodies linger even now, preserved by some magic, and their spirits are said to linger also. I do not think they will harm us, but it is said that looking too long upon them will mark one forever, or even draw the viewer down to join them in their graves.”

Primrose shudders and clutches at Kili’s hand. “What a horrid thought,” she whispers. Kili pulls her close and wraps both arms around her.

Arwen finds each of them a long stick from the scrub forests on the Emyn Muil, to probe ahead of them for weak spots and unexpected drop-offs. Legolas leads the way into the marshes, with Bilbo and Primrose behind him, then Gilraen, then the dwarves, and finally Arwen. It is their hope that the hobbits will be light enough to avoid any dangers, and that Arwen will be able to leap over any holes the dwarves might cause.

They camp that night on a tiny, damp tussock, just barely big enough for all of them to huddle together. There is no fire. Arwen takes first watch, sitting up among her sleeping companions and staring out over the Dead Marshes. Gilraen wakes for second watch, and Arwen finds she cannot sleep. After a while, she begins to speak, soft and low and sometimes entirely in Sindarin.

“Elves do not die,” she says, so quiet she can barely hear herself. “We age, a little; we grow weary of the world and go into the West. To see this place, full of the elven dead…it is a reminder of the dark times, Ages ago, when elf fought elf and brother slew brother, and we betrayed each other in the morning of the world.” She glances sideways at Gilraen, who is watching the Marshes and their tiny false candles without a word.

“Yet I wonder,” Arwen continues. “For mortals burn so briefly, and so brightly. There are men buried here, buried beside the elves; and if they were different in life, still they are all dead together, are they not? Each lived until he died, and is a thousand years so different from a hundred if they are both ended by the sword?”

Gilraen considers that, then shrugs. “I am mortal,” she replies. “My people are long-lived, and perhaps I may see two hundred years. But my husband is dead, and death may come for me at any minute. So each sunrise is its own gift, even in this bleak place.”

Arwen nods. “The sun, and the moon, and the bright stars,” she agrees. “The green grass and the swift streams and the good dark earth.”

“And yet,” Gilraen says slowly, “mortals count life of less worth, I think. It is mortals who war, now; the elves stay in their forests for the most part. We know that we have little coin to spend, so is it a great matter if we spend it profligately?”

They sit in silence together until dawn breaks.

The next day they manage to get most of the way through the remaining marsh, picking their way from one tussock to the next. Primrose winces away from the clear pools of water with the faces of the dead down at the bottom. Dis ignores them stoically. Bilbo looks for a long time at one dead prince, his crown unmarred by years, and then does not look into any other pools; no one quite dares to ask what he saw.

They are nearly to the line of trees which marks the end of the marsh when Legolas hisses and holds up a hand, signing, Stop; danger. They freeze, and Legolas alone goes forward, quiet as an elf can be, right up to the treeline. Moments later he returns, pointing south and gesturing in the quick graceful trail-signs of the elves. Arwen sucks in a breath and moves forward quickly, hissing just loud enough to be heard, “Turn south. Go!”

They turn south, stumbling on into dusk, and at last they reach a place where the marshes curve in, two arms of swampland stretching out to east and west and flat plain between them. They set up camp, fireless and cold but on blessed solid ground, and Gilraen turns to Legolas.

“Tell me what frighted you.”

“There are orcs,” he replies, quiet as he can. “They are fortifying the Black Gate, thousands of them, like horrid ants. We cannot get through there.”

Gilraen winces. “I thank you for your keen eyes and quick wits,” she says slowly, “but this is not the best news I have heard this year.” She considers. “We will have to go south,” she says at last, “along the road, but not upon it – not if there are orcs in Mordor again. We must be swift and silent. Light no fires, sing no songs – do not speak if you can help it.”

“Is there another entrance to the south, then?” Bilbo asks.

Gilraen nods. “There is,” she says, and twists her mouth as though she has bitten something bitter. “Beneath the walls of Minas Morgul, across from fallen Osgiliath, there is a pass across the mountains. It has a foul name, and I have heard that even orcs avoid it. The Spider’s Pass, they call it, and whisper that some monster from the beginning of the world makes there her lair, and devours travelers. But there is no other pass, and I will face one monster, if she even lives, before I’ll take the Ring-Bearer through an army of orcs.”

Bilbo shivers. He has never liked spiders, though he knows they are useful creatures; too many legs, and too many eyes. But if it is the only pass… “To the south, then, in the morning,” he agrees. “And we will hope the Spider sleeps, or is a myth.”

“Let us hope, indeed,” Gilraen agrees. What more is there to say?

(In the middle of the Dead Marshes, a creature stares down at the face of a dead king and hisses to itself in frustration.)

Chapter Text

Fili visits his uncle every morning before court – though ‘visits’ is perhaps a strange word, since the visits mostly consist of Fili standing outside the door and yelling through it reassurances that Belegost is fine, its people healthy and happy, no disasters have come upon them, and no, uncle, there are no elves in Belegost. Then Thorin bellows at him for a while, and when he winds down, Fili goes away again. The guards on Thorin’s door have gotten used to the ritual, and some of them make bets on how long Thorin will bellow on any given morning.

Then one morning, to everyone’s surprise, Thorin does not bellow. Instead, he listens quietly to Fili’s news, and even thanks Fili for keeping the kingdom running so well. The guards glance at each other, wondering if this means that their king has regained his sanity. Fili looks visibly hopeful, glancing at the bar across the door as if about to lift it.

Then Thorin speaks again, and watching the joy and hope drain from Fili’s face makes both guards wince in sympathy.

“I know I scared you all with my anger, Fili, and I am sorry for it. I should not have accused you of treason, none of you; I know you are only doing what you think is best for the kingdom. But you are wrong, Fili! The kingdom would prosper with the Ring, you know that. We would be able to unite Belegost and Moria, perhaps even Erebor and the Iron Hills! You would inherit the greatest dwarven kingdom in Middle-Earth, or you and Kili could split your inheritance. Why can’t you see that this would be for the best? I am of Durin’s line; I could control the Ring. We would never be threatened by any orcs or men or elves; we would be powerful and safe, and we could keep the Shire safe as well. Send men after Bilbo, bring him back. He will be Prince Consort of a great kingdom! Please, Fili!”

Fili drops his head into his hands. “No, uncle,” he says, softly, and then, again, louder, “No! The Ring still has a hold on you. I do not want the Ring, and you should not either! When Bilbo destroys it, that will be the best thing for the kingdom and for you!”

“Who wouldn’t want the Ring?” Thorin calls back, and Fili turns and leaves, unable to listen any longer. His uncle’s madness remains.

*

Fili does not want the Ring. He has Mim, dear beloved Mim with her lovely beard, and though he has told no one yet, she has only just recently told him she is pregnant. He wants his children to grow up in a peaceful, powerful kingdom – he does not want them poisoned by the madness of the Ring, and he hopes desperately that the gold-madness of Durin’s line will never manifest in him or his children.

Dwalin does not want the Ring. He has Ori, and the guards under his command, and beautiful Belegost with her deep mines, and the wide green Shire and its hobbits, and he will keep them all safe for as long as he draws breath. The poison of the Ring might keep them safe for a little while, but eventually Sauron will rise again if the Ring is not destroyed, and then nowhere would be safe: not the Shire with its peaceful people, and not deep-dug Belegost and its dwobbits.

Ori fears the Ring, because it could have offered him so much. He could have been a great warrior with its power, one worthy of Dwalin’s love. He could have shown his brothers that he is a grown dwarf with his own likes and dislikes and skills, one who chose his own husband and has never regretted it. All of this the Ring could have given him – and Ori, who knows that Dwalin loves him dearly for all his stuttering ways, for all that he is a scribe and not a warrior, who knows that his brothers want nothing more than his safety and happiness, fears the Ring as nothing else in the world.

Gandalf, too, fears the Ring. He wears Narya upon his hand, and knows a little of how such a ring can influence its bearer, though the ring of Fire is a kindly and a gentle power, despite its name. With the One Ring, it is true that Gandalf could do great things – but they would be as terrible as they would be great, and Gandalf has always sought to bring good into the world. No; let the One Ring be cast into the volcano, and let such a temptation and a destroyer be gone forever from the world.

Gilraen does not want the Ring. She wants her son to be King in Gondor, that is true enough, and the Ring could raise him to that throne; but how much better if he should take the throne on none but his own merits, should earn the love of his people with the labor of his hands and take the crown to the cheers of his subjects, not their fearful silence. If Isildur, head of their line, could not control the Ring – well, Gilraen is not arrogant enough to think she could do better.

Arwen remembers her father’s tales of Isildur, her grandmother’s stories of the first War of the Ring. She remembers the fear in their eyes, fear that nothing else creates in them. She is more than two and a half millennia old, an adult in anyone’s eyes, but there is still that child in her which desires nothing more than to take the fear from her father’s eyes and make him again that laughing figure she remembers from her early childhood. She will see the Ring destroyed.

Dis does not remember Isildur, nor does she think of Sauron as anything more than a sort of boogeyman fit for children. But oh, she remembers the gold-madness of Thror, remembers how it broke her family apart, turning Thrain against Frerin and Frerin against Thorin, remembers how hard she had to cling to her eldest brother in order to keep him, how dangerous she had to become in order to keep her footing in the treacherous waters of the court. If this Ring can cause anything like gold-madness – and clearly it can – she wants it gone, destroyed, out of the world forever, because she will not see her family destroyed again.

Kili still thinks of the quest as a sort of adventure; he is young and in love, and everything seems less important compared to that. But he wants to marry Primrose when they return to Belegost, wants little dwobbit children of his own, and the rise of a Dark Lord sounds like the sort of thing which would prevent happy home-making in favor of marching to war. He has been to war, and he would prefer never to do so again. Let the Ring be destroyed – Primrose’s eyes are brighter anyhow.

Primrose, for all she is young and merry and in love, is a sensible little thing, like most hobbits. She remembers the stories of the years of wandering, back in the beginning of the world, before the hobbits found the Shire. She remembers the look on Bilbo’s face when he told them that Thorin had been corrupted by the Ring. She dreams sometimes of the Battle of the Shire, of the blood on the ground and the broken bodies of orcs and dwarves. If that is war, she wants nothing more than to keep it far from the Shire; and if the Dark Lord rises, if the Ring is in Belegost, then there will be war. She will see the Ring gone, so that she can marry her laughing love and raise their children in peace and prosperity.

Legolas wants nothing more than sunshine through the trees, the jeweled butterflies and the white deer and the soft wind of the Greenwood. Friendship is nice, as well. The Ring cannot give him anything, but it could take much away, and so he tries not to think on it. It is pleasant to talk with Gimli, or the Lady Arwen, or Kili and Primrose; and there is nothing in his simple delight in the world which gives the Ring any foothold at all.

Gimli wants his Prince to lose that horrible look in his eyes, the one that says that he has seen something worse than death and he will do anything to keep from seeing it again. Bilbo laughs and jokes and tells stories with the company, but Gimli has watched him for years, ever since a newly-married Prince Consort took a young dwarf under his wing on the long journey from Erebor to Belegost, and Bilbo is weary to the bone with some great grief. If destroying the Ring will put the proper smile back on Bilbo’s face, then Gimli will throw the damned thing into the volcano himself.

Bilbo wants his husband back. He wants Thorin to look at him without that horrid glint in his eyes, wants the Ring-madness gone from Thorin’s mind. He wants a husband who is content again with Belegost and the Shire, with dwobbit children and feasting and laughter. He does not care for riches, never has; he does not care for power. He only wants Thorin to smile at him again, to call him ‘husband’ in that soft tone which means so much, to laugh at the dwobbits as they run through the tunnels and sweep Bilbo into his arms to ‘protect’ him from their rampages, to braid new beads into Bilbo’s hair. Bilbo has vowed that he will see the Ring destroyed, and there is nothing more stubborn than a hobbit in love.

Chapter Text

In the morning, the Fellowship moves south. They find the road after a few hours, and to Gilraen’s immense relief, there are thick stands of trees and tall grass along the side of it. They go single-file, with Bilbo in the middle, and Gilraen draws on all her skill to stay as silent as possible, freezing every time she hears a breath of wind or a bird’s call. Their progress is slow, as might be expected, but steady, and Gilraen has some hope that in a few days they will reach the pass. The mountains to their left are ominous, but between the Black Gate and the Spider’s Pass there’s nowhere to cross them, so Gilraen hopes they will not encounter any orcs.

They are within sight of Osgiliath and Minas Morgul when Gilraen’s hopes are shattered. They hear the orcs coming long before they see them – the tromp, tromp, tromp of a vast army on the move is hard to miss. The Fellowship finds a stand of trees which will conceal them completely from the road and lie still in the grass, watching as the army passes.

In front of the army of orcs ride five black figures on black horses, each cloaked and hooded and armored so that nothing can be seen of their features. They call to each other in high hissing screeches, and Bilbo and Primrose shrink down against the grass in unreasoning fear. Gilraen breathes, “Nazgul,” and Arwen beside her nods.

Then come rank upon rank of orcs, pale and twisted and snarling, in black, ill-fitting armor. They glare sometimes at the sky, for orcs do not willingly march by day, but there is no help for it; they are ordered to march, and march they will. The Fellowship watches for hours as the orcs march by, and with each passing minute their worries grow greater: where could such a great army be going?

Finally, four more black riders bring up the rear of the army, their great horses blowing foam as they rein them in, and then at last the horrible procession is out of sight, turning onto the Osgiliath road and stopping to camp for the night. Gilraen gestures for the others to gather closer.

“They can only be going to Minas Tirith,” she breathes. “The Bridge of Osgiliath will lead them nowhere else.”

Bilbo shudders. The idea of a city – even a city of Men – beset by such an army is a horrible one. He looks forward, down to where the road splits, east to Mordor and west to Osgiliath, and takes a deep breath. “Gilraen. You’re a Ranger. If you left now, could you beat the orcs to Minas Tirith?”

Gilraen nods. “I could, yes. But I cannot leave you. I swore to keep you safe.”

Bilbo shakes his head. “I could not bear to think I had let a city fall – and I would not be alone. Choose two companions and go, go now. I will be safe enough with four protectors. After all, most of the orcs in Mordor are elsewhere!”

Arwen nods. “To let Minas Tirith go unknowing of its danger would be a terrible thing,” she agrees. “I will go with Bilbo, and keep him safe; choose your companions, Gilraen, and be gone.”

Gilraen shivers, glancing towards Mordor and then Osgiliath, and then suddenly makes up her mind. “Kili and Primrose,” she says, “you are swift on your feet and good in the forests, and having such strange companions may aid my story. If you are willing?”

Kili nods, and Primrose with him. Both hug Bilbo, quickly and hard, and Kili hugs his mother as well. Then they and Gilraen are gone into the woods, heading west as fast as they can. Arwen and Dis, Legolas and Gimli and Bilbo settle down for the night. There is no point in continuing down the road while an orcish army is encamped upon it.

Gilraen and her companions press hard, for if the bridge of Osgiliath is guarded – and it surely is – there is another bridge, but they must reach it before the orcs discover it. It is a smuggler’s bridge, hidden beneath the great span of the other, and Gilraen only knows of it from her father’s stories when she was a child.

They skirt the army of orcs, staying deep in the trees and watchful, and Primrose darts ahead to see that, though there are orcs on the great bridge of Osgiliath, there are none down on the shore where the hidden smuggler’s bridge ends. They wait till dusk, till it is hard to see a hand in front of their faces, and then move quickly and quietly down the shore, freezing whenever an orc calls out to its brethren or coughs or swears at the darkness, until they reach the smuggler’s bridge.

Then it is a simple matter to cross, keeping their steps as silent as possible on the stone – Primrose’s bare feet give her a great advantage here – and to come at last to the western side of the river and the beginning of the Fields of Pelennor. The fields are flat and well-kept – Gondor remembers war, and keeps a killing field always – and Gilraen and Kili and Primrose run flat-out across their expanse, hoping that rabbits and moles have not made ankle-twisting holes in the ground.

They reach the walls of Minas Tirith well before dawn, and spend the night huddled against the nearest gate, for Minas Tirith’s gates do not open in darkness. There are guards patrolling the tops of the walls, and Gilraen could call up to them, but it would do no good – no guard would dare to open the gates to an unknown party in the middle of the night. Gilraen can only hope that the dawn will be soon enough to warn the city.

When dawn breaks, she calls up at once to the guards, begging for entrance; and when the guards see that the odd party is small and weary, they let them in. “I must see the Steward, I and my companions,” Gilraen tells them, and a young man leads them through the streets of Minas Tirith to the great palace and leaves them in an antechamber, promising to bring the Steward’s son to meet them.

Mere minutes later, to Gilraen’s relief, a young man enters the room. He is dressed well, as the son of the Steward of Gondor should be, and he has an air of authority though he seems no older than her son. He bows to them. “Madam,” he greets her politely, “I am Denethor, son of Ecthelion, and I speak for my father. What brings a woman of the northern Rangers, a dwarf, and a…lass…to Minas Tirith in such a flurry?”

Gilraen reflects that clearly Denethor has never seen a hobbit before; but since hobbits rarely leave their Shire, much less come so far south as Gondor, this is hardly surprising. “The orcs of Mordor approach,” she says, “led by the Nazgul, the Ringwraiths of old. You must rally your people and defend the walls, or Minas Tirith shall surely fall.”

“Oh!” says Denethor, and smiles. “Are they here already? I thought I had another week or so. Oh, don’t worry, madam – once they’re in the city, they’ll only stay long enough to kill my father, I assure you. Then I will surrender to our new master, and everything will be fine.” He turns to leave the room. “I’ll have the servants bring you breakfast,” he offers, and is gone.

Chapter Text

Seven Years Ago

Denethor finds the Palantir when he is thirteen. He is a curious little teenager, poking his nose into everything – as teenagers will – and his doting father gives orders to let him into any of the treasure vaults he cares to visit. In the deepest vault, the one which holds the treasures of the long-dead Kings of Gondor, Denethor finds the Palantir. At first he thinks it is only a great clear crystal of some sort – though that is astonishing enough, to have a crystal or a glass globe of such size and clarity – but as he draws closer there begin to be images deep within the stone, and when at last he lays his hands upon it, there in the depths he can see everything. The wide lands of Gondor and Rohan, the forests of Fangorn and Lorien, the mountains and the valleys and all of Middle-Earth laid out before him.

And then the Voice speaks, and he hears it with his bones and in his soul, and it says, “Serve me, and this shall all be yours.” And Denethor knows that it speaks truth, for how else could it be? Surely this is the Palantir of the Kings of Gondor, and since he is looking into it and it is speaking to him, he must be the proper heir of the Kings of Gondor, and all the lands that had been Gondor’s – and a few others, because after all the Kings of Gondor were wise and just rulers, and it was only proper for everyone to bow to them – should be his in time.

After that day, Denethor visits the Palantir often, and each time he does, he returns to the upper levels of the palace and to his father a little further changed. His father, Ecthelion, begins to distrust and mislike him, for Denethor seems strange and cruel, and speaks too often of the day he will sit upon his father’s throne; but Ecthelion has only the one son, after all, and so Denethor stands still at his right hand and is his heir. He still has access to the councils and the pigeon lofts, to the documents of state and to the treasuries of Gondor; and when the message comes from some elf in the North, summoning the men of Gondor to a great council of war, Denethor smiles and shreds the missive. Gondor does not need to ally itself with elves and dwarves and stranger creatures. Gondor has stronger allies than that, or will when Denethor is king.

Ever and always the Voice speaks to Denethor, and promises him many things, and at last Denethor is wholly its creature; and then it gives him the command: when the army of orcs comes, with the great kings of old before it on their black horses, he must open the gates and welcome them in, and when he does, and his father is slain, Denethor will be given the rulership of Gondor and the favor of the Lord of Mordor and will be king of Men as he has always been meant to be. Denethor swears to obey, and it is a mark of how wholly controlled he has become that he does not even object that a King of Gondor should swear obedience.

Present

And now the army comes, and Denethor waits, smiling, at the gates.

*

Gilraen, sensibly, waits until breakfast has been brought and eaten. It is wise to eat before battle, she tells Primrose, and Kili, remembering a plate of cold eggs and a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach ten years ago, the morning before he learned how awful battle is, nods and agrees. Primrose is a hobbit: no one needs to tell her that eating is a good idea.

Then Gilraen leads them down to the walls, and walks from guard to guard, telling each of them, patiently and solemnly, that there is an army of orcs on the way. No one bothers to stop her: she is clearly insane, she and her dwarf and her…whatever the lass is, and since she isn’t hurting anyone it isn’t worth the hassle that trying to stop her would probably produce. So the guards nod, and snicker behind their hands, and agree solemnly that there certainly is an army of orcs on their way, ma’am, definitely be on the lookout for them, don’t you worry.

Halfway around the wall, Gilraen finds a captain of the guard. He has clearly been warned about the crazy lady who thinks there are orcs, and smiles at her in a kindly sort of way. Gilraen does not smile. She says, “I am Gilraen of the Dunedain of the North. I beg you to prepare your men for battle.”

The captain blinks, and looks at her a little more closely, losing the smile. “The Dunedain do not commonly come to Gondor,” he replies, “but I have never heard that they speak untruths, either.” He considers, then shakes his head. “Still, I cannot call out the guard on the word of someone from who knows where. What I can do, ma’am, is send the word around to my men to keep their eyes open; and I will stay here until sundown, so that if your army of orcs arrives, I will be ready.”

Gilraen bows. “That must suffice, then,” she says, glancing down over the wall to where Denethor is waiting at the gate below her feet. “I will stay here as well, and my companions with me,” she adds, and retires to the gap between two of the crenellations on the wall, staring out over the Fields of Pelennor. Kili sits down against the wall next to her feet, and pulls Primrose into his lap; she laughs and tucks herself more comfortably against him.

“Admit it,” she murmurs, “you agreed to come on this mad venture in the hopes we could kiss without your mother knowing.”

Kili winces. “Could you not mention Mother?” he asks plaintively. “I was enjoying holding you.”

Primrose laughs and shuts up for a while, enjoying the sunshine and the comfort of her beloved’s arms. After a while, Kili tilts his head up so he can see Gilraen and says, “So, when the orcs show up, do we have a plan?”

“Buy time,” Gilraen says grimly, “by whacking that traitor over the head and charging the army ourselves if necessary.”

Kili nods. “I kind of thought that was the plan,” he says, and buries his face in Primrose’s hair for a moment. Then he raises his head and lifts her chin gently so he can look into her eyes. “I love you,” he says very quietly.

Primrose nods. “I love you, too,” she agrees just as quietly, “and if we live through this I am going to marry you as soon as possible and be damned to dwarvish courting customs.”

Kili chuckles. “I’ll hold you to that,” he tells her. “And let you be the one to tell Mother.”

Primrose laughs aloud and whacks him gently upside the head. “You’re impossible,” she says merrily. Then she sobers. “Even if we die today, Kili, I’ll be next to you. All the way to the halls of your ancestors, if it comes to that. I swear.”

“And I beside you,” Kili says, and kisses her.

Gilraen carefully does not look down at them for a long time, remembering many years ago when a fine tall man with the mark of death upon him promised her as many years as he had, and to wait for her beyond death’s gate for as long as the world lasted, if she lived that long. Four years, in the end, and that was all she had of him, and even that ruined her for any other man so long as she lives. Who wants anyone else when they’ve had a king? Four years, and a son with a prophecy hanging over him like an executioner’s sword, and she’d still do it all again in a heartbeat.

Arathorn will be waiting for her at the end of the day. Gilraen relaxes against the stone of the wall and waits for the orcs, and she is smiling.

Chapter Text

Dis ends up in command of what remains of the Fellowship, mostly by virtue of being the first to say, “Right, then. Camp tonight and tomorrow we get to sneak into Mordor. What fun!”

It makes Bilbo laugh, which is something. Bilbo has a lovely laugh, and he has not laughed much since Thorin went Ring-mad. Dis not-so-secretly adores her brother-in-law, who can make her so-serious brother laugh and dance and snuggle in public, who makes Thorin so happy it almost hurts to see. Dis does not plan to marry again – she had quite enough of that the first time, though since her first wedding was political she could remarry if she fell in love – but it’s nice to see that someone has a good marriage in this family.

They keep a cold camp that night, of course, because lighting a fire would just be stupid. Dis tucks Bilbo between herself and Gimli, and the elves take turns on watch, since apparently elves don’t sleep like normal people. (Dis is always perfectly polite to elves, for Dis-relevant values of perfectly polite, but the dislike is apparently hereditary.)

In the morning, Legolas slips down the road and returns to report that the orcs have begun to move, and by mid-day they are far enough away that Dis feels safe in leading her small party down the road and turning left, away from Minas Tirith and her son, towards the dark mountains of Mordor. Normally, Dis likes mountains. They are tall and deep and full of metal ores and fabulous gems, and a dwarf can go for ages without seeing the sky or the trees or the dratted tree-hugging elves.

Dis does not like these mountains. They skulk, if mountains can be said to skulk. The ones that don’t skulk loom, like drunken violent men trying to intimidate a dwarven woman on her own. Not that Dis has experience with that, of course, or at least not experience she is ever going to mention to Thorin, because having Thorin send a small army back across the Misty Mountains to find a bunch of human men in Dale who are probably dead of old age already anyhow is just not a good idea.

There is a pass into the mountains, and it is guarded by a great black tower. Dwarves are good at fortifications – anything to do with stone, dwarves are good at – and in Dis’ professional opinion, the black tower is a disgrace to its architect. It has pointy bits where they aren’t necessary, and odd twists which are probably meant to be menacing but just look structurally unsound, and the crenellations are so elaborate that no one can actually use them to shoot from.

Also it radiates black magic, but Dis is far too disgusted by the absolutely awful engineering to really care about that. Arwen and Legolas, however, seem deeply worried by it, and Bilbo is looking up at the tower with a deep frown. He points at the two huge black statues on either side of the path ahead of them.

“Do those look like they’re guarding something to you?”

Arwen nods. “They are guarding the path,” she says softly. “They will wake when we cross between them. But they are still weak – they cannot prevent us from crossing.”

“Then we run,” Dis decides. “Get us as close as you can before they notice us, and then we’ll all sprint for the pass. Keep Bilbo in the middle.”

Arwen nods. “It is the only plan we have,” she agrees.

Bilbo winces. “That does not fill me with confidence,” he mutters, but the mountains are steep and there is no way to the pass except between the statues, so the little party creeps forward until Arwen holds up a hand.

“I think they will wake in a moment,” she says, and Dis nods.

“Everyone run,” she orders, and they sprint between the statues and up the path. Behind them, the black statues begin to scream, a high horrible sound which sends shivers up everyone’s spine and makes Bilbo and Legolas clap their hands over their ears desperately.

The sound begins to die away as the Fellowship reaches the mouth of the tunnel through the mountain, the entrance to the Spider’s Pass. Bilbo takes his hands from his ears and grimaces. “I suddenly hope all the orcs have gone to Gondor,” he says. “That’s an effective doorbell.”

Dis grimaces. “We’d best keep moving, then, in case some of them stayed home to keep the fires burning.” She peers into the tunnel. “Single file, Bilbo in the middle,” she orders. “Keep your ears open – even Gimli and I will have trouble seeing in that murk. Weapons out. Mahal only knows what lives in there. Gimli, have you a light?”

Gimli nods and holds out one of the little makeshift torches which miners use, rags wrapped around a stick, and Legolas pulls out a flint and lights it. It is small and dim, but better than nothing.

Arwen and Gimli lead off, with Bilbo behind them, and Legolas and Dis bringing up the rear, because Dis is worried that whatever guards might have been in the black tower of architectural obscenity might decide to come see what set off their giant screaming statues.

Afterwards, the only theory anyone can come up with for why the enormous spider does not attack Arwen, at the front of the party, or Dis, at the back and lagging a little, is because Bilbo is the smallest member of the party. The first anyone knows of the presence of the spider is Bilbo’s sudden, cut-off scream; and Dis sees the darkness in front of her solidify and block out the torch’s glow, sees the vague bulk of some huge thing attacking her brother-in-law.

Dis has been on edge since they left Belegost, worried for Thorin and disturbed by the presence of the Ring. She has been twitchy since the previous morning, when her precious younger son went off to most probably die defending a human city. She has been downright nervous since they entered the Spider’s Pass. And now some creature has attacked her beloved, cherished, obscenely brave brother-in-law.

Dis does the only thing a self-respecting daughter of the line of Durin can do in the circumstances: she goes berserk.

Baruk Khazad!” she screams, and hurls herself past Legolas, striking again and again with her axe at the great carapace before her. The spider rears up in astonishment and sudden pain, and in the little sane corner of her mind Dis registers that Gimli and Arwen have grabbed the limp body of the hobbit and fled for the exit of the tunnel, leaving Dis and Legolas in the dark with the giant spider. Dis does not care, except to be faintly glad that they have taken Bilbo to safety: she is red-eyed with battle fever, striking at anything which moves before her, screaming the war-cry of the dwarves to the echoing stone.

Legolas is unused to the darkness of tunnels: the caves of the Greenwood are well-lit, and the deep darkness of the forest is much more open and airy than the dank oppression of the Spider’s Pass. He cannot see a thing, to be perfectly honest; he did not even see the giant spider which dropped from the ceiling to strike the hobbit in front of him, and that was when there was a torch to help. But he is Legolas of the Greenwood, best of the archers of that land, and he has shot blind before. He aims for the sounds of Dis’ battlecry, for the thunk of her axe hitting carapace and the skritch of claws on stone, and though he can hear some of his arrows miss, striking walls and floor, more than one of them strikes home.

(It occurs to him, quite a while later, that he could have followed Arwen and Gimli out of the tunnel; but in the moment he thinks of nothing but shooting, and shooting, and the great echoing Baruk Khazad of Dis’ fury. He does not even have time for fear.)

Dis strikes, and strikes, and even had it been full day the battle-fury would have struck her blind, so she dodges the shiver in the air which says her opponent has moved, aims her blows at half-heard rustles and unseen twitches, and there is nothing but battle, nothing but hitting and hitting and the sting of blood hitting her face and then the enemy has stopped moving.

It takes Dis several minutes to realize that the spider is dead. It takes her rather longer to step away from its carcass, to take a deep breath and remember the hiss of arrows and recognize that Legolas must have stayed to fight beside her. Finally she speaks.

“I thank you, elf.” And though neither of them knows it at the time, that is the true beginning of the end of the great hatred of the line of Durin for elves. It is hard to hate someone who has just helped you slay a giant spider.

Legolas laughs a little into the darkness. “It was my honor, Lady Dis,” he replies.

Dis nods, and leans forward to feel along the spider’s corpse until she reaches the head, which she severs from the body with a few careful strokes of her axe. “I’ll take this to show Bilbo,” she says. “Come; the sunshine will be good.”

When they stumble from the tunnel, Dis covered in black blood, Arwen and Gimli are kneeling over Bilbo’s body.

Chapter Text

Bilbo is in Belegost, in the vast bed Thorin had made for them. He should be warm; he is always warm in this bed, with its piles of furs and quilts, and Thorin’s habit of curling around him while they sleep. But for some strange reason, despite the furs and the quilts and the heavy warmth of his husband beside him, he is shivering. Perhaps he is ill? But the last time he was ill, Thorin barely slept – brought him soup at all hours, sat up beside him anxiously until his fever died, badgered the herbwives and Oin near-constantly. If Bilbo were sick, Thorin would be awake. Therefore, Bilbo is not sick. But he is so cold.

Dimly, he thinks that it is strange that he is in Belegost. But how can that be strange? Isn’t this home? It has been for ten years. He has learned the halls and the tunnels, memorized the paths from the bedroom he shares with Thorin to Dis’ rooms, and Dwalin and Ori’s, to his little office high in the mountain and to the great halls where they receive visitors and petitions. He knows the name of every dwarf and hobbit and dwobbit in Belegost (even if some of the dwobbits are hard to tell apart – very young dwobbits tend towards blandly adorable). Belegost is home. Why should it be strange for him to be here?

Why is he so cold? Why does Thorin not wake?

*

Arwen looks up as Legolas and Dis emerge from the Spider’s Pass, and nearly goes limp with relief. “Dis, you are a marvel!” she says. “Give me that – I must know what the venom was before I can counteract it.”

Dis, who is rather terrifyingly coated in blood, puts the giant head of the spider on the ground beside Arwen and kneels beside Bilbo. Gimli is kneeling on Bilbo’s other side, scanning the hills around them because he cannot bear to look at the near-lifeless body of his Prince. Legolas comes over to put a gentle hand on Gimli’s shoulder.

“The Lady Arwen is a wise woman, and she has been trained by the Lady Galadriel, a healer of great renown. I am sure Bilbo will recover,” he tells Gimli softly.

Gimli nods, and does not speak. Dis looks at him across Bilbo’s body, eyes still a little wild with battle-fever, and says, “You did the right thing, taking him out of the tunnel. Honor to you and your family for protecting your prince.”

Gimli finally relaxes, and Legolas reflects that he will probably never understand dwarves. Taking the injured out of the battle is almost always the right thing to do, especially when – as now – the injured member of the party is also the most important.

Arwen is wrist-deep in blood when her triumphant exclamation draws her companions’ attention back to her. She is holding a venom-sac in both hands, and the spider’s head has been quite thoroughly dismantled. “A few hours at most,” she assures Dis, “and I will be able to administer some sort of antidote to Bilbo.”

Dis nods. “We’ll make camp, then,” she orders, and Gimli finds them a sheltered cup of a valley. They wrap Bilbo in their cloaks, and Gimli carries him to the camp; Legolas stands just under the sheltering crest of the hill and keeps a sharp lookout for orcs, while Arwen does incomprehensible things with the venom-sac and the contents of her pack, and Dis does her best to scrub the spider’s blood from her skin and clothing with a handful of the brown, coarse grass which grows in clumps here and there. It is the only plant anyone can see; there is no green in Mordor.

Legolas looks over the brown, brown, grey, black, and more brown of Mordor and can almost feel his soul dying. He is a woodland elf, a creature of trees and green meadows. Even in the Brown Lands as they approached Mordor there were trees and plants and even tiny, straggling flowers; in the Dead Marshes, there were many green and growing things, even if the stuff they grew in was too terrible to think of. But here there is nothing to relieve the dead grey expanse of land except, in the distance, the great black mountain which is their goal, with the smoke leaking from its top in a thin and steady stream. This is not a land for elves.

Gimli comes up beside him – Bilbo is as comfortable as they can make him, well-wrapped and snug, and Gimli cannot bear to watch him any longer. He looks over the entirely depressing landscape for a minute, and then studies his unlikely friend. Legolas looks wan and almost ill.

“Were you bitten by the spider?” Gimli asks, worried.

Legolas looks surprised, then shakes his head. “No – no, I am not injured.”

“You look ill.” Gimli has never been known for his tact; but then, it is not a skill common to dwarves.

“There is no green,” Legolas says softly. “There are neither trees nor grass, flowers nor creeping vines. Even the thorned and poisoned plants which grow in the darkest parts of the Greenwood do not grow here. This is no place for an elf, nor for any other creature of the light – for if dwarves dwell in the stone, still there is moss, and the mountain bears trees up towards the sky.”

Gimli considers the bleak landscape, noticing movement far away to the north, which is probably orcs; the volcano which is their destination and – he is not stupid – probably their death; and the dead grass at their feet.

“You’re right,” he says at last. “This is no place for anything which lives and loves. But if I die here, if we all die here, and the Ring dies with us, then Belegost will be safe. The Shire will be safe. The Greenwood, and Lothlorien, and Gondor, and all the lands I’ve never seen.” He fumbles in his tunic for a moment and pulls out the strands of Galadriel’s hair: he has braided them, carefully, in the evenings as they traveled. The white strands shine like silver against the ash-grey view. “See,” he says, almost to himself, “there are still things of beauty here.”

Legolas stares down at him and at the braid in his hands, and, slowly, smiles. “Yes,” he agrees, just as softly, “there are things of beauty here, even if they are well-hidden.” He reaches out and traces the braid where it curls in Gimli’s broad palm. “It is my honor and pleasure to be here with you, Gimli son of Gloin, who sees more clearly than elves.”

Gimli blinks at him in surprise, then tucks the braid away again and shrugs. “Dunno about that,” he replies. “Mama always said I’d more guts than sense.”

Legolas laughs, quietly, and the sound of laughter is strange in this bleak place.

Behind them, Arwen says, “He’s waking up!”

*

The bed and Thorin fade away, and Bilbo tries to cling to them, tries desperately to return to his husband’s side, but he is cold, so cold, so very cold, and then there is grey sky above him and Dis’ worried face, and he hurts everywhere, and for a moment, knowing that he will most probably never see Thorin again, that he is in Mordor and will likely die here and never return to Belegost, Bilbo wants nothing more to curl up in a little ball and weep.

He does not. He tries to sit up – Dis puts her hands on his shoulders to help, and Bilbo is baffled at how weak he feels – and looks at the anxious, relieved faces of his companions. “What happened?” he says, and then, looking around a little more thoroughly, “Dear gods, is that a giant spider’s head?”

Chapter Text

Gilraen knows perfectly well that the Captain of the Gondorian Guard was humoring her when he agreed to wait on the walls until sundown. She cannot help feeling just a little bit smug when the guard with the keenest eyes on the wall leans forward, peering across the Fields of Pelennor, and says in a rather worried tone, “Sir, I think I see something coming.”

The Captain hurries over to him. “What do you see?”

“It’s…there’s this big black mass, and it’s coming closer. Like a shadow, almost, but there’s nothing to cast it.”

The Captain stares into the distance himself, and then, very softly, swears. “Or like an army.” He turns to look at Gilraen, who slides out of the gap in the wall and lands lightly on her feet. Kili and Primrose stand, still tucked against each other, and look out over the fields.

“You were telling the truth,” the Captain breathes. “There is an army on its way.” For a moment he seems paralyzed with horror; then he shakes himself, like a dog throwing out water, and turns to the guard beside him. “Call out the reserves,” he orders. “Arrange the evacuation of the lower levels of the city into the tunnels. Alert the Steward.” The guard bows and races off.

Denethor calls up from the street below them, loud and happy as a man on feast day. “You need not bother preparing for war, Captain! We will open the gates when they arrive.”

The Captain goes to the inner edge of the wall and stares down at the Steward’s son. “What?

“We will let them in, Captain. That is an order.”

The Captain boggles. The men on the walls around him look torn – there is an army, and the Captain is giving the orders which make sense, but perhaps the Steward’s son knows something they do not? Perhaps the army is not orcs, or Denethor has some yet-unknown power over them?

Gilraen watches the army of orcs come closer and closer, with nine black horsemen out in front of it, as the Captain argues with Denethor and the men of the Guard dither and worry. Soon enough, the army will be close enough to besiege the city, and if the Guard is not ready to defend the walls, even if the gates are not opened, the city will soon be overrun.

She beckons to Kili and Primrose, and leans down to explain her plan to them. After a few minutes, Kili nods sharply, and Gilraen runs for the nearest armory. She will need more than leathers if she is to survive even a few minutes in the coming fight.

By the time Gilraen has convinced the guard in charge of the armory to let her take chain mail and a helmet – she already has a sword – the army of orcs is nearly at the walls, with its nine black horsemen leading it. The Captain and Denethor are still arguing when Gilraen reaches her vantage point again, and Kili glances at her and then climbs into the gap in the crenellations, with Primrose holding his belt from behind, cups his hands around his mouth, and bellows as loudly and clearly as he can,

“Lord of the Nazgul! I salute and defy you in the name of Gilraen of the Dunedain!”

The lead horseman reins in his horse, and gestures abruptly. The other horsemen pivot and being shouting – or perhaps screeching – orders at the army, which slows to a halt. The Lord of the Nazgul looks up towards the wall.

“What words does Gilraen of the Dunedain have for me, dwarf?”

Kili replies, “Gilraen challenges you to single combat, Lord of the Nazgul!”

The Nazgul replies with a horrible screeching laugh. “I accept!” he cries, “Let him come and die!” and laughs again. Gilraen claps Kili on the shoulder as he climbs out of the gap in the wall and leaps down the steps to the gate. Denethor and the Captain are both staring at her in horror, though for very different reasons.

“Open the gate for me,” Gilraen snaps. “I’ll try to make this last long enough for you to get your men together, Captain. Move fast.” She gives Denethor a scathing glare. “You may want to sit on this damned traitor of a Steward’s son.”

The guard at the gate opens it just wide enough for Gilraen, anonymous in armor and helmet, to emerge from the walls. Behind her, Denethor begins to squall angrily, and the Captain, in a sudden shout, orders Denethor gagged and the walls manned, the Steward brought at once to see to his son. The gate closes, cutting off whatever other orders the Captain has, but Gilraen is content. The Captain is a competent man: he will rally the guards. Minas Tirith will not fall. Now there is only the matter of fighting an immortal Ringwraith to the death.

The Nazgul laughs as she approaches. “So, the brave Dunedain comes to his death!” he chortles. “Know, fool, that I am immortal. It was prophesied when I was given the ring I wear that no man should kill me.”

Behind her helmet, Gilraen smiles. “Is that so?” she asks, and the helmet makes her voice hollow and unlike her. “Nevertheless, I am here to fight. Let us begin, Ringwraith.”

The Nazgul draws his sword and spurs his horse, and Gilraen sets herself, sword held in both hands, ready to leap to either side as the occasion demands. Every Dunedain is taught to fight ahorse or afoot, against opponents mounted or infantry. Gilraen is not the best warrior of the Dunedain, but she is by no means the worst, either.

She dodges to one side as the Nazgul charges her, and her sword flicks out low and precise, cutting through the horse’s girth. She nicks the horse, mostly by accident and because cutting through leather is not an easy task, and the great black stallion rears in pain and surprise. The girth snaps, and the Nazgul is thrown from the horse’s back, landing crumpled a little distance away. The horse gallops off; Gilraen hears Kili cheer from the wall above them.

The Nazgul rises. He is taller than a human should be, and Gilraen cannot see his face beneath the black hood. He snarls at her, and raises his sword, and Gilraen smiles behind her helmet. Giant and scary and evil and undead, the Lord of the Nazgul certainly is. But Gilraen is a Dunedain, a woman of the Rangers, and she can tell already that the creature before her depends far too heavily on its terrifying aspect to win battles – and not nearly enough on actual skill. It has been years since Gilraen was scared of shadows. She is not about to start again now.

The Nazgul comes at Gilraen fast and angry, clearly meaning to kill her quickly. She has embarrassed him, Gilraen assumes; getting knocked off your horse that way just looks stupid. She dodges his first blow, and his second, examining his armor; his third blow catches her flat-on, across the ribs, and she gasps as the breath goes out of her, but though that will bruise – might even have cracked a rib, she’s not sure – she thinks she knows where to strike.

The Nazgul’s armor covers its arms and legs, certainly, and he probably has chainmail under those black robes, but he’s clearly not wearing a helmet. Which is stupid. Gilraen bats aside his fourth blow, ignoring the pain in her side, and rams her sword point-first through where his throat should be if he has one. The sword goes in like a knife through butter, and the Nazgul just…crumples. There is a high and fading scream, and the robe and armor collapse in on themselves in a little abandoned heap: clearly there is no longer a body there.

Gilraen retrieves her sword and turns to look at the other eight Nazgul. They are as still as statues, and Gilraen is suddenly overcome with the urge to laugh. “No man could kill him,” she says, and pulls off her borrowed helmet. Her hair, bound up tightly in a horsetail and coiled under the helmet for padding, falls free, and she grins into the faceless hoods of horrors out of legend and cries, “I am Gilraen of the Dunedain! I am no man!”

Chapter Text

The length of a duel is not much time to arrange the defense of a city, but the Captain of the Minas Tirith Guard does not have much choice in the matter. As the gate closes behind Gilraen, he is already halfway down the steps, and as Denethor opens his mouth to shout more orders or objections, the Captain stuffs a handkerchief into the heir’s mouth. Denethor makes an incoherent sound of shock and disbelief. The Captain turns to the gate-guards.

“Lock him in the gatehouse; make sure he has no weapons. Gag him properly. I take full responsibility; the Steward will execute me if he executes anyone.” The guards salute and grab the furious Denethor, dragging him to one side and into the gatehouse.

“You up there! Dwarf! And your lass!”

Kili looks over the wall at the Captain. “Aye, sir?”

“Keep an eye on your friend! Tell me if we need to sally!”

“Aye, sir!” Kili and Primrose chorus, and the Captain turns his attention from them to the other pressing issues of the moment.

By the time Kili calls down from the wall, “Sir! Gilraen killed the Nazgul!” there are guard scurrying in all directions. The Captain glances up at the wall, then gestures to the squad of guards who have collected around him.

“We sally,” he orders. “Collect the Lady Gilraen and bring her within the city, then we retreat and bar the gates. No one in or out without my say-so.”

“Sir!” bark the guards, and then the gates are open and the Captain gets his first really good look at the army which is about to besiege his city. It is larger than he’d like, and the orcs look hungry.

The Lady Gilraen is standing fifteen or twenty yards from the gate, with the crumpled remains of the Lord of the Nazgul at her feet. She has her helmet off and is laughing. The Captain wonders briefly if she has been driven mad – it is not exactly impossible – but she turns when she hears the gates open and jogs towards the guards, though she winces with each step. Cracked ribs, the Captain assumes. The guards fan out from the gate, bracing themselves with swords out and shields ready, but the Nazgul appear to still be in shock from seeing their Lord killed, and Gilraen reaches the gate before they give any orders to their army.

The Captain is the last man back within the gates – Gilraen first, then his men, and he takes every second he can spare to look over the orcs, to assess their strengths and weaknesses and weaponry, before the gates clang shut in front of him. Then he turns to his men.

“You and you – take the Lady Gilraen, Nazgul-Slayer, to the healers. The rest of you, to the walls. I don’t think they’ll hold off much longer."

Up on the wall, Kili and Primrose stare down at their enemies. Primrose has strung her bow, and Kili has his axe unlimbered. Neither of them thinks the orcs will just go away – and in any case, it’s better that the orcs and Nazgul be busy here than be wandering around in Mordor and getting in Bilbo’s way.

As the Captain joins Kili and Primrose on the wall, the Nazgul finally seem to get themselves together and begin screeching orders at the orcs. The Captain watches the orcs begin to charge forward and shakes his head.

“No siege ladders that I can see, and I’ve had all the gates barred and Denethor gagged. I’ve no idea how they plan to get in.”

Kili chuckles, harshly. “I can tell you from experience, sir, that orcs are not tactical geniuses. And those Nazgul are looking pretty confused – I’d say the one Gilraen took care of wasn’t fond of letting anyone else give orders. They probably don’t know what to do besides ‘charge’.”

Kili is proven correct in the next moment, as the orcs throw themselves fairly uselessly at the walls. Some of them can climb, but there are guards at the top who begin to make a game of knocking them off as soon as they get high enough – they give each other points for hitting other orcs on the way down – and for the most part the army dissolves into a sort of fluid chaos, each orc pressing towards the wall and then away again, unwilling to retreat far enough to attract the ire of the Nazgul, but unable to do anything useful. Kili actually begins to relax. He probably should have known better.

When the whole mess is over, no one is quite sure how Denethor got out of the gatehouse. The guards who locked him in swear up and down that he was safely confined when they left him, and no one ever confesses to opening the door or untying the Steward’s son. But the fact remains that somehow Denethor did get out of the gatehouse, and in the confusion, the first anyone knows of it is the sound of the gates slamming open beneath the wall and the triumphant howling of the orcs outside.

Kili does not really think about what he is doing when he charges down the stairs alongside most of a squad of frantic guardsmen; he does not think while he raises his axe and brings it down, again and again, on the arms and legs and bodies of the orcs in front of him. Battle is no place for thinking. He sees the Captain, out of the corner of his eye, fighting desperately to reach the gates and close them again. He sees an orc backhand Denethor into a wall, and Denethor’s limp body in a heap. He sees the tide of orcs in front of him, and the arc of his blade.

He does not see the orc whose sword opens a great rent in his side even through his mail. He goes down, hard, in the bloody street, and the orc above him raises its sword with a triumphant grin, and an arrow takes it in the throat. Then Primrose is standing above him, with his axe in both of her hands and her bow abandoned on the steps behind her, snarling into the faces of the oncoming orcs. Kili wants to reach up, to touch her, to tell her that the axe is too heavy for her and she should run, leave him here, but his arms will not move as he wills them to and his throat is sore as though he has been screaming, and Primrose takes the next orc’s legs off at the knee.

Kili is briefly proud, both of the blow and of the fact that his woman – his beloved – is screaming Baruk khazad! three octaves higher than any dwarf could reach. But even pride cannot quite drown out the pain in his side, and the darkness overflowing his vision.

Kili sees the gates close, and then he sees nothing at all.

Chapter Text

When Gilraen wakes up in the House of Healing, she notices two things: first, her side hurts horribly, and second, Ecthelion is sitting patiently beside her bed. The first surprises her not at all: this is not the first time she has cracked ribs. The second is rather more astonishing. Why would the Steward of Gondor be attending on a stranger?

“Hail and well met, Gilraen, daughter of the Dunedain, slayer of Nazgul, and savior of my city,” Ecthelion says as she opens her eyes.

Oh. That might explain that, then.

“Hail and well met, Steward of Gondor,” Gilraen replies. “How fare my companions?”

“They are in the next room,” Ecthelion replies. “Both are wounded, but neither mortally, and my healers have labored over them diligently; they should recover well in time.”

Gilraen attempts to sit up in agitation, and a healer rushes over from the corner of the room to help prop her up with pillows. “How came they by their wounds?” she demands. “When I left them, they were atop the wall, and I saw few archers with the orcs.”

Ecthelion winces. “There is a tale I like not the telling of,” he says grimly. “The Captain of my Guard, a full good man, tells me that Denethor, my son and heir, was overcome by madness, and escaping from his protectors, opened the gates into the city. Your companions, full doughty warriors despite their size, joined in the defense of the breach, and there were wounded sorely. I have spoken with my son, and he insists, in the face of all sense and loyalty, that the orcs have come to place him on the throne of Gondor; and so it seems, daughter of the Dunedain, that you have saved my city from an army without and a traitor within, but it has cost me my son.”

*

Primrose wakes before Kili. The healers leaning over her sigh with relief when her eyes open, and the one to her right pats her gently on her unbandaged shoulder. “There now, little miss,” she says. “It’s good to see you awake. We were just changing your dressings.”

Primrose glances down at the bandages on her shoulder, and there is the weight of cloth on her head as well. “What happened?” she asks. “Last I remember I was in the middle of the orcs.”

The healer nods. “The guard who brought you in said that one of them landed a glancing blow, hit your head and your shoulder, but by that time the guard had killed most of them and were able to get to you and to your dwarf.”

“Kili!” Primrose says, and tries to sit up. She sags back instantly, wincing in pain. “How is he?”

The healer pats her on the shoulder again. “He will recover. He has not yet woken – he lost a lot of blood – but his pulse is strong and he breathes steadily, and he will wake yet. The best you can do for him is lie still and grow strong so he need not worry over you.”

*

The Captain comes to visit Gilraen in the afternoon. He has a bandage on one arm, and limps a little – he was in the thick of the fighting, after all – but Gilraen is still having trouble sitting on her own, so she must admit he’s in rather better shape than she is.

“We are all indebted to you,” he tells her, sitting heavily in the chair beside her bed. “The orcs surround us yet, but by your actions and those of your companions, we are unconquered, and the army has not yet been created which may break our walls without collaboration from within.”

“Tell me of Denethor,” Gilraen asks. “The Steward told me that he had confessed to his treason, but I would know what has been done with him.”

The Captain grimaces. “He is imprisoned,” he says slowly. “Had it been any man save the Steward’s son who opened the gates to our enemies, he would even now be dead, wounded or no – he was injured by the orcs when they entered the city, and swears they did not mean to wound him, but would have acclaimed him as king – but the Steward cannot bear to slay his only son, and hopes that his madness will pass.”

Gilraen nods. “It is true that a madman cannot always be held accountable for his actions, but Denethor, in the little time we spoke, struck me not as mad but as a man inspired. Still, the Steward knows his own blood best.”

The Captain shrugs. “As to that, I’ve no opinion – I know how I treat traitors and disobedient fools among my men, but I am a Captain and not a Steward, and I’ve no sons. Perhaps it would be different were it my own blood – though I cannot imagine my daughters being so foolish.”

Gilraen cocks her head curiously. “Captain, it occurs to me that in the chaos we have never been properly introduced. Might I know your name?”

The Captain laughs a little. “Hallas,” he says, “of the line of Herion. My wife is Morwen, and she has bid me tell you that you are to come to dinner with us when you are somewhat healed, you and your brave companions; and my little daughters insist that they must meet such a great hero as you must be.”

Gilraen grins. “I should be glad to accept, once I can walk easily again and my companions are awake and well. I have but the one son, and he is in fosterage; it will be good to see children again. Though I am not sure I am such a great hero as your daughters think.”

Hallas gives her a skeptical look. “Gilraen of the Dunedain, Nazgul-Slayer, savior of Minas Tirith; so you are called throughout the city. They sing your companions, too: Kili of the line of Durin, defender of the gate, and Primrose Took, the axe-maid, the bravest little lass in the land. I have heard three songs already, though only one is fit for polite company.”

Gilraen laughs and shakes her head. “I suppose I should have expected as much; but I admit I was not thinking of the consequences when I went out the gate. But then, I was quite sure I was going to my death, and after death one need not fret for one’s reputation, I suppose.”

Hallas nods and stands. “I will look in on your companions before I go,” he assures her, “and when the siege is over and you are all hale again, my family and I will expect you for dinner.”

“When the siege is over, we may need to leave, and swiftly,” Gilraen tells him, “but I will find time to accept your hospitality.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo would normally object to being carried like a sick child, but he is still weak and shaky from the spider’s venom in the morning – the sight of its head beside him nearly makes him retch – and they must move on. He tries to insist on walking, but Dis will hear nothing of it, and gives Bilbo a simple choice: cooperate and be carried comfortably, or argue and be slung over someone’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

Bilbo cooperates. Gimli insists on taking the first shift of carrying, and Bilbo sighs and curls into his arms like a sleepy child. Dis and Legolas and Arwen keep Gimli and his precious burden in the center of their little party, watching in all directions as they forge steadily towards the smoking mountain.

At mid-day Dis takes over as Ring-bearer-bearer. Legolas comes up with the term, and Gimli laughs a little, deep in his chest. There is little enough amusement in Mordor, and even such a small joke is a treasure of its own. Bilbo is just grateful that the lembas is easy to eat, even as shaky and ill as Bilbo currently feels, and that there are no orcs within sight. He does not want to think about how a battle might go with one warrior burdened and Bilbo himself nearly useless.

(Behind them, a small figure flattens itself among the stones and dead weeds, slinking along in their wake. It is hungry and furious, and it wants its Birthday Present with an unholy greed. Its fear of dwarven axes and elvish swords is waning.)

They make a cold camp that night, huddling together near a boulder with Bilbo in the middle. Legolas and Arwen split the watches, telling Dis that elves can do without sleep if necessary for quite a while, and arguing that the dwarves are doing all the carrying – the least the elves can do is let them get enough sleep. Curled up beneath elven cloaks, the sleeping dwarves and hobbit look like nothing so much as small boulders.

Around midnight, an orcish patrol goes by within ten yards of the Fellowship, trotting southward towards the Spider’s Pass from Barad Dur. Arwen and Legolas sit as still as they can, hoods pulled up to cover Legolas’s hair and the shine of open eyes, and watch the orcs pass by. Arwen has a hand on her sword beneath the cloak; Legolas has a shout of warning upon his lips, a dagger in his hand. If the orcs see them, both elves will sell their lives dearly to give Dis and Gimli time to wake and defend the Ring-bearer.

The orcs do not see them, but neither elf relaxes all that night.

Three more days go by, with Bilbo growing steadily stronger, though Dis will not hear of him walking on his own. Each night they bed down behind rocks, and Arwen and Legolas watch the patrols go by along the road from Barad Dur. Arwen theorizes that within their own lands, the orcs prefer to avoid sunlight, and therefore they travel mostly at night.

(A small and furtive figure watches from the darkness each night, and hisses at the sun each day, but even orcish patrols and keen-eyed elves are not quite enough to drive it away from its desire.)

Mount Doom is steep, the path winding and strewn with shards of obsidian. Dis refuses to let Bilbo set foot upon the ground – tough hobbit soles or no, the black stones will cut his feet to shreds, she is sure. Bilbo, though he is slowly recovering from the effects of the spider’s venom, does not bother to argue.

That night they camp most of the way up the mountain, within sight of the dark tunnel which marks the only place the Ring can be destroyed. Bilbo almost urges them onward – almost begs them to keep walking into the night – but a stumble on this rocky path would be disastrous. Another day will not matter too much in the end.

(Down at the base of the mountain, in the half-light before dawn, a small sneaking creature catches the eye of an orc, who calls his comrades to follow as the sneaking creature heads quickly up the mountain. The creature appears to be completely oblivious to the orcs trailing it, but somehow it stays just barely far enough ahead of them. The orcs follow it silently, hoping to capture it and bring it to their master.)

It is just barely dawn when Legolas, looking down the mountain, hisses and leaps back from his vantage point. “Orcs!” he says, quiet but urgent. “They are climbing the mountain! We must hurry!”

Gimli sweeps Bilbo into his arms and pelts for the entrance to the volcano. Dis and Arwen and Legolas follow swiftly, turning now and again to look behind them.

As they reach the entrance, Gimli slows and puts Bilbo down. “Go,” he says. “We’ll stall them here. Surely it won’t take too long to throw the Ring in?”

“No time at all,” Bilbo agrees, and tears the Ring from the edge of his mithril-coat. “I could not have asked for a better friend and guardian,” he adds softly for no ears but Gimli’s, and walks as fast as he can on tottery legs into the tunnel. Gimli draws his axe and turns to face the path, with Dis and the elves beside him.

“We buy as much time as we can,” Dis orders. “Legolas, shoot as soon as you can see them. No point trying for the element of surprise; the only thing that matters is giving Bilbo time to do what he must.”

“Aye, Lady Dis,” Legolas agrees, and plants his sword in the dirt beside him so it will be ready to hand when the orcs close.

The orcs are not actually expecting to see the little group of dwarves and elves when they come around the last corner. They are far too focused on where the little sneaking creature they’ve been trailing has gone – it seemed to vanish just a moment ago! Legolas’ first arrow takes the lead orc in the throat, and then the orcs notice their new enemies.

The orcs scream and charge, too fast for Legolas to shoot more than two or three of them, and then there is a horrid scrum in the entrance to the tunnel. Dis and Gimli find themselves back-to-back, with Legolas and Arwen behind them, using their longer reach to strike at orcish heads and necks while the dwarves hack at legs and torsos, and everyone is bleeding, and Baruk khazad echoes from the tunnel mouth.

In the commotion, neither the orcs nor the dwarves nor even the keen-eyed elves notice the little sneaking creature slip past the battling figures and into the tunnel, hissing, “Baggins!”

Chapter Text

Bilbo walks as quickly as he can into the heart of the volcano. He’s reasonably sure that throwing the Ring in will set off an explosion of some sort – it seems the sort of thing that an evil ring would do as a parting revenge – but his life is a small enough price to pay for peace and his husband’s sanity. He can feel the Ring trying to tempt him, feel it like the heat of a far-off bonfire on a clear night, but there is nothing it can give him, nothing he wants more than he wants Thorin to be himself again.

Behind him, the battle cry of the dwarves rings out – is that Legolas shouting it as well as Gimli? – and the hoarse shouts of orcs. Bilbo has great faith in his protectors; no orc will enter the tunnel while they live, and they will sell their lives dearly indeed, so close to their goal.

Now he is at the very heart of the mountain, looking down into the molten rock of its core, and the Ring in his hand. He grins, just a little, and raises his hand to throw the Ring into the lava.

And something hits him in the small of the back, and sends him to his knees, the Ring skittering along the stone to the edge of the ledge. A hissing, horrid creature cries out Bilbo’s name and leaps past him for the Ring, and Bilbo remembers the nasty thing that tried to eat him in the depths of Moria, realizes that it has come all this way for its ‘precious,’ that it will flee with the Ring unless he stops it. He lunges forwards, grappling with the creature for the Ring, and it hisses and spits and bites at him, and he is weak from the spider’s venom and it is strong with desperation. It has one hand around the Ring now, and the other at his neck, and Bilbo nearly despairs.

But no. He has not come all this way to die failing. “For Thorin!” he cries, and lifts the creature bodily, strength in his arms of the earth itself, the endless strength of the hobbit folk who bend but never break. In one great heave he tosses creature and Ring both forward, over the edge.

There is a long and wavering scream of “Precious!” Bilbo falls to his knees again at the edge of the ledge and sees the creature and the Ring together consumed by the lava beneath him, all in a single horrid flash, and is sick all over the rocks in front of him. He has killed spiders and wargs, but now he has killed a speaking creature, and he thinks he may never forgive himself.

As the Ring dissolves into the lava, there is a great shudder beneath Bilbo’s feet, a shudder like the one which heralded the death of the Necromancer ten years and more ago. Bilbo sees the lava begin to rise, sees it sputter and hiss up the walls, and staggers to his feet, fleeing hopelessly down the tunnel to his friends. If he must die, he will at least do so in good company.

*

Dis slaughters the last orc with a single swing of her axe, and it is a good thing she does, because the shudder which goes through the ground sends her and her companions to their knees. She claws her way to her feet again instantly, never dropping her axe, and behind her Arwen cries out in joy. “He has done it!”

“Of course he has,” Dis says promptly. “He said he would. Bilbo keeps his word.”

Gimli peers down the tunnel, then darts into it – “Ah, the energy of youth,” Dis mutters – and emerges with a battered Bilbo in his arms.

“The lava’s rising,” Bilbo tells them wearily. “I think the whole mountain is going to go soon.”

Dis winces. Death by volcano does not particularly appeal. Still, if that’s the price for the destruction of the Ring, there are worse prices, and worse company to die in. “Come on then,” she says, “up on that high rock there. It’ll give us a few more minutes at any rate.”

They climb the rock together, Legolas and Arwen giving Gimli a hand with the steep bits, as he still has Bilbo in his arms. On the flat top, they stop and look out over Mordor. Gimli puts Bilbo down gently. Legolas points north-east. “Look,” he says, “Barad Dur has fallen.” It’s true; the great black tower has crumbled, and there are orcs running this way and that in confusion about its base.

Behind them, the mountain rumbles, and above them, the steady stream of smoke grows thicker and blacker. Dis winces at the sight. Then Bilbo points up, to the west and north, the clear blue sky.

“Look, look!” he cries. “Eagles!”

Dis stares. They are, in fact, eagles. As they draw closer Dis marvels: they grow bigger with each passing moment, already vaster than any bird she has ever seen. And they seem to be aiming directly for the little cluster of dwarves and elves and hobbit on the side of Mount Doom.

The mountain rumbles again, and Dis glances away from the eagles for a bare second; but it is enough for the great birds to stoop from the sky, one by one in a long straight line, and dive directly for the Fellowship. And on the first bird, the one swoops past and arcs up into the sky again, an oddly familiar form, one Dis had thought she would never see again: Gandalf.

The eagles following the leader snatch up the Fellowship one by one, starting with Bilbo, then Dis, Gimli, Legolas, and lastly Arwen, who leaps from the rock to land straddling the neck of her bird. Then one by one they wheel away from Mount Doom and head west as fast as wings can carry them.

*

Gilraen is on the walls, though unarmored and against healers’ orders, when there is a great tremor which shakes even the mountain of Minas Tirith, and the eight remaining Nazgul cry out high trembling notes which pierce the ear. She stares as one by one they fall from their horses, their robes and armor crumpling to heaps, and wailing wisps rise from the fallen armor and dissipate in the wind.

The orcs seem struck mad, as well – they race in all directions, some running headlong into the wall and braining themselves, and then begin to flee, some towards Mordor itself, others to the north and west, some south down the Anduin. In less than an hour, the siege of Minas Tirith is lifted, the army dissolved into terrified bands of leaderless orcs. And in the east, in Mordor, there rises a great column of black smoke into the sky.

Out of the smoke comes a flock of birds, eagles by their form, fleeing the terrible eruption of Mount Doom, and Gilraen, staring at them, begins to hope at last. For on the lead bird is a grey-robed figure with a long staff in his hand, and five others bear small figures in their talons or upon their backs. Gilraen clutches at Hallas’ arm where he stands behind her and points at the oncoming flock.

“The Eagles are coming!” she cries. “The Eagles are coming!”

Chapter Text

Thorin feels the Ring die even before the tremor shakes Belegost. It is a soundless shout in his ear, a sourceless blow which leaves him reeling as months of madness are stripped from him all of a moment. He sits hard on the edge of the bed, staring at the shattered wardrobe that once held Bilbo’s clothing, and then drops his head into his hands and weeps.

Fili feels the tremor beneath his feet in the middle of morning audiences. It is not an earthquake, he is quite sure – he may have been young, a decade ago when the Necromancer fell, but he remembers the feeling well, of being inside a great noiseless bell. He shoots to his feet in sudden hope and runs from the audience room, ignoring the shouts of surprise behind him, heading unerringly for his uncle’s chamber.

He is not quite hopeful enough to tear the bar from the door immediately, but as he skids to a halt in the hallway he is already shouting, “Uncle! Uncle! Are you well?”

For a long moment there is no answer, and then in horrid broken tones from behind the door comes Thorin’s reply: “Fili, what have I done?”

The guards help Fili lift the bar away from the door, and Fili yanks the door open and hurries into his uncle’s bedchamber. Thorin is curled on the bed, head in hands, weeping helplessly, and Fili goes to him at once, kneeling at his uncles feet and patting his knees and arms. “Uncle, uncle, the Ring is gone, isn’t it? Bilbo destroyed, as he said he would. It will all be alright again.”

Thorin gives him a watery glare. “You know as well as I that destroying the Ring would have been a dangerous proposition. What guarantee have I that my husband yet lives? And if he does, how can I expect him to forgive me my words and actions before he fled? My husband had to flee from me, nephew. You cannot tell me that the destruction of that cursed artifact will fix that.”

Fili winces. He has received letters from Elrond now and again, which told him of the destination of the Fellowship and its members. He cannot deny that throwing the Ring into Mount Doom isn’t a safe thing to do – leaving aside orcs and Nazgul and other dangers, there’s the volcano to worry about.

“I refuse to believe that Bilbo is dead until I hear word of it, Uncle,” he says firmly. “He has faced great danger before, and faced it well. He has protectors who love him and will die for him if need be – Mother among them, and you cannot tell me she would not do all in her power to keep him safe. Gimli and Kili would stand between him and any danger. Primrose is a fair brave lass, and we know that hobbits are more dangerous than they appear. I do not know his other protectors – well, I know Gandalf, and he is a wise and powerful wizard – but I am sure they will have kept Bilbo safe.”

Fili takes a deep breath. Thorin does not look convinced, but at least he has stopped weeping. “What I do know, Uncle, is that if Bilbo comes home to find you lying about in your rooms weeping, he’ll kick you from here to Erebor and back and you know that as well as I do. Not to mention what Mother would do!”

Thorin blinks and winces. “Dis kicks harder,” he observes slowly, “and her boots tend to have iron caps.” He straightens, looking around his room. It is a mess, between the shattered wardrobe and the filth from months of not cleaning.

“I will not take my throne back yet,” he says finally. “I will not sit again on Belegost’s throne until Bilbo sits beside me. But I can at least make these rooms ready for his return, and make myself more presentable. And apologize to my people. Those things I can do.” He claps Fili on the shoulder before pulling the younger dwarf to his feet. “My regent you have been, and my regent you remain,” he concludes. “Such loyalty as you have shown to Belegost must have reward.”

Thorin spends that afternoon with Dwalin and Ori, making his apologies and listening to their tales of Belegost during his illness. In the evening, he makes a short speech to the people of Belegost, apologizing for his actions during his madness and assuring them that Fili will remain as regent until Bilbo returns.

That night at dinner, Dori’s eldest daughter brings Thorin a small bouquet, telling him it is a gift from all of Belegost. Thorin accepts it with thanks, and later studies the flowers by candle-light in his own rooms. His years with Bilbo have taught him some of the language of flowers. Agrimony and iris, nasturtium and sun star and delphinium. Thankfulness and good news, love of country and reconciliation and joy. His people are glad to have him back. And they have given him an idea.

In the next days, he commissions a woodworker to replace the wardrobe he shattered, and a tailor to replace all of the clothing he tore to shreds. Then he retreats to the forge. He consults the beads which Bilbo gave him so many years ago, and thanks Mahal that he did not destroy them in his madness. He goes to Peony for advice, and to Oin’s herbwife friend.

And then he spends each day turning gold and silver and precious gems into a wreath of flowers which will never wilt and never die. He beats the metal as thin as flower petals, weaves wires together in intricate braids to make a flower crown more beautiful and more lasting than any in the Shire.

Ambrosia and angrec, balsam and berrirose, plum blossoms and primrose and rainflower and clove, forget-me-nots and gorse and honeysuckle, each he makes of precious metals and more-precious stones, each as perfect as his hands can craft. When that is done, when the wreath sits shining on the table beside the bed, he turns his hands instead to beads, new beads of gold and mithril to braid into his husband’s hair, each etched with Khuzdul runes for love, peace, or joy. When Bilbo returns, Thorin is sure his hair will be tangled and his braids half-ruined; how else, after such a journey? Thorin will put them to rights, if Bilbo allows him the privilege. Thorin will adorn his consort with every beautiful thing he can create, will apologize in words and gifts and deeds for his madness and his cruelty.

Thorin dares not think of what he fears: that the destruction of the Ring was Bilbo’s death as well. There are many dangers between Belegost and Mordor, and though Bilbo had eight strong protectors, who is to say how many of them survived the journey?

Thorin dares not think on it, because therein lies another sort of madness. If his gold-lust drove his consort to his death, Thorin will follow him, that much is sure. But for now, Thorin makes beads and flowers of the most precious materials he can find, and thinks determinedly only of the day he may place them at last at his consort’s feet, beg forgiveness, and swear again undying love.

Chapter Text

The Eagles deposit their burdens gently on the wall-top before swooping away again, and Gilraen rushes forward and falls to her knees to embrace Bilbo. He is far too thin, and rather shaky, and there is a nasty bruise on the side of his neck down near the shoulder-joint, just above the armor, which looks like the world’s biggest spider bite, but he is alive and he has destroyed the Ring.

When Gilraen finally releases Bilbo – and she will deny to her dying day that she cried into his shoulder – Dis is standing worriedly beside them. “Where is my son, and Primrose?” she demands.

“They are in the Houses of Healing, and I will lead you there,” Gilraen replies, getting wincingly to her feet. “They are awake and healing well, but the healers have forbidden Kili to rise from his bed as yet, and so they did not accompany me to the walls.”

Captain Hallas clears his throat behind her. “I would appreciate an introduction to our newest guests,” he says politely. Gilraen laughs.

“Of course, Captain! These are the other members of my company, who while I and my companions came to warn Minas Tirith of its danger, went into Mordor to destroy an object of great evil, and there succeeded. My great good friend Bilbo Baggins, Prince Consort of Belegost; his sister-in-law, the Lady Dis daughter of Thrain; his bodyguard, Gimli son of Gloin; the Lady Arwen of Lorien and Rivendell; and Prince Legolas of the Greenwood.” She takes a deep breath. “And one I thought was lost to us forever: Gandalf the Grey.”

Gandalf smiles at her. He looks weary and rather older than he did before Moria, and his grey cloak is closed tightly at the front as if to conceal his robes, but he stands tall and cheerful upon the wall. “I, too, thought I was lost forever, my friend, and indeed such should have been my fate; but to my surprise I woke again atop the mountain, and again required aid from my great good friend the Lord of Eagles, who bore me thence to Lorien, and from Lorien when I was healed I begged his help to bring me to my friends. It is as well that I did, for had we been even a little later, I fear that the mountain would have devoured our companions.”

Captain Hallas bows to him. “Lord Gandalf, your name is known in Minas Tirith. I understand the Lady Dis will wish to go at once to the Houses of Healing – and, Lady, I must tell you at some point of your son’s courage and his great role in the preservation of the city – but if you and perhaps one of your companions would be willing to come with me to meet with Steward Ecthelion, I would be greatly obliged.”

Arwen nods. “I am least hurt of all of us,” she says. Indeed, all of the Fellowship who were in Mordor have bruises and small cuts, both from the battle with the orcs and from the exploding mountain. “I will come and tell Steward Ecthelion of our quest.”

This is quickly agreed to, and Gandalf and Arwen follow Captain Hallas away towards the palace, while Gilraen leads the rest of the company as quickly as possible to the Houses of Healing. As soon as they enter, the healers descend upon them, and it is some little while before Dis is finally allowed, clean and bandaged and rather cranky, to enter the room which holds her son.

Kili is propped up against a mound of pillows, with Primrose seated on his uninjured side holding his hand. He is smiling, but the rather dazed expression on his face suggests that the smile may well be the result of pain-killing drugs rather than good humor. Primrose looks up when Dis comes in, and sighs in what sounds like relief.

“Lady Dis! Oh, thank goodness – we heard you’d arrived, and I was hoping the healers would let you come in before lights-out.”

“Are they so regimented, then?” Dis asks, coming to the side of the bed and smiling down at her son and his fiancée.

“A bit, yes. There were some injuries from the siege – Gilraen has some cracked ribs – and they’ve been fretting over both of us.” She reaches out with her unoccupied hand and pats Dis gently on the arm. “Kili will be fine. He’s pretty heavily drugged at the moment because they had to change his bandages and it’s never pleasant, but he’s healing well.”

Kili smiles up at his mother. “I really am,” he says rather muzzily. “So’s Primrose. We’ll be on our feet in no time.”

Dis sits on the bed next to Primrose and pats both of them gently on their uninjured shoulders. “Good. I am so glad. Now, tell me exactly how you got this banged up, and I’ll tell you about the giant spider that Legolas helped me kill.”

*

Bilbo and Gimli are put in a room together, beside the one where Dis and Kili and Primrose are staying. The healers fuss over Bilbo’s spider bite and insist that he lie down while they tend to Gimli’s various cuts and scratches. When they have gone, leaving plates of food and tall glasses of cool water, Bilbo sighs in relief and scrubs his hands over his face.

“My prince, you are not eating,” Gimli observes, rather worriedly. It is nearly unheard of for a hobbit not to leap upon food like a starving wolf with good table manners.

“I killed a creature, there in the mountain,” Bilbo says softly. “It wanted the Ring – it loved the Ring, came halfway across Middle-Earth to reclaim it – and I cast it into the fires.”

Gimli tugs on his beard. He is vastly better suited to war than to the gentler arts, and consoling his prince is a task he had rather not have. Thorin should be here, or Gandalf, or even Dis – not Gimli. But Gimli is the only one here.

“My prince,” he says at last, “even the greatest warriors may mourn their enemies. And – if this creature loved the Ring, if it had been so devoured by the Ring’s corruption as to follow us into Mordor itself, it would not have lived long without it. A swift death beside its beloved may have been a mercy. But – I am not the proper one to speak of this. I will go and get Legolas, or Lady Dis, or a healer…”

Bilbo cuts him off with a soft chuckle. “No, Gimli, though I thank you. I know now, and knew then, that I must do the thing – that to spare one creature and doom the whole world, and my friends and loved ones with it, was no trade at all. But you are correct: even great warriors mourn their enemies. I will make a grave for him, in a green place in the Shire, beside the water; and I will remember the poor creature, even if no one else does, to the end of my days.”

Bilbo sits up and pulls a tray of food closer to him. Gimli sighs in relief, and vows that next time his prince needs consoling, Gimli will make sure that someone else is closer. He is not suited for the job.

*
Hallas leads Gandalf and Arwen to a reception room high in the palace. Ecthelion is sitting near the window, staring out over his city; he rises as his guests enter. Hallas bows.

“My lord, I bring you Gandalf the Grey and the Lady Arwen of Lorien and Rivendell.”

“Be welcome, friends,” Ecthelion says, and gestures them to seats. “What brings such distinguished guests to Minas Tirith?”

Hallas bows himself out silently as Gandalf and Arwen sit, and Gandalf leans back with a sigh and a smile. “I come on the wings of eagles; but of the quest which Arwen and her companions have just completed, I think it is best for her to speak, for I saw only the very beginning and the very end.”

Arwen nods. “We are glad you saw the end, nevertheless,” she says mildly. “I was not eager to die upon Mount Doom.”

Ecthelion leans forward. “Mount Doom? In Mordor?”

“The same,” Arwen assures him. “I and my companions were the escort and guard for Bilbo Baggins, Prince Consort of Belegost and Ring-bearer, who brought the One Ring from the Shire in the west all the way to Mount Doom, and there destroyed it, and with it, Sauron and all his power.”

Ecthelion nods slowly. “That explains many things,” he says after a long moment, “including, I think, the treason of my son.” He pauses, then takes a long slow breath. “Master Gandalf, I would be obliged if you would accompany me to see my son, who seems to have been somehow driven insane, convinced he would have been made King of Gondor if the orcs had overcome the city.”

Gandalf bows his head solemnly. “I would be glad to assist you, Steward Ecthelion,” he promises.

Chapter Text

Gandalf turns away from the small cell wearily. “Steward Ecthelion, I wish I could give you better news,” he says quietly. “Though the root of the poison was, indeed, Sauron’s, and was destroyed with the rest of that dark being’s power, that root has grown. Denethor truly believes that he is the true heir of Gondor, that he has been robbed of his birthright, that the Nazgul would have raised him to the throne.”

Ecthelion sags against the corridor wall, one hand covering his face. Arwen places a gentle hand on his shoulder. At length Ecthelion looks up, eyes dry but with an expression of such sorrow it is painful to see.

“I disown him,” he says, voice hoarse but clear. “He is no longer my heir; he shall never be Steward of Gondor. I will announce this throughout the city. But as madmen cannot be executed for their crimes, I will find a way to keep him safely imprisoned.” He sighs. “Perhaps his wife’s family will agree to take him in.”

Arwen raises an eyebrow. “He has a wife?”

Ecthelion nods. “They married a year ago – she is of a high family, Findulias of Dol Amroth, and loves him dearly. Her uncle and his family moved to Minas Tirith when she married, and may perhaps agree to keep my son safe from my people – and my people safe from my son.”

Gandalf nods slowly. “That is probably for the best, my lord. If I could heal this sickness of the mind, I would, but it has grown too long and planted itself too deep; confining your son is, I think, the only option.”

“What of my Stewardship now?” Ecthelion murmurs. “He is my only son, my heir; and neither of his sisters has borne sons.”

Gandalf glances back at the cell, and then at Arwen. Finally he speaks. “Steward Ecthelion, there are matters of which I am sworn not to speak. But I tell you truly, before your death, one will come who will solve this problem. Hold to your ancient duty and fear not.”

Ecthelion’s eyes are wide with astonishment; he is a clever man, and there are very few interpretations of such a statement. He bows to Gandalf. “For your words and your advice I thank you,” he replies. “I will do my duty, as my fathers before me.”

They leave the cells in solemn silence, and Gandalf and Arwen take their leave of the Steward, heading down through the city to the Houses of Healing and the rest of the Fellowship.

*

Five days later, when Kili is well enough to walk, albeit slowly, he and Primrose and Gilraen accept Captain Hallas’ invitation to dinner. Hallas’ wife Morwen welcomes them, and his daughters, eight-year-old Rian and twelve-year-old Mardi, sit at Gilraen’s feet before the meal and insist on being told the tale of her battle with the Nazgul, and of Kili and Primrose’s stand before the gate, in great detail. They are fascinated by Primrose’s furry feet and the braids in Kili’s hair, and before the night is out, have taken to chasing each other around the house brandishing wooden spoons and declaring themselves to be daughters of the Dunedain, Nazgul-Slayers and great heroes. Captain Hallas and his wife enjoy watching Gilraen blush and protest her lack of heroism greatly.

*

The last thing Gilraen does on the day before the Fellowship leaves Minas Tirith is to visit Findulias of Dol Amroth. Findulias is glad to welcome one of the great heroes, if rather confused: she is the wife of the great traitor Denethor. What could Gilraen want with her?

“I know something of doomed marriages,” Gilraen tells her solemnly. “I knew when I married him that my husband would die young, that he would never fulfill his line’s destiny or see his son grow to adulthood.”

Findulias nods. She wants to deny that her marriage is doomed – she loves Denethor despite his madness, has since she met him – but she is sensible enough to know that a mad traitor is not likely to make a good husband.

“I cannot do anything for Denethor, and I would not if I could. He is a traitor and his actions brought great harm to those I care about,” Gilraen says. “But if you should have children from this marriage, they will be innocent of their father’s crimes. Tell them, if you have any, that the son of Gilraen of the Dunedain will aid them in whatever way they need.” She looks away for a moment. “The line between destiny and madness is a thin one.”

“Should I bear children, I will tell them of your promise,” Findulias vows. “I will remember.”

“Then I leave you with my blessings,” Gilraen says. As she walks back to the house the Fellowship has been given for the duration, she thinks about the difference between the son of Arathorn and the future sons of Denethor: two men who would have been kings, had all things gone the way they wished. How much difference is there between madness and destiny?

*

“As flattering as the songs and gifts are,” Bilbo says once they are out of earshot of the walls, riding north and west towards Rohan and Isengard, “I must confess that being hailed as ‘Bilbo Ring-bearer’ every five paces was growing a little wearying.”

Gilraen laughs. “It was a little refreshing to have them all singing about you for a change – while I was in the Houses of Healing those first few days, there were people singing under my window at all hours, and I assure you that ‘Gilraen Nazgul-Slayer’ is a name I never wanted!”

Gandalf, riding out front on a fine grey mare, calls back, “You had best get used to it, my friends! Those who perform heroic deeds are given hero’s rewards, after all.”

Bilbo sighs and rubs his forehead. “I don’t want a hero’s reward, Gandalf. I want to go home to my husband, and sit down in my own chair in my own rooms, and have a good home-cooked meal – no offense to Primrose’s cooking meant – and sleep in my own bed. Hobbits are not meant for adventuring.”

Primrose, riding beside Kili at the back of the line, nods agreement. “We really aren’t. People keep calling me ‘Primrose Axe-Maid’ and I’m never sure who they’re talking about! And cooking over an open fire is nowhere near as pleasant as a proper kitchen would be. No, I’ll be glad to be home.” She grins over at Kili. “After all, we’ve a wedding to plan.”

Kili grins back at her. “So we do, my love.”

“Now there’s a pleasant thought,” Bilbo agrees, and spends the rest of the day’s ride in discussing flowers and food and decorations with his cousin and Dis. Gimli nudges his horse forward to ride with Legolas, rolling his eyes at the conversation behind them.

Chapter Text

A week’s easy ride up the Great West Road brings the Fellowship to Edoras, where Fengel of Rohan receives them joyfully. Messengers sent from Minas Tirith have brought him the tale of the Ring’s destruction, as well as warnings about orcish incursions, and he is more than happy to host the Fellowship for a night. The food is good, the company cheerful (though Bilbo drops his head into his hands as Fengel’s bard begins to sing The Lay of Bilbo Ring-bearer), and the whole Fellowship rejoices at the first opportunity to bathe since they left Minas Tirith.

Fengel sends them on their way with renewed provisions and promises of friendship, and the Fellowship continues peacefully towards the Gap of Rohan. Though they brought warnings of orcs, they have seen none so far. Dis speculates that they are hiding in the White Mountains, which are otherwise uninhabited.

“They will venture out eventually, of course,” she says consideringly, “but I think that because of their recent defeat and the death of their great master, they will hide for a while and rebuild their strength. That will give Rohan and Gondor more time to prepare, at any rate.”

Gilraen nods. “That seems a fair assessment,” she agrees. “Leaderless orcs are less dangerous in any case.”

As they near the Gap of Rohan, Gimli points off to the south, drawing Legolas’ attention. “One of the men of Rohan told me that there is a fortress in the mountains, called Helm’s Deep; and beneath it there are caves full of every sort of jewel. Perhaps when I am older I will return and see them; though of course a human’s judgment of caves might not be accurate.”

Legolas nods and gestures to the north. “I, too, would be glad to return to this area. There in the distance you may see Fangorn Forest. It is said that creatures older than anything but elves dwell there, wise guardians of the trees. It would be a great adventure to meet them, though perhaps not without danger. It is also said that some of them, enraged by the wanton destruction of their forest, have become deadly in its defense. Nevertheless, I would be glad to visit.”

Gimli considers for a while, then grins. “Mayhap some years from now, when I am old enough to set out on my own, we could go together, and see both the jeweled caverns and the guardians of the trees.”

Legolas grins back at him. “I have already promised to come and see your caves of Belegost, and now you will drag me into the White Mountains as well? You will make of me a dwarf; soon I shall start to grow a beard!”

Gimli laughs until he nearly falls off his pony.

Gandalf, at the front of the line, turns back and points ahead of them and to the north. “There – Isengard. Another day’s ride, or perhaps two, and we shall be there. I know not why my comrade has been silent these long years, but I have great hope that the destruction of the Ring will have drawn him from his contemplations.”

The door to Isengard stands open, to Gandalf’s evident dismay. Within the tower, dust lies on every surface, and there is the faint sweet scent of decay. The Fellowship draws together, Bilbo and Primrose and Kili in the middle, and Gandalf leads the way slowly through the halls and up the stairs. The whole tower is silent as a grave.

Finally, at the top of far too many stairs, they reach a closed door. Gandalf raps on it gingerly with his staff. There is no response; after a long tense moment, Gandalf tries the knob. The door opens with a screech of unused hinges.

Warily, they peer into the room. It is as dark and dusty as the rest of the tower, but at length Gandalf makes out a figure at the other end, hunched over a table on which rests a glass globe.

“Saruman?”

The figure straightens from its crouch and whirls to glare at them. Gandalf raises his staff, calling light into the room. In the sudden illumination, Saruman is revealed, dressed in rags of every color of the rainbow, his hair in rat’s tails down his back, and a strange, dangerous look in his eyes.

“I am Saruman of Many Colors!” he cries, voice cracking, and the Fellowship draw closer together behind Gandalf. Dis and Gimli draw their axes.

“Saruman of Many Colors?” Gandalf inquires, keeping his voice low and soothing. “That is a new title, old friend.”

Saruman laughs, a high terrible sound. “He promised!” he says triumphantly. “All the colors are mine, all the power; there will be no more of blue and green and grey and brown, but only Saruman of Many Colors!”

Gandalf looks suddenly very, very sad. “Who promised, old friend?” he whispers. “Who promised you such things?”

Saruman just cackles, twirling to show off his ragged clothing. “Oh, yes, he promised.”

Gandalf shakes his head, then draws himself up to his full height. “Saruman, Sauron is dead. The Ring is destroyed, and with it all of Sauron’s power.”

Saruman stops twirling. “Dead?” he demands furiously. “Dead? He promised! You lie!”

He pulls a dagger from under his ragged robes and lunges for Gandalf, who parries the unexpected attack with his staff, knocking Saruman away from the rest of the Fellowship. Saruman seems not to notice anyone but Gandalf; he lunges again and again, trying desperately to kill the other wizard. One of his strikes tears a long gash in Gandalf’s cloak, and beneath the grey fabric, white shines forth, clean and beautiful in the dark room.

Gandalf is purely on the defensive, unwilling to kill his old friend even with Saruman’s new madness, but at length, as they battle across the tower room, he knocks Saruman away one more time, and the crazed wizard stumbles backward into the low railing around the open balcony.

Gandalf has just time to leap forward, reaching out, and Saruman is falling. The rest of the Fellowship rushes forward to the edge of the balcony, and stares down at the crumpled figure of Saruman far below.

“He is dead,” Gandalf says solemnly. “His spirit has left Middle-Earth forever. Farewell, old friend.”

Chapter Text

After a long moment, Gandalf turns away from the balcony. Gilraen shakes her head and ushers the others from the grisly sight. It is Primrose who asks the questions they are all wondering: “But Gandalf, why did he say those things? What happened? And…and why are your clothes white? Aren’t you Gandalf the Grey?”

Gandalf crosses the room to the table where Saruman had been standing, and lifts the glass globe from its top. “In answer to your first questions: this is the palantir of Orthanc, and I suspect – though of course I do not know for certain – that he was in communication with Sauron, perhaps even at the moment the Ring was destroyed. Such a shock to mind and magic would be enough to drive him mad.” He tucks the palantir away in his robes somewhere, carefully. “The one in Minas Tirith is safe enough in its vault; but this palantir I will bring with me to Rivendell, and there perhaps its true owner will be pleased to receive it.”

Gilraen grimaces, but she nods. “That seems wise, yes.”

“Let us leave this dismal place,” Gandalf continues. “I would see my old friend buried, and then we shall be on our way.” He glances at Primrose. “When we are on the road again, I shall answer your other questions. Nothing like a hobbit for asking questions!”

They bury Saruman where he fell, and Bilbo and Kili, who are banned from exerting themselves on the principle that they are still recovering from their wounds, find a bit of planking and carve a small headstone: Saruman, Wizard of Isengard. They do not bother with asking for Gandalf for a birth-date; as far as anyone knows, the wizards weren’t so much born as created, or possibly embodied.

Once they are away, Isengard falling away behind them and Saruman’s pitiful grave long out of sight, Primrose urges her pony up beside Gandalf’s tall horse and gives him an expectant look. Gandalf smiles down at her. “Always curious, aren’t you, young hobbit?”

She nods, grinning. “It is the nature of hobbits to be curious about gossip,” she replies cheerfully. “You should know that.”

“Indeed I should. Well. When I…fell, with the Balrog, I died. Yes, lass, do not look so astonished; not even this form could have survived such a fall and such an enemy. Yet those who sent me here, so long ago, when I returned to them, informed me that it was not yet time for me to leave Middle-Earth; that, indeed, my absence would do great harm to the people I have watched over for so long. I was…sent back, I suppose you might say, my body repaired and my powers not simply restored but made greater.

“When I returned, I was garbed in white, and this confused me for some time, for Saruman has been the white wizard for many years. Yet now I see that in their wisdom, my…superiors saw that Saruman had been corrupted by the palantir and Sauron’s promises. Now that Saruman is gone from this world, and his power with him, there are only four of us left. Radagast has retreated into his forests and rarely emerges, and my brothers to the south I have not heard from in many years. As the grey wizard, I was…less able to access my powers. That has changed. Yet I…prefer my grey robes, and I will keep them until such time as I must reveal myself fully.”

Primrose nods, eyes wide. “I’m glad you came back,” she says; there is really nothing more that can be said.

Another hour’s ride brings them through the Gap of Rohan, and Bilbo looks north and east towards the Blue Mountains and Belegost, then shakes his head.

“We’ll go with you as far as Rivendell,” he informs Arwen and Gandalf. “I’d prefer to go straight home, but…well. I should like to ask Lord Elrond what he has heard of my husband’s health.”

Dis nods decisively. “We started together in Rivendell, and there we shall end our quest,” she declares. As they turn north towards the Swanfleet and the crossing at Elventown, she drops back to ride beside Bilbo. “Surely the Ring’s destruction restored my brother’s mind,” she murmurs for Bilbo’s ears alone. “He will be missing you.”

Bilbo shakes his head. “I…must know before I return. If the Ring corrupted him utterly – if he is still consumed by his madness – I must know.”

Dis nods and leans over to pat him gently on the shoulder. “Poor brother-in-law,” she says quietly. “Fili will give the throne over to you, if Thorin is still unwell.”

Bilbo shudders. “No,” he says adamantly. “If Thorin is still unwell, I will not take the throne. I never wanted to be Prince Consort, and though I do my duty and love Belegost, I could not do it without Thorin at my side. If Thorin is not recovered, I will declare Fili to be King – Mim will be a lovely Queen – and then…” He pauses, thinking, and sighs. “If Thorin cannot bear the sight of me, I will return to Bag End and live there.”

Dis winces. “My son does not want the throne so soon, nor in such a manner, but if it is your will, and Thorin still Ring-mad, he will take it.” She shakes herself. “Still, I am sure that Thorin has recovered. The Ring is gone, after all – we felt the shudder, we saw the mountain blaze. Denethor and Saruman both felt its loss. Thorin will remember how much he loves you, Bilbo. He will be waiting for you with open arms.”

“I hope so,” Bilbo says quietly. “I hope so indeed.”

*

Rivendell is, as ever, a place of such beauty and peace that it feels dreamlike. Lord Elrond welcomes them joyfully when they ride into the secluded vale. Estel is beside him, nearly vibrating with relief and joy when he sees his mother riding tall and proud at the head of the little party. The Fellowship is swiftly ushered to baths and their filthy clothing hustled off to the laundries, and Bilbo does not get a chance to speak privately with Elrond until after they have bathed and eaten and the others of the Fellowship have gone off to the immense luxury of real beds.

Bilbo finds Elrond out on a balcony, looking at the stars. “My friend!” Elrond greets him. “Your deeds will be remembered through the ages; and yet you look as though you still bear some great burden.”

“I do,” Bilbo replies. “My husband – have you word of him? Has he recovered?”

Elrond smiles, broad and joyous. “Only this week hence we received word from Belegost – Thorin son of Thrain knows his own mind again, free from all taint of the Ring, and waits anxiously for the return of his beloved husband.”

Bilbo sags with relief, clutching the railing about the balcony with both hands. “Thank the Valar,” he breathes. Then, slowly, he straightens and smiles at Elrond. “I regret we will not be enjoying your hospitality for long, old friend,” he says. “Tomorrow I will set out for Belegost. It has been far too long.”

Elrond grins and nods. “I have ordered the stables to have five ponies ready for you in the morning,” he informs Bilbo, who laughs aloud and takes his leave.

Chapter Text

Gandalf, Arwen, Gilraen, and Legolas see their companions off to Belegost in the morning. Legolas and Gimli pledge to write to each other regularly, and Gilraen promises to come and visit Belegost as soon as she can. Before Bilbo leaves, Gilraen pulls him off to one side and whispers something in his ear which makes his eyes go wide, but he refuses to say a word of it to Dis as they ride out of Rivendell. “It is not my secret to tell,” is all he will say, “and Gilraen may tell you herself when she comes to visit.”

When the dwarves and hobbits have passed from sight on the road west to Belegost, Elrond and Legolas and Arwen go off together so that Arwen can tell her father the tale of their quest, and Gandalf and Gilraen draw Estel off to a secluded room overlooking the forests around Rivendell.

Gandalf gestures for Gilraen to lead the conversation. She takes a deep breath and begins. “Estel, I have often told you that you have a high destiny; that that is why you are fostered with Lord Elrond, instead of raised among the Dunedain. It is time now that I tell you of who you truly are.”

“Am I not Estel of the Dunedain?”

“You are,” Gilraen agrees slowly. “And you are more. For at your birth your father named you Aragorn, son of Arathorn, of the line of Isildur, and true heir to the throne of Gondor.”

Estel’s jaw drops. “I am Isildur’s heir?”

“You are,” Gandalf confirms, and draws from within his robes a glass globe. “In token of which, I have brought with me from ancient Orthanc the palantir of old – a palantir of the kings of Gondor.”

Gilraen shoots Gandalf a short glare. “Which you may have when you come of age.”

Gandalf grins a little sheepishly. “It is his birthright, after all,” he murmurs, but he shrouds the palantir in his robes again.

Gilraen nods slowly. “Yes, it is. And there is a prophecy.”

Estel leans forward eagerly. “A prophecy? About me?”

“Yes,” Gilraen agrees, smiling at her son. “It was thought for some years that it was about your father, but he was death-marked from a young age, and it was not the proper time for Isildur’s heir to claim his throne. But now Isildur’s Bane is destroyed, and the last Steward of Gondor has no heir to father him. When you are old and wise enough, my son, you will be king of Gondor.”

“Tell me the prophecy?” Estel begs.

Gilraen takes a deep breath, closing her eyes to better remember. Gandalf recites the ancient words along with her.

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”*

Estel shakes his head wonderingly. “I don’t understand it.”

Gilraen laughs a little. “That’s fine, dear; prophesies are notoriously hard to understand. But Lord Elrond tells me that the last lines are clear enough: when you are ready to regain your throne, the shards of Narsil which were broken when Sauron was first overthrown will be re-forged, and you will go down into Gondor and reclaim your inheritance.”

Estel takes a deep breath and goes to the window, looking out over the trees for a long moment. Then he turns back and bows to his mother. “I will do my best to learn to be a good king,” he promises solemnly. “I will not make Isildur’s mistakes; I will rule Gondor as well as I am able. When I come of age, I will take up Narsil re-forged, and the palantir of Orthanc, and the name my father gave me, and I will go out into the world and restore honor to the line of Isildur.”

Gilraen goes over to her son and hugs him tightly. “I know you will. When you come of age, I will send to Bilbo and Thorin in Belegost, and ask them to foster you and teach you of ruling – for dwarves are more like Men than elves are, and Lord Elrond is not precisely a king.”

She ponders a moment further, and then nods. “There is one thing you should remember, when you go to Gondor to take up your crown; a promise I have made. If any should come to you and say they are the children of Findulias of Dol Amroth, wife of Denethor, I have promised that you will be good to them, as though they were your own siblings – for their mother’s sake, and because madness and prophecy are not so far apart as you might think.”

Estel looks confused, but he nods. “I will remember, and I will honor the children of Findulias of Dol Amroth – but come, you must tell me the whole story of your quest, and tell me of Minas Tirith and its white towers, for I am dying of curiosity!”

Gandalf laughs. “It is a wonderful trait of the young, curiosity,” he observes, and bows himself out of the room, leaving Gilraen to tell her son the whole long tale of their adventure.

By the time she is done, Estel is wide-eyed and awed. “That little hobbit took up an axe? It’s nearly as big as she is! And, and Mother, you killed the Lord of the Nazgul!

Gilraen grins at her incredulous son. “It wasn’t nearly as hard as you’d think – I swear the last time that creature had sword training must have been an Age ago. A ten-year-old Dunedain child could have defeated it.”

Estel shakes his head, laughing. “I will go out into the world as Aragorn, son of Arathorn,” he says finally, “but I shall take also the name ‘son of Gilraen,’ for my mother is as worthy a warrior as my father ever was, and I will be proud to claim your name and lineage.”

Gilraen laughs until she cries, and they sit there together looking over the trees until it is nearly dinnertime, while Gilraen tells her son tales of his father, and weeps for her dead husband and for the looming destiny of her son.

Chapter Text

Bilbo has never been as glad to see anything as he is to see the great doors of Belegost standing open before him. There is a crowd in the doorway – Fili and a heavily-pregnant Mim, Gloin and Niri with Gamli in her arms, Dwalin and Ori and as many of the dwarves and hobbits and dwobbits of the kingdom as can cram themselves into the hallway. The signal-towers across the Shire have clearly done their duty, and Belegost has been preparing to welcome its Prince Consort and his escort home again.

But Bilbo does not look at the crowd. He has eyes only for one person: Thorin. Thorin’s head is bare and his clothing is plain; he is obviously making it clear that Fili is still regent. Bilbo does not care. Thorin is well, is healthy, is standing in the sunlight waiting for him.

Dis gives the formal greetings to her son, and then she and Kili and Primrose are swallowed by the crowd, who clamor for tales of their adventures. Gimli is towed away by his parents, who cannot seem to decide whether to scold him or praise him for his courage. On any other day, Bilbo would intervene – would tell them how Gimli kept him safe through many dangers.

Today, Bilbo does no such thing. Today, Bilbo is wrapped in his husband’s arms, standing in the doorway to their kingdom, and the only thing that matters is that Thorin is kissing him, over and over, and murmuring between the kisses, “Beloved, husband, I am so sorry. Please, forgive me. Thank Mahal you have returned to me; I could not have borne it if you had died.”

Bilbo kisses back, runs his hands through Thorin’s hair and holds him close. “Of course I forgive you, you silly old dwarf. Of course I came back. I have missed you so much, husband. I’m so sorry I lied to you. I love you.”

Thorin draws back after long minutes and looks his husband over from head to toe. “Your braids are coming undone,” he observes finally. “You should…come to our bedroom so I can repair them.”

Bilbo laughs, a full-throated joyful sound that rings through the great entrance tunnel like a bell. “My dear Thorin, I should like nothing better,” he agrees, and Thorin picks his husband up in both arms and bears him off towards the bedroom triumphantly, Bilbo’s laughter echoing behind them.

When they reach their bedroom, high in the mountain, Bilbo notices the traces of brackets on either side of the door, where the bar kept it closed for so long, and he notices that the wardrobe is brand new and of a lighter wood than the original, and he notices that Thorin looks utterly ashamed of himself. So he says nothing about the door or the wardrobe, but pulls Thorin’s head down to kiss him again.

Thorin groans and deposits Bilbo gently on the bed, kneeling next to him. “I thought I’d lost you forever,” he says softly. “I thought surely you’d die in destroying that cursed thing. You would never have gone off on that quest if it weren’t for me; I thought I’d killed you, Bilbo.”

Bilbo sits up and wraps his arms around Thorin’s shoulders, and Thorin bends his head to bury his face in Bilbo’s hair and weeps. “I’m not dead,” Bilbo says quietly, voice muffled against Thorin’s chest. “I’m not dead, Thorin. I came back. I will always come back to you. I went on that horrid quest because I couldn’t bear the thought of you being corrupted by the Ring, but even if I had died,” and he pulls away and nudges Thorin’s chin up to look him in the eye, “even if I had died, Thorin son of Thrain, you would not have killed me. I made my choices, and I made them for my own reasons. I chose to marry you, and I chose to stay with you, and I chose to carry the Ring, and I chose to come back to you, my husband, because I love you. I will always come back to you. That is my choice.”

Thorin smiles, slowly. “Bilbo Baggins, I could not have found a better consort had all the peoples of Middle-Earth been lined up before me. Let me show you how much I love you?”

“Of course,” Bilbo agrees, and Thorin reaches out to strip Bilbo’s travel-stained clothing from him, piece by piece, throwing most of it over his shoulder towards the door. The mithril mail he places gently beside the bed, and the little sword which Bilbo has not taken off except to bathe in far too many months is placed atop the mail. At last Bilbo is bare before him, thinner and more scarred than when he left Belegost, but as beautiful as any gold or gems which Thorin has ever seen.

Thorin throws off his own clothing with much less ceremony, desperate to feel his hobbit’s body against his, and curls around Bilbo carefully, cradling him to his chest. Bilbo laughs against Thorin’s throat, and Thorin runs his hands as gently as he can over every inch of Bilbo’s skin, learning each new scar and contour of his husband’s body. He bends his head to nip gently at Bilbo’s ear, and Bilbo whines faintly – his ears have always been sensitive, and Thorin has never hesitated to take advantage of that.

When Bilbo is rocking his hips gently against Thorin’s, making soft pleading sounds in the back of his throat, Thorin turns him gently so that Bilbo’s back is against his chest, and fumbles blindly for the oil. Bilbo opens beneath his fingers slowly – it has been a long time, after all – but he pushes back against them eagerly enough, and Thorin is gentle, is patient. He has waited too long for this to ruin it with greedy haste.

“My hobbit,” he murmurs in Bilbo’s ear as he finally lines himself up and pushes slowly in. “My wonderful hobbit, stronger than iron, more precious than mithril. May Mahal strike me dead before I ever injure you again. I will protect you all my days; I will cherish you more strongly than all the treasure in Middle-Earth. My beloved husband.”

Bilbo arches back against him, crying out in pleasure. When he finds his voice again, he gasps out, “My dwarf. My king. My husband.” Thorin growls against the back of Bilbo’s neck. “I will always return to you,” Bilbo says clearly, and Thorin sets his teeth against Bilbo’s shoulder and comes shaking, curling around Bilbo as though to protect him from the world.

And when he has recovered his wits, he curls his hand around Bilbo and strokes just as Bilbo likes it until his hobbit falls apart in his arms, moaning in ecstasy.

They stay in bed for most of the day, curled around each other, talking in low voices of the last few months; and Thorin almost cannot bear to let go of his husband long enough for them to dress for dinner. Still, Bilbo insists, and at last they are presentable in polite company.

When Bilbo walks into the great hall that night beside Thorin, he is wearing a crown of metal flowers in his newly-braided hair.

Chapter Text

The wedding of the younger prince of Belegost is a nine-years wonder: a hobbit marrying into the line of Durin, and with elves as wedding guests! Thorin grumbles for some time about the guest list, but Kili and Bilbo both insist: Legolas was part of the Fellowship, and Lord Elrond has long been a friend to Belegost and the Shire, despite Thorin’s intransigence. In the end, the entire Fellowship attends the wedding, along with Lord Elrond and his twin sons, and of course the entire population of Belegost and most of the population of the Shire. There are Tooks in every corner and dwobbits eternally underfoot, and most of several acres is denuded for the floral arrangements, and Dis and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins very nearly duel twice, but in the end the wedding morning dawns bright and clear, with everything prepared, and all Bilbo has to do is coax his beloved, stubborn husband into being polite to elves for twelve hours.

Thankfully, Dis has had the good sense to seat Lord Elrond between herself and Fili, with Mim between Fili and Thorin – so Thorin can pretend not to see the elf lord, and Bilbo can sigh quietly to himself and watch Elladan and Elrohir make fools of themselves with the dwobbit children. Apparently elves are as susceptible to the appeal of dwobbits as everyone else is. Bilbo stifles a laugh at the sight of the twins being taught a hobbit jig by an imperious little dwobbit maiden, and turns his eyes to what’s being called the Fellowship table.

Legolas and Gimli are sitting side by side, chatting as companionably as you could wish; Gloin and Niri are watching wide-eyed as their elder son has a friendly conversation with an elf, but young Gamli, sitting in his brother’s lap, appears fascinated by Legolas’ long pale hair, and has several locks of it wound around one fist. Legolas has his head bent down so his hair won’t pull, and is putting up with the dwarfling’s curiosity with great good grace.

Arwen and Gilraen are deep in conversation with several hobbit matrons, Dori’s Peony among them, and the hobbits’ husbands are hovering at a safe distance away from the worrisome elf maiden, trying hard not to look too interested in the conversation, or too protective of their wives. Bilbo shakes his head and hopes the dancing after the feast will distract people from their worries.

Gandalf is smoking while he tells the story of their adventure to a small horde of dwobbits – and their parents, who are trying hard to look properly adult and not utterly fascinated by the story – and the smoke which emerges from his pipe forms itself into spiders and eagles, orcs and Nazgul, and the recognizable figures of each of the Fellowship. Estel sits near him, clearly delighted by the show. Bilbo watches as the smoke-Gilraen defies the smoke-Nazgul, brandishing her sword magnificently. Thorin, following Bilbo’s gaze, leans over to mutter, “I thought the wizard wasn’t there for that?”

“He wasn’t,” Bilbo agrees. “But Gilraen is a fine story-teller, and Kili was only too happy to put in the bits she left out.” The smoke-Gilraen defeats her foe and pulls off her helmet triumphantly. “Like that bit,” Bilbo says cheerfully. “Gilraen refuses to acknowledge she did anything that heroically stupid.”

When the meal is over – which takes a while, since hobbits never skimp on something so important as a wedding feast – Kili and Primrose and Thorin all stand and move to the front of the dais. Kili and Primrose kneel in front of Thorin, and the crowd hushes.

“People of Belegost and the Shire, and honored guests,” Thorin says, his voice ringing through the hall, “we gather here tonight to bear witness to the marriage of Kili, son of Dis, of the line of Durin, to Primrose Took, of Tuckborough in the Shire.” He smiles down at his younger nephew, a rare public display of his very real affection for his sister-sons. “Speak your vows and make your braids.”

Kili beams, and turns to Primrose. “I bind myself to you,” he says. Normally the vows would be in Khuzdul, but enough dwarf-hobbit marriages have happened that the Westron translation is acceptable too. “Let us be of one heart, and one breath, and one life, now until the stone takes us.”

“I bind myself to you,” Primrose replies solemnly. “Let us be of one heart, and one breath, and one life, now until the stone takes us.”

Then, in carefully rehearsed unison, they reach out, each to the left side of the other’s face – the heart side – and set the marriage braids into each others’ hair. Bilbo, watching, reaches up to touch the small braid behind his own left ear, the first braid Thorin ever gave him. It was tiny then, of course – Bilbo’s hair was only just barely long enough to braid at all – and Primrose, sensibly, has been growing her own hair out so that her marriage braid is long enough to be respectable.

Kili and Primrose finish braiding and link hands, standing to face the assembled multitudes. The dwarves send up a great cheer, a Khuzdul blessing for the bride and groom. (Thorin has always refused to translate it for Bilbo, which Bilbo assumes means it is positively obscene.) Bilbo has already told them the details of the Gwedhi Cuil spell, and the potion is waiting for them in Kili’s rooms. Dis has high hopes for dwobbit grandchildren in the next few years.

With the ceremony over, the dancing can begin, and Bilbo, still a little shaky from the spider’s venom even after nearly two months of healing, opts to sit quietly in Thorin’s lap – Thorin does not even bother objecting when Bilbo snuggles against him, but loops his arms around his husband and tucks him more firmly against his chest – and watch as dwarves and hobbits and elves and even two Men dance and sing and drink and laugh together, as Gandalf lets loose tiny indoor fireworks which delight the children, as Kili and Primrose, glowing with happiness, twirl each other around in the center of the dance floor. Fili and Mim dance sedately, with great respect for Mim’s late-stage pregnancy, near the newlyweds. Estel shyly invites Dis to dance, and Dis accepts with pleasure, choosing to teach the young man a traditional dwarvish step instead of attempting hobbit jigs.

Bilbo leans back against his husband and sighs contentedly. Tomorrow, they will officially re-take their thrones, King and Prince Consort of Belegost once more. Tomorrow, Bilbo will begin again the endless round of complaints and petitions and treaty negotiations which is the lot of a ruler of any kingdom, much less one whose people love contracts as much as dwarves do. Tomorrow the miners will lay their tithes at his feet, and he will stumble to find the right words to thank them, as he has so many times before. Tomorrow, he will trade the wreath of metal flowers which Thorin made for the thin gold circlet of the Prince Consort, and sit again in judgment beside his King.

He tilts his head back to look up at Thorin, and smiles. “I am glad I came back,” he says, and Thorin looks down at him and smiles broad and beautiful.

“As am I, beloved,” Thorin agrees. “As am I. Belegost is not a home without you.”

Bilbo grins. “Husband mine,” he says contentedly, “my home is where you are, now and forever; and I will always return.”

Thorin kisses Bilbo, one hand tangling in Bilbo’s braided hair, and Bilbo kisses back, as happy as a hobbit can be, because he is, after so long a journey, finally home.