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I Heard That Clan's All Trouble

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Kili was woken by his brother; Fili was woken by Thorin; Thorin had been woken by Dis – and Dis had been awake already, sitting alone on the porch smoking her pipe, thinking about the sinking crescent moon, tomorrow's chores and her dead husband. She saw them coming, angry men with their lamps, their kitchen knives and their rumours – the cursed dwarves, it was all the fault of the cursed dwarves who lived up the valley.

She told her half-dressed brother to take her sons and run while she tried to talk the mob down. She was a woman, and she made good chains for their wives. She knew all their names. They’d stop for her. They'd listen to her.

It was the last time she and Thorin spoke to each other.

 

The house was a single level with a slope-roofed attic where the children slept on pallets. Thorin woke Fili and went to the window while the boys were pulling their boots on. Dis stood in the yard with her pipe still in hand. He couldn't hear what she was saying. Her shadow was long in the light of their lamps, like a widow's train, like a princess in mourning.

They shot an arrow through her throat while he looked away. He turned back and she had dropped her pipe, holding her hand to the shaft. It had cut deep into her, through the voice that sung with Thorin on long journeys, through the breath that he'd listened to in every state of dignity and exhaustion, in tranquil sleep or in labour with children or heaving with grief. They put an arrow through it all and cut it short.

Thorin's own breath died as he watched her sit down clumsily on the grass, still holding her throat. He heard Fili ask, "What's the matter?" and he had to turn away.

"Forget your bags, forget it! Leave that, Kili, just go downstairs, hurry!"

He grabbed Kili’s coat and followed them down as the first burning brand was thrown through the window. The sound of the shattering glass was like a scream. It lit the curtains up as it passed through, and the rug where the torch had landed began to smoke.

“Where’s Ma?” Kili wailed, cowering away from the flame. He had never liked fire, as if the memory of the burning mountain had been passed down to him in his blood.

Thorin pushed his coat into his hands. “Your mother is dead.”

There was no time for anything kinder. There came a crash as the second brand went through the attic window. Thorin seized the axe and shield that hung above the hearth and led them to the back door, jerking his head towards Fili.

“Open it.”

“Where is she?” Fili asked, his face white, his hands fumbling to draw back the bolt. “Who’s out there?”

“Open it!”

Fili threw the door open and Thorin burst out into the night, putting the axe in the chest of the man waiting outside to catch them. He wrenched the blade up with a wet crunch as the man fell back, gasping, and the second one stumbled away with a cry. He had an old sword in his hand, but he was no warrior. Thorin was still standing halfway down the steps and with one swing he took the head off the second man’s shoulders.

“Move! Move! The stable!”

To the credit of them or their breeding, his nephews didn’t freeze. They ran for the shabby lean-to where their single pony sheltered. She had been woken by the sound of men and the smell of smoke and was pressing against her gate. Fili vaulted over the fence to grab her saddle from the back of the shed while Kili struggled with the tortured dwarven knot on the gate. Thorin shoved him out of the way and split the knot with a sweep of the axe. Fili had thrown the saddle onto the pony’s back and somehow got the buckle closed in the next moment.

“Get on,” Thorin barked, looking over his shoulder at the burning house.

“But her bridle—”

“Give it to me,” Thorin gripped the pony’s mane to keep her from bolting. The white of her eyes flashed in the darkness.

Kili climbed the fence and swung his leg over her back. He held out his hand to haul his brother up in front of him. Fili was still dressed in his nightgown, and Kili had only one arm in his coat. As gently as he could Thorin tugged the poor beast out into the yard, turning her towards the thin path that led into the forest.

“What about you?” Fili asked, hugging his brother’s arms as they wrapped around his waist. His wide eyes glinted gold against the fire. “Thorin?”

“I’ll slow them down,” Thorin growled, trying to fasten the bridle on the unhappy pony. “Run as fast and far as you can – hide yourselves – hide your names, and my name too,” he looked up at them. Fili had forgotten to take the day’s braids out again, and they hung tangled and loose around his ears. Kili was trying to wipe his eyes on his brother’s shirt to hide his tears. Thorin wished he’d had more years with them, when only yesterday he’d declared Kili’s swordsmanship a disaster, when Fili still didn’t see that once upon a time kingship had been more about diplomacy than winning battles. But then again, if he’d had a few more years they might not have done what their uncle told them, they might have stood fast and raised axes beside him to avenge their mother, and that was not how he wanted their end.

“Don’t forget your lessons,” he said, and stepped away, slapping the pony’s flank as hard as he could.

“Thorin! Thorin!” Kili’s voice hung in the air beneath the thud of the pony’s hooves. Thorin wrapped his hands around the axe and shield and turned back towards the burning house.

Since Azanulbizar, whispers had followed him of the cursed line of Thror. When they had thrown his sister down in the street and cut her beard it had been too much, and he and Dis had left Ered Luin for good. The Stonefoot nomads they met didn’t shy away when they learned their story. For a while they felt safe, with Dis in love, with the two babes that came tumbling and tugging on love’s heels, but as the days turned sour, the blame for all bad luck was placed on their doorstep. It was like an animal that hunted them as far as they ran. The nomads had named them witches, and worse – called Dis a temptress and the boys Thorin’s bastards, even though any fool could see their father in Kili’s eyes and Fili’s hair. And then they had murdered Vili, their own kinsman, when he tried to defend his wife’s honour. The family had fled yet again, and this time Thorin had truly believed that staying far from all dwarves and living only near humans would be enough. For more than a decade it had – but then the doctor’s wife had three stillbirths in as many years, each monstrously deformed, and somehow the story of the curse had spread, and swelled, and finally broken.

Perhaps the taunts were true. Perhaps their blood carried ill fortune with it. Perhaps his grandfather really had, in his youth, made a pact with some evil force in return for the wealth of Erebor.

Perhaps it was finally time for the curse to claim him. But by Durin, he would meet it head-on. The dogs would not see him run.

As he emerged from behind the house, the shouting crowd hushed for a moment. There were two dozen men and boys, including the doctor, who stood at the front of the mob with his collar open and a torch in his hand. Dis lay where she had fallen. There was no twitch of lingering life. Thorin couldn’t see the archer in the crowd.

He flexed his fingers around the handle of the axe.

“You want to kill dwarves?” he roared, striding towards them. “You think dwarves die easy?”

The arrow thudded into his shield, hard enough to send a shock down his arm, but his pace didn’t falter. He was upon them before they could loose a second one. If he could have, he would have killed every one of them in his sister’s name, but he was just one dwarf and the blind rage of the mob made them strong.

Above them, the fire continued to spread.

 

---

 

Bilba Baggins lived at Bag End, but then again, it would be as accurate to say that Bag End lived around Bilba Baggins. She had been born there in the spare room on a Tuesday, and had lived her entire forty years of life in and out of its halls. Since her parents had passed she was quite alone there, with few visitors and fewer friends, but the Baggins family had always been well-respected and Bilba's solid and reliable presence was considered a good omen that the world was precisely as it should be. Bilba herself was very content, alone in her warm warren at the top of the hill, and she expected to stay content and alone for as long as she lived, which she hoped would be quite a long time.

This morning she sat in her garden smoking a long pipe that reached almost down to her hairy toes, when an old man in a long, grey robe came up the path and stood at the gate watching her.

She took her pipe from her mouth and nodded at him. “Good morning.”

They had a conversation, the particulars of which you have probably heard before, and the longer it went on the less Bilba liked this man. He had a very forward manner, and she could tell he was thinking many things he wasn’t saying. That might have been good manners in any other situation but on this day it struck her as very suspicious, even when she learned his name – Gandalf the wandering wizard, whom she remembered from her childhood.

“Hmmf,” the man said at last. “Yes, I think you have forgotten your Tookishness quite convincingly, Bilba Baggins, or hidden it away very deep. But nonetheless, somebody must lend a hand, and I think you’re one of the few who won’t crumble at the sight of them.”

“At the sight of who?” Bilba asked.

“All in good time,” Gandalf answered.

“Look here,” Bilba jumped up. Her pipe had gone out completely, and she waved it at Gandalf. “Since you're now bringing my mother into it... well! If won’t say what you mean I think I’m rather done with you. Good morning!”

With that she stomped up the path and went inside, shutting the door behind her.

That very evening, with a light rain pattering on the window, Bilba sat down to an early tea when the doorbell rung. She frowned to herself, her knife and fork raised, and then put them down and went to see who it was. She did not know who to expect, but that didn't worry her, since nothing unexpected usually happened in those parts.

She opened the door to find too young people on the door. She thought people, because it took her a moment to realise they were dwarves, as they were both beardless and dressed quite plainly. In fact, under a too-large cloak, one of them appeared to be clad in a filthy nightgown tucked into his breeches. Their hair was long and neatly braided, however, and they were far too stocky to be human children, so their dwarvishness soon became clear to her.

“Um,” Bilba looked from their earnest faces to their muddy boots. “Good evening.”

“Hello,” said the golden-haired one, who was slightly taller. “My name is Dwalin, and this is my brother Balin. At your service,” and they both bowed in perfect synchronicity. Bilba shook herself as they straightened up.

“Er,” after a moment, the younger Balin cocked his head. “He said there’d be food?”

“Yes. Of course. Where are my manners?” Bilba stammered, stepping back from the threshold and ushering them inside. It was raining out there, after all. As she looked out into the night for any more odd visitors, a shadow hurried off the wet road and took the shape of a tall man sheltering beneath his pointed hat.

“Gandalf,” Bilba sighed. “I should have known.”

“And a lovely evening it is, too. I see our friends are just in time,” Gandalf smiled at her and he strode inside without so much as a by-your-leave.

“Our friends,” Bilba echoed faintly, watching Gandalf sweeping through towards her kitchen. There were muddy footprints all over her rug, and two cloaks hanging on her wall, dripping all over the floor. Gandalf’s hat had joined them, though it was remarkably dry. She shut the door tight, shook her head and hurried to follow them.

Dwalin was sitting at the kitchen table in front of her dinner. Balin was hanging off the doorframe, looking into the hall to cry, “Oh, look at this place! It’s like the stories of Ered Luin!”

“Balin,” his brother said sharply. “Sit down.”

“Sorry!” the younger dwarf looked over at Bilba, and gave a little bob like a bird trying to bow. He sat down at the end of the table, drumming his fingers on the wood, and then jumped up again. “Do you want me to come and help?”

“Pardon?” Bilba asked.

“With the food, Bilba, my dear,” Gandalf said, folding his hands in front of his waist. “Come along, I’ll carry the barrel if you have any ginger beer.”

“I can carry the barrel fine on my own, thank you,” Bilba said firmly, and then wished she hadn’t, because it was an unopened cask from over the water and she’d been saving it for a special occasion.

In the end half her pantry was pillaged for the meal. Bilba told herself it was only politeness to keep offering food until they couldn't eat another bite, for guests are guests no matter how much mud they trek inside, but it wasn’t just that – there was a hollow set to young Balin’s cheeks, and shadows under his eyes that Bilba did not like the look of. Gandalf did most of the talking as they ate, telling stories of elves and ancient journeys of dwarves long gone. Bilba listened as rapt as the two brothers, for she loved stories of places far away, and Gandalf wove his tales well. The old wizard kept talking even once the food was eaten, the table cleared and the tea stewed and poured and drunk. Bilba was so captivated she did not notice the dwarves were missing until they had been away for some time.

She raised her chin from her hands and gave a short cry. “Oh! Have they gone? They didn’t even say goodbye.”

“They’re in the parlour, my dear,” Gandalf chuckled. “They’ve done the dishes and put everything away.”

Indeed, now that she listened, she could hear the dwarves’ low voices in the next room.

“Well,” Bilba settled down again. “I suppose I should offer them a pipe before they leave.”

Gandalf’s bushy eyebrows contracted as he leaned forward. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Miss Baggins.”

Bilba raised her head sharply, catching his intentions before he could voice them. “No,” she lifted her index finger to Gandalf’s face. “No. I’ve no idea why you decided to invite yourself and your friends in for the evening, Gandalf, and I don’t mean any disrespect on the evening itself, but my home is not some crossroads inn with its doors always open.”

“Bilba, I have nowhere else to put them,” Gandalf cut her short in a low voice. “Those aren’t their real names, you know. Dwalin and Balin. I’m sure of it.”

Bilba’s mouth dropped open and she glanced nervously through the arch into the parlour. “What do you mean?” she hissed. “What are their names, then?”

“I don’t know,” Gandalf whispered. “I don’t know where they came from.”

“Gandalf, for heavens’ sake!” Bilba gaped at him. “They might be… criminals! Cutthroats!”

“I have seen no evidence to suggest that whatsoever,” Gandalf jabbed his pipe at her and then settled down again. “I found them living in the ruins of Deadman’s Dike north of Bree, with nothing but their clothes and a single knife. They were starving; they had even eaten their pony. They said only that their family had been murdered, and even that took a while to get out of them. Some terrible history stalks their footsteps, Bilba, and haunts their thoughts. They are quite afraid of other dwarves, and men too – they would not even think of going near Bree when I tried to take them there.”

“Afraid of dwarves?” Bilba leaned in, her eyes widening. “Why?”

“There’s no war between the tribes right now, not to my knowledge,” Gandalf shook his head. “This is something smaller and crueler, I think. They must have kin somewhere, and I intend to find out, but I cannot go far or fast with those two dragging on my sleeves and refusing to even speak of the idea,” Gandalf let out a long breath and put his large hand over both of Bilba’s, folded on the table. “My good Baggins, they are too young to be motherless.”

Bilba wasn’t sure if he said this as a comment on the tragedy, or if he meant it quite practically, like puppies that still needed nursing. Either way, she did not like the sound of it.

“I am not their mother, Gandalf!” she snapped, pulling her hands away.

“I know that,” the wizard said quickly. “But just for a few days, would you…?”

Bilba leaned back, digging one hand into her curls. She glanced again into the parlour. The hearth was burning merrily, and she could see two shadows spilling across the floor. She looked up into Gandalf’s kindly, old eyes. “Very well,” she grumbled. “But only a few days.”

 

The next morning she awoke in her own bed with the sound of the rain still hemming in Bag End. She sat up with the horrible feeling that she’d forgotten something, but dismissed it until she was dressed and washing her face. Then she heard voices outside in the hall. For a moment she was quite alarmed, but then she remembered her guests. She took a breath and opened her door.

“Good morning,” she said with as much cheer as good manners required. The two dwarves froze where they had been scurrying past. She could see from their faces that it was not a good morning after all, and she asked, “What’s the matter?”

“Gandalf isn’t here,” Balin mumbled. He had no braids in his dark hair this morning, and it trailed around his face like the mane of a wild animal.

Bilba raised her hands. “I expect he has some pressing wizard business to attend. He’s left you here for a few days, at least.”

“Has he?” Dwalin glanced at his brother. She could see this was news to both of them, and neither looked any happier than she was about the arrangement. She was already beginning to regret falling for Gandalf’s story of woe. She didn’t really want to think about what the wizard might be up to, or what lies she might have believed, so she decided to change the topic of conversation. She glanced the two dwarves up and down. “Did you sleep in those clothes?”

Dwalin winced. “Uh, not exactly. But we haven’t any others, if that’s what you mean.”

“I see,” Bilba did not really want to think about that either, but she beckoned. “Come along, then. I expect something of my father’s will fit. To borrow, mind you. And you’re both to spend a good while getting acquainted with the soap and tub first, if you will.”

They followed her diligently into the guest room, which had been her bedroom as a child but was now mostly storage. She picked them out two rough shirts, trousers and two blue coats, one hemmed in yellow and one in grey, that looked as dwarvish as her father’s wardrobe had ever stretched. They muttered their thanks, and Bilba saw from their wide eyes that they had actually been struck quite speechless by the clothes, which they were fingering and holding to the grey light that the clouds let through the window. She left them to have their bath before their breakfast, and (feeling a little more generous than she had when she’d woken up) even tried to take their orders. This turned out to be a mistake, as the two dwarves could not decide what they wanted until Bilba had listed all the options twice, and even then they insisted they only needed a little toast and honey. This was hardly breakfast at all in Bilba’s view.

“No wonder they’re starving,” she said to herself as she urged the coals to life. “Perhaps they’ve never had a proper meal in their lives. Motherless indeed! I don’t think Gandalf knows the half of it!”

The dwarves emerged from the bathroom with clean, pink cheeks, their chests straining inside their hobbit-shaped clothes and their hair tied back into a thick braid each.

“Hmm,” Bilba folded down Dwalin’s collar. “A bit snug, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid so,” Dwalin smiled. It seemed to Bilba the first real smile she’d seen out of him, and she liked it immensely. “My brother’s coat’s even worse, and he’ll probably have grown out of it by dinner-time!”

Bilba gave a shudder and stepped back. “Do you mean to tell me you’re still growing?” she gaped at Balin. They were both already as tall as her, and much broader in the shoulders than any hobbit. She had thought that when Gandalf had said ‘young’, he had merely meant youthful.

“Oh, yes,” Dwalin frowned, glancing at his brother. “Only a few more years for me, but Mama says this little poplar is going to be taller than—” he cut himself short, his mouth moving soundlessly for a moment. Balin balled his fist and chewed on his knuckle, not meeting Bilba’s eye.

“I’m sure a mother knows these things,” Bilba said cautiously. “Well, come and have your breakfast if you can fit any more into those shirts.”

As they followed her through into the kitchen, she heard Balin hiss to his big brother, “Do you mean that’s as big as she’s ever going to be?”

 

It was a very strange morning indeed, and more than a little frustrating for Bilba. The dwarves swung between quiet and careful in their speech to loud and chattering as they forgot their troubles and wanted to share some joke or memory. She began to see what she had missed the night before, when Gandalf had dominated the party; that they really were only children, and not as patient and shy as the children she usually let into her house (which were only the best-behaved offspring among her many cousins.) There were times Bilba could not get a word in edgeways, and then suddenly the dwarves seemed to remember she was there and they would go quiet and ask her politely for more toast or about her thoughts on the matter of this or that. They asked her permission before they did anything in fact. It was rather tiring to be the centre of attention every time one of them wanted to leave the room or open a window to see if the rain had stopped.

By the afternoon Bilba was exhausted and couldn’t stand another moment with her guests. She left them in the library, with strict instructions not to bend any spines or fold down a single page, took a large hat and a basket and hurried off down the hill on the pretense of needing milk and vegetables. She spent the rest of the afternoon walking her favourite trail through the nearby farms. The sun had come out now and the air was full of bees and the good smells of spring. Without meaning to, she began to plan out the best walks she could suggest to the dwarves, the most beautiful spots to visit along the river and where to climb to get a view of the sunset. She told herself it was just so she could get them out of the house as often as possible until Gandalf came back.

The next few days were a world of change for Bilba. Hobbits are never sparing eaters, and she had an appetite to match the best of them, but the growing dwarves seemed to consume everything she could throw at them. They insisted on helping out by cooking wherever possible, breakfast, lunch, tea and everything in between. The trouble was that their cooking skills would not measure up to even the laziest hobbit-husband, so most of the time Bilba ended up standing over them telling them what to do, and everything took twice as long as if she’d done it herself. The brothers also made a valiant attempt to be helpful at every opportunity, taking it upon themselves to repair the stone wall at the bottom of Bilba’s garden, repaint her door while she was out and fix several loose handles on her pots and utensils. They even disappeared one afternoon and turned up carrying three plump rabbits from the local woods. Bilba tried not to tear her hair out as she explained that those woods belonged to old Isumbras Took and his wife, and poaching was a seriously impolite way to greet your neighbours.

“It’s alright, it’s alright,” she said quickly, patting Balin’s arms when he hung his head with a sniff. “I’ll pay them back sometime. And these will make a delicious dinner, they will.”

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate it,” she explained the next day, when she came home to find all the silverware in the house had been polished. “It’s that this is my house and I take pride in maintaining it all on my own. I look forward to fixing it up and keeping it shining. I just don’t like other people looking after me!”

“We’re sorry,” Dwalin mumbled, looking at his feet.

“We’re really sorry,” Balin nodded.

Bilba sighed and pinched her nose. “You aren’t my servants, lads,” she said, with a little more patience. “You’re my guests. You mustn’t try and pay your board, alright?”

 

For a full fortnight this went on, and despite Bilba’s prompting, the dwarves barely left Bag End. This meant Bilba spent as much time as possible away from it, even though she could tell rumours about her guests were already spreading. On the fifteen day since they had arrived, she was walking home along the main road when the waiter from the Green Dragon came puffing up the road behind her, calling for her.

“Miss Baggins! Wait – Miss Baggins!”

Bilba turned and leaned on that Heathertoes’ fence until he had caught up with her.

“I’ve been trying to catch you for a couple of days, love,” he gasped, holding out something white and triangular like a napkin. “This came with a spice shipment from Bree.”

Bilba took the paper from his fingers and unfolded it, squinting at the spidery letters which crawled across it. They were unfamiliar, but the name printed at the bottom was not. It was from Gandalf.

“Thank you, sir,” she nodded, hoping he took the hint and left her to examine it in peace. Thankfully, he did, and in the fading afternoon light, she read the letter with a racing heart. It was dated three days earlier.

Miss Bilba, it said. I know you expected me before now, and for that I apologise. I hope your guests are not causing you too much trouble, because I cannot relieve you of them yet. I believe I have found the town where their parents died, but no one there would answer my questions nor even acknowledge more than the inkling that a family of dwarves used to live up the valley. Furthermore, none of the dwarves I have spoken to on my search say any of their kin went missing or were murdered these past months. It is as if they are a bitter secret to all who knew them. I will keep searching, but other business has diverted my attention for now. However, there is a trade caravan of dwarves returning to the Blue Mountains via the East-West road this May and they will stop in Bree sometime between the twelfth and the sixteenth. If our young ones are under assumed names, I see no reason they cannot join the caravan and go to Ered Luin. The dwarves there would welcome any children who needed aid, I am sure of it. If you will help them, you would certainly have my gratitude, and no doubt theirs as well. Yours in friendship, Gandalf.

The letter was signed with a rune after the name. Bilba read it over twice, then folded it up and pressed it between her hands.

“Bother and break it all,” she cursed, resisting the urge to screw up the letter and hurl it into the Heathertoes’ blackberries. She did not know how Gandalf expected her to convince the boys to join a party of strange dwarves, but she knew it would not be easy. Even the mention of their own kind set the brothers on edge and made them nervous for hours.

She returned to Bag End slowly, stopping once to read through Gandalf’s letter again. Balin was outside for once, sitting on the grassy roof of Bag End peeling apples in a bowl. He waved at Bilba with his wide, warm smile, and she raised her hand in return as she came through the gate. The seed of an idea was already sending out roots in her mind, and she had the strong suspicion that Gandalf had meant to plant it, with his ‘our young ones’.

At dinner, she watched Dwalin mimicking the way she held her knife and fork, and then pretending that he wasn’t when she looked over at him. Balin’s apples had been transformed into a rather splendid, heavy cake filled with stewed fruit for dessert, from which he gave the first slice to Bilba.

“This is wonderful,” she said, after two bites. “It’s not from my recipe books, is it?”

“Our mother would make it, when there was money for sugar,” Balin's eyes crinkled as he smiled, sitting down with a plate of his own.

Bilba ate the rest of her cake in silence. When she was done she put her fork down in the centre of her plate and entwined her fingers on the table. Dwalin had already finished his piece and was cutting himself a second.

“I want to ask you both something,” Bilba said, and at once she had two pairs of eyes staring at her and two pairs of hands folded and frozen on the edge of the table. Bilba sighed. “It’s alright. I just want to know. What are your real names?”

Balin let out a little gasp and ducked his head, his dark fringe hanging over his eyes. Dwalin didn’t blink, but his hands gripped each other a little tighter. After a long silence, he said, “Fili. My name is Fili.”

He looked at his brother. Neither of them spoke for a moment, but Fili gave a tiny nod. Balin raised his eyes to meet Bilba’s. “Kili,” he whispered.

“Fili and Gili,” Bilba repeated.

“No, Kili,” Fili gave a snort, his smile returning. “Kee, like the thing for a door.”

“Oh, yes, yes,” Bilba waved her hand. “Not a bad name. I think I had a grand-aunt named Killian, you know,” Fili sniggered at that, and Kili gave a small smile at last. “But for goodness’ sake, why would you hide it?”

The smiles disappeared as quick as smoke up a chimney. Kili sunk behind his fringe again. Bilba pushed her plate aside, laying her hands flat on the table. “I’m not going to go running around shouting it to the hills,” she said firmly. “Whatever happened, I will keep your secret and I won’t think any less of you. But there must be more to your mother than good cake. I want to know who she was. I want to know why you’re afraid of other dwarves. I need to know.”

“She was a princess,” said Fili suddenly.

His brother tugged at his sleeve. “Fili, we mustn’t…”

“Someone should know!” Fili cried, turning towards him. He grabbed his brother’s hand and squeezed it. “It shouldn’t be a secret. Everyone should know what those swine did to them,” he looked up at Bilba. “And I don’t want Bilba to suffer because of us.”

“I only suffer your cooking,” Bilba said at once, and at the look in his eye, she winced. “I’m sorry. Tell me.”

Fili took a shuddering breath. “My mother’s family is cursed. They say it was our great-grandfather’s fault, because of his greed and madness. They lost everything, and were driven out by the dwarves before I was born. Our mother married a nomad of the Kidhuzaz, a branch of the Stonefoots far to the east, and we were raised among them, with her brother. But there was a famine, and the Kidhuzaz blamed us. Our father defended us and some of the young men came in the night and killed him, and then told everyone our uncle had done it. No one believed them, but the nomads cast us out after that. I remember it. Kili remembers it,” he looked at his brother, their hands both clutching together so tight now their knuckles were white. Fili cleared his throat and went on. “We travelled around the top of the Misty Mountains and came back into the Westward lands, but my mother and uncle knew dwarves weren’t safe. We lived among humans after that. We worked hard, even Kili and I helped, running a forge in a village. But we couldn't avoid other dwarves passing through on occasion. In the end, one of them recognised my uncle and told the village about the curse. They said bad things would come, and they did – children born dead, cows going dry, floods in the fields. The villagers must have decided it was too much,” he voice was a rasp now. “They burned down our house. Killed Mama. This time we didn’t even see it coming. Uncle made us run away, and he stayed to face the mob. Maybe he thought...” Fili looked down at his hands, “Maybe he thought the curse would die with him.”

It took all Bilba’s strength to keep her hands flat, to not cover her mouth or turn away. She looked at Kili and found his dark eyes gazing at her. He whispered, “I don’t want you to get hurt too, Bilba. I don’t want the curse to get you.”

“It won’t,” Bilba said sharply. She reached across and laid her hand on his wrist, just below where Fili’s hand clung tight. “There are no curses in the Shire, my boy, except what I mutter when I drop fresh eggs, yes? And Bag End will stand solid and secure long after I have gone grey and bitter.”

Kili nodded, but his face was grim.

"There's more to tell," Bilba said heavily. "I received a letter from Gandalf today. I don't think we will see him any time soon, but he's asked me to help you travel to the Blue Mountains and find a home there. A moment, listen for a moment," Bilba raised her hands quickly as both brothers began to protest. "My not insubstantial gut tells me it would be better for you among your own kind. I would not like to think how oddly a hobbit child raised among dwarves might turn out! But I give you another choice despite that, because I would still hope the dwarves would never turn away a lost hobbit. You may stay here with me, at Bag End, if that is preferable."

There; it was said and done. She couldn't back at now. Nor could she hang her offer with warnings and limitations – it would not do for the boys to feel constantly in her debt, never more than guests at her whim to be thrown out at the first disagreement. It had to be all or nothing.

The dwarves looked at each other. Kili's face was almost grey with fear, and Fili's mouth had turned down severely. He glanced at Bilba and asked cautiously, "For how long?"

Bilba shrugged. "How long do dwarves live?"

Kili made a small noise in the back of his throat and leapt up, hurrying around the table and throwing his arms around Bilba's neck before she could even brace herself, nearly bowling her right over. "Thank you," he sobbed, and before she had recovered from that, Fili had wrapped them both up as well, nearly crushing the breath out of the poor hobbit. They clung to her as tight as drowning men to a sturdy branch. Bilba had not been held so tight since she was a child herself, and she had forgotten warmth of another body entwined with hers.

"Alright, alright," Bilba grumbled. "Don't you even want to talk it over with each other?"

"We don't need to," Fili peeled himself off and straddled the bench beside her. "We've been talking about it all week. We just didn't have any idea how to ask you."

"Hmph. Of course you have," Bilba rolled her eyes.

 


It would be nice to think that among the inhabitants of the Shire, Bilba gained an extra note of reverence for taking in the lost dwarves, but that would be very optimistic thinking indeed. Her reputation suffered not a little damage, though most of her good friends and cousins put it down to some queer mothering instinct coming over her. 'Such a thing happens to unmarried women quite often,' they said. 'We never really expected Bilba to be different. We just thought it would be a small dog instead of dwarves.' Bilba got sick of trying to refute this nonsense and simply had to bear it with her chin up.

She had plenty to occupy her. The long, easy days of being a wealthy, lonesome hobbit were gone. Bag End was now full of noise, and often mess, and regularly empty of food. The spare room off the front hall became the dwarves’ permanent abode, and though they kept it generally tidy when Bilba reminded them to, it always smelled rather earthy and unclean. The brothers soon grew too large to wear anything that had fitted Bungo Baggins even in his later, more rotund years, and Bilba organised several visits from the best tailor in the Shire to equip her charges with full wardrobes. She might have lost her reputation as a sensible woman, but she was not going to be known as a bad dresser. Their boots could not be replaced, but the dwarves began to go barefoot like hobbits, venturing further and further from Bag End as they slowly explored their new home. They were usually back for dinner, though, and took their fair share of the cooking, at which they were slowly improving.

It was not always good manners and easy living. They bickered with each other very often, fighting over food or some perceived insult as brothers were wont to do. Bilba tried not to scold them. She wasn’t anybody’s mother, after all. But she felt compelled to steer them away from their dwarvish stubbornness and quick tempers.

“Be kind to an old woman,” she sighed, after their wrestling in the hall had knocked over a hat stand, popped three buttons on Fili’s vest and left scuffs all over the skirting. She’d retired to the parlour to massage the headache out of her temples. “I’m worried you’ll hurt each other.”

“You’re not old,” Kili countered. “You’re young enough to be our sister.”

“I’m old at heart,” Bilba complained. “And don’t cheek me!”

As time went by, Bilba found that soon she could not remember what it had been like to live quietly and alone. Sometimes she had the house to herself, and could sit and read without hearing the earth-shuddering thump of dwarves running up and down her halls or the bray of Kili's laughter from outside in the garden – but she found herself restless on those days, ears pricking up at the slightest squeak of the gate. She planned rigorous lessons in etiquette, agriculture and genealogy for her wards – all things they would have learned by now if they were young hobbit lads. They absorbed the lessons with few complaints, but Bilba could tell they had little interest in understanding the seasons and finding the perfect gifts for in-laws. In turn they wanted to teach Bilba their own skills, mostly in smithing and weapons handling, though Bilba refused outright to buy real weapons for them.

"I'm not having great bloody swords in the house," she snapped, her hands on her hips. "It's dangerous and it's unbecoming! That's the last time, Fili, don't ask me again!"

But she didn't mind them practicing with sticks in the garden, and sometimes she tied up her skirts and joined them when the neighbours weren't watching. It was rather difficult to keep up, now both of them were taller than her and at least twice her weight – Kili was shooting up just like a poplar, as his mother had predicted. Even when Bilba managed to strike a fair blow or disarm them, they would simply hollar a war-cry in their own language, pick her up and throw her over their shoulder with one arm while she shrieked through her laughter and swore she'd never feed them again if they didn't put her down.

The dwarves would celebrate any little thing, and soon Bilba could not help but join them. The three of them were often the last in the pub or dancing outside on warm summer nights. They held dinner parties in Bag End and carried on long after their guests had gone home in exhaustion. Bilba taught them to smoke and how to pick Old Toby from the lesser cultivations. They taught her dwarf games of strategy with stones and boards, and a few words of the old language.

“Do you still speak it?” she asked one evening. She had been reading to them from one of her favourite texts, but an argument about the translation had turned to discussion of Khuzdul. “Dwarves in general, I mean. Or is it just ceremonial?”

The brothers shrugged at each other. Kili said, “Mama used to swear in it. I don’t know if she spoke it well.”

“She must have,” Fili said with a frown. “When we lived with the Kidhuzaz, everyone used to speak to babies in it. I remember never understanding what they were saying to you.”

“It was probably just lullabies,” Kili said skeptically.

“They still had to pick names, though,” Fili insisted. He turned to Bilba. “Dwarves have a common name, and a secret one that they don’t tell anyone.”

“Hoarding everything, as usual,” Bilba raised her eyebrows.

Kili laughed. “Bilba! You can’t give something like that away lightly. It’s supposed to be the ultimate bond, between warriors who fight beside each other, or true lovers,” he raised his eyebrows. “I’ll tell you mine.”

“You’re shameless,” she shook her head.

“I will,” he said, his voice suddenly losing all trace of mirth. “If you’ll accept it.”

Bilba sat up a little straighter. “I’m not sure… well, it’s not like hobbits have something in return.”

The room seemed suddenly too warm, and the book too heavy on her lap. Fili said quietly, “It’s not a trade. It’s something you give.”

Bilba wrung her hands in her lap. “Give it, then.”

They both told her their true names that night, though afterwards she could never remember who went first. She tried to repeat them, but her khuzdul pronunciation was terrible, and they had to go through it several times before she got it right, by which time the laughter had returned and Bilba didn’t feel as if she’d suddenly been handed something incredibly fragile, and so heavy she felt it in her heart for days.

It had been ten years since they had first arrived on her doorstep. She did not know where the days had gone, nor how she had survived them, nor how she had ever lived without them. Fili's beard was as thick and golden as his hair these days, and Kili's chin was starting to get scratchy when Bilba kissed him on the cheek. She could never forget that they weren't hobbits, not even in spirit, but she no longer minded the stares when she took them down to the market, nor the questions her cousins pressed on her about whether any hobbit would see her as marriageable with the menagerie that following her around. That life had never been for her anyway. This life, no matter how unexpected, was quite satisfactory. She had her health, her wealth, and her boys on which to spend it. She didn't want to change a thing about it.

But change, it seemed, did not ask for permission.

 

---

 

Thorin stared at the key in his hand, raising it to the light of the dusty lamp that hung above their heads. The noise of the pub faded in his ears as he stared at it, as if all the world had begun to revolve around that little drop of metal. Gandalf puttered a little on his pipe and finally broke into his thoughts. "Do you recognise it, Mr Dwarf?"

"Like the back of my hand," Thorin raised his eyes to Gandalf''s face. "This pommel is of the Erebor style, and the stamp on the shaft, here, represents the heir of Durin. The runes are the usual warning to thieves, but the wording is more typical of the Erebor aristocracy. This key looks like one of the many carried by my grandfather, in his personal possession. I have not seen one since Smaug destroyed the mountain."

The old man tilted his head a little. "Gracious. That is rather more than I dared to hope for. A key to the mountain! Goodness!" he repeated, his frowning to himself.

Thorin shook his head. “I do not think it will be much good to you, Wizard, as all the doors these keys opened are far beyond reach. How did you come by it?"

There was no disappointment in Gandalf's face. In fact, the old man's brows were rising and the wrinkles stretched around his eyes in a smile. "You are a survivor of Erebor, then?" he asked, and when Thorin nodded reluctantly he pressed on. "You are not meaning to tell me that your grandfather was the heir of Durin?"

Thorin closed his hand around the key, since Gandalf had made no move to take it back. "Yes, but it has brought me no joy. I would ask you not to spread it around, either. I have kept my ancestry well hidden for many years, Mr Wizard," he dipped his head. "Now will you tell me where you got it?"

"I will, and more," Gandalf reached into his robe and drew out a yellowed, scruffy parchment, which he unfolded on the greasy pub table after a quick glance left and right. "If you will tell me your real name, Mr Ginnar."

Thorin shook his head. "Don't ask me for that."

"What harm is there? Surely it will be easy enough for me to find out with what I now know," Gandalf soothed. He smoothed out the parchment beneath his hands. "I'm trusting you with this – assuage an old man's curiosity."

Thorin sighed, leaning forward to look at the map. He had seen many like it, long ago, though usually more detailed. It was a rough approximation of the Lonely Mountain. Dark memories flooded his thoughts as he traced the slopes of his distant childhood, but there was good tucked away in there, too. He could no longer remember his mother's face, but he knew that she used to smile more before the mountain fell. And his mind suddenly supplied an image of his brother and sister as young children dressed in fine silks, laughing as if to summon him back in time.

"Well?" Gandalf asked. "May I not call you by name, as a friend?"

Thorin looked up at him. "Thorin. Son of Thrain. My grandfather was king of Erebor. I am the last of his descendants."

The wizard sat back, his mouth a flat line but his eyes sympathetic. "This is remarkable."

"I ask a third time, how did you come by the key?" Thorin demanded.

"Hmm, yes," Gandalf puffed smoke out the corner of his mouth. "I am sorry to tell you that, though it seems it is not news to you, your father died soon after giving me this key and map, oh, a good twenty years ago now. I found him in the dungeons of Dol Guldor, but he was... badly injured, with little sense left. He did not even remember his own name, only the importance of the map, and that it must be passed on to his son. And here at last, it has been," he waved his pipe at the table. "It is yours; take it, take it please, and I wish it was of more use to you."

"Thank you," Thorin replied. He couldn't think what else to say. The news that his father had been alive so recently was yet another stone in his heart, and he did not like to consider how he had died. But these trinkets were a curiosity, nothing more.

"You know, I have been thinking," said Gandalf quietly, "I mean, just thinking, mind you. You've clearly had a bad time of it all," he glanced at the empty sleeve pinned to Thorin's right shoulder and gave him a commiserating smile, "but have you ever thought about returning to the mountain?"

That was how it began, in that smoky tavern in Bree. The two of them talked for hours that night about Erebor, all that had been lost, and what strength it would take to steal it back. Thorin was dour and gloomy about the idea at first, but as they went on his mood changed and became more and more animated. In the warm room, with tankards piling up around them, it seemed almost within their grasp – to slay the dragon, reclaim the gold, restore Erebor to its former glory and repopulate the kingdom.

"But—” Thorin turned his face away, balling his fist. "Who would follow me? My very name is enough to drive dwarves to murder and men to savagery," he waved his hand at the place where his arm should have been. "My family is dead and I am a ruined shadow."

"You must still have friends, even if you cannot reach them right now. Is there no one you could turn to?”

Thorin shrugged. "When my sister and I left Ered Luin, my cousins Balin and Dwalin helped us go safely. We told them to deny any friendship with us, but they swore they would support us if we returned. But that was years ago. I don't even know if they're still alive. Are you alright, Wizard?"

Gandalf seemed to have choked on his pipe and was thumping himself on the chest. He croaked, "Nothing, nothing, but – Dwalin and Balin, you say? But this was – not so long ago? They were very young, I expect?"

Thorin frowned. "No, Balin was older than me, and his brother was my junior by a few years. They were both born in Erebor."

"Did either have sons?"

"For all I know, they've had dozens since I saw them," Thorin leaned forward. "What has brought this on?"

Gandalf shook his head. "Another old mystery I was trying to solve. I met two dwarves just North of here, some – hmm, ten years back, I think – very young, with not so much as a coin between them, who called themselves Dwalin and Balin. I never found out where they had come from."

Instantly, Thorin's mind made the connection and the truth plunged through him like a sword, turning his throat dry and setting his heart racing. He could not believe it, could not even dare to believe it, so wonderful was the idea. But he kept his face stony, trying to look disinterested. Part of it was self-defense, for if he was mistaken or worse, if they were dead, he thought it would destroy him completely. Besides that, he still did not completely trust Gandalf, and though he'd been willing to share his secrets about his own life – an unremarkable life, with little left to preserve – the possibility that he still had nephews to protect was far more precious. He must not give their identities away unless it was absolutely necessary.

"I suppose it's possible they are children or grandchildren of the dwarves I knew," he said slowly. "Though how they’d have ended up so far from home, I've no idea. Do you know what happened to them?"

"More or less," Gandalf said. There was a cautious note in his tone. He could tell Thorin was more invested in his words than he was letting on. "They wouldn't go near other dwarves for some reason, so I took them west of here, to the Shire – I've not kept in touch, but last I heard they were still living among the hobbits there."

"Among the hobbits?"

"Yes, halflings, a beardless race with few faults to—”

"Yes, I live in Bree, I know what a hobbit is," Thorin said testily. "But the Shire seems a strange choice for any dwarf."

Gandalf shrugged. "I think it's a very pleasant place myself,” he watched Thorin’s face for a moment, and when he got no further explanation he leaned over the map again. “Now, about this secret door…”

 

The barmaid was stacking the chairs on the tables around them, and Thorin's attention was far away from old maps and distant mountains. He left Gandalf outside the pub and hurried back to the hat shop that was now his home. He lived and slept in a tiny room little larger than a cupboard above the workshop, and spent his days repairing felt brims and structuring bonnets. It was paid work, and he was glad for it, no matter the indignity of his life these days. For a one-armed smith was no smith at all. He could not shoe a horse nor shape a blade, but his remaining hand was still agile and his eyes good at judging measurements at a glance. The hatter and his wife could have hired anyone to do the drudgework, but they had kept Thorin on because he was quick and thorough and he never complained. Or rather, they had kept Ginnar on – that was the name he had gone by since the night of the fire. And so Ginnar lived above a shop and made hats for humans and watched the hatter's four daughters grow and marry one by one, and Ginnar tried to do the one thing Thorin had sworn he would never do, and that was forget.

It had been ten years since the curse had finally broken him. He still woke drenched in sweat some nights, his lost arm aching, his ears full of the sound of glass shattering under a burning brand. Sometimes he dreamed that his nephews were trapped in the fire, screaming, sometimes he dreamed that the house was a mountain, and sometimes he dreamed that Dis had died in his arms no matter how he tried to warn her, don't go out! Stay close, we can still get away! Over and over he relived it, trying to protect her with his own body, but arrows went through him like he was smoke and she died again and again, and he was torn apart by the mob like a rabbit caught by wild wolves.

He had not been torn apart, of course, or at least not completely. He had merely been beaten until he could not breathe, could not see for the blood in his eyes, could not figure out what was sky and what was earth. Dwarf bones were hard to break, but the mob had managed it, shattering his right arm so badly that darkness pulsed in front of his vision and he no longer remembered even his own name. And then they had stopped, by some miracle. Someone had held them back. It was the doctor, the same man whose wife had supposedly suffered because of the curse, and the one who had roused the crowd in the first place. Thorin lay senseless, unable to move, and the doctor kept asking him, where were they? The two young dwarves, the children, where were they? The need to protect his nephews ignited the last of Thorin's strength, and he managed through his split lip and strangled throat to tell the doctor they had been trapped in the house and were overcome by the smoke. He saw in the light of the torches and the raging inferno of his home that the man's face was drawn and shocked.

The humans moved him, dragging him across the ground. He expected to be thrown alive onto the fire, but instead he was hauled up and carried away, in agony but unable to pass out or escape. He swung in and out of understanding, waiting to meet his fate, expecting some new cruelty at any moment. But when he next gathered his thoughts he found himself in a warm room, with sunlight through closed shutters and blankets covering his bare chest.

The doctor had saved him from the mob. He told Thorin, in a faint and frightened voice, that he had not meant for the dwarves to die, he had only meant to drive them out of the town. With the cold clarity of hindsight he regretted the deaths of Thorin's sister, and of the children. Thorin neither wanted nor believed his apologies, but he knew his heart was only beating because of this coward. He lay silent and accepted the doctor's ministrations.

The arm was too broken to be set. Fragments of bone had ruptured through his flesh, and the elbow was so crushed it was not even clear he had ever had an elbow. Soon the wound festered despite all attempts to save it, and fever began to send molten steel into Thorin's veins. It was worse than anything that had come before, a red gas made of crushed glass that filled his lungs and body and left him unable to move and desperate to claw it out. Part of him wanted to die. Part of him, the stronger part, needed to live. He had to find his nephews, make sure they were safe. It was this piece of him that had followed his father to Azanulbizar all those years ago and dragged a bitter victory from the orcs' hands. It was this inner strength that had calculated the risk of death over the surety of cowardice and fled the Blue Mountains holding his sister’s hand. It had carried two starving children out of the east after Dis was widowed, keeping them all alive day by day until they came to green woods and roads again. This piece of Thorin refused to die no matter what punishments life brought.

The doctor amputated the arm. The fever broke. He felt his grandfather’s curse retreat, licking its wounds, waiting for another chance to strike.

The rest of the village was increasingly hostile towards the household while Thorin remained there, recovering slowly. He suspected that many were ashamed of what they had done, and hid their shame by heaping blame on the survivor of their crime. So as soon as he was able to walk more than a few steps, he packed a bag with all the food and supplies he could find. Even that was a trial, unbalanced by the missing weight of his arm, clumsy with his non-dominant hand. He crept out of the house while the doctor slept. He considered killing the man – a life for Dis, and not even a worthy life, not for the greatest woman Thorin had ever known – but there had been too much death already. He vanished into the night and did not speak his own name aloud from that day forth.

But he could not find Fili and Kili. He searched every town nearby, asking after rumours and hints, and walked the roads he thought they might have taken seeking signs of two homeless children. For months he searched, following vain leads and false clues, his own supplies dwindling to nothing and his health going with them. His absent arm still hurt – he could feel it like a ghost, feel the pain in a missing hand, sometimes even feel the cool wind on his skin and the flex of fingers that no longer existed. Everything had to be relearned, from eating a meal to riding a pony, even dressing himself. He forced himself to adapt, to weather the agonizing frustration as his shoelaces slipped through his clumsy left hand again and again. He had to find his nephews. He could still remember their faces on that last night, the fear in their eyes, Kili's voice calling his name. They had to be somewhere.

But they had evaporated like the morning dew. Perhaps they had been killed by bandits on the road. Perhaps they'd gone into the forest and run out of water, walking in circles until they lay down and never awoke. He didn't know. He would never know.

The day he finally stopped searching, the piece of strength that had carried Thorin through all his trials finally died, flickering out quietly like a candle at the end of its wick. He found himself in Bree, but no smithy wanted him and he avoided other dwarves at all costs. He considered ending his own life, but it seemed a waste, when those he loved were now preserved only in his memory. None of them had had a proper burial. Not his nephews, nor his sister. Not his missing father or defiled grandfather or even the body of his brother, who had been burned in the mass graves of Azanulbizar. Thorin would live for them, and protect those memories until his time came to join them.

Somehow he crossed paths with the hatter, who was desperate for an assistant to keep up with demand. Thorin took the work without hesitation, relearning with his left hand all the strength and delicacy he'd had in his right. He built himself a desk with clamps and vices to hold his work still, like mechanical fingers. He spoke little, which made him popular with the hatter's daughters, and he became their listener and secret-keeper, sitting at the back of the shop and bearing their chatter with only the occasional nod of agreement. Sometimes they asked him questions about who he had been, how he had lost his arm, but he told them only that there had been a war, and everyone he knew was dead now. Eventually they stopped asking, and he heard them tell customers, “That’s our dwarf. He doesn’t talk. He makes wonderful hats, though.” He became Ginnar completely.

And now.

And now.

His kin might yet live. He might not be the last of his grandfather’s line. The curse might have spared them, or perhaps could not touch them at all. He had never even let himself imagine such a possibility, let alone nurtured it.

That very night, he took his few belongings and left the hat shop. Bitty, the youngest daughter and the only one not yet married, caught him as he crossed the threshold. She held a candle up to see him, standing in her nightgown at the bottom of the stairs.

“Ginnar?” she asked. “Where are you going?”

Thorin didn’t have an answer, but she had always been kind to him, so he bowed to her and said, “Wherever it is, I may not return. Thank your parents for me.”

Then he left once again, as he’d left the Lonely Mountain, and Ered Luin, and the East plains, and the burning house. But for once he was not driven by fear and death. Whatever lay ahead, it would be better than what he had left behind.

 

---

 

It was a warm and cloudless afternoon when Thorin walked into Hobbiton. He had slept rough since leaving Bree and had not spoken to anyone on the road, but as soon as he entered the village there was no opportunity for silence. The streets were busy with hobbits setting up lanterns and streamers for a night market, all of them calling to each other as they hurried back and forth, arms laden with bundles of goods, tools and wreaths of just-opening hydrangeas and evening primroses. Many of them stared at him as he passed, some with more than a little suspicion, but others greeted him warmly. They evidently thought he was here for the market and were keen to get on side with a customer. No doubt dwarves were known around these parts for their riches.

Thorin slipped into the largest tavern he could find as soon as possible, partly just to get away from the crowds. At the bar he thought about ordering a drink to blend in, but in truth he had only a few coins and didn't want to waste them, especially since he'd been eating increasingly stale bread since Bree. Instead he loomed over the regulars sitting on their stools and glared at the barkeep until he got his attention.

"Good evening, Mr Dwarf, welcome to the Green Dragon," the keep said a little nervously, glancing at the old sword at Thorin’s belt. Thorin had kept the right side of his cloak closed in order to hide his missing arm. "What can I get you?"

"I'm looking for some friends of mine," Thorin rumbled. "Or directions, if you don't know of them."

"No dwarves in town tonight, sir, not to my ken," the hobbit said apologetically. "And I send barrels to all the inns nearby. I'm sure I'd've heard if there were dwarves."

Thorin's gut clenched, his appetite disappearing. "Are you sure? Do none live in these parts at all? Have you never heard the names Dwalin and Balin?"

In an instant, the barkeep’s face lit up. "Oh! You mean those lads! Oh yes, they live just up the hill, I know them very well."

Thorin had to swallow until he could speak. "Where could I find them?"

"Up at Bag End, I expect."

"And what is that?" he said through gritted teeth.

"Hmm, well, everyone knows Bag End," the barkeep began, and then seeing Thorin scowl he cleared his throat and pointed. "Take the main street straight out of Hobbiton with the river on the left, only then you cross the Lily Bridge, take a right and go down the south fork when you see the goat pen. It's quicker to cut through the farms there, but that'll be harder for you, I expect, so yes, North it is. Then you just follow the road through the woods, over the mounds and into the greenway and at the split, go up, not down. And then keep going until you reach the fine hole at the top of the hill. Beautiful spot with views of the whole area, you can't miss it."

Thorin stared at him. "I don't suppose you could show me all that on a map?"

The barkeep shrugged apologetically. "I don't keep maps in my back pocket, do I, sir? And I've got customers to serve now, I'm afraid. Best of luck to you."

It took Thorin the rest of the afternoon to find the hill the barman had talked about. He had been walking all day and his legs were starting to ache as he started up the road. The light was just starting to burnish from blue to orange as he crested the rise. He had no idea what passed for a 'fine hole' in these parts – nothing looked like the grand mansions of dwarves, with their massive portals and skilled displays of masonry. The only house up here seemed to be the one with a simple, round door and a bountiful garden. Thorin opened the tiny gate, went up the path and after a long pause, raised his fist to knock.

A few moments later he heard a voice approaching the far side of the door. "It's unlocked, you dimwits. Are you playing silly buggers? Because I was damned comfortable and you've made me get up—”

The door opened. The hobbit woman's mouth snapped shut. She stared at Thorin, and he at her. She was a good head shorter than him, all her edges rounded from face to hips, and her skirt and vest were bright yellow and grey-green. Her gaze whipped across him and she tilted her head, her tongue flicking at the corner of her mouth.

"Good evening. Are you alright?"

Thorin shook himself and gave a short bow. He felt caught off guard by the directness of the hobbit's gaze, and the wrinkle that had appeared between her brows. "My name is," he almost revealed himself, but the habit of the last ten years was too ingrained, "Ginnar. I'm looking for a pair of dwarves named Dwalin and Balin. I heard they were living at Bag End, but I may not be at the right door.”

“Yes, yes, you have the right door," the hobbit straightened her shoulders. She opened her mouth but was silent for a moment, looking him over again. "I'm afraid there's no dwarves here. They left months ago."

Thorin's heart thudded against his ribs. No. He had seemed so close. "Where did they go?"

"Off to the Blue Mountains, I think," she propped her hand on her hip. "I'm not their keeper. Why are you looking for them? Perhaps I can help?"

A great, cold weight seemed to settle on Thorin. He felt suddenly sure that he had come here for nothing, that he had grasped at a slim chance because the prize had seemed too wonderful not to be true. Surely fate was not so cruel as to raise his hopes and then crush them deep into the earth. "No, I don't think so," he said. "They may not even be the ones I'm looking for."

The hobbit pursed her lips, but the wrinkles around her eyes softened. "You look like you need a sit-down and a cup of tea, Mr Ginnar. Come inside, come on."

His instinct was to turn away, but he was dizzy from his loss, as if it was as fresh as the day his nephews disappeared. He followed the hobbit into the hall. She insisted on taking his cloak, her eyes flicking over the pinned sleeve when it was revealed, but she said nothing. Before he knew it he was sitting in a cozy kitchen at a slightly-too-small table with the hobbit bustling about with a pot of water and stoking up the fire.

"So," she straightened up, clapping the dust off her hands, and holding her left one out for him to shake. "I should have said, I'm Bilba, the current Baggins of Bag End. Where do you hail from, then?"

"Bree," Thorin grunted, shaking her small hand roughly. She gripped his tight in return, her eyes narrowing a little.

"Mmm," she fetched two teacups and set them on the table, and then a plate of shortbread, fresh pears and a pot of sugar. "Help yourself, please."

Thorin didn't need telling twice. His stomach was grumbling loudly just looking at the food. He took a piece of shortbread, wincing when he realised how filthy his hand was, and ate the whole thing in one bite. It was delicious; he hadn't had shortbread this good for years – not since Dis had been alive, in fact. He chewed slowly, beginning to frown. "Is there nutmeg in these? And maple oil?"

"You have a good nose,” the hobbit said, a little too cheerily.

"It's a very… dwarvish recipe."

She laughed. "Well, I suppose those boys made their mark around here. Um, let me check the tea," she got up and made a great fuss of checking the pot, which was clearly not boiling yet. As she stood up, Thorin saw her glance very quickly out the window. Her back straightened and her eyes went a little wide. "Will you excuse me? My neighbour's at the door. He's, uh, he's got a bee in his bonnet about, well, boring stuff really. I'll be back in a moment."

Curiosity tugged away the haze of grief from Thorin's mind. Something odd was going on here. He twisted in his seat to watch the hobbit scurry off through the parlour, then got up and pressed close to the glass to see what was going on out the window, but the curve of the hill obscured his view of the front door and the path. He could hear the hobbit woman talking to someone in the front hall in a low voice, but he couldn't make out the words until he leaned through the parlour doorway and caught a whisper.

"…well find him and waylay him before he gets back! I'll play host. Don't fuss, I can handle myself. Go! Shoo!"

Thorin rushed to sit down again when he heard her shut the door and come trotting back through. He stuffed another shortbread in his mouth as she returned.

"So, Mr Ginnar, how do you know Dwalin and Balin?" she said firmly, setting out a teapot and filling it with boiling water. She kept her eyes on him almost the whole time, but didn't spill a drop. What in Durin's name was she hiding from him?

He took the teacup she slid across to him without breaking eye contact. She'd even made sure the handle was on the left. He took a small sip. "They're distant cousins of mine," he replied. "Who was it you said was at the door?"

"A neighbour," the hobbit woman wrapped both hands around her own teacup, but didn't yet drink. Thorin considered the taste in case of poison and decided she hadn't had enough warning to arrange that. She tapped her little finger on the porcelain. "How did you find out they live— used to live here?"

"Through a mutual friend," Thorin said. "And how did you come to know them?"

"They turned up on my doorstep one day," the hobbit shrugged, leaning her elbows on the table. "What exactly do you want from them, Mr Ginnar? They haven't any money, if that's what it is."

"I'm not after money," Thorin shot back at once.

"Then what?" the hobbit snapped.

"They're here, aren't they?" his hand clenched around the delicate teacup. He couldn't keep a growl from his throat. Back and forth, up and down, tossed from one disappointment to the next. He couldn't take it anymore. "Tell me where to find them, woman. This is not a social visit."

"Tell me what you want from them," the hobbit glared.

Thorin could hear the blood beating in his ears. He could reach across the table and grab the wretched creature by the throat, shake her with one hand, but he knew what it was to be outweighed and unarmed and he wouldn't disgrace himself by sinking to that level. Yet he didn't trust her. No one had offered Thorin's family sanctuary for a very long time, and he couldn't imagine this wriggling weasel had anything to protect but her own interests.

Somewhere nearby, a door slammed. Not the front door – it must be a back entrance closer to them. The hobbit shot to her feet, and Thorin jumped up to match her. From out in the hall a voice called, "Biiil-ba! Guess what I bought at the market!"

"Oh, bother it all," the hobbit hissed, and lunged for the door. Thorin bolted after her, getting his feet tangled in the low bench. He burst through the doorway to find the hobbit standing between him and a figure at the other end of the hall.

It was a young dwarf, his dark hair tied back from his face, dressed in a deep, blue suit like one of the hobbits in town. Even his feet were bare, and a basket of potted plants hung from his elbow. His eyes were brown, the same brown as his nomad father, the dark eyes that had enchanted Dis from the moment she saw them. But his face was sharpened with adulthood, shadowed by the first glimpse of a beard, his expression turning as blank as fresh-hewn stone as he saw Thorin.

The basket slid off his arm and crashed onto the carpet, spilling pots of black soil across the hall.

Behind him, a second dwarf sprinted inside, his fists raised. He saw Bilba first, barking to her, "He got past me, I'm sorry…!" but his words trailed off as he saw the visitor. He lowered his hands, his mouth hanging open.

"Thorin," he whispered.

Thorin surged towards them, his arm outstretched, and Kili fell into his embrace, balling his fists in Thorin's coat. Thorin swayed where he stood, pressing his nose into Kili's hair, reaching past him to grab Fili and pull him in too, his fingers tangling in rough, blonde locks to bump their heads together over Kili's shoulder. He couldn't speak, he couldn't even say their names. They were so tall, and heavy too – Kili was leaning against him so hard his knees almost buckled. It was like being assaulted by a pair of large, adolescent dogs. He couldn’t comprehend it, the sight of them grown and healthy, the smell of their hair, their voices ripened and yet still recognisable. They were so real.

"We thought you were dead!" Kili wailed, his voice muffled by Thorin's shoulder. "Where have you been? Where have you been?"

Thorin's voice returned with a croak. "Dead until now," he whispered. "Lost without you."

He could feel hot tears on his face. For a long time they just stayed like that, crushed together with the smell of the spilled soil filling the air.

 

 

Bilba stood against the wall, finally lowering her hand from her mouth. He was their uncle Thorin, the one they had always spoken of with the quiet reverence of children towards a hero. You’ve butchered this one very nicely, haven’t you? she thought to herself. She’d been sure the grim-eyed, threadbare dwarf, standing on her doorstep with a battered sword at his belt, was some dangerous character out of the boys’ past, come to hunt down the last of their lineage. She couldn’t have got it so right and yet more wrong.

As she watched, Fili broke away, turning to where Bilba was trying to sink into the wall. She clasped her hands tight over her belly.

"Bilba, why did you tell me to hide?" he demanded. "This is our uncle!"

"Well, I didn't know that, did I?" Bilba said in a thin voice. "I thought your whole family was dead, and he gave me a different name, and… and look at him, dodgy fellow with one arm and scars all over! Oh, blast it, I didn't mean... I'm sorry," she wrung her hands, trying to meet Thorin's eye.

“Your arm,” Kili patted the old dwarf’s shoulder like he thought it was a joke. “What happened to your arm?”

“Never mind that, another time,” Thorin growled, “I bet I can still best you in any contest.” He grabbed Kili around the neck and kissed his forehead with a laugh. Bilba felt herself flinch forward. Did he need to be so rough? Really.

“Look at you!” Thorin was grinning broadly now. He reached out to cup Fili’s chin. “Just look at you! I never thought I would see your beards come in! You’ve been here all this time?” he glanced over his shoulder at Bilba, and she didn’t miss the note of scorn in his voice. “In this quiet place?”

The brothers looked at one another and Fili nodded. “Bilba took us in. She had no reason to, but we couldn’t have found a better home,” he squeezed his eyes closed and stammered, “I mean, a home as good as we used to have.”

Thorin turned towards Bilba at last. She swallowed. Somehow, knowing his true identity only made him more dangerous. The stories she'd heard of Thorin had been an epic mythology from a child’s perspective, full of half-remembered adventures patched up with otherworldly triumphs attributed by two proud nephews. Assassins and madmen she could have faced, with Fili and Kili behind her. But Thorin was a legend come to life, and she was the one on the outside, the hobbit among dwarves, the surrogate among true family.

“It seems I have much to thank you for,” Thorin said, his voice warm and low.

Bilba did her best to return his smile. “I think, maybe, we should all sit down and start again, don’t you?”

That might as well have been the last time she had spoken that evening. There was no stopping the chatter after that, as Fili and Kili made up for ten years of lost talk with their uncle. Thorin himself said little of his life since they’d been parted, only confirming that his arm had been injured on the night their mother died. Otherwise he seemed content to sit staring at them, shaking his head as Kili described his idea to boat through the fields and into a raging river during the bad flood a few years back, smiling as Fili listed all the kings of the Longbeards right back to Durin the Deathless to prove he hadn't forgotten his history, and his eyes widening when they finally told him the state Gandalf found them in after they fled the mob. Bilba sat on the edge and watched as if through a window into a stranger's house. At one point she left to clean up the potted herbs that Kili had spilled in the hall. No one seemed to have noticed she was gone.

Fili had promised to make dinner, but that was obviously out of the question now, so Bilba put together the meat pie he'd planned and by the time the stars were out, the smell of roast pastry and beef was filling the halls of Bag End. She called the dwarves in and they came, still babbling, and barely stopped long enough to swallow. Bilba grimaced as Kili put his elbows on the table and talked with his mouth full. It had taken her about four years to break him of his bad table manners, and Thorin had undone all that in an hour.

She told herself to stop being such a fusspot. Of course they were excited, of course they were distracted. She wouldn't want to take this joy away from them, not for all the good manners in the world. She was been foolishly jealous like a hobbit lass being ignored in favour of a new baby brother. And when she looked at Thorin properly, Bilba noticed that he was eating with decidedly more delicacy than his nephews. He wasn't being a bad influence – they were just excited.

In fact, now that she was looking at him, the boys seemed a lot more excited than Thorin. An hour ago he had been smiling and trying to surreptitiously wipe the tears from the corner of his eyes, but now his mood seemed to have soured. Bilba had given him the largest piece of meat pie, because he looked like he needed it, but he pushed it away before it was even half finished. His mouth was turning into a deeper scowl the more time passed, and he kept massaging his truncated shoulder with a stony expression.

"Is it alright, Mr Thorin?" Bilba spoke up, managing to slip into a pause in the conversation. "Your arm, I mean."

"It's fine," Thorin said brusquely.

"It's ghost pains, yes?" Bilba soothed. Finally, she felt like she could be of some use. "Some old hobbits lose limbs to illness, you know, and they often swear they can still feel the limb is there. I've heard a cold poultice on the back of the neck—"

"I am not an old hobbit!" Thorin growled. "And I do not need your old wives' tales, Mrs Baggins."

Bilba straightened up slowly. Fili and Kili had gone completely silently and were glancing between them. She said evenly, "Whatever you need, then. And it's Miss, if you don't mind."

"We don't need anything more, thank you," Thorin said. "In fact, I would like to speak to my nephews in private. If you would."

Bilba took a deep breath and forced herself to smile. "Of course," she said, getting up and taking her plate with her. "I feel like an early night anyway. Don't stay up too late, you two," she said as she passed Fili, patting him on the shoulder. She meant it as a joke – she'd never dictated their sleeping habits, except when they interrupted her own slumber with knife-throwing contests outside her window at six in the morning. But Thorin did not take it as such, his scowl growing even deeper when Kili tugged Bilba’s skirt as she rounded the table, making her lean in so he could kiss her on the cheek.

As she stepped through the doorway, she heard Thorin mutter, "First line of business is where to find lodgings as soon as possible."

Bilba turned back, her plate in one had and mug in the other. "I beg your pardon?"

Thorin was suddenly very keen to look anywhere except at Bilba's face. She took a step back into the kitchen. "You’re welcome to sleep here as long as you want.”

Still he didn’t answer, as if he thought she was nothing but an irritating fly around the food.

Bilba puffed up here chest. “What exactly is wrong with my house, Mr Thorin, that you won't… lower yourself to sleep here?"

"There is nothing wrong with your house, obviously," Thorin snapped back. "I merely meant we will need to find somewhere when we leave tomorrow."

Three pairs of eyes were suddenly on his face. Fili voiced all their thoughts, "Tomorrow? What do you mean, why are you leaving tomorrow?"

Thorin looked at his nephews one after the other. "Well, I've found you now. You can come away with me at last."

There was absolute silence for a long moment. Bilba ended it. "No. That's absurd. You can't just saunter in here after ten years of absence and uproot them tomorrow. Who do you think you are?"

"How dare you!" Thorin snarled. "I assure you, if I had even the barest hint before now I would have been here long ago!"

"Well you weren't here," Bilba could feel her face turning red and her heart beginning to race. If it hadn't been an extremely rude way to treat guests, she would have hurled her mug right at Thorin's nose. "I was. If you think so little of me and my home, maybe you should start offering something more substantial than your haughty airs.”

“Bilba!” Fili cried, his features twisting into an ugly glower.

A low rumble started deep in Thorin’s throat. He stood up from the table, his single hand splayed on the wood. “Fili, Kili, go and pack your things,” he said. “We’re leaving now.”

Thorin stood with his eyes locked on Bilba’s face until Fili got to his feet. Bilba’s mouth dropped open, but she didn’t know what to say. She looked at Kili, who was glancing between her and his brother. Thorin turned and walked out, and Fili grabbed a fistful of Kili’s sleeve, tugging him to his feet.

“Fili, we can’t—” Kili looked at Bilba once again, but Fili refused to look at her. He caught his brother’s eye and held it until Kili shuffled through the doorway ahead of him.

“No,” Bilba realised this was actually happening. She dropped her plate and mug back on the table and scurried after them. “Fili! Stop!”

He didn’t even turn around until she grabbed his elbow. Fili twitched out of her hand, shaking his head. “He’s our king, Bilba.”

“Will you – just – you can’t honestly—” Bilba found herself standing in the hallway, with Thorin pulling his cloak on over his missing arm. “Kili, sweetheart, you don’t have to do this tonight.”

Thorin snarled and stepped between her and his nephews, looming over her like a landslide. “They are not children. Hold your tongue and let them do as they will.”

“Oh, their will, yes!” Bilba threw her arm towards where Fili was coming out of his room with the two leather packs she’d bought them just last year, for when they went walking for days at a time. “You think that's what they're doing?”

“They are not your pets, you odious little harridan,” Thorin snarled. “You’ve done enough, trying to turn them into hobbits,” Thorin pointed at Kili in the doorway, his head bent and his fringe falling over his face as he folded clothes and roughly shoved them into his pack. “Dressing them like dolls, indulging them, letting them get fat and lazy in this smoke-addled hole. Spoiling them!”

Bilba took a step backwards. She felt as if she’d been struck, but by an invisible hand she hadn’t been able to brace against. She found herself wringing her hands like an old biddy, and forced herself to put her arms by her side. She could find no words that could possibly match the poison in his voice, and neither Fili nor Kili said anything in her defence. Fili was staring at the back of his uncle’s head, his expression ambiguous, and Kili kept his head low, his hands shaking as he tightened the buckles on his pack.

Thorin shook his head at her and turned away, beckoning his nephews with a sweep of his hand.

“No,” Bilba said, and was embarrassed by how weak her voice sounded. Her brow wrinkled. Her hands balled into fists. Her lips peeled back from her teeth. “No.”

She stomped past Thorin to the front door, where her walking stick leaned upright in a rack by the corner. Bilba snatched it up, her hand automatically gripping it like the play-swords she’d practised with the boys so many times. She stood in front of the brass doorknob, her feet set into a rock-steady stance. Thorin turned to stare her.

“They are grown dwarves,” Bilba said sharply, “The only way they're leaving here is by their own choice.”

Thorin shot her a disparaging sneer. “Get out of the way.”

“Make me,” Bilba snapped, her body angled sideways with the walking stick at the ready.

Thorin stepped forward, reaching for her with his one arm. Bilba struck as swift as a snake, cracking him across the knuckles and wrist with all the strength she could muster. She felt a mixed thrill of pleasure and terror as he cried out and jerked backwards. Kili gasped and lunged forward, but was grabbed by his brother and hauled back into the doorway.

Thorin hissed through his teeth, threw back his cloak and wrapped his fingers around the handle of the sword at his belt. He drew it out smoothly, looking very practised even with the imbalance of his single arm. Bilba swallowed, and then lowered her head and switched the walking stick into her left hand to match him. She’d always felt stronger with that hand, would even have written with it if her tutors in childhood had given her a chance.

“Move aside,” Thorin said.

Bilba shook her head. Almost at once, Thorin lunged. He wasn’t aiming for her, but he tried to catch the walking stick with the flat of his blade and twist it out of her grasp. Bilba turned the sweep aside, half lucky and half with instinct bred from Fili’s lessons. Thorin growled, brought his sword around and gave a much less graceless hack at the stick, and she easily shifted her feet and again swept his blade away, using his own momentum to send the sword swinging wide to drag him off balance. He wasn’t nearly as good with his remaining hand as he’d first seemed, and couldn’t compensate for the extra weight. Bilba leapt forward and jabbed the walking stick hard into his chest, right against the breastbone. The whole fight had taken only a few seconds.

Thorin froze. His sword hung to the side. Breathing hard, Bilba tilted her head. “They’ve spoiled me too, Mr Dwarf.”

She became aware that she was easily within reach now, threatening him with nothing more than a blunt piece of wood. He could have sliced her in half without blinking and her little stick would have done nothing to block it. He looked down the length of the walking stick until he met her eyes. He huffed out a breath. Something like a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and he raised his arm and dropped his sword. Bilba barely managed to wince at the thought of the blade chipping her smooth floors. She stepped back, lowering the walking stick to rest the tip at her feet.

“Forgive me,” Thorin rumbled. “It is far too long since anyone has shown loyalty to those I love.”

“Forgiven and forgotten,” Bilba said at once, though that wasn’t quite true and she was sure they both knew it. “Now can we talk about this like civilised people?”

“Do you have a bed spare, Miss Baggins?” he replied, but his tone was genuine this time. “Civilised conversations between dwarves tends to take several days.”

“I don’t have anything made up, but there’s clean linen in the closet,” Bilba tossed her walking stick back into the rack by the door and smoothed down her skirt. “Fili can show you.”

Thorin shot her a last, unreadable look but allowed himself to be led off down the corridor to the second bedroom. As soon as they were out of sight, Bilba leaned against the wall, pressing her hand to her chest to letting out a long breath. She felt almost as if she was going to be sick, and her head was spinning. The sight of that sword – beat her and break her, but she never wanted to be facing the business end of a sword again, not as long as she lived.

There was a rush of movement from the corner of her eye and she found herself hauled up off the floor with Kili’s arms wrapped around her stomach and hips, his face half pressed into his bosom.

“Oof! Oh, now you’re all cuddly, when your blasted uncle isn’t here to see,” she grizzled, draping her arm around his shoulders.

He arched his neck back to look up at her. “It all happened so fast. And Fili said he wouldn’t hurt you.”

I didn't know that,” she pointed out.

He gazed up her with his big brown eyes. “I’m sorry, Bilba, we should have told him to wait. But give him a chance. He’s amazing, he is, the things he’s done, the things he’s seen—”

“Alright, yes, I believe you,” Bilba rested her chin on the top of his head. To think she might never have had a moment like this again – they might really have walked out that door, to who-knew-where, to dangers beyond anything she could imagine, never to return, or to come home changed and dwarven. Her heartbeat was settling, and she was starting to feel that the fear and the sword had been worth it after all, in defence of her boys. “Put me down, quick, they’re coming back.”

With a chuckle Kili set her back on her feet, and she made a show of punching his arm as Thorin and Fili came around the hallway. That was how Tough Dwarf Men were supposed to treat each other, wasn’t that right?

“You have a beautiful home, Miss Baggins,” Thorin nodded at her. “I apologise that I did not see it earlier.”

Apologising for not appreciating her furnishings seemed quite on a different scale from apologising for drawing a sword on her. However, she wasn’t about to start another argument tonight. She glanced at Fili, but he seemed to be examining the coat rack, a faint flush in his cheeks. She wondered if he'd expected the sword, and how sure he'd really been that Thorin wouldn't hurt her. Surely he wouldn't really have left without a struggle - surely he'd have talked Thorin into coming back once his uncle had calmed down. Surely.

It was a conversation for another night. She sighed, “You had other things on your mind, I’m sure. And on that note,” she scrubbed her hands down her face, “I rather think I’m ready for bed.”

Chapter Text

It was not the same Bag End that Bilba woke to the next morning, nor the next.

There was joy in the air, like the scent of lightning before a storm. Bilba could see it in the way Kili moved, hurrying all his tasks and bouncing at every step, and in the way Fili held still, always watching Thorin when he was in the room and listening for his arrival when he was not. But their uncle had brought a heaviness to the house as well, as if the ghost of his arm was made of cast iron instead of flesh. He smiled rarely and questioned the boys often, about what they did around the Shire, what they remembered of life with other dwarves. He corrected their khuzdul and their history when they misspoke but gave them no thanks when they brought him food and fresh clothes, or tried to help him with something that required two hands. He accepted only what he had to and refused their help whenever possible. About his own history he spoke little, except when they asked him about his distant youth, about Erebor and the battles against the orcs. And sometimes in the evenings – especially after a couple of large pints from Bilba’s cellars – he talked about his sister, giving his own slant on memories the boys shared or telling new stories from her long life before they were born.

“After the dragon, she was our little light. Nothing would dampen her. She had Mother’s temper and Thrain’s dark moods, but I think she saw them in me too, and fought both as long as she lived,” he said one night. They were sitting around the cleared table. Thorin's scarred fingers trailed around the lip of his tankard. He shook his head as if to clear some fog from his thoughts. “So few children escaped that day… the nurseries were deep in the mountain, where we all thought they would be safest. You know, if you’d been born there, you might neither of you have seen the sun until your fifth or sixth year,” he raised his eyebrows at Fili and Kili, and then looked down at his hand again. “But Dis was never happy wandering the same halls every day. She was out exploring the hills above Dale, with our brother. They would have felt the wind of Smaug’s wings even before we did. And when our people were wandering, she was one of the youngest. There was bitterness even then – though I didn’t see it until I looked back later. So many had lost their children, their wives, their husbands, sometimes all of their brothers. But from the royal line not a single soul had been taken by the flames. They whispered that Thror had known the dragon was coming, had warned his family and no one else.”

He drained his cup and placed it down carefully, as if afraid to wake a sleeper only he could see.

At first he was restless, rising early every morning, endlessly searching for things to do, much as his nephews had when they’d first arrived at Bag End. But as the days stretched on and there was no more talk of leaving, Fili and Kili seemed to lift the weight of the iron bit by bit. They found ways to keep Thorin busy, bullying him into walking the hills and hobbit roads with them, teaching him Shire cooking, insisting he chopped wood and help with the laundry even when he grizzled that it was beneath him. Or they simply took turns sitting with him when his brow was tense and his gaze wouldn’t shift from the distant horizon.

Bilba took no part in this. She hid in her study when she could and spoke mostly to the boys when she joined them for meals. At first she told herself she didn’t want to intrude on the reunited family, especially since Thorin had taken it so badly last time. She’d give them space for now. But soon she had to admit she was simply avoiding Thorin. She didn’t want to be friends with him, or see if he had any remorse for his behaviour. She felt like she was living in one version of Bag End, and he in another, perhaps in a distant time or a whole other world. Their overlapping homes were fused together by Fili and Kili, but they were condemned to only glimpse each other and never really meet.

 

They had to collide sooner rather than later. Only a few weeks after his unpleasant arrival, Thorin came knocking on the door of Bilba’s study. She summoned him in cheerfully, thinking he was one of the boys, and almost fell off her chair when she turned to find him hulking in the doorway.

“Miss Baggins,” he cleared his throat. “How are you?”

Not as well as I was a moment ago, she thought, but didn’t say it. She forced her mouth to smile. “Very well, thank you. And yourself?”

He plunged straight into it, but not gracefully. “I’m afraid… that is to say, I would rather not…” he cleared his throat. “I’m not sure what else to do. Perhaps I shouldn’t—”

“Please, do spit it out,” Bilba sighed. “I’m sure I will not die of shock.”

He rumbled again and finally said, “I wish my nephews to learn the weapon arts passed down to me. There are forms and skills in dwarven families, passed from father to son, that would be lost in a generation if not learned and honed... not that that's important to you—”

"Why wouldn't it be important?" Bilba folded her arms. "You think I can't appreciate your culture simply because I prefer garden trowels to broadaxes?"

"That's not what I meant!" he snapped, "I'm just explaining!"

"Well, then explain!"

He took a slow breath through his nose. "What I'm trying to say is..." he gritted his teeth, "I can make them wooden swords and axes for practise, but they must also know the weight of a blade, and how to care for it and handle it safely. It’s a part of their heritage, and all the inheritance I have for them, really.”

“I see,” Bilba pursed her lips to stifle a laugh. “You want my permission to bring swords into the house? You really think I can stop you if those boys get a whiff of your plan?”

Thorin looked away, his cheeks turning ruddy. Bilba’s mind clicked into place like well-oiled clockwork and she glanced down at her quill. “You need money.”

“I will pay you back, of course,” Thorin said in a rush. “When I have the means.”

Bilba raised her index finger. “Of course not. I think it sounds like a wonderful idea,” good gracious, my poor house is going to suffer. I’ll make a rule, no unsheathed swords inside, “I would be delighted to fund their education – and obviously, you’re the one who knows what best to teach them. Tell me what you need.”

Thorin told her, and the damage wasn’t quite as bad as she might have expected. The very next week he disappeared off to Bree for a few days, and returned with two heavy packages tied across his back. Bilba watched through the kitchen window as he gave the wrapped bundles to his nephews. Kili’s eyes almost bulged out of their sockets as he drew the fine blade out of its sheath, and Fili kept shaking his head as if he thought the sword in his hands was nothing but a mirage. Bilba couldn’t help smiling to herself as Thorin was immediately forced to lecture Kili about keeping the point down and his grip firm, and to stop pointing it at his brother.

The next morning Bilba was up early when she heard a clattering and the occasional thump from the windowless chamber behind the guest bedroom. She poked her nose in to find Thorin hunched down on one of the kitchen stools, his back to the door. He’d constructed a remarkable table out of the writing desk from the bedroom, with a vice that held his work still. With his single hand he was sanding down a long branch into a mock blade, humming a low tune to himself. The voice resonated from his chest like the clear flow of water from a dark spring, beautiful and captivating. Bilba couldn’t help stopping to listen, and was caught by surprise when he suddenly twisted to look at her.

“Miss Baggins.”

“Mr Dwarf,” she nodded quickly. “I, uh, I think I left… eggs. In the pan.”

She scurried out before he could challenge her story, but not before she caught the twitch of a smile beneath his beard.

The weapons lessons became a daily ritual, sometimes even twice daily, and Fili and Kili practiced in between them, attacking each other with walking sticks or wooden spoons and begging Bilba to try and disarm them, “Go on, just try, I’m totally getting the hang of this—”

The good mood stayed with Fili, but waned in his brother. Bilba didn’t catch on until she got up to bid Kili goodnight one evening to find he merely grunted and shuffled off without a word. She went to the parlour, lit herself a pipe and was just relaxing when she realised Thorin was sitting in the shadows, his gaze locked on the dying fire. He lifted his eyes at last and nodded at her. She had just got comfortable and didn't intend to move, so she decided not to go back to her study. It was her parlour, after all. She could sit and smoke where she wanted and if he didn’t like it, he could move. After a few breaths, however, she spoke up.

"Does Kili seem a little... morose to you, these past few days?" she asked.

Thorin looked over at her. "I know. I think it's because he's finding it difficult to keep up with his brother in training."

Bilba grimaced, "That's the last thing we need! When he gets in a stew he'll never get himself out."

"He digs himself deeper and deeper," Thorin agreed. "I thought he'd grown out of it."

"And here I thought he'd grown into it."

"Oh, no, he's always done it. Every time Fili reached some milestone before him - the first knife his mother made him, the first time we let him go hunting alone, or when he was allowed to drink wine at the table - Kili would throw a terrible tantrum and then be gloomy for days. Dwarves always have a naming ceremony at thirteen, but Kili was so depressed after his brother got a Khuzdul name that Dis and I conducted his at eight. We couldn't stand another week of his sulkingƒ."

"Oh, I know that feeling," Bilba raised her eyebrows. "He got worse and worse for a month after Fili's beard came in."

"He didn't," Thorin huffed.

"By the end of it he was barely eating!" she gasped. "It was a nightmare!"

A smile passed between them. Bilba wondered why she'd never asked Thorin about his memories of the boys before they were separated. She wanted very much to know how much she'd missed of their early lives, how different they'd been, how much they'd grown in Thorin's eyes. Although she was quite glad she had never had to care for them as babes. She hated infants. Noisy, difficult, selfish things, she'd never understood the appeal of them, except for the part where infants eventually turned into people like Fili and Kili. But never mind that - they had a problem on their hands.

"We have to cut it short as soon as possible," Bilba jabbed her pipe at him.

"I've tried to tell him he'll improve with practise."

She shook her head. "You must find something else he's good at."

He inclined his head. "If I knew what that was I'd have it cut and polished by now," he paused and then asked hesitantly, "Do you have any ideas?"

Bilba frowned to herself. "He's damn good at conkers, but I don't think that quite compares. And at knocking the crows over with stones when they're getting at my strawberries. You could teach him to throw knives," she shuddered at the thought.

Thorin narrowed his eyes. "That's something."

"What?" Bilba asked. "You're not really going to have him throwing my steak knifes about?"

"No. Let me see first, and I'll let you know."

The conversation felt like a tentative success, a parlay without even a necessary battle. Bilba decided that having an ally against Fili and Kili might, in fact, not be the worst idea. Her usual response when they disobeyed her was, "Fine, on your head be it," and then they found out the hard way that she was right (and she usually was). But if she had the Mighty Uncle Thorin backing her up, she might be able to convince them to do what she said before they got into trouble.

 

At dinner a few days later, the boys scoffed down their food and then raced off to find their boots before Bilba could even suggest dessert.

"Where are you going in such a hurry?" she leaned around the doorway and was almost bowled over by Kili rushing through to grab his coat.

"Sorry! Sorry! Uh," he tugged his sleeves down. "Just going to a sort of, um..."

"Gathering," Fili supplied from the other room.

"Yes, a friendly gathering with some of the hobbiton tweens," Kili said without meeting Bilba’s eye. "It'll be very boring, I expect. We'll probably be back before you're in bed."

"No we won't," Fili yelled from the front hall.

"Apparently, no, we won't," his brother patted Bilba's curls and backed out of the room. "Have a nice evening!"

"Keep an eye on each other," Bilba called after them. She shook her head, going back to her dinner, and realised Thorin was staring at her.

He cleared his throat. "You're just letting them out on their own?"

Bilba shrugged. "It's Daphne Brockhouse’s birthday party at the dance hall, I heard her sisters talking about it in town today."

"Yes, but… well… you don't know what they’re doing down there. Or when to expect them home."

Bilba shrugged and reached across to pick up the wine. She felt a resigned and smouldering anger that Thorin was lecturing her already, but was determined not let him goad her into a fight. She was too tired and the house felt too empty for that. "I've told them to keep a clear head at all times. And I've explained how to make... responsible decisions, and… ahem," she waved the bottle at him. "Would you like another half glass?"

"No, thank you," Thorin growled, and then his face contracted for a moment and he reached for his mug. "Actually, yes. Please."

"Are you sure?" Bilba narrowed her eyes, not bothering to hide the sarcasm in her voice.

“Are you sure they aren’t up to something unwholesome?” he asked.

“Oh, for—” she managed to restrain a cuss as she sat back. “You act like they’ve only just learned how to button their trousers! How are they to grow if you won't give them air?”

Thorin looked away. Bilba was expecting him to storm out or worse, but after a long silence he nodded. “I’ll have that drink, if it’s still on offer.”

“We might as well finish the bottle, since we’re too old get an invite to the party.”

Thorin actually smirked, to her surprise. He sipped his glass slowly. When they’d both finished their glasses he said suddenly, "I need your help with something."

He sounded as serious as if he was asking her to cut off his remaining arm. Bilba dreaded to think what dark deed he had for her, given that he’d waited until the boys were well gone from the house. Her breath caught in her throat as she followed him through the halls into the backroom he'd commandeered as his workship. And that was how she found herself helping him string the brand new, supple wood bow he had made for Kili, which he couldn't do with one hand no matter how he tried.

"This is beautiful," she said, running her fingers across the smooth curve. She tested the strength of the string.

"Don't let that go!" he snapped, and then ducked his head when she jumped in surprise. "It weakens the wood, releasing it without an arrow," he explained.

"How did you learn to make this?"

He scratched at his ribs as if to ease the ghost of his arm. "Craftsmanship is in a dwarf's blood. Skill, artistry, passion – it's who we are. All we make, we must make the best, find the means and resources to achieve the best, and pass the knowledge down so that the best will always be better."

"Hobbits don't have such noble hearts," Bilba pushed a pile of papers off the chest of drawers nearby and hopped up to sit on top. "Our only goal in life is to seek simple pleasures and avoid trouble."

Thorin settled himself on the stool, his leg propped up on a box of tools nearby. In the light of the candles, he looked fearsome and harsh, but Bilba was not so afraid of him as she had been on that first night. She wished he wouldn't stare so hard, though. At last he said, "That does not seem ignoble."

"I don't care whether it is or it isn't," Bilba said brightly, resting her hands in her lap. "But I suppose I do worry what the boys think of me."

Thorin huffed a laugh. “I think you’re quite safe there. They adore you.”

She hoped the candlelight was too dim for him to see the pink bloom in her cheeks. Flattery was nice but it wasn’t productive, she thought to herself. “Yes, but not the way they see you,” she insisted. “They’ll grow out of me. They want to become you.”

Thorin shook his head. “We must not let that happen,” he said, with no trace of mirth now. He stared at the bow resting against the side of his worktable. “They must be better. I must give them something better.”

 

From then on, some measure of truce had been settled between Bilba and Thorin. She did not avoid him by hiding in her study, and he must have been avoiding her too, because they at last began to run into each other as often as two people should when they share a house and sleep in rooms right next to each other. The bow had been every bit as successful as they could have hoped for – Kili took to archery like a calf to milking, as Bilba's father used to say, and soon his temperament was back to its usual cheer and impudence. And as Bilba had hoped, she and Thorin were usually in agreement when it came to Fili and Kili's behaviour and education. A united front made it much easier to keep the boys in line.

Bilba found Thorin on the roof of Bag End one afternoon, on a last warm day in autumn. The view of the red-burnished trees under the late sun was breathtaking, and for a few minutes she sat beside him and listened to the birdsong without speaking. At last their tranquility was broken by the crash of the front door being thrown open below them. Fili burst out of Bag End at a sprint, laughing loud enough to startle the sparrows on the road. He was soon followed by his brother, who was yelling, "Give it back! Fili! I'll kill you, give it back!"

Bilba leaned over her legs to watch them disappear around the side of the hill, though their racket was still very audible. She muttered half to herself, "Don't they ever stop?"

"I thought extra drills this morning might tire them out," Thorin said after a moment. He glanced at her and said with great solemnity. "I was wrong."

She chuckled and rested her chin on her knees, a frown wrinkling to her brow. A thought had come to her, tapping on her shoulder, trying to excuse itself and be heard all at once. When she finally took hold of it, it was as if she had drunk a very cold tonic in one gulp. She looked at Thorin.

"You're training them for something."

Thorin looked at her sharply. "No I'm not."

"You are!" Bilba hissed, as if afraid the boys could be eavesdropping. "You're training them to fight for you! What are you planning? What are you going to do, haul them off to war the moment they come of age?"

"You're being hysterical," Thorin ground out, but he seemed suddenly more interested in the sunset than meeting her eye.

"And you're a beast," Bilba snapped. Thorin looked at her finally. She took a breath, and words rushed out that she had never uttered aloud, not to anyone, not even to herself. "They're my children too, whether you like it or not. I need to know what their future holds."

Deep lines had appeared in Thorin's brow, but his voice was steady. "There is no war to spirit them off to, and I have nothing that could be called even a cousin of a plan. If that changes, I will tell you," he nodded at her. "But when I look for their future, I don't see the Shire, I don't see green hills and Hobbit holes for the rest of their lives. If you think this could ever be enough for them, you are in for a nasty surprise, Miss Baggins. They are dwarves. They should be princes of dwarves. They will leave you, Bilba, no matter how tight you cling to them, and seek wilder and richer paths than you can offer them. I want them to be prepared for that."

Bilba had been breathing hard through her nose as he spoke, but now she closed her eyes, imagined pouring fresh tea, and slowly got her heartbeat back under control. He was right. She knew he was right, though she couldn't admit it out loud. After a long time she said, "But you'll be with them? You'll protect them?"

"To the death," he answered. She was sitting on his right side, but he reached across his body and put his hand over hers. It was the first time they had ever touched, except perhaps when passing the salt over the dinner table. Bilba could feel the scars and the heat of his blood pulsing through his palm. She looked at him, finding his face much closer because of the awkward way he had had to twist to reach her. She wondered if she had ever taken the time to look at his face properly. His brows were heavy and his nose very long and straight, a very un-hobbit-like nose indeed, but despite that he was handsome beneath the close-shorn beard. A wearied handsome, like a fencepost that held up against the weather and the roots long after the wires had fallen and the nails rusted away.

"Don't say that," she said quietly, her hand tightening around his fingertips before she could think twice about it. "Giving your life for another... ugh!" she shuddered. "Don't talk about it like it's the be all and end all of yourself. I would rather run away, if I could."

"I must always be ready to make such a choice," he insisted, letting her hand go and straightening his back. "And with the curse waiting to take me, I would rather go fighting."

"This curse business is nonsense," Bilba said, and his thick eyebrows jumped up as he looked at her. "It is," she insisted. "I shan't believe it! Thinking my boys will meet only tragedy because of some vague sins of their great-grandfather – pah! It's the silliest thing I've ever heard."

She met his gaze and struggled to keep a smirk at bay. He opened his mouth as if to argue, and then simply shook his head, looking out over the hills once more. Bilba didn’t want to return to the peaceful vista. She wanted to keep talking, to keep Thorin talking. She felt sure she hadn’t got the whole truth out of him yet, only some new version of his usual riddles about honour and duty. There was something he hadn’t told her. He hadn’t told anyone, she suspected, because the boys could not have kept any really exciting ideas a secret for very long. She had been close to it when she’d asked him why he was training them.

Before she could try again or resign herself to watching the sunset, they were interrupted by the thud of approaching footsteps, heavy enough to shake the chandelier in the hallway below. Bilba looked up just in time for a fully-grown dwarf to throw himself half into her lap, almost knocking her right over, a missile of golden braids and arms thickened with sword practice. His body was shaking with silent laughter as he buried his face in her skirts as carelessly as he had before his beard came in. Except that these days he was far too heavy, lying across Bilba’s legs and elbowing her in the hip by accident.

“Save me, Bilba, I think he’s really going to murder me.” Fili moaned, balling his fists in her apron.

She looked up to find Kili arriving, pink-cheeked and out of breath, baring his teeth. “Get up! Get up and face me, stop hiding behind Bilba!”

“No, no, I’m a coward. Don’t hurt me,” Fili’s said in a muffled voice, but any pretence of fear was ruined by another rumbling giggle.

Bilba rolled her eyes and dug one hand into Fili’s hair to lift his head up. “If you stole something from him, you don’t deserve my protection. Go on, give it back.”

Before Fili could respond, Thorin suddenly shoved himself to his feet and walked back up over the roof of Bag End. Bilba caught his stormy expression before he turned his face away, muttering something about "...behaving like children." The dying sunlight turned the glints of silver in his hair into red embers as he disappeared over the crest of the hill.

Fili scrambled off Bilba and sat back on his heels, his hands resting on his thighs and his cheeks flushed. There was no laughter anymore. Kili stood staring after Thorin’s retreating back.

“I didn’t mean it,” Fili muttered.

Bilba reached up and grabbed him by the ears to turn his face towards hers. “I’d rather you were cowards just as you are than cold, old dogs,” she said firmly.

Break and bother Thorin and his plans. She would hold onto her boys as tight as she could, for as long as she could, and they’d see who was still standing when the dust settled.

But Bilba didn’t know yet that she wouldn’t only be fighting Thorin for their attention, but against dragons and mountains and all the wonders the world could offer.

 

---

 

Gandalf arrived on a Thursday after the first winter’s frost, without notice or warning. It was the first time Bilba, Fili and Kili had seen him in more than six years, and that night Bag End was warm and full of food, good drink and loud voices. (And Bilba was as loud as any of them, determined not to be forgotten as the smallest.)

Gandalf did not seem surprised that Thorin was at Bag End – “A wizard has his ways, and frankly a one-armed dwarf in the Shire is not quite surreptitious, my friend,” he told him – but had a great many questions about why he’d come and why he’d stayed, and wanted a repeat of the whole story of how he had lost his nephews and his arm. It wasn’t a pleasant story, but for the first time Bilba heard it told without a clear note of pain in Thorin’s voice. He clapped his hand on Fili’s shoulder as he spoke of their reunion, and launched straight into a very generous description of Bilba challenging him in the front hall. Bilba buried her face in her tankard and took a deep gulp as Gandalf glanced her way.

“My, my, I see I did very well when I chose her door all those years ago,” Gandalf smiled.

You did well?” Bilba spluttered, and had to wipe ale off her chin. “Firstly, no door in the Shire would have turned these two lumpheads away once they’d met them, and secondly, you don’t get congratulations because you dumped a job on me and I did it properly for you!” she jabbed her thumb into her chest.

Gandalf’s whole body shook with laughter as she seethed at him, and Kili was guffawing so hard he almost fell off his chair, but when Bilba turned her glare on Thorin he merely met her eyes, then rolled them at Gandalf and shot her a patient smile. She appreciated that rather more than she expected.

Bilba turned in first, quite exhausted by the festivities, but when she next stirred in her bed she found the darkness as deep as when she’d gone to sleep. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. Too much ale, that’s why she was awake, and she was getting too old to drink before bed. With a sigh she got up and wandered into the halls, not bothering with a candle in the darkness. She knew Bag End as well as she knew the hair on her feet.

There were still voices in the parlour, and the smell of a fresh pipe, but she didn’t think they heard her as she passed. The door of the boys’ room was open, and she couldn’t resist pausing on the threshold, chastising herself even as she did. The room was solid darkness, but could hear two pairs of lungs breathing soft and even.

She peeked in on the others on her way back to bed. The fire had died right down, but she could see them sitting with their heads bent towards each other.

“…if the beast is as strong as ever…?” Thorin was saying, but then he must have caught a glimpse of Bilba’s white nightshirt in the corner of his eye. He jerked around, and Gandalf raised his head.

“Should we lower our voices, my dear?” Gandalf asked. “Are we keeping you awake?”

“No, not at all,” Bilba blinked as the last of the fire glinted off the window behind Thorin. “Have you found a bed, Gandalf?”

“Yes, Bilba, I’ll sort myself out,” Gandalf smiled at her. “You go back to sleep.”

“Mmm, I think I will,” the idea was definitely appealing. She was already under the covers, in fact, before her mind whirred to life and she began to wonder what ‘beast’ Thorin was talking about.

 

Thorin left with Gandalf the next morning. He did not make any grand announcement, but simply appeared with a bag and his travelling cloak fastened tight around his neck when Gandalf was heading out the door. His nephews moved to follow him, stammering questions, but Thorin turned and stopped them with a glance.

“Not for long,” he promised, pulling Fili in to kiss his forehead. “Only a month or two. It’s nothing to bother yourself about.”

“Let me come,” Fili insisted, as Thorin pulled Kili in for a tight, one-armed hug. When Thorin shook his head, Fili stepped forward. “If it’s nothing to bother ourselves about, what’s the harm in my joining you?”

“Because you do what I say,” Thorin growled. He raised his eyebrows at his nephew. “Don’t you?”

Fili lowered his gaze. “Yes, Thorin.”

“Good,” he turned and nodded at Bilba. “Miss Baggins.”

Bilba watched him stride down the path to join Gandalf at the gate. The wizard walked on with grand sweeps of his long legs that Thorin was forced to keep up at a trot, and before she knew it they were both almost at the corner. She couldn’t stand it. She grabbed her skirts and bolted after them, kicking up stones in her haste.

“Thorin! Gandalf!” Bilba reached them just as they turned towards her and she skidded to a stop, gasping. She raised her hand for their patience until she caught her breath. “Stop for one moment. Where exactly are you going?”

“It’s not your concern,” Thorin frowned.

“Isn’t it? Because I’m concerned!” Bilba snapped back. She looked between them, heaving breath through her nose. “Hmm? Where am I supposed to come looking if you don’t come home? If you want to run away, you might as well just tell me so I can break it to your nephews once you’re gone.”

Thorin’s face contracted. “I will return.”

“When you’ve done what?” Bilba asked. She looked up at Gandalf. “What ideas have you put in his head?”

“I’m going back to Ered Luin,” Thorin cut in, before Gandalf could answer. He cocked his head when Bilba’s mouth dropped open. “I wish to know what cousins of mine still live there.”

“The Blue Mountains?” Bilba lowered her voice. “Didn’t they throw you out years ago?”

“That’s enough, Bilba,” Gandalf was looking over her shoulder. Bilba could guess without looking that the boys had given in to curiosity and were coming down the road to join the huddle. “We will keep our heads down and cause no trouble. Don’t get yourself in knots over it.”

Bilba glanced back to find Fili arriving behind her. She shot one last glare at Thorin. “Alright, have it your way,” she spread her arms, her voice stretching into a thin growl. “Come and go as you please, and I’ll keep your bed made and a hot pot of tea waiting for you, shall I?”

Thorin’s shoulders slumped and he shook his head at her. “I will see you in the winter, Miss Baggins. Until then,” he bowed low, “Farewell.”

Anger flashed through her. It wasn't until then that she realised she wanted him to stay for her own reasons. Against all propriety or good sense, she had grown to like having him in the house. She liked their conversations and seeing that profile every day, with his nose like a battle-axe and the terribly hairy, un-hobbit-like silhouette. It was a moment of blinding clarity that left her speechless until Thorin and Gandalf had disappeared around the corner.

 

Naturally, she told Fili and Kili everything Thorin and the wizard said as soon as the three of them were back inside the gate of Bag End. There was a great deal of worry, but with no way to attack the problem they soon resigned themselves to idle speculation over lunch that day. Fili became entranced by the belief that Thorin had legions of loyal dwarves waiting for him at Ered Luin, and would be declared the true king there before the year was out. Kili was less enthused by his brother’s wild dreams, though he was the one who usually came up with the fantastical ideas. He moped and chewed his thumbnail until Bilba slapped his wrist.

“He’ll be fine,” she told Kili in exasperation. “It’s been decades since the dwarves took a dislike to him. They probably don’t even remember his name.”

Kili’s bottom lip stuck out and he fidgeted on the bench where he sat. “Dwarves have longer memories than hobbits,” he muttered.

"He's just going to see his family," Bilba soothed. "Though I don't know why - I take great pains to avoid most of my cousins."

"It's more than that," Fili said with a twitching smile. "He's planning something big. I'm sure of it."

It was then that Bilba remembered interrupting the talk about ‘the beast’. She tapped her bottom lip and frowned to herself. She had to admit that some conspiracy between Gandalf and Thorin seemed increasingly likely in her mind. She realised that Fili and Kili were both looking at her.

"What?" she snapped.

"You've thought of something," Fili said. "You've got that clever look in your eye."

"There's nothing clever in this old spinster's head," Bilba mumbled. "But… I did overhear something last night."

She told them the brief snatch she'd caught of the whispered conversation. The dwarves looked at each other, Kili's mouth hanging open. "You don't think...?"

"What other 'beast' is there left?" Fili replied.

"But... surely no!"

"I think so."

"Maybe the beast is a man. Maybe he wants to hunt down the men who killed Mama," Kili's brow tightened and a dark look came into his eye. "Maybe he'll take us with him."

"No - no, he never knew who loosed the arrow," his brother shook his head.

"We could find out," Kili said quietly. There was chilly edge to his tone that Bilba had never heard from him before. "We could go back to the town and make them tell us."

Fili was silent, a wrinkle appearing in his brow as he looked at his brother for a long time. Finally, Bilba snapped her fingers in front of Fili's face to get his attention. "Are you going to tell me what you're on about?"

The corner of Fili's mouth tugged into a wary smile. "I think Thorin wants to go looking for the dragon."

 

Snow came late but heavy that year, bringing down trees on the roads and laying ice over all the smaller streams. The farmers scrabbled to keep their cattle alive even inside the barns, bringing the weakest mothers and calves into their own houses and hobbit-holes. Fili and Kili went out most days, gathering with the local hobbit tweens to clear the bridges and wade through the snow carrying supplies for those who were too ill or elderly to leave their homes. The novelty of the white, silent landscape soon wore off. They were too tired to talk when they got home after a long day stomping paths for the tweens to walk behind them, irritable on the days when they were stuck inside, and Fili developed a persistent cough that made Bilba wring her hands with worry.

Thorin arrived when the gusts and billows of white were so thick in the air that even the gate at the bottom of the path could not be seen from the window. Kili was curled almost upside-down on one of the big armchairs, carving a perfectly good piece of firewood into a square-edged dwarven warrior. Fili was sitting in the kitchen over a hot bowl of stewed peaches, the last of the summer fruit jars from Bilba’s pantry. There had been enough for one helping each, plus one more, which Bilba had bullied Fili into eating in the hope that if she just fed him enough he would get well and the rest of the winter would be uneventful. She was still not sure whether she was being a fusspot or whether Fili was hiding the worst of his pain, but she remembered the Fell Winter of her youth and had no reason to take chances.

When the knock on the door came, Kili dropped his knife and the kindling and rushed for it with Bilba close on his heels. She thought for sure it would be a neighbour or some other Shire-dweller, lost in the storm. Kili braced his feet against the floor as he opened the door and the wind shoved back at him. Snow rushed inside and cut at Bilba’s face with a malicious will. She reached out and grabbed for the arm of the visitor without wondering further who they were.

Of course, it was a familiar figure who tumbled inside, every inch of him wrapped up in a good oil-coat and a number of scarves, so that only a thin slit showed for his eyes. Kili shut the door with a snap behind him. Bilba was so surprised to see Thorin she tripped up over her own rug, but he grabbed her collar before she hit the floor and hauled her to her feet.

“Thorin!” Kili cried, and bellowed through the hall, “Fili, he’s back! He’s back!”

Thorin was already winding the scarves off his face and neck, his cheeks a ruddy pink and his blue eyes narrowed by a broad grin. He tore his glove off with his teeth and clapped Bilba on the back. “Hello, Miss Baggins! My, it’s warm in here, isn’t it?”

“You bloody fool,” Bilba scowled. “What were you doing out there? Don’t tell me you’ve been travelling despite the weather, you can’t pretend you didn’t see that storm coming!”

His smile didn’t falter. “Of course I have. It was a bit brisk, I suppose, but nothing to complain about,” he threw out his arm to his nephews as Fili shuffled into the hall. “Come here, both of you! Come and greet your uncle properly.”

Bilba had never seen him in such a fine mood. He sauntered through into the kitchen, and of course Fili gave him his bowl of peaches as soon as he sat down, and Bilba could do nothing about it but get the water boiling and send Kili for oats and honey. Fili sat at his uncle’s side and pestered him with questions about what he had been doing and whether it had gone well. He did not mention their suspicions about the dragon.

“It went better than I could have hoped,” Thorin said. He took the bowl of porridge that Kili handed to him and ignored the honey Bilba had placed beside him. “I found my old friends Dwalin and Balin, spent a month in their home, and even longer with some of their cousins. They all want to meet you two,” he smiled at Fili. “The city in the Blue Mountains is a much larger and busier place than I remember. I will take you there, someday.”

"You should have taken me this time. It's not fair to leave me here just because Kili's too young," Fili said, not a little bitterly.

"I'm not too young!" Kili cried. "How can you say that? You've never travelled anywhere that I haven't!"

"Exactly my point," Fili said, and then rather ruined his boast by sneezing violently into his sleeve.

“You’re such a swine, why would you—”

Bilba clapped her hands twice, very loudly, making them both jump and fall silent. She rolled her eyes at them and turned back to Thorin. "Tell us what you found there. Did they all know who you were?"

"I kept my head down, as promised," Thorin told her. “Ered Luin is ruled by a council without a king, all tax-hoarders and merchants. I don't think they would have taken my presence well. But there are many who say that things were better under Thror, and that Dain in the Iron Hills is a greater leader alone than the council together. There is discontent, and talk of Erebor – my distant cousin Oin reports news from the East of ravens returning to the Lonely Mountain."

The room was in thrall now. Kili was leaning the whole top half of his body onto the table. As a log creaked and collapsed in the fire, he whispered, "It's true. You want to go back and face Smaug."

If Thorin was surprised that they had guessed this, he did not show it. He nodded solemnly. "Yes. It's still a seed of a plan, but it's been sown. The idea will be passed in secret to friends and to those they trust. Come the spring, on the twenty-sixth of April, any dwarves who wish to join me will meet us here, and we'll put our heads together the decide the best course of action."

Bilba's eyebrows jumped up. "Here?" she stabbed her finger against the table. "In Bag End?"

"Well, it’s where I’ll be..."

"How many dwarves are we talking?" Bilba tried not to squeak at the end of her sentence, and failed.

“It could be three. It could be an army. It won’t be an army,” he corrected himself quickly, with a tinge of disappointment, as Bilba began to splutter.

“Dwarves. Hundreds of dwarves. In my house,” Bilba whispered distantly, and shuddered.

Thorin had turned back his nephews already, settling his gaze of Fili. “I want you to come,” he said, in a voice drawn out like a delicate thread. He shifted to look at Kili. “Both of you, if you wish it.”

“Yes!” they both chorused, leaning forward across the table.

“Wait, wait, where exactly are you going?” Bilba cut in. “I mean, how long will you be gone?”

Thorin raised his brows at her. “It could be years, Miss Baggins, if we return at all. Erebor is my home, and if one day I am lucky enough to stand inside its halls once more, I don’t know if I will ever wish to leave them.”

Bilba couldn’t figure out what to do with her hands all of a sudden, linking her fingers and then shrugging them apart again as she looked from Fili to Kili. Her tongue darted out and she finally croaked. “I understand, I do. But… you still want to think about it, surely?”

“I don’t remember a time I haven’t thought about,” Fili said to her quietly.

Bilba wondered what had happened to the boy barely fitting into her father’s shirt, to his little brother who would hide behind his fringe and when she scolded him, to the twinned children who’d loiter in the far end of the house when visitors came calling. They used to do what she told them, once upon a time. She had loved every day that they grew into their confidence and strength of will, but for a moment she felt it had been a mistake to let them get so big.

“Bilba is right. You have plenty of time to think about it,” Thorin broke the sudden quiet. “I will not be angry if you choose not to follow me.”

Kili seemed to be shaking all over at the thought of turning Thorin down. “We don’t need to think about it! Of course we’re coming!”

“I won’t be there as your uncle, not even when the road is harsh and you’re so homesick you’re choking on it, not in the darkest night or the coldest rain. I cannot give you more than I give any other,” Thorin’s voice was a low, heavy contrast to the boys’ ecstatic faces. Bilba sat back on the bench, folding her arms to keep from fidgeting in her distaste. “You must be as grown dwarves, and carry the equal weight of all our companions.”

Nothing he said seemed have any effect on his nephews’ excitement. At once they wanted to swear oaths of loyalty and honour, but Thorin shook his head.

“No oaths,” he said. “I don’t need oaths from you two. Now,” he relaxed back into his chair, rapping his knuckles on the table. “Tell me how all these delicate hobbits have been surviving the winter.”

Bilba let them talk while she cleared the table. When the dishes were stacked she paused just outside the doorway, listening to the laughter from the room beyond. You knew this was coming, you silly girl, she chided. How could it not?

She made herself go back in and join them. Fili was looking at her as she sat down, and she saw something like apology in his face. She gave him a reassuring smile and he slid his hand around her waist and hauled her in under his arm.

 


The snow stopped the very next morning and did not return. Slowly, the white cloak that covered the hills shrunk and the streams filled up, carrying the cold away with them. Fili's hacking cough finally faded and vanished. The flattened grass began to straighten its stalks and the hungry cattle were let out to graze on the new shoots. The roads became thigh-deep in mud in some places; before long Bilba got sick of picking long and winding routes to town and let Fili carry her on his shoulders. She grumbled and clutched her hat at first, begging him to not go so fast while he laughed and made great leaps from one safe patch of ground to another, but soon she grew accustomed to having a dwarf as her steed and waved cheerfully at her neighbours as she passed them.

Fili was not usually as physically affectionate as his brother, but ever since Thorin had come home he seemed to be constantly by Bilba's side, making excuses about keeping her warm, taking over the cooking or helping her around the house. It would have annoyed her to no end if he had started doing it a year ago, but these days there was a dwindling calender in her head that made her hungry for any contact with her boys. Kili talked like he thought the trip to Erebor would be a cheery ramble and they’d be back in time for dinner. But in Fili's earnest gaze Bilba saw her own fears replicated; that these months would be their last together, that – by fate or choice – the dwarves would never return to the Shire. They never spoke about it, so she didn't know whether his sudden tenderness was for her sake or his, but she'd take it either way.

It seemed there was more on Fili's mind, however. He was kneeling beside her in the garden one afternoon, the two of them weeding the young roses, when he suddenly spoke up.

"I'm sorry I didn't stop the fight in the hall."

Bilba wiped her sleeve across her forehead. "What are you on about, lad?"

"The first night Thorin arrived. When he drew his sword against you," Fili tugged at a nasty patch of wood sorrel, his head bent. His hair was tied back from his face with a bit of cheap ribbon he must have pilfered from Bilba's bedroom.

"Careful!" Bilba pointed at his hand. "Don't tug so hard. If you break the bulbs off, it'll come back even worse by high summer."

Fili sighed and began to dig the roots up as he pulled slowly. Bilba sat back on her heels. She said quietly. "You don't need to be sorry, my dear. It was a difficult situation."

"He was so twisted up inside. Even Kili didn't see it," Fili continued to work at the sorrel, a few strands of hair falling from their tie, even as the words poured out. A confession he'd stored for more than a year. "All I could think was to get him out of the house until we could straighten his thoughts out. Then you stepped in to challenge him and it was another blow to his pride, because you're so small, and a lady too. I just couldn't... I still can't believe he would have hurt you. I'd never seen him angry at any woman ever as long as I'd known him! But it must have scared you so badly, and I could have stopped it, and it was a mistake, and–"

He had pulled the wood sorrel out at last, and knelt with the weed in his lap, his hands smeared with dirt and his shoulders hunched. "Forgive me. I left you in danger."

Bilba reached over and gripped his sun-baked arm until he turned to meet her gaze.

"I put myself in danger. Because you're mine to protect," she said, in the strongest and sharpest voice she could muster. "No matter how small I am or how big you grow, that won't change. Of course you're forgiven, Fili. You were forgiven the moment it happened."

 

Thorin had brought gifts back from Ered Luin as well his ambitions. He had new boots for the boys, made of tough, dwarven leather with iron caps. There was a warm, fur-trimmed coat for Fili and a new bow and quiver of arrows for Kili, stronger and with a much greater range than the one Thorin had made for him. Their training soon began to intensify, not just in weaponry but fitness, survival, and stern diplomacy. Several times a week Thorin forced his nephews on long marches with heavy packs, sometimes waking them without warning at the crack of dawn and ordering them to be ready before he finished lacing his boots. He made them stay up alone for hours on the roof of Bag End, and more than once Bilba was awoken in pitch blackness to the muffled sound of Thorin yelling, "Wake up! If I was an orc scout, you'd be dead right now!" By the fourth time she simply groaned and rolled over, clutching a pillow over her head.

Thorin also had a new sword for himself, and for the first time began to spar with the boys in earnest. He got very irritable when Bilba sat and watched, and she could see why. His left hand had no grace or familiarity with a sword, and though he knew how to move and use his opponent's weight against them, Fili often bested him in their battles. It surprised Bilba that even after ten years, Thorin would be so unused to fighting with his left hand. Surely that was plenty of time to relearn the skills he must have known so well with his right? Yet now that he had brought his weakness into the open, he was quickly regaining his strength - within only a few weeks, despite Fili's valiant attempts to keep up, he was almost unbeatable even when both his nephews tried to take him at once.

By the time the daffodils were sprouting along the hems of the road that wound past Bag End, the effects of Thorin's training were unmistakable. Fili and Kili had lost their hobbitish bellies and the softness of their arms. Bilba could feel a wiry tension beneath their skin when they hugged her goodnight. The square angles in their features stood out clearly in their browned faces, their hands were rough as rope and they had began to braid their hair instead of just tying it back from their faces. They talked more like Thorin too, rolling gently through their words as they sat nursing their pipes in the evening.

Thorin himself seemed to be meeting them halfway. As the dreaded April approached and his fighting skills were restored, years fell from his once-haggard face and a youthful energy hummed through him. The proper diet of Bag End no doubt helped fill out his cheeks, but it took more than that explain the lightness of his steps.

"I pledge this victory to you, my fair Bilba," he called one warm afternoon, after a third successful bout with Fili in the garden. He bowed low towards where she sat reading on the bench, holding his practice sword upright in front of him. Bilba laughed and stood to give an exaggerated curtsy in return.

"I am so glad you are guarding my larders against the bandits who have plundered them for many a year, Sir Dwarf," she said haughtily, holding out her hand the way ladies did in the books and paintings of legendary heroes.

Too late she remembered that he couldn't take hold of it while still clutching his sword. Before she could snatch her arm away and mutter an apology, however, Thorin knelt, his right shoulder twisting as if it still had anything attached and his head bowing to kiss her outstretched knuckles. His miming of his right hand was so perfect that Bilba could almost feel invisible fingers grasping her own.

He held her gaze. The skin of his lips was warm from the exertion of the fight, and his beard softer than she had expected. And quite suddenly, something low and central in Bilba flared like dry grass thrown into a hearth, making her clamp her thighs together in surprise. The blood rushed to her cheeks and she dropped her arm to her side. Thorin stood and tilted his head, still play-acting chivalry without any sign he’d noticed his impact, but the game was no longer light-hearted to Bilba. She sat down quickly.

You silly, old bint, she whispered to herself. What are you thinking? He’s practically family!

She spent the rest of the afternoon staring at her book without managing to read more than a few pages. Her brain was picking Thorin apart piece by piece, reminding herself how stubborn and difficult he could be, how hard she’d fought to gain his respect and how easily she could lose it by even mentioning the thoughts going round in her head right now. And he wasn’t even that good-looking, surely she could convince herself of that. All that hair. And those heavy brows. And his over-large fingers. Clever, agile fingers, that had etched delicate runes into Kili’s bow and caressed door handles and cups of tea as if they knew Bilba was watching them. Bother and break it, but this was absurd, she had spent far too long shut up in her home. She must be going mad!

The sensible, Baggins part of her wanted to forget the whole matter, but no matter how hard the Baggins in her shouted, the rest of her body wasn’t listening.

 

It was the night of the twenty-fifth. Nobody had spoken about the coming day, but the anticipation was thick in the air. Bilba could not stand the tension and retired early, trying not to think about what she would be waking up to. She spent a long time washing and brushing her hair and even longer tidying her shelves and making her bed, trying to keep her mind busy. Out the in the hall, she heard Fili and Kili calling goodnight to their uncle as they headed to bed. She still didn't feel sleepy, but she changed into her nightgown and lay down, hoping sleep would come automatically. It didn't. She lay and turned back and forth, unable to get comfortable. Just as she forced herself to relax and breathe deeply, she was jerked back to attention by a soft noise somewhere beyond her room.

Bilba lit the candle by her bed, got up and opened her door a few inches, blinking until her eyes adjusted. She could see someone sitting in the hall, on the bench outside the pantry. Even if she hadn’t recognised the hulking shape of him, only one person would be loitering silently in a dark hallway at midnight with his face buried in his hand.

“Thorin?” she mumbled. “What are you doing out there?”

The figure raised his head, his hair hanging around his face like vines grown over an old tree’s branches.

“Go back to bed, Miss Baggins.”

She could hear a hitch in his voice. She opened the door wider and padded out into the hall. The pool of candlelight slowly uncovered his face, which was drawn and narrow-eyed.

“You don’t look well,” she said quietly. “Are you ill?” and then she thought again, “Are you frightened? Of what tomorrow will bring?”

Thorin turned away from the candle’s flame and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “I’m perfectly fine.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re not at all,” Bilba switched the candle into her other hand and touched his shoulder. “Tell me. Go on. I won’t repeat secrets.”

Thorin’s face was hidden behind his hair and held away from the light as if it burned. He shook his head, his hand gripping his knee so hard she could see the shape of his knuckles through his skin.

“Please tell me,” Bilba whispered. “I'm not trying to be nosy. I want to help for your sake.”

At last he looked at her, and now she could not mistake the red rims around his eyes and the quivering clench of his jaw. “I am not what they think of me,” he rasped. “I am nothing, Bilba. A broken dwarf from a dead dynasty. Even if my kin come to join me tomorrow, they will know that and they will not follow me. And the boys will see it soon enough, and hate me for it.”

“Thorin, you’re turning your fears into mountains—”

“I was living in Bree,” he cut her off, choking on his words. “That’s where I was.”

“What?” she frowned. “When?”

“The ten years before I came to the Shire. All that time. I was working in a man’s shop, making hat brims, taking whatever scraps of food and affection they gave me. The shame of it was I never even looked for better work, I even stopped looking for my nephews. I gave up! Bilba, I burned down until only the core of me remained, and that core was a sad and unimaginative creature, and they will all see it as soon as they look at me.”

Bilba felt as it the air had grown thick as porridge. She managed to say his name, but he only shook his head again, the words pouring from his mouth now. “And then I come here, and one small hobbit with no stake in the game has done more for my nephews than all I have ever given them. I have nothing for them, nothing but dusty traditions that are worthless in their new lives.”

“You know that’s untrue,” Bilba said, but he didn’t answer, staring moodily along the corridor.

She sighed. Solving this problem was quite beyond her skill, she felt, but she knew it was not right to be annoyed at Thorin for putting it on her shoulders. She suspected she was the only one who could have borne his words, because as he said, she had no stake in the game, no honour or grand history to hold over him. She was simply an ear to listen, and she could at least do that much.

No, she could do better. He was wrong, the stupid old man! He was giving in to shadows and false terrors. He needed to be outside of his fears right now, and she needed – she needed a full stop at the end of this long sentence. She needed a way to mark this, the last time Bag End might ever hold the strange family she’d let inside. He was handsome. He was leaving tomorrow. He was her ally. And their truce had worked so much better than she could have expected.

Before she could think herself out of it, she reached up and pushed a silver-specked lock of hair away from his face, her fingers tracing a wrinkle in his brow. He turned his head and looked up at her sharply, not quite pulling away.

“Come to bed with me,” she said quietly.

Thorin blinked and a flash of blank confusion flickered across his features, and for a moment her cheeks burned with the thought that she’d completely overestimated herself. She was small and beardless and probably nothing like dwarf woman, why in all that was green would such a sordid thought have occurred to him? But then he opened his mouth and mumbled, “Miss Baggins, I would not… I mean, when you are married one day, you might regret…”

“Hmm, well, I don’t know what your folk do when they’re young and boisterous, but I wasn’t actually thinking of marriage beds,” Bilba winced. “That’s all a bit soon for me, Mr Dwarf, and I’d rather not take the chance of getting myself in a fix, if you know what I mean,” she had a poor enough reputation these days without adding that to the mix. She slipped her hand deeper into his hair, kneading her fingertips across his temple. “But if you like, we can just share, until you forget yourself a while.”

She heard him suck in a breath, his gaze flicking away and then returning to her face. The moment drew out in silence, and then he stood up in a slow, smooth movement. Her arm dropped to her side, but she was standing much closer to him than she ever had and she was suddenly reminded of the height he had over her.

And then his hand was slipping against the side of her neck, his thumb scraping the line of her jaw, and she strained up to meet his mouth halfway. So this was what he tasted like, this was how his beard felt against her face. She needed to know him, and he seemed desperate to explore her in turn.

He pulled back from the kiss, his eyes glinting in the darkness. "Bilba, you don't need to do this for me."

"I'm not giving you pity after all this," she snapped back, putting the candle aside before she could set fire to one or both of them. She clutched his face in her hands, stepping in to press them chest-to-chest and hips-to-hips, and dragged him down again. He pressed rough kisses across her cheek to her ear, mouthing the lobe, and at the slightest touch of his tongue she gasped. Yes. This had been a good decision.

"Come on," she mumbled into his skin, trying to tug him with her as she walked backwards. "Let's get out of the hall."

His hand was cupping her buttock even as he kicked the door shut behind him, rucking her nightshirt up until she could feel the cold night air across her legs. If that was where he wanted to go she decided to help him, releasing her hold on his collar long enough to ball her fists in the pale cotton and whip it off, crumpling it and throwing it aside. She had nothing on beneath it. When she looked back at his face he was staring at her with an expression of open longing, yet leaning away as if from a fire.

The room was too cold for Bilba to just stand there with not a stitch on her body. She stepped into his space and tugged off his light coat, feeling his breath heavy on her skin as she stripped him of his vest too, but when she reached for the shirt beneath he rasped, “Wait, wait – I’d rather not –”

She thought of the missing arm, of other scars she might know nothing about, and nodded. She wanted nothing more than to see him properly, to see what this old dwarf looked like under his clothes. She thought she had never wanted anything quite as much as that sight, right now, in her room. But she knew it was an animalistic desire, not something he owed her.

“Where can I touch you?” he asked, still in a low voice as if he thought he would scare her away. He was staring open-mouthed at her breasts, and Bilba reached for his hand and pressed the palm to her bosom.

“Everywhere,” she said. “Or I shall be disappointed.”

Thorin groaned and kissed her again, leaning in low so he could knead her breast at the same time. Bilba tried to ease him backwards towards the bed, but just as she’d reached the end of it he grasped her around the waist to hold her still.

“I can see you better if you stand,” he whispered, jerking his head towards the curtained mattress. “Not there in the shadows.”

“Yes, but – won’t it be –” Bilba gasped as he latched onto her neck, tongueing her pulse, “Fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn – oh – you –”

Thorin was making his way from her throat down to suckle each of her nipples in turn. Bilba dug her fingers into his hair as he knelt, his mouth trailing a line that bisected her from breasts to bellybutton. The callouses of his hand scratched up the back of her knee and her breath hitched. It seemed that, as with everything, Thorin didn’t intend to waste time. But for pity’s sake, if his plans were as she thought, the silly fool had to get her on her back—

His severe nose was stroking her hip, and he took hold of her knee and lifted it up over his left shoulder before she realised what was happening. She automatically dug her heel into his clothed back to keep from overbalancing, tightening her hold on his head in her surprise. His beard brushed her thigh and when she glanced down she found him looking up at her with the ghost of a smile. She nodded at him, any chatter lost like water through a sieve. Then his hand was on the inside of her thigh, sliding higher as his teeth bit lightly into the cushioned curve over her hipbone. And his fingers parted her folds and Bilba was convinced this wasn’t going to work and he finally, finally turned his mouth towards her centre and

this had been

a very

good idea

Bilba tried to stay quiet as his tongue captured her attention, as he stroked between her lips with his sword-roughened fingertips, but shortly she had to grab for the bedpost to hold herself up. Even then he had to steady her with his hand reaching under her backside and resting in the small of her back as the knee that hung over his shoulder began to twitch, and finally she could not keep her hips from thrusting against him.

She tried to stay standing, she really did, but as soon as she was finished her strength drained away and she slid into Thorin’s embrace, gasping and pawing weakly at his face as if that would do as an apology for sitting on him all of a sudden. She heard him laugh softly in her ear as he gathered her in his lap, nudging the hair off her brow with his nose. He didn’t complain as she simply lay across him for some time. Then her sensibilities started to come back to her, and she sat up a little and straddled his hips. His arm curled around her waist.

“You feel like you’re owed a favour,” she said, wriggling just a little as she cupped his face with one hand and his bulge with the other.

He opened his mouth to speak, probably to say something like how he could take care of it himself, but she cut him off and politely insisted.

 

The bed was not built for sharing with dwarves, but there was enough room for them to lie on their sides, not touching, looking at each other in silence. Bilba's skin was starting to chill, but she couldn't bear to break the moment and crawl under the blankets quite yet. She wanted to lie here for as long as possible, completely exposed in front of him, the moisture drying between her thighs. She wanted to make sure he wore that soft, careless expression forever.

But soon enough the wrinkles returned beneath his brows and he rolled onto his back, staring at the roof of her bed. She asked, a little mirthfully, "You're not feeling better?"

"I am," he said quickly, looking over at her. "I am, Bilba. If a little surprised."

"With a face like yours, I don't see how you can be," she countered, but he looked away without a smile.

"Things aren't as simple for me as they are for you," he said darkly.

"Stop," she pressed her hand over her eyes. "Will you look at yourself?"

She reached across the space between them and began undoing the buttons of his shirt. He was lying on his left side, and his hand came up and grabbed her wrist at once. "What are you doing?"

"I want to see," she said firmly.

For a moment his fingers tightened until it hurt, and then he let go. She waited for him to speak, and when he didn’t she flicked the last three buttons out and pushed his shirt over his skin to crumple behind him. The truncated arm sat against his side, a rough, knotted stump that stood out like an intruder, a parasite, against his dark-furred chest. Thorin’s hand stroked the back of her wrist as she stared at the stump. His ribs flexed rythymically in and out. She’d wanted to know everything and here it was, the centre of all his fears. She paused and then reached out to touch the scar, moving slowly to give him a chance to stop her. He didn’t. The twisted bulges were smooth, stretched over hard nodes of healed tissue. She could not imagine how much it must have hurt. How much it must still hurt.

“You needn’t pretend it’s beautiful,” Thorin said, after some time.

She met his gaze as she curled her hand around his shoulder, just above where the scar began. “This is what marks you as a king,” she said, in the voice she used to lecture her boys about fighting in the house.

He frowned at her.

Bilba cleared her throat. It seemed so obvious to her, but apparently she had to spell it all out for him. “You gave this to save your nephews’ lives. This is proof you would have died for them. But it’s more than that. It proves that you survived everything. Even when all was lost, all your kin and friends, you refused to die. And now you’ve rallied an army from Ered Luin,” he made a noise of protest, and she corrected herself. “A small army. Whatever they have heard of your family, whatever they know about your past, this mark tells them you can lead them through any trial and terror without fear. It’s your missing hand that will point your way back to your mountain, and you will be the one-armed king.”

For a long time he did not say anything. At last the corner of his mouth twitched and he asked, “Are you cold, Miss Baggins?”

“I’m bloody freezing,” she shuddered and dragged herself up, flung back the covers and wriggled down between the sheets, closing her eyes at once. She cracked one open to look at him. “You can stay if you want, but it’s not a very big bed.”

He shook his head at her, smiling broadly now. “It wouldn’t do for the boys to see me coming out in the morning.”

“I don’t care if the little trolls see,” Bilba said, sticking her bottom lip out. “Imagine the looks on their faces.”

He sat up and pressed a kiss to the curly hair on the side of her head. “Goodnight, Miss Baggins.”

“Goodnight, Mr Dwarf.”

The morning with all it terrors and goodbyes seemed a long way away. Bilba slept at last, and if she dreamed, she would not remember it come the daylight.

Chapter Text

"Me?" Bilba asked. She pressed her hand to her breast, looking between Gandalf and Thorin. A small tugged at the corner of her mouth. "I think you've got the wrong hobbit. I'm no more a burglar than Thorin is a lace-maker."

Thorin twisted in his seat to give her a sharp look. Her cheeks pinked as it occurred to her that perhaps, during his work in the hatshop, he had been a lacemaker. And he probably thought her words had been a cruel jibe. Bilba's stomach clenched. As if tonight wasn't frightful enough already.

For the last few hours her house had been turned upside-down and inside-out. It hadn't seemed so bad at first, of course. She managed to keep her composure when she opened the front door and met Dwalin – the real Dwalin, from whom Fili had taken his name all those years ago. He was the biggest dwarf she had ever seen, and frightful to look up with his bristling beard, iron knuckles and the hard-edged marks across his skin. His brother Balin was a little less severe but paid no more attention to Bilba than if she had been a hat stand. They reunited warmly with Thorin, and made brusque but positive judgement of Fili and Kili. Dwalin even had a slight croak to his voice when he claimed he could see their mother in both their faces, and then everyone retired to the back hall and Bilba began to think she was going to cope well with tonight after all.

She had seen new lines in Thorin's brow, however. She could guess what worried him – he thought that Dwalin and Balin might be the only two dwarves who would come, though Balin assured him they had been travelling with others only a few miles back. And then the doorbell rang again, too quiet from anyone else to hear, and when Bilba went to open it an entire flood of newcomers fell inside onto the doormat. After that had been pure chaos.

Now the dining table had fallen silent, most of the dwarves looking at Bilba with a wide range of discontent and curiosity in their faces. Dwalin growled and shook his head. “Aye, the wild is no place for gentlewomen.”

“I quite agree,” Bilba folded her arms. ‘Gentlewoman’ indeed, it was good to see that Dwalin had some manners after all.

“Why, she’d catch her skirts on every brier bush between here and the mountain,” a big-bearded, red-headed fellow added.

Bilba pursed her lips. “Hmm, now, that might be a bit of an exaggeration—”

“What if we meet orcs? Rabbits and other wee creatures can drop dead from fright, you know!” someone else agreed.

“Look, I’m not a rabbit—” Bilba started.

“I’m not going to push a lady in front of a dragon! Our ancestors will come back to life just to laugh at us!”

“I don’t think—” she tried to say, but someone else interrupted.

“I’m not going to push a lady in front of you either, Mr Oin, with your language after dark.”

There was a chorus of complaints, “It simply won’t do,” and, “What is that old wizard thinking?”

“None of you know what you’re talking about!” Fili’s voice roared out, and he thumped the table with his fist. “Bilba may be small, but I’ve seen her best enemies twice her size, and she’s never let Gandalf down. She’s the toughest hobbit in the Shire.”

“What enemy twice her size?” demanded the sharp-haired dwarf – was he Nori? “A heifer that wouldn’t come in to milk?”

“You watch your tone!” Kili barked, jabbing a finger at Nori.

Old Oin growled, “You watch your tone, lad, and don’t point at your elders. Even the disreputable ones.”

“Oi! Not in company!” Nori cried.

Quite suddenly, the whole table was shouting, the crockery shaking as hands and knees bumped the table. Bilba squeaked and tried to call for calm, but nobody could hear her little voice over the racket. And then Gandalf surged to his feet and a shadow like a storm cloud seemed to fill the room.

“Enough! If I say Bilba Baggins is a burglar, than a burglar she is!” as silence rang across the table, he slowly settled back into his seat. "Hobbits are remarkably light on their feet. And while the dragon is accustomed to the smell of dwarf, the scent of hobbit is all but unknown to him."

That might even have settled it for a little while. The dwarves didn’t question Bilba’s credentials again, and they certainly didn't mention her skirts. But then, of course, the fellow with the hat had encouraged Bilba to think about talons as big as swords and living bonfires.

The next thing she knew, she was sitting quietly in the parlour and Kili was pressing a hot cup of tea into her hands. Her vision was still spinning and ripples swirled around the mug as her hands shook. ‘Incineration’! ‘Furnace with wings’! She felt like porridge with too much water in it. But she insisted the boys go back to rejoin the gathering.

“Go on!” she shoved Fili’s arm weakly. “I’ll just catch my breath for a few minutes. Or hours.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to be there?” Fili asked, crouching down beside her chair and squeezing her hand. She swore she could feel every new sword callous he’d gained since winter ended. “So you can make up your mind about whether to come or not?”

She tilted her head as she sighed at him. “You really think I should? I’m sure to humiliate you both. Your old spinster aunt with her skirt caught in the brambles.”

He huffed a laugh. “Maybe. And maybe it’ll be worth it to see you trying to ride a pony.”

“Oh, get out of here. Filthy dwarves,” she whacked the back of her knuckles against his arm.

The party went on without her, and she was more than a little glad of it. She would rather not hear about the dangers at all, thank you very much. Her stomach had at least stopped heaving by the time Gandalf looked in on her. He did his level best to talk her into joining the mad venture, in his roundabout way, reminding her of her own distant childhood and a thirst for adventure that had always worried her mother. It was a nice story he wove for her. But it was nothing more.

“I'm sorry, Gandalf,” she said, putting her cup aside and standing up at last. “You already brought me the biggest adventure of my life, eleven years ago. Pass this one on to some younger hobbit.”

It was the right decision, she knew. The sensible decision. It isn’t as if anyone needs me any longer, she thought as she said a quiet goodnight to Fili and Kili before going to bed with some relief. They’re nearly grown, and there’s a nothing a hobbit madam can do for fully grown dwarves, she said to herself as she listened to a low song roll through the halls of Bag End. The melody tugged at something deep in her gut and for a moment she could see the shape of dancing creatures in the flames of her bedroom hearth. But she reasoned, a whole Company can look after each other. They didn’t need her to help them out of scrapes and muddles, let alone to conquer dragons. And what other reason could there possibly be for her to go?

That was the question on her mind as she lay down to sleep. By morning it had faded, and stayed dormant as she crept around the house, looking for dwarves hiding in the pantry and the bathroom. Nothing – they were all gone. Gone from Bag End, gone out into the world. Her adventure was over. It was time to settle down at last.

There was an old envelope on the parlour table with a scratched goodbye on the back in Fili’s hand and signed by both her boys (“And Thorin too”, Kili had written at the bottom). The contract had been sitting beneath the envelope. Bilba stared at it.

What other reason?

Dragons.

Elves.

Mountains.

Wild forests, goblin raiders, rivers of gold, strange languages, old maps, talking wolves, monsters made of animated stone, beautiful songs, sparkling lakes so large they filled the horizon. Every story Bilba had ever heard about the world surged through her veins and burst like fireworks behind her eyes.

Out there.

On an adventure.

“Oh, bother and break it,” Bilba gasped, dropping the envelope with its scribbled goodbye on the mantelpiece and sprinting back through the halls. “I wonder if any of Father’s clothes will fit me.”

 

---

 

Sometimes they were extraordinary days; sometimes they were some of the most miserable days of Bilba's life, especially at the beginning.

At first she swung between going quite unnoticed by the rest of the Company, and being treated with mild suspicion and outright confusion, as if she had seven eyes and always walked on her hands. Fili and Kili were too excited with the adventure and making new friends to notice how she always ended up at the edge of the group, and how the others talked over her (she was sure they didn't mean to, but she just wasn’t loud enough). There was an unspoken understanding that Bilba could not dote on the boys as she had in Bag End, nor order them about or scold them when they swore or forgot to wash their hands before dinner. She did not want to humiliate them in front of their new friends, nor undermine Thorin's leadership as their commander. She knew they were both aware of all this because they often glanced guiltily at her when they forgot their manners and then looked very relieved when she simply raised an eyebrow at them. As the youngest they were also kept busy with chores, along with Ori (who tended to be slower than them and daydream a lot, possibly on purpose because it meant Fili and Kili did most of his work for him). Altogether it meant she barely got to speak to them at all, but – at least on the outside – Bilba was glad to see them fitting in with the other dwarves so well.

She might not have minded their neglect if Thorin had not gone so cold all of a sudden.

He seemed to have taken her inclusion in the Company as a personal insult. As the days went by it got to the point where he said barely a single word to her in a week. Bilba wasn't sure whether he thought she was shaming herself by joining the venture or whether he simply worried that she would cause them trouble. Or perhaps he was embarrassed that she knew rather too much about him and was treating her with some kind of preemptive punishment if she ever dared mention his indiscretion to the others. Whatever the truth, Bilba was furious about it and because she was left alone most of the time she had nothing to do but fume. That made it even harder for the rest of the dwarves to approach her – "She's such an irritable wee dame," she heard Gloin say to Dori and Oin one evening – which in turn made her even angrier, especially at Gandalf for getting her into this mess, until finally she was simply exhausted by it all and became rather sad and quiet. She missed talking to Thorin. She missed smoking with him in the evenings. She missed watching him make arrows or work designs into a new leather belt, his hand moving back and forth like a clever creature all of its own. Several times she felt so dejected she considered turning back towards the Shire, but she wasn't sure she could find the way.

Old Balin was the only relief as they rode over hills and through dripping forests. Whenever his pony wandered near hers he talked to her a great deal, mostly about the history of Erebor and its people but also more personal stories of his life and memories of Thorin's family. Soon Bofur as well – who did not know how to keep his mouth shut even when eating – broke through the invisible wall around Bilba and began to tease her and attempt to scare her at every opportunity, though he seemed just as pleased when she kept her wits and bandied back at him as when she covered her face in horror and begged him to stop. Gandalf apparently sensed her isolation too, because he often came to talk at her and advise her, and slowly she found herself looking forward to their discussions in the evening, sitting at the edge of the firelight together. Her spirits lifted somewhat, Bilba became determined to at least win the respect of the rest of the Company, if not their affection.

The first opportunity – the incident with the trolls – she bungled rather horribly. It started when she took Fili and Kili their dinner and found out about the missing the ponies. Suddenly they were looking at her as they usually did when they came home soaking wet and bleeding or in trouble with a local farmer, with the desperate confidence that she would fix everything. And there is nothing like people needing you to get your courage up. They tried – rather feebly – to stop Bilba sneaking into the trolls' campsite, but she insisted, puffed up with her own fantasies about becoming the burglar Gandalf expected. Of course she got herself promptly captured, and then got the rest of the Company captured, and just barely managed to stall the monsters long enough for Gandalf to rescue them all. After that she told herself not to take any more stupid risks, though at least the incident seemed to have scared Fili and Kili back to her side.

By the time they reached Rivendell the boys were sticking much closer to her. They made excuses about looking after her because she was clearly going to her get herself killed otherwise (Kili even insisted on braiding her hair every morning in case she got it caught in trees during an emergency, complaining each time about how beastly her curls were). Following their lead, Ori began to talk to her too, as it turned out he shared her love of maps and strange languages. Then his older brothers began asking her opinion on matters over which they were arguing, often about other members of the Company (she was seen as neutral ground in the matter of dwarven gossip). Next Gloin regularly came over to explain some obscure economics to her, partly because he perceived that her delicate mind would have no concept of monetary matters and partly because it was so boring that no one else wanted to listen. Oin turned out to have a common interest in botany (it often turned into conflict; Oin did not know nearly as much about breeding vegetable stock as he thought). Bifur and Bombur had never spoken less to her than they spoke anyone else, but she made an effort to greet them in the morning and found Bifur in particular very good company when she needed some peace and quiet away from the youngsters. Dwalin still seemed gruff and wary around her on the road, but she no longer took that personally: he treated everyone like that, and it did not take much to get him chuckling at her jokes.

Soon it was only Thorin who she felt distant from, only Thorin who still avoided her eye when he was speaking to the company at large, only Thorin who did not guffaw with laughter when she expressed ignorance of some well-known dwarvish innuendo.

They had left Rivendell far behind and were now in the shadow of the long Misty Mountains, but despite the exertion and the discomfort of weeks without baths or warm beds, Bilba began to look forward to each new day. Her voice, though rather smaller and higher pitched than the others, was given as much space to be heard in conversations as anyone else's. The dwarves soon sung along if Fili and Kili broke into a concert of rousing Shire ballads. And when the best bed spots were being fought over at the end of each day Bilba did not have to make do wherever there was room, but was actively including in the discussions.

"You got the leeward side last night, Gloin, I don't want the wind getting through my blanket again tonight.”

"Yes, Dori, but Miss Baggins needs that space or she’ll have to climb over all four of us when she gets up in the night to relieve herself."

“I do not get up every night!”

“It was twice last night.”

“Oh shut up, Bofur.”

And so on, and so on.

Bilba had never had brothers, unless she counted Fili, and usually she didn’t. Among her cousins she had been considered something of a snob as a child, which suited her fine, and from their ranks she had picked her companions fussily as they’d reached maturity behind her. She liked her own company and she always thought it a good thing she was an only child. But for the first time, she could see the attraction of family, people you could not avoid, people you were forced to share food and discomfort and a fire with.

And yet Thorin still called her “lost” after her pulled her onto the path during the stone-giants’ storm, and declared she had abandoned them the moment he lost sight of her outside the goblins’ holes. Bilba listened to his vitriol even as she watched Fili clutching his brother’s arm and telling him to wait until they were sure, to keep Kili from running back up to the tunnel. It tore Bilba in two, but all she could do was close her eyes and stitch herself together in the bare moment before she stepped out to face Thorin. The relief on her boys’ faces made it worth it, and Thorin’s lowered eyes were at least a slight balm.

And then came Azog, and the eagles, and Thorin lying on the Carrock as if dead, and then Thorin’s arm around her and his apologies in her ear. She still felt thick-headed and heavy-tongued when she spoke to him at Beorn’s house over the next few days, unable to forget the gap he’d wedged between them. But she wanted them to be friends again so badly she stepped across the gap as soon as he offered his hand. She should never have let him off the hook so easily, but she was a hobbit, and no hobbit has ever been known for cultivating vengeance.

 

The forest was almost as black as night, and Bilba was alone in it. She had wandered for hours, calling the names of the dwarves until her throat was raw and painful. Her toes were bruised from stubbing them in the tangled undergrowth, her clothes were torn and her stomach was rumbling. She would have done anything for a mug of hot tea, but she did not even have a little water. At last she sat down against a leaning tree, tucked her hands under her arms and tried to sleep a little while. It seemed like such a stupid way to die, walking in circles without any friends. But perhaps the situation would look better in the morning.

What she awoke to was not optimism or even better light – though it was noon somewhere beyond the thick leaves – but a spider wrapping her up for its dinner. Bilba had come to in the nick of time, and was just free enough to get a hold of her little sword and kill the creature before it could bite her. At last it stopped twitching, the scent of ichor filling the air and Bilba’s breath fogging around her. And then she found that her braid, already a mess from sleeping with her head against a tree, was now so hopelessly tangled with webs that it stuck to her hands when she tried to wrench it free of the branches. It was beginning to pull horribly on her scalp, and she was still panting for breath and elated with the thrill of fight. Before she could think twice about it, she stretched the base of the braid taut and sliced through it completely with her sword. Free and light-headed, she picked a direction at random and stomped deeper into the forest.

Luck was on her side, though it didn’t lead her anywhere safe. She soon found the rest of the company strung up by a whole tribe of spiders, and she fought tooth and nail to cut the dwarves free and fight the spiders all at once. Once they had reached a relative, delicate sense of safety, the dwarves showered Bilba with more praise and jubilation than the sum of all that they had shown her since they met her. The explanation of the ring did not seem to lesson their esteem. Bofur insisted on having her perspective of the spider fights several times, and they were all very upset about the state of her hair, as if it was a fallen comrade she had tried in vain to save.

“Your poor curls,” Kili cried, his voice still woozy from spider-poison. He clutched his hands on either side of Bilba’s head, probably to keep his balance as much as anything. “Lost to the forest! Not even dignified with a proper burial!”

“You hated my curls,” Bilba said impatiently. “Sit down, for goodness’ sake, you’re as white as chalk.”

It seemed they had no sooner escaped that trap then they walked into another, but at least this time it was a trap that fed them and let them recover from the spider-poison. Bilba’s greatest concern, once she was sure the elves had no magic to counteract the invisible ring, was for their missing leader. Thorin had not been among the spiders’ captives, and no one remembered the last time they had him in all the confusion.

In the smothering tranquility of the elf-king's palace, the rumour of a thirteenth dwarf in the elf king’s cellar became Bilba’s first and greatest concern. She was almost jumping out of her skin by that stage, constantly listening for the breath-light footsteps of elves, barely able to sleep, worrying sick about the dwarves and her boys in particular. Reuniting with Thorin in the deepest hole in Mirkwood, she found her wits return and it seemed the only thing keeping them apart was the bars of the cell.

Suddenly the two of them could not stop talking, far more than they had ever talked even during the best days of Bag End; plans to escape, news of the other captives, messages to return to them, routes for the journey ahead once the escape plans worked, and finally just words, stories, jokes, Bilba teasing Thorin and Thorin mocking Bilba and stifled laughter in the darkness and then – once – a brief kiss through the bars. Bilba started it, and Thorin finished it, and she went red and said, “I’m sorry. I know you’re ashamed of me. I won’t tell the others,” and he replied, in a hoarse voice from his shadowed face:

“I am ashamed but it’s wrong that I am. I shouldn’t be. You are the worthiest woman still living in any part of world.”

And Bilba went even redder, and didn’t know how to respond.

 


The escape plans did come to fruition. Within a week of the kiss they were in Laketown, the Company and their skins both whole against all the odds. Their hosts were generous in the extreme, but Bilba had come down with a miserable cold, and was exhausted by all the festivities. She could not more than crack a smile when Fili and Kili danced a favourite Took jig on the long table in the Lake Master’s great hall. So she was in no mood for diplomacy when Thorin leaned across to brush her hand with his own and whisper, “You look like you need to be in bed, Miss Baggins.”

“I feel like I should be in my grave,” Bilba said through a badly blocked nose.

Thorin gave a decent attempt to laugh, but his face made an unpleasant grimace and Bilba tried not to roll her eyes at him. She mumbled, “You’re right. I think I’ll retire for the evening.”

“Let me show you up,” Thorin stood up at once. “So I know you’re being accommodated properly.”

“Alright, but it will just be showing me up, you shan’t be coming through the doorway,” Bilba told him waspishly.

He gave her a dark look, and she jerked her arm away as he tried to take her elbow, because she was in that bad a mood. He followed a step behind her until she got lost and he had to point her to the bedrooms set aside for the Company. She was sharing with Fili, Kili, Ori and his brothers, but she was the first to arrive there. The beds were still tidily made and the room warmed by a low fire.

She turned in the doorway and sighed, tugging the new coat the Lake-men had given her tight under her chin. “I’m sorry. I’m acting beastly tonight. My head feels like a pot with dents being beaten out of it.”

“I only wanted to see you safely to bed,” he said, the lines still deep between his brows. “I don’t expect more. In fact, I owe you far more.”

“I believe you. I don’t know what I believe about myself is all,” she said, and he flinched. Bilba stepped in close. "Are you alright?"

"Yes, quite – just the ghost pains again," he crossed his arm over his chest and gripped his side as if trying to take hold of the missing limb and rub the blood back into it. "They've been a bother ever since I was stuffed in that barrel."

"Next time I'll steal you a boat and cushions for your comfort, then," she stepped in to slip her hands under his cloak and wrap her arms tight around his chest. They didn’t even come close to meeting on the other side. He tensed for a moment, and then slumped and held her close with his single arm. She turned her face to rest it against his shoulder. He smelled of fresh-soaped clothes and the reedy smoke of the town’s fires. She muttered, “And your vigilance against bed-bandits is very flattering.”

“I don’t like the thought of you off alone in this town full of strangers. Yes, I know how foolish that sounds after all you’ve done,” he added when she snorted. “When Erebor is restored you never need to sleep in a strange bed again. You will be safe in the mountain for the rest of your days.”

Bilba drew her head back sharply, frowning up at up. “In the mountain?” she said. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my days inside your grim mountain.”

Thorin bent his neck to look down at her. “But if I am king you will be by my side – or rather, to whatever place in my court you choose, but – I mean, my nephews will be with me too.”

“Then that’s their choice to stay or go,” Bilba snapped, hating his assumption that the boys would choose his side almost more than his claim to her. “My home is the Shire. If this grand misadventure ends well, my end is in Bag End. I was born in there and it will be my good fortune to die there.”

Thorin stepped back from her, his warmth leaving her with an inrush of air. “You’ve made up your mind already?”

“’Made up mind’!” Bilba’s voice rose a little, clawing at her sore throat. “You talk as if I was ever in dilemma. Of course I shall go back to the Shire!”

There was a long silence before Thorin replied. “Of course,” his nose wrinkled, trenches appearing by the corners of his mouth. “Goodnight, Miss Baggins.”

“Goodnight, Mr Dwarf,” Bilba said, stepping backwards across the threshold of the room. She shut the door with a clap.

 

The argument weighed in her gut like a stone for the rest of their time in Laketown, and for some days almost threw them back into the cold seperation she’d endured before she’d saved his life on the slopes of the Misty Mountains. Once she was recovered and they were on the road again they both seemed to have thawed a little, but the rest of the Company tread carefully whenever they were near each other, like the dwarves thought they were two flints that must be handled carefully in case their sparks started a forest fire.

One morning she was going to wash her face when she caught Bofur and Dori in heated discussion with each other while they were fetching water from a stream at the foot of the mountain.

“I’m telling you, it’s more than that,” Bofur was nodding energetically as Bilba came down the rocky path behind them.

“You’re a horrid, gleeful muckraker,” Dori scowled back. “We all listen to Bilba now, don’t we? But Thorin doesn’t see her leadership as right and he’s gone foul about it. That’s all there is too it.”

“Rot and rubbish!” Bofur gestured so broadly that half the water slopped out of the bucket hanging from his arm and he had to crouch to refill it. “Have you seen them when there’s an emergency or a serious problem? They work together like oil and whetstones. They fit like cogs. He listens the moment she opens her wee mouth and she leans on him to get all her leverage with the elders—”

“Yes, yes, you’re a bloomin’ poet, aren’t you?” Dori rolled his eyes.

“—but by the stars, as soon as there’s peace and quiet, Thorin’s burning holes in the back of her head and she’s stomping around like someone salted her tea. How long was he living in her little warren before the rest of us got there, hmm? Long enough to play house, that’s what I think, but one or both of them have broken it off and—”

He turned around and found Bilba standing behind him, her fists balled by her side and her lips pressed tight together. To their credit, both he and Dori went very pale very, very quickly. There was a faint ringing between Bilba’s ears as she walked up to Bofur and jabbed her forefinger right at his big, dwarvish nose, her eyes so narrowed the edges of her vision were dark.

“Nobody,” she hissed. “Played. House. With. Anybody.”

She shoved past him and strode down to the stream.

 


And then there was the dragon. Nothing, not all she'd done and seen, could have prepared Bilba for Smaug. It was the most frightening day of her life beyond all measure, beyond anything that had happened under the Misty Mountains or in the forests of Mirkwood. And beyond all hope, they survived, all fourteen of them, having to count each other by voice and touch in the darkness of the tunnel. There was nowhere to go but downwards and onwards, and Bilba went first, unable to bear the suspense any longer.

Slowly, as they searched the grand halls and crept back out the main gate into the sunlight, they began to believe the disappearance of Smaug. It was good fortune comparable in scale only to their previous fear and despair. Gone! The worm was gone, and the mountain freed, and the treasure theirs!

Bilba found Thorin exploring the winding halls of his childhood. In the flickering light of his torch, she kissed him again, and they made a bed from their clothes, and closed all the gaps left between them.

Bilba lay across him afterwards, the sweat drying on her skin, her ear against his heart. His hand combed through her cropped hair, which Ori had taken to with scissors in Laketown and done his best to tidy. She never wanted to move again. She wanted to turn into stone and lie here forever. But after some minutes Thorin twitched, raising his hand, flexing his fingers with a shudder. She sat up, folding her arms on his chest. "Is it the arm again?"

"Yes," he rasped, trying and failing to look dismissive of it. He cupped her cheek with his hand and she leaned into it.

"It seems to be troubling you more than ever," she pointed out.

He nodded. "It spasms more and more often since we left Mirkwood. It's as if... as if it grows worse, the closer we get to the mountain. As if it grows more real–"

"Don't get superstitious," she raised an eyebrow. "It feels worse because you're not sleeping, that's all."

"The pain goes away when you're close," he whispered.

She took a deep breath and held his eye. "It's probably good that I want to stay, then."

He sat up so suddenly she almost rolled off him. He whispered, "For how long?"

"How long do dwarves live?"

"Bilba," he drew her in with his arm around her shoulders, kissing the top of her head. "Bilba. My beauty. My treasure. I will make you a throne beside mine and I will set the Arkenstone above your head so that no one’s gaze will ever be torn between my two perfect gems."

Bilba felt her throat close over, her gaze falling on the stump of his stolen arm. The stone in her pocket seemed to burn even from right across the room, where she'd folded and laid aside her waistcoat, the only piece of clothing she'd taken care with. She almost gave the truth up right there, but the moment had been so perfect, she couldn't ruin it. She shook her head.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I don't want a throne," she said quickly, to cover her guilt. "I want a comfortable armchair in a warm, quiet room. Nothing grand."

"Then you'll have that, and anything else besides," he promised.

But that wasn't a promise he could yet keep.

 

The news from the ravens was a double-edged sword – Smaug was dead, but two hordes were marching on the mountain. Soon the dwarves built a strong wall to turn their visitors away, but the days were already growing cold. Thorin no longer smiled, not even at Bilba. He stalked the wall night and day, cursing the elves and men he called thieves and enemies, or spent hours searching the treasure hall for the lost Arkenstone. Ravens came and went from the Iron Hills, but Bilba thought of the battle the dwarves were bringing with them and felt no comfort. There had been elves in the king's palace who had been kind to the prisoners, raising their voices to Oin, giving medicine to those worst affected by the spider-poison and even playing cards with Bofur. And the men of Lake-town had shown the dwarves only welcome, and been repaid with dragon-fire. How many of those good folk would die under Dain's axes? How many dwarves were marching into a fight that hinged only on Thorin’s stubbornness?

She feared for them all, but soon she feared worse for her own friends. Loyal Dwalin, Gloin with his wife and child back home, even Ori who cared most for books and art, they all talked of the gold and what they'd do with it more than they talked about anything else. The Company were willing to die for the treasure in the mountain, she saw that now. It might not even be an honourable death. Their supplies were rationed and stored in cold boxes under the stone, but they would not last the winter. There were already rumbling bellies after every meal, and Bilba caught Fili and Kili trying to sneak some of their stew into her bowl when they thought she wasn't looking. She made them swear not to do so again. She was too hungry to be properly angry.

There were already shadows under their eyes and when they walked they tucked their hands under their arms. Instead of their diligent braids they let their hair hang lank and unwashed around their ears. If there was a battle, they might die; if this siege lasted throughout the winter, there was no question they would die. Bilba had seen hobbits starving in her youth, during the Fell Winter. It was not peaceful. If Dain could not break the ranks of the men and elves, it would be her boys who died with their skin raw with bed sores, every movement agonising, their exhausted minds shrinking away like slugs under hot sunshine.

And it was this that finally set the idea afire in Bilba's mind.

She slipped over the wall that very night. She took the Arkenstone into the camp of their enemies. She returned to her bedroll and curled up between Bofur and Ori, and slept very well indeed.

The next day, as Bard and the elf-king parlayed from the valley below, she told Thorin what she had done, and Thorin nearly threw her over the wall.

"You miserable hobbit! You undersized burglar!"

Bilba already knew he had the strength to lift her, but she had never seen the rage, the hatred in his bare teeth and twisted brow. She clung to his wrist with both hands, trying to peel the strangling fingers from around her throat, feeling his spittle on his face as he roared insults at her. She could hear Kili screaming at Thorin to stop, and saw a flash of gold hair as Fili tried to pull her out of his uncle’s grip and Thorin kicked him away. Darkness bled into the corners of Bilba's vision, and in her confusion she swore she heard the rumble of Gandalf's voice, and felt two hands wrapped around her throat, one warm with Thorin's pulsing blood, one cold as the mountain's roots.

It turned out, of course, that Gandalf really was calling to her. His words soothed Thorin’s anger just enough for him to spare her, and he was waiting for her as the dwarves threw a rope over the side of the wall. Balin himself checked she had a good grip on the line before he allowed her to climb over, tonelessly instructing her to keep her feet braced on the stone. She met eyes with Bofur, his teeth gnawing on his lip, and then looked across at Kili and Fili. Their faces were unreadable, and next moment Thorin stepped between them and Bilba. He challenged them to follow her if they wished, and Bilba shook her head at them. They had to stay. Thorin might yet listen to reason if it was from them.

She let herself down the wall, her head still spinning and her throat aching, and as she reached the ground Thorin called out in a broken voice. "I am betrayed."

It was over. She had failed, utterly and disastrously, to break the siege. Thorin stood upon the wall more stubborn and paranoid than ever, and Bilba was taken back to the elves' camp. She had Gandalf beside her, and Bard, and Thranduil who seemed friendlier to her than he had been towards the dwarves, but she felt alone for the first time in twelve years.

She felt sure she would never hear Bofur's teasing again, never light a pipe up with Balin, never learn another dance from Dori's impressive collection. Gandalf found a thick shawl to wrap around her shoulders, but it was a thin shield against the cold wind. She was used to tucking in between two adolescent dwarves as they sat watch, or sneaking into the shadows and crawling under Thorin's blanket to curl against his back. She would never again lie against his sleeping body, twisting her neck to take full advantage of his warmth without getting a noseful of hair. That part of her life was over. The best she could hope for now was that she made it back to the Shire alive, and lived long and comfortably in Bag End. And the last she’d have of her boys was that brief memory of their faces as she climbed down the wall.

 

--

 

Soon came the dwarves of the Iron Hills.

Soon came the goblins and the wolves.

Bilba put on her ring as the battle reached them. She cowered near to Gandalf, trying to stay below the sweep of Glamdring. The mithril shirt that Thorin had given her felt thin and fragile against her skin. How could it turn back the smallest darts from the goblin bows, let alone a sword? Would it give any protection at all against the swing of a mace or a warg's jaws?

But then she saw a Laketown man fall without a sound, his eyes rolling as blood gushed from his throat, a brighter crimson than dyed silk or fresh flowers. She saw Fili in his face, and heard Kili in the strangled cry of the man who stood over his body. She thought of her boys, her rough-and-ready dwarves, fighting against numbers far greater than their own, of Thorin, backed against the mountain without an arm to hold a shield.

"Giving your life for another... I would rather run away, if I could," she had told him once, and on another day, "My end is in Bag End."

But they were her family.

She heard Gandalf calling her name, asking if she was still close by, but she didn't answer. Sting was in her hand and the Lonely Mountain stood before her, unmoved by the horror below as Bilba ran back towards its gate.

 

---

 

Fili blinked at the sharp, yellow glare of the afternoon sun. The smell of blood and torn guts was so thick in the air that he choked, and took shallow breaths for several minutes until he could stand it. It was still better than the air inside the healing tents, mixed with the cries of the wounded and dying. Those voices made him far more nauseous than the smell.

He limped forward on his makeshift crutch, the world swimming around him. He felt as if he were watching himself from some perch high above and behind his real flesh. Was any of this real? Was he really alive, when he had spent so long fighting, when the dead lay so thick across the valley? But his ankle really did hurt, and his eyes stung with salty sweat. And if he was dead, surely his spirit wouldn’t linger here in this terrible place.

Three of Dain’s dwarves bustled past him with buckets of water and he took a few more steps away from the tents. Once Kili had fallen asleep he couldn't stay in there any longer. He wanted to be present when his brother woke, but he couldn’t bear to sit and look at Kili’s ruined face, even now it was stitched and hidden beneath tight bandages. Oin said he’d probably lose the eye. Best to prepare for the worst, Oin said, but if the worst he lost was one eye Fili counted him lucky. When he’d found Kili under the body of the warg – the breath smothered from him, cheek torn to ribbons, with blood on every inch of his bare skin – he’d thought for sure that his grandfather’s curse had taken another life.

It still might. Thorin was… Fili shook his head. They couldn’t say yet. There was nothing to do but wait. Fili had no use among the healers, but he had his own job to do.

“I heard her,” Kili had whispered before Fili had hushed him to sleep. “Bilba was with us, unseen. I think she saved me from a goblin, before I got between you and that spear. I kept – I kept calling for her but – but after a while she didn’t answer.”

“I’ll find her,” Fili promised, kissing his brother’s hand – the left one, for the right was splinted, suspected broken in at least two places. “She’s probably out there worrying sick about you. She’ll be here when you wake.”

Now he had to find one lost, invisible hobbit in the whole battlefield. Gritting his teeth, he shifted his crutch and started to walk.

He met two Lake-Men soon and found to his surprise that Gandalf had sent them to the same task as him. Apparently the king under the mountain was demanding to see his burglar. Fili shrugged when they asked who exactly the little Halfling was. He didn’t have an explanation on Thorin’s behalf.

The three of them split up, and it was one of the men who found Bilba. Fili heard him calling across the field and hobbled back to him as fast as he could. There was a small shape in the man’s arms, her helm missing and her curls sticking in all directions. She was hanging off the man’s neck with a very familiar frown on her face.

“Bilba!” Fili yelled, raising his hand, a hitched laughter bubbling out of him.

The man knelt, but didn’t set Bilba on her feet. She stretched one arm out to Fili and dug her fingers into his hair to drag his face down to hers, pressing them cheek to cheek.

“Fili, my darling. So it wasn’t for nothing,” she rasped in his ear. Her voice was very faint, but she drew back and from only a few inches away held his gaze. “Where’s your brother?”

“Bandaged and sleeping,” Fili said, taking her face in his hands. Her skin was very pale and there was an impressive bruise bulging on her forehead.

“And everyone else?”

“Accounted for, though I haven’t seen them all myself. Kili sent me to find you. Don’t do that again,” and suddenly the tears came at last, pouring down his cheeks, his voice choking as he pulled her out of the Lake-Man’s arms and clutched her close, babbling, only half his words even making sense. “Mama, don’t go, don’t die.”

He heard her give a soft whimper and pulled back. She gave him a commiserating smile that bordered on a grimace. And finally Fili saw the blood, as she touched her hand to her leg, tied tight with strips torn from her own shirt. Far too much blood for such a small creature to spare, and still welling up beneath the rough bandages.

“I’m trying not to,” she whispered, and he saw a shadow tug her consciousness away for a moment. Her head lolled and then she came to, looking up at him with a frown as if she barely recognised him. He sucked in a breath, trying to haul her up in his arms.

“Let me take her,” the Lake-Man said.

“No, I’m responsible for her, she’s my…” Fili croaked and fell silent. His what? His Bilba, that was all he could say for sure.

“You can barely walk,” the man pointed out, and swept Bilba up before Fili could argue. He could only limp behind as they hurried back to the healing tents.

An elf with bloody hands and and a drawn face met them at the door, glancing over Bilba. “Don’t bring her in here. We’re already two to a bed,” he said.

“You can’t turn her away!” Fili cried, shouldering up beside the man.

“I’m not. Take her on to Thorin’s tent, your own healer has just gone there to check him,” the elf pointed across the camp and disappeared.

Fili led the man through the small city of canvas to where a corner of Dain’s headquarters had been sectioned off for Thorin. He lay in a rough bed that was still much better fare than most of the wounded in the neighbouring tents. His eyes were closed and his breathing just as laboured as when Fili had left him. Oin was busy taking the chance to suture the last of his wounds.

“Hello, lad,” the old dwarf nodded at Fili, and then turned to the man who stood behind him. His eyes widened at the sight of his burden and he waved his hand at the edge of the bed. “Well, put her here, there’s nowhere else.”

He and Fili managed to shift Thorin across a few inches, and there was just enough room on Thorin’s right to lie Bilba down on her side with her head on the pillow. Her eyes were squeezed shut and she gasped as they pulled the blanket over her abdomen, keeping her leg exposed. She didn’t seem aware of where she was any longer, but her hand found Thorin and travelled up his ribs to his stump. At last she began to relax.

“Fix her,” Fili begged Oin. “Quick, before she loses any more blood.”

“I’ll not rush it,” Oin grumbled in return. “Go on, boy, go and look after your brother. I don’t need you hovering over me.”

Fili didn't want to leave them at first, but then he thought of Kili waking up alone in that dire tent and he tugged himself away. When he crouched down beside his brother a few minutes later, Kili was already stirring, groaning quietly. Fili ran his hand through Kili's hair.

"Stay asleep. I'm here."

Kili's unbandaged eye snapped open. "Bother and break it, everything bloody hurts!" he mumbled, reaching for Fili's hand. "I want my pipe."

"It'll be with your bags way up the valley," Fili replied with a smile, because craving smoke could only be a good sign. "I'm not trudging up on a busted ankle just for your pipe."

"You don't love me at all," Kili complained, and winced as talking tugged his stitches. He gripped Fili's hand tighter. "Bilba – you said you'd look for Bilba–”

"She's with Thorin now.”

"They're safe?"

"Yes, both well. Complaining a lot, and asking after you," Fili lied, his voice choking even as he tried to smile.

"Good," Kili relaxed back against the ground. "What about the others?"

Fili ran through each member of the company he'd seen since the battle, and what he'd heard about those he hadn't seen. Remarkably, they were almost entirely intact. Dori was the worst hurt apart from Kili, but he was in the next tent over, and Fili had seen him sitting up with his brothers and boasting and how distinguished his scar was going to look. Nori had actually seemed rather jealous.

"Ugh, it hurts," Kili's mouth twisted and he turned his head back and forth, moving to rub at the bandages with his undamaged hand. Fili grabbed his wrist just in time.

"Don't touch anything," he scolded. "You're full of bloody stitches."

"Is that a joke?" Kili raised his eyebrow – or apparently, both, because he winced immediately. "Ah! Everything I do makes it worse," he looked up at Fili. "Did you see how bad it was?"

"You'll have a face to rival Dwalin's," Fili said. "The ladies will go mad for you."

"And my eye?" Kili pressed. "Fili? Did you see?"

Fili bit the inside of his lip and looked away. "I don't know. There was a lot of blood."

A shudder ran across Kili's skin. "A one-eyed archer's not much good."

"No worse than a one-armed smith, and I know a dwarf who's not done too badly like that," Fili said quickly. His brother smiled, but then his expression turned dour again.

"What are you not telling me?"

"Nothing," Fili said, but he wasn't even convincing himself.

Kili tried to sit up. "What is it? Who is it? Fili, please!"

Fili wanted to lie for a little while longer, but his throat closed up and he bent his head to press it against Kili's shoulder, his lungs heaving. "It's Thorin and Bilba," He shook his head and croaked. “They're dying and I can't do anything. I don't know how to save them."

Kili's breath hitched and he hooked the elbow of his injured hand around Fili's neck, careful not to jolt his own broken bones. He whispered from his bed upon the dirt, "It can’t be that bad. You know those two. Nothing can kill them."

Fili just shook his head. His brother stood up, wincing and cursing, and took hold of Fili’s arm with his good hand. Fili tried to make him lie down again, but Kili dragged him out of the tent and across the camp until they reached Dain’s guards, who let them through without questions. In the shadows at the back of the sprawling war tent, Kili knelt beside Thorin’s bed, his injured hand clutched to his chest. Fili stood behind him, squeezing his shoulder.

Thorin had not yet woken. His parlour was grayish and transluscent even in the poor light. Bilba’s eyes were closed, but there was nothing peaceful in her face. The blanket pulled up her chin moved only a little as she breathed in thin, irregular gasps. Their heads were turned towards each other, cheeks not quite touching.

Kili snarled. “It’s not fair. Everyone else lives and they – both of them – that isn’t fair!”

"It’s the curse. It took everything else. It’s taking them too," Fili felt himself sway, his mind growing distant from his body again as the battle rose in his mind. He sunk to one knee, leaning into his brother.

He had cut goblins from neck to naval and felt their guts spilling over his shoes, he’d heard an elf crying out as a new joint was snapped into his arms, bones tearing out of his skin like weeds from the earth. He’d watched his uncle kneeling with an arrow in his shoulder. And Bilba had been caught up in it, bandaging herself as she lay invisible and alone among stomping feet and flailing swords. They should have protected her, as they'd tried to protect Thorin. They should not have let her come on this quest. Maybe they should never have dragged her into their lives from the beginning. Fili would have given it all up, every moment of safety and happiness in Bag End, if only it meant Bilba and Thorin would live. But no one was offering him that trade.

"There is no curse," Kili hissed, clutching him tight. "Bilba always said that. If there was ever a curse, it's gone now. Even if they die, they still beat the curse, they won, because Fili, you and I… we are alive. We are their triumph."

 

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The foothills of Erebor were green with thick trees, and the birdsong was so loud some mornings that it would wake you from your sleep if you were a visitor in Dale. The farms around the mountain were springing up thick as dandelions these days, but upon the slopes themselves they did not yet encroach. That land was the roof of the dwarves' kingdom and the friendship between the two races was stronger than ever. But there were many paths through the forests, and if you knew the way, you could find yourself high up on the western cliffs, where the moss and grass was growing over the broken stones.

Hidden in the rocks there was a tomb with its face turned towards the Misty Mountains. It was of dwarven make, impenetrable and dignified, but it was very strange to see an Erebor grave up here in the open air. All the rest of their dead were buried deep in the halls of their mountain, in tunnels far away from the mines and the busy homesteads.

But this was not a dwarf's tomb at all. The woman inside lay in a dwarven sarcophagus in dwarven clothes, but she was not a dwarf. And in the darkness, the arkenstone of Thror lay on her breast. The frozen heart of the mountain. The king had placed it there in secret under the eyes of his kin and councillors on the night the sarcophagus had been sealed – for there were still bad things in the world, and a gem such as this would have been too great a temptation for thieves. Several of his councillors (chiefly those who had not been part of his Company on the quest to reclaim the mountain) had tried to dissuade him from honouring the grave of a lowly hobbit with so valuable a gift, but he replied that this ‘lowly hobbit’ would not have accepted such a gift anyway. The stone was there because, the king said, she had held back the curse of his grandfather while she had lived. With the burial of the gem that had rent them apart, perhaps the hobbit's luck would hold true, and the curse would be buried with her.

Today the king under the mountain stood on the slopes, with a single young dwarf by his side. He was the one-armed king, whose missing right hand had pointed ever onwards to the lonely mountain, who had killed Azog the Defiler and broken the goblins’ ranks, the king of a new age of prosperity in Erebor. But now he wore only simple trousers and tunic of midnight blue without a cloak or sword. He stood before the tomb in silence. Not silence for very long, however.

"Poppa," a tiny hand tugged on his thumb. "I can't read it, Poppa."

Thorin looked down at the dwarfling by his side, the small face glaring up at him. He raised an eyebrow. "Your father told me your lessons were going well, little one."

"It's too high!" the dwarfling complained.

"Ah, I see. Then climb up and look," Thorin knelt and made steps of his arm and thigh, though his knees hurt him very badly these days, and he didn't recognise the skinny, dry hand attached to his wrist. The ghost pains still troubled him, but they had not been so bad these last few years.

The youngster scaled his great-uncle as easily as a ladder and soon settled on his shoulders, his legs kicking Thorin's chest and his hands buried in the king’s white hair, which hung long and unbraided over his shoulder like runnels of snow from the mountain’s peak.

"Can you see it now?" Thorin asked. "What does it say?"

The boy read out the name on the grave aloud, and then each digit of the dates one by one. He looked down at Thorin. "How old is that?”

Thorin told him, and the boy gasped. “She was young when she died, Poppa!"

"Young for a dwarf – but very old for a hobbit," Thorin rumbled, holding his grandnephew's knee to steady him. "She lived a long time, and did more in her life than most who live thrice that."

 


He could still remember the day she left Erebor with Gandalf, a full year after the Battle of Five Armies. Her growing hair was knotted into a tiny braid, and her limp was no longer noticeable unless the weather was cold. She'd been trying to leave since dawn, but the goodbyes had stretched on and on. Thorin's nephews had followed her the whole time, pretending to be helpful and stoic, but Kili's single eye was damp and red and Fili couldn't bring himself to smile until Bilba warned him she'd shave his beard if he didn't perk up. Finally her bags were ready, a small crowd was assembled at the gate and everyone had had a chance to shake their burglar's hand or pull her into a tight hug. Everyone except Thorin. He stood holding the bridle of her pony as she checked the buckles and finally met his eye.

She was in new yellow and green clothes, Thorin remembered. They were dwarven clothes made small and light for her silent footsteps, embroidered with a new motif along the hems. It had elements of Durin's emblem, but it branched and curled in its own way like a creeper growing up around the trunk of an old tree.

"You look like you're angry with me," she told him.

"You always say I look like that," he pointed out. She took his hand in her own, her fingers small around his thumb and index, and gave him a patient sigh. He shook his head. "You will still have a place here. If you get down the road and change your mind, I won't even say I told you so."

"Oh? Not even once?" she raised an eyebrow.

"On my oath," he glared, and the corner of his mouth twitched. He wanted to kiss her so badly he thought he'd die of the thirst, but among dwarves even married couples did not show such affection in public. He kissed her hand instead, but without kneeling. Kings did not kneel. He was ruled, as ever, by his history.

"I'm sorry for what I did," he said, softly enough that no one else could hear. "I wish things could be as they were."

She laughed. "'As they were'? As they were when?”

“When I thought I was going to get everything I wanted,” Thorin said, tilting his head at her.

“Thorin, my dear,” Bilba had tightened both her hands around his. “From the moment I first opened the door to you I didn't know whether to invite you in or shut you out. But must you act like I'm slamming it – can't I close the door behind a parting friend? Can't I leave it unlocked for when you come back again?" she raised herself onto the tips of her toes and before he thought about it he bent for her to kiss his cheek. She whispered, "This isn't the end for either of us, Mr King Under the Mountain. You'll come west sooner or later, and maybe I'll go east if the fancy takes me, and we'll see if our scars still hurt us when that day comes."

 


"Why're you crying?" the dwarfling said impatiently, hanging off a hank of Thorin's hair. "If she lived a long time, what's wrong?"

Thorin laughed and squeezed his knee. "I learned something that made me sad, little one."

"What was that?"

"You saw the elves who came visiting last week? Yes? Well, one of them told me that the woman buried here had the chance to travel to the undying lands, with her niece Frida, and she did not take it. You remember, my wee badger, the story about Frida and the war of the ring? Well, Bilba raised your dad and his brother for many years, and later she took in Frida and raised her too. But when Frida went away over the sea, the elves tell me, Bilba chose not to go with her. She came back to Erebor when she was very old, to live the end of her life with us. She was there when you were born, in fact. Do you have no memory of her? A little old woman with no beard? Always bossing me about?"

"No," the dwarfling said scornfully. "Nobody bosses you about. You're the king."

"Yes, well," Thorin huffed, and didn't seem to have an answer to that.

"Poppa," the dwarfling flopped on top of Thorin's head, his arms hanging in front of his face. "I'm bored."

"Your mother's busy for the rest of the day, badger. What do you want to do?"

"I don't know. Anything but this,” he looked at the broad cliffs that stretched away to either side. “I want to go on an adventure!"

"Alright," Thorin agreed. "We’ll go at once."

So they went down the mountain while the sun was still high, and left the tomb behind.